Reflections on the ethos of human body in works of artistic culture

On Wednesday, 22 April, an estimated 25,000 people were present in St Peter’s Square for the general audience at 5:00 pm.  The Holy Father delivered the following address.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Paschal joy is still alive and present within us during this solemn octave, and the liturgy makes us repeat fervently:  “The Lord has risen, as he had foretold; let us all rejoice and exult, because he reigns for ever, alleluia”.

So let us prepare our hearts for grace and joy; let us raise our sacrifice of praise to the paschal victim, because the Lamb has redeemed his flock and the Innocent One has reconciled us sinners with the Father.

Christ, our Pasch, has risen and we have risen with him, so that we must seek the things of Heaven, where Christ sits at the right hand of God, and we must also enjoy the things that are above, according to the invitation of the Apostle Paul (cf. Col 3:1-2).

While God makes up pass, in Christ, from death to life, from darkness to light, preparing us for heavenly goods, we must aim at goals of luminous works, in justice and in truth.  The way we have to traverse is a long one, but God strengthens and sustains our unshakable hope of victory: may meditation on the paschal mystery accompany us in a particular way in these days.

A problem with very deep roots

1.  Let us now reflect—with regard to Christ’s words uttered in the Sermon on the Mount—on the problem of the ethos of the human body in works of artistic culture.  This problem has very deep roots.  This problem has very deep roots.  It is opportune to recall here the series of analyses carried out in connection with Christ’s reference to the “beginning”, and subsequently to the reference he made to the human “heart”, in the Sermon on the Mount.  The human body—the naked human body in the whole truth of its masculinity and femininity—has the meaning of a gift of the person to the person.  The ethos of the body, that is, the ethical norms that govern its nakedness, because of the dignity of the personal subject, is closely connected with that system of reference, understood as the nuptial system, in which the giving of one party meets the appropriate and adequate response of the other party to the gift.  This response decides the reciprocity of the gift.

The artistic objectivation of the human body in its male and female nakedness, in order to make it first of all a model and then the subject of the work of art, is always to a certain extent a going outside of this original and, for the body, its specific configuration of interpersonal donation.  That constitutes, in a way, an uprooting of the human body from this configuration and its transfer to the dimension of artistic objectivation: the specific dimension of the work of art or of the reproduction typical of the film and photographic techniques of our time.

In each of these dimensions—and in a different way in each one—the human body loses that deeply subjective meaning of the gift, and becomes an object destined for the knowledge of many, in such a way that those who look at, assimilate or even, in a way, take possession of, what evidently exists, in fact should exist essentially at the level of a gift, made by the person to the person, not just in the image but in the living man.  Actually, that “taking possession” already happens at another level—that is, at the level of the object of the transfiguration or artistic reproduction.  However it is impossible not to perceive that from the point of view of the ethos of the body, deeply understood, a problem arises here.  A very delicate problem, which has its levels of intensity according to various motives and circumstances both as regards artistic activity, and as regards knowledge of the work of art or of its reproduction.  The fact that this problem is raised does not mean that the human body, in its nakedness, cannot become a subject of works of art—but only that this problem is not purely aesthetic, nor morally indifferent.

Original shame a permanent element

2.  In our preceding analyses (especially with regard to Christ’s reference to the “beginning”), we devoted a great deal of space to the meaning of shame, trying to understand the difference between the situation—and the state—of original innocence, in which “they were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25) and, subsequently, between the situation—and the state—of sinfulness, in which there arose between man and woman, together with shame, the specific necessity of privacy with regard to their own bodies.

In the heart of man, subject to lust, this necessity serves, even indirectly, to ensure the gift and the possibility of mutual donation.  This necessity also forms man’s way of acting as “an object of culture”, in the widest meaning of the term.  If culture shows an explicit tendency to cover the nakedness of the human body, it certainly does so not only for climatic reasons, but also in relation to the process of growth of man’s personal sensitivity.  The anonymous nakedness of the man-object contrasts with the progress of the truly human culture of morals.  It is probably possible to confirm this also in the life of so-called primitive populations.  The process of refining personal human sensitivity is certainly a factor and fruit of culture.

Beyond the need of shame, that is, of the privacy of one’s own body (on which the biblical sources give such precise information in Gen. 3), there is a deeper norm: that of the gift, directed towards the very depths of the personal subject or towards the other person—especially in the man-woman relationship according to the perennial norms regulating the mutual donation.  In this way, in the processes of human culture, understood in the wide sense, we note—even in man’s state of hereditary sinfulness—quite an explicit continuity of the nuptial meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity.  That original shame, known already from the first chapters of the Bible, is a permanent element of culture and morals.  It belongs to the genesis of the ethos of the human body.

Personal sensitivity

3.  The man of developed sensitivity overcomes, with difficulty and interior resistance, the limit of that shame.  This is seen clearly even in situations which justify the necessity of undressing the body, such as, for example, in the case of medical examinations or operations.  Mention should also be made particularly of other circumstances, such as, for example, those of concentration camps or places of extermination, where the violation of bodily shame is a method used deliberately to destroy personal sensitivity and the sense of human dignity.

The same rule is confirmed everywhere—though in different ways.  Following personal sensitivity, man does not wish to become an object for others through his own anonymous nakedness, nor does he wish the other to become an object for him in a similar way.  Evidently “he does not wish” this to the extent to which he lets himself be guided by the sense of the dignity of the human body.  There are, in fact, various motives which can induce, incite and even press man to act in a way contrary to the requirements of the dignity of the human body, a dignity connected with personal sensitivity.  It cannot be forgotten that the fundamental interior “situation” of “historical” man is the state of threefold lust (cf. 1 Jn 2:16).  This state—and, in particular, the lust of the flesh—makes itself felt in various ways, both in the interior impulses of the human heart and in the whole climate of interhuman relations and social morals.

When deep governing rules are violated

4.  We cannot forget this, not even when it is a question of the broad sphere of artistic culture, particularly that of visual and spectacular character, as also when it is a question of “mass” culture, so significant for our times and connected with the use of the media of audiovisual communication.  A question arises: when and in what case is this sphere of man’s activity—from the point of view of the ethos of the body—regarded as “pornovision”, just as in literature some writings were and are often regarded as “pornography” (this second term is an older one).

Both take place when the limit of shame, that is, of personal sensitivity with regard to what is connected with the human body, with its nakedness, is overstepped, when in the work of art or by means of the media of audiovisual reproduction the right to the privacy of the body in its masculinity or femininity, is violated—and in the last analysis—when those deep governing rules of the gift and of mutual donation, which are inscribed in this femininity and masculinity through the whole structure of the human being, are violated.  This deep inscription—or rather incision—decides the nuptial meaning of the human body, that is, of the fundamental call it receives to form the “communion of persons” and take part in it.

Breaking off at this point our consideration, which we intend to continue next Wednesday, it should be noted that observance or non-observance of these norms, so deeply connected with man’s personal sensitivity, cannot be a matter of indifference for the problem of “creating a climate favourable to chastity” in life and social education.

L'Osservatore Romano April 27, 1981
Reprinted with permission