Rorate Caeli

Post-Christian and Secular: The Loss of Pudor

Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?  No, they were not ashamed; they did not now how to blush.  Jeremiah 8:12

One of the most glorious parts of Vergil’s Aeneid really has nothing to do with Aeneas’ founding of Rome.  Book IV of the Aeneid deals with the passion of Queen Dido of Carthage for the man-hero Aeneas and its tragic consequences.  Dido has sworn a oath to her dead husband that she will never remarry, that she will always be true to the oath she made to her husband to be faithful and true to him even after his death.  When she meets Aeneas, she is stirred with passion, and in a famous scene she swears to her sister Anna, she swears by the gods, that she will never set aside her pudor and embark on an affair with this man-god Aeneas.  That word pudor:  a Classical word that has come into the vocabulary of all the Romance languages. Those who know Spanish or Portuguese or Italian will recognize this word immediately.  Its meaning lies deep in the understanding of the human psyche, and its English translation, which is inadequate, is a “sense of shame”.  For the Classical author, to lose one’s pudor makes one less than human, more of an animal than a man or woman.  This very word, “shame”, is something that is disappearing from our culture, our society.  The post-modern man, who is a man who has shed or who is ignorant of Western history and culture, that of the Classical Greek and Roman and of its flowering and sacralization in Christianity, has lost his sense of shame.

 This pudor, this sense of shame, is deeply biblical.  

When Adam and Eve sinned in that cataclysmic way, their fallen humanity discovered pudor, and they expressed their shame in a physical way by covering their private parts.  Those of you who have seen Massaccio’s fresco of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden have seen the agony of pudor. When King David is confronted by the prophet Nathan about his murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, and David's adulterous act with her, he is overwhelmed with a sense of shame at what he has done.  And he acknowledges his guilt and repents of what he has done. When the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable realizes what he has done, he is overwhelmed with a sense of shame, and this sense of shame brings him to his moral senses and he returns to his father to ask forgiveness. Notice that in this parable, and in the story of King David, the sense of shame, pudor, is needed for repentance, conversion and for seeking forgiveness. 

What happens when this sense of pudor is lost or is deliberately forgotten?  Then we have a person who lives his life solely to satisfy himself, his needs and his wants.  Literature is strewn with such characters.  Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina denies her marriage vows to give herself over to her lustful passion for Count Vronsky.  And she deliberately denies any sense of shame about her behavior; she rationalizes her betrayal of her marriage vows in the name of freedom and love, and finally, in a terrible realization of her crime, she kills herself.  Now Tolstoy wrote this novel as a tragedy, to delineate how the denial of shame under the guise of a specious freedom must end up in self-annihilation.  But what if a society, a culture, denies shame, relegates such an idea and such an emotion to the staid past?  That question has great relevance for us today, for indeed we are a culture in which pudor has been set aside, has been denied, and all of this in the name of personal freedom. 

  Remember that the whole concept of pudor requires a sense of the rightness of things, a sense of morality that does not depend on the individual but is grounded in an objective understanding of what is right and wrong, and for the Christian this grounding is in God and his Revelation to us.  If what I do and how I act and how I relate to people is grounded not in the commandments of God but rather in a personal freedom that knows no bounds except perhaps in what is euphemistically called “hurting another person”, that all is allowed as long as “no one is hurt”, then pudor, a sense of shame, can no longer function as that natural warning that something is terribly wrong.  If I can watch films that border on pornography without shame, or even closer to the truth, if I can watch pornography without a sense of shame—as is the case today in epidemic proportions—then there is no way out of the addiction that feeds the worst of the narcissistic self. 

The decision of the Supreme Court in 2013 to annul the Defense of Marriage Act and to rule de facto in favor of same- sex marriage could only happen, could only be understood, in a culture where pudor no longer exists and the rights of the individual have no objective context other than the subjective self.  When there is no longer a belief in natural law nor a belief in revealed moral truth, especially as expressed in Judaism and Christianity, then all is possible, and same sex- marriage then is possible and makes sense.  In the conversations leading to the ruling there was no discussion of the moral issues involved in homosexual unions, there was no discussion of the traditional meaning of marriage. The whole thing boiled down to this perverse understanding of human freedom and extension of "rights" that has no grounding in the moral law of God but rather solely in an unrestrained understanding of human freedom that is not freedom but license to do whatever I want to do—as long as no one is hurt.  This gross sentimentality obviously has relegated pudor, a sense of shame, to quaint novels of the past whose characters were not as enlightened as we are in this present age.  This spawns an age in which there are demonstrations against pipelines and laws protecting endangered species of animals and at the same time the condoning of the killing of millions of unborn babies as a right.

In a sense, the genie has been let out of the bottle.  But the answer is neither to  pretend that this has not happened nor to try to live in some sort of Leave it to Beaver world, and to force one’s family to live in some sort of bubble that fears the world and tries to create an alternative universe to the one that exists.  This is silly and disastrous on many counts.  

When Jesus sent out the Seventy on a mission to prepare his visits to towns and villages, he sent them in haste, carrying no money bags, no sandals, no chatter, just say what is necessary, a sense of urgency.  And he sent them into a world that was often hostile to his teaching and to what he asked his disciples to preach: the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, believe the Gospel, have faith in Jesus Christ, and you will be saved. The world at that time was full of different religions and syncretistic blends of religions in the midst of which there was an opening to hearing the Christian message and believing it.  There are many religions today, and Christianity still claims the adherence of two billion people throughout the world as believers.   The difference, though, is this:  that the Apostles were preaching something new and true, something that spoke to man’s innermost heart.  But today we preach to a world ( at least in the West and wherever in the world its influence is felt,)  that had been Christianized and now which faith no longer in-forms culture. The Gospel today is considered stale news and incomprehensible. The pagan world was at least open to religious talk, it still had a sense of pudor, it still had a sense of objective truth.   Our world is hell bent on denying that there is anything to be ashamed of—unless you are caught.  And even then the shame lasts only as long as people remember.  And some of this is due to the inability of the Church, especially those charged with the preaching and teaching of the faith, to convey the Gospel message to this post-Christian world.  The lack of intellectual clarity and missionary zeal of the past fifty years in the Catholic Church has contributed greatly to where we find ourselves today. 

And so do we wring our hands and seek solace in our own individual pieties and hope for the best or hope that the  Second Coming will happen in a few days?  No.  We must work mightily on our own sense of shame that converts us ever more deeply in conformity to Christ and his saving work among us.  We must be soldiers of Christ in our families, among our friends, in the world.  We must live our lives in conformity to the truth of God so that we become those lights on the hill in a time of darkness.  And above all, we must worship that God who is the very center of Being and worship Him in Goodness, in Beauty and in Truth, and so hasten the transformation of this world begun in the Incarnation of the Word of God in the womb of Mary and launched into eternity by the Resurrection of Christ, God incarnate, and do all of this in wonder, love and praise.

Father Richard G. Cipolla