Friday, May 09, 2008

Cultural relativism, modesty, and John Paul II

In a wide ranging conversation last week, the topics of modesty, cultural relativism, and JP II's Theology of the Body were raised. On one side, the position was taken that modesty could mean different things to different cultural traditions, and the example of a bare-breasted woman from Papua New Guinea acting as lector at a Mass for John Paul II was put forward as something that could be acceptably modest there, but not in the West. Further, it was posited (I think) that the reason it wasn't acceptable in the West was due to a cultural defect on the part of Western civilization that overly sexualizes the body.

While certainly agreeing with the later point--that the dominant "post-Christian" Western culture hyper-sexualizes the body, I took the position that cultural relativism was not a proper position to occupy and that Christianity has and should influence the cultures it comes into contact with in terms of correct behavior and mode of life. This includes how men and women display their bodies in public which should be modest and not tending toward attire (or lack thereof) that would arouse sexual desire in the opposite sex. This view was criticized as stemming more from American Puritanism than from Catholic teaching.

Of course, this is part of a wider, long-standing debate that goes back at least to the time of Fr. Matteo Ricci in China and before concerning which parts of a non-Christian culture are compatible with Christianity and could be retained, and which are not and should be discarded.

The Jesuits and other missionaries in the New World had much the same issue when preaching among the Hurons, Algonquins, and Iroquois. In general, the missionaries in New France made it clear to those who would be Christians that they would not baptize them until they believed and understood the tenets of the Catholic faith and conformed their lives to Catholic moral teaching. For many of them, this was tremendous change as Eastern Woodland life allowed for pre-marital relations and easy divorce, encouraged the blood-feud, sanctioned the murder of slaves at the whims of their masters, and celebrated the grotesque torture and cannibalism of enemy captives.

Indeed, going back to early Christian times, the Church has always been a culture unto itself and deeply countercultural to those it encounters in this world. The ancient martyrologies are replete with stories of early Christians who rejected their own culture to embrace Christ. To me, it seems somewhat condescending and paternalistic that we must make the modern road to Christianity more "culturally sensitive" for people from Papua-New Guinea than it was for the Greeks, Romans, Franks, Slavs, or Hurons. Indeed, this modern method of inculturation may often do more harm than good, blurring the distinctions between Christianity and those non-Christian practices that should be abandoned or at least deeply transformed. Claudio Salvucci's forthcoming book, The Roman Rite in the Algonquian and Iroquoian Missions is instructive on this.

But returning to the subject of modesty, here's the relevant section from the Catechism:
2521 Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.
Based on this, it seems not unreasonable to expect a woman from any culture to cover her breasts before approaching the lectern at Mass.

More on this later.

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