by Mother Therese Ivers, JCL, JCD(cand.), OCV, DHS
When John Paul II taught the theology of the body in his Wednesday addresses, he did so with the expectation that what he said would be understood in the wider context of the teachings of the faith. Or, put differently, he expected that people would not isolate the relevant teachings of the Faith from their interpretation of his teachings on the theology of the body. Concretely, this means that his teachings are to be viewed in light of Christian anthropology, authentic philosophy, ascetical/moral/dogmatic theology, etc. They were never intended to be stand-alone teachings that do not need to sustain coherence with the rest of the Church’s teachings. Studying and teaching theology of the body without a strong foundation in philosophy, Christian anthropology, etc., puts individuals in grave danger of twisting the late pontiff’s teachings and distorting their practice of the faith. On the more benign side, it can create weird pseudo devotions and on the more insidious side, it can place them into material heresy.
The danger of studying the “theology of the body” in isolation from the rest of the Church’s teachings is particularly evident in the rush for women to understand their “role” as woman, without a strong philosophical and theological formation. There are two very common heresies floating around the internet today about Catholic women, and both are tied to a distorted interpretation of the theology of the body as popularized by Christopher West.
Heresy #1: Pelagianism
The pelagian heresy arose in the early Church. It was taught that humankind does not need baptism, because human beings by their very nature are in the state of grace. The Church teaches that the punishment due to original sin was the stripping away of sanctifying grace from Adam and Eve, and that this was a gift that had been given to them that was not an essential part of “human nature”. Baptism is required as the ordinary means for a person to attain sanctifying grace, to become the adopted child of God.
Today, we have a new version of the Pelagian heresy. It is the idea that woman is “sacred” because she has a body part that man does not have, a womb. The usual way this heresy is taught is in defense of women wearing mantillas at Mass. Women are taught that the chalice or the tabernacle is “sacred” because they contain Life, and that the Church “veils sacred things”. So, because the woman’s womb can contain life, women are “sacred” and should veil in Church to show they are sacred like the chalice or tabernacle.
If this heresy sounds familiar, it is because it is the invention of Dr. Alice von Hildebrand & Gertrude le Fort, who wanted to popularize the wearing of a headcovering by women at Mass. They instinctively realized that the authentic reasons for wearing headcoverings at Mass (the obsolete discipline demanded by St. Paul, tradition, modesty in an era that identified the woman who went about in public without a headcovering as a woman of “easy virtue”) were not enough to persuade the thinking woman of today to wear a headcovering in Church, and so they re-imaged this heresy to appeal to woman’s vanity: she had to be “special”.
The Church’s actual teaching is that the chalice is sacred because it has been set aside exclusively for God by a constitutive blessing called a “consecration” that has to be done by clergy to “take”. It is not the material of the chalice that makes it special. It is the consecration done by the proper Church minister following the prescribed liturgical ritual that sets it aside from the “profane” and puts it into the “sacred”.
A woman and her womb is simply not “sacred” just because it makes her different from a man and his “male organ”. An unbaptized woman is in the realm of the “profane”. Without the sanctifying grace given by baptism, she is merely a human who will find it impossible to find salvation unless she receives sanctifying grace. This means that no part of the woman is “sacred”. No part of the woman is by human nature itself, a “sacred” part.
But, some people will rush to say that a Christian/Catholic woman’s womb IS sacred because she “bears Christian children”. This falsehood has been around for pretty much most of the Church’s history and was soundly and explicitly refuted by St. Augustine in his book De Virginitate (book 1). He demonstrates that the unborn child is unbaptized, so it is false to say that a Christian mother bears Christian children. As he writes it, all women bear “Adam” when they give birth to children.
St. Augustine does mention that there are women who do give birth to “Christ” and not “Adam”: Our Lady gave birth to Christ, and consecrated virgins give birth to Christ. Christ was conceived as a direct result of “consecrated virginity” and Christ is born in souls as the result of consecrated virgins, who are Brides of Christ. Why is this important?
The heresy of our modern Pelagianism holds that it is the unbaptized flesh/person that is “sacred”. Or, that the womb is magically sacred because it is a womb. Von Hildebrand insists it is because a virgin is a “garden enclosed” and a “tabernacle” for God’s miracle of life for fertile women who are pregnant. But St. Augustine, whom she turns to in support of her argument actually states the opposite. “Virginity,” he states, is not respected in Catholic circles because of the flesh being “intact”, it is respected because it has been made sacred through its consecration to/by God “for the sake of the Kingdom”.
Put in modern terms, the “womb” is not sacred. A lay woman needn’t bother to put on a veil to show offer her pseudo-sacrality in Church, because her womb is not sacred in the least bit. Just as the chalice is made “sacred” by the direct action of the Church by means of a constitutive consecration, so too, a woman can be made “sacred” by the direct action of the Church by means of a constitutive consecration. But, this is not baptism.
Baptism makes the man or woman a child of God. It puts the person in the family of God. However, it does not separate the man/woman from the “profane” and set them aside solely for God’s service. In short, it does not make a man or a woman a “sacred person”. It makes them a “baptized” person. The significance is this. Baptism does not make a woman more “sacred” than a baptized man. The baptized man and woman are equally children of God. If being a child of God makes a person sacred, and sacred things should be veiled, then logically both men and women should be veiled in Church. Not just woman. But calling woman more “sacred” than a man has never been a teaching of the Church. Never. In fact the opposite is almost (but not quite) implied. One of the reasons given by the fathers of the Church for a woman to wear a headcovering in Church was to keep “seductresses” and “temptresses” in their place! A woman was seen as an automatic walking temptation, with an inner “whore” ready to break out at any second, which is a far cry from the “sacred chalice” modernist traditionalist women like to fancy themselves.
The most blatant of the pelagianistic fruits of Westian TOBism is the move from asceticism to a kind of “knowing makes you immune to fallen nature’s tendencies”. Thus, you have people who think viewing porn is perfectly okay because it “glorifies the human body”, or that one has the innate ability to maintain purity with no grace and no sense of mortification because one has imbued TOB teachings. It is amazing how often people who should know better get on this bandwagon and actually ignore JPII’s actual words about photography and filming the unclothed body (he says it is wrong because it objectifies the person, but that painting and carving does not) but cite TOB to defend their position.
Now it is time to cue in more of the distorted version of the theology of the body Christopher Westian adherents. But, they say, obviously a man is different from a woman, and both are designed to be nuptial. So, obviously, the woman is automatically a Bride of Christ, right? So woman needs to wear a mantilla at Mass to show that she has a nuptial relationship with Christ!
Wrong. And again, this is why actually having a philosophical and theological background comes in handy for avoiding heresy. Which leads us to the second material heresy popular amongst Westian TOBers.
The Donatist Heresy
The Donatist heresy is very ancient, stemming explicitly from around the early 300’s but probably was around even earlier than that in an implicit form. It has taken different shapes over the centuries, and was the precursor of the Protestant rejection of the dogma of the superiority of virginity over marriage. If you are wondering what possible relationship the Donatist heresy can have for women, hold on to your mantillas!
Jovinian was one of the major figures of Donatism. Among other things, he claimed that being a (consecrated/sacred) virgin was no better than being a wife with 10 children or being married three times. He taught that fasting was no better than feasting. Put in modern terms, he would claim that the married woman (who has a womb!) would be every bit as sacred as the sacred virgin, and that she is just as much the tabernacle as the sacred virgin. Of course, his teaching was condemned as heretical by the Church because he went against what the Church holds to be true and of dogmatic standing.
In order to become a “sacred person” something special must be done. The Church must “consecrate” the person, setting aside the person from the “profane” and setting them aside for the direct and exclusive service to God. This is NOT done to married women. For a woman to become “sacred”, she must receive the solemn liturgical consecration of virgins in a ritual contained in the Bishop’s special liturgical book called the Roman Pontifical. Step by step, it resembles both an ordination to the priesthood and a wedding. In the words of the Roman Pontifical and catechism, the virgin is “constituted a sacred person” by her reception of this solemn consecration. She is “elevated to the dignity of Bride of Christ”.
People who learn the TOB from Christopher West seem to mistake having a body designed for marriage for being married. And there is a huge, infinite distance between the two. This falsehood triggers people into imagining they (especially women) are brides of Christ because they are women. Of course this is true in the sense that baptized women are members of the Church, but it is completely false if they think they are brides of Christ in a more “true” or “better” way than baptized men. Men are just as much “brides of Christ” as women. Why? Because baptism does not make a woman more of a bride of Christ than a woman.
Notice that it is this solemn ceremony done only by a Bishop that makes a woman a sacred person, a sacred chalice. She becomes what she was not before: a Bride of Christ. Why is this important? Because being a woman does not automatically make a woman a bride. If that were the case, there would be no single women alive, only married women! (There would be no sacrament of marriage if everyone is automatically married!)
How does a woman become a Bride of Christ? Simple. She needs to be a virgin in body and mind (not mind alone like some Westians like to think!). Remember that there is no “natural” virtue of virginity. For someone to have the supernatural virtue of virginity, a person must be a virgin and must intend to remain a virgin “for the sake of the Kingdom” on a life-long basis. That rules out married people who have consummated their marriage, and unmarried people who would like to get married or who have had intentional sexual experience.
Now, let’s get back to what St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and the Fathers of the Church say. A woman is not special because of her womb, but because she is a virgin who maintains perpetual virginity “for the sake of the Kingdom”. A woman is not “sacred” because she has an organ different from a man’s, gives birth, or is “intact”, or even because she is baptized. She becomes sacred if she is set aside by the Church through the solemn consecration of virgins.
St. Jerome has some very harsh words about laywomen who try to usurp the dignity of sacred virgins (the “real” sacred women): “This circumstance led me shrewdly to suspect that his [Jovinian’s] object in proclaiming the excellence of marriage was only to disparage virginity. For when the less is put upon a level with the greater, the lower profits by comparison, but the higher suffers wrong.” Lay women who believe they are “sacred” because they possess a womb, or because they got pregnant or because women are magically sacred without a proper consecration do grave harm to the truly sacred, because they are implicitly embracing the Pelagian and Donatist heresies. They implicitly reject true sacrality for vanity or pride: I am “more sacred” and a “bride of Christ” than you men, when they have no basis for this.
Today, the pride and vanity of laywomen who fancy themselves brides of Christ is stoked by distorted versions of the Theology of the Body. The pride and vanity of laywomen who consider themselves sacred is on full display for all to see by those who “signal” this by wearing a mantilla at Mass. Heresy always offers something attractive to its adherents. In this case, woman believes she is sacred just because she is a woman, or a bride of Christ in a more special way than man just because she is baptized.
It is one thing for a laywoman to rejoice in their membership in the Church who is Bride of Christ. But they should not whisper to themselves that they are more Bride than men. Nor should they go around making a “consecration” to the Divine Bridegroom as if their baptism (and that of men) has not already made them members of the Bride-Church. They should not go swanning about with veils and other paraphernalia as if they are truly consecrated brides of Christ. Movements such as the pertinacious and dangerously false (but pleasing unto itching ears) Hopes Garden “Consecration to the Divine Bridegroom” should be seen for the charlatan projects they are: teachings and product lines created to make people think they are every inch what they are not: a true Bride of Christ. A woman doesn’t need a headcovering or a private dedication prayer to be a member of the Church! Baptism has already accomplished incorporation into the Bride of Christ, the Church.
In summary, there are many women going around with headcoverings that are signs of their internal material heresies. Of course, not all who wear mantillas are heretics, but many are, because they do hold these false teachings and for many, they are the primary reason for wearing mantillas. Without a good grasp of human nature, philosophy, and theology, more people will accept false teachings because they appeal to their vanity and pride.
Of course, women are not the only victims of a false narrative. Men are too. But that is the subject for another day.