Can Christians Have “Healthy Shame” about the Body? (The Answer Isn’t What You Think).


Lisa Madrid Duffy posted a blog about the new sex ed curriculum published by the Pontifical Council for the Family.  (And to be honest, before you ask,  I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly review it yet. That said, although I understand there are some who have expressed concerns, my cursory view is that it is probably more appropriate than any other off-the-rack sex-ed program that exists, but stay tuned for more when I get a moment).


Regardless, in that post, she mentioned  that the program–whose English translation is….clunky–discusses the need to have a healthy sense of shame about the body and sexuality.  LMD rightly takes issue with this phrase insofar as she understands it to mean that we should somehow be ashamed of our bodies or our sexuality.  She rightly notes that no Christian should ever be ashamed of his or her body or sexuality. In fact, I’ll go one further and point out that being ashamed of either our body or our sexuality is, in large part,  the heresy known as Jansenism.

Even so, there is another sense of “shame” that every Christian should know about and is actually both healthy and appropriate.


In Love and Responsibility, which is the book Pope St. John Paul the Great wrote as a kind-of pre-cursor to the Theology of the Body, he argues that shame, as an emotion, is a gift from God like all the emotions.  In essence, it belongs in a similar category as guilt, or fear.  Each of these feelings, when it is function according to its godly purpose, is a protective emotion in that they protect us from real or possible harm.   Healthy guilt (as opposed to scrupulosity) protects us from threats to our moral or relational self.  Healthy fear (as opposed to anxiety) protects us from threats to our physical well-being.  So, what does “healthy shame” (as opposed to self-hatred) protect us from?

Simply put, healthy shame protects us from being used.  We are created by God to be loved.  That is the fundamental raison d’être of the human person; to love and be loved. To love someone is to work for their good, to help them develop into their best selves, to help them be the best person they can be.  The opposite of love–argues TOB, is not hate, but use.  To use someone is to turn a person into a thing, something that can be employed to some other end and then disposed of.  To be used is to be treated in the exact opposite manner that a person should be treated. Where love always makes us into even better persons if we accept it, use always depersonalizes us even when we allow ourselves to be used.


Shame then, rightly understood and healthily employed, is the emotion that allows us to know if someone is trying to use us or we are allowing ourselves to be used.  It is intended to warn us away from people or situations that are not looking out for our best interest and want to treat us as an object or tool.  Along with healthy fear, and healthy guilt, healthy shame (again, as opposed to the unhealthy alternative, self-hatred) serves as a warning light on the human dashboard that lets us know that either someone or something is threatening an important aspect of our overall well-being.

Having a healthy sense of shame our about our body or our sexuality, then, does not mean that we hate our body or our sexuality or are somehow suspicious of them. It means that we love our body and sexuality so much that we never intentionally place ourselves in situations where will be used by others or allow others to use us.  It means that we treasure ourselves and expect to be treasured by others.

I agree with Lisa Madrid Duffy that this needs to be better explained in the English text of the PCF’s sex ed program, but now, at least, YOU know what the truth is. For more help in living out the Catholic vision of love check out my book, Holy Sex!  Or, to effectively convey the Catholic vision of love to your kids, check out Beyond the Birds and the Bees.

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