By: Christopher West
I would venture to say that if the average Catholic in the western world spilled the contents of his mind on the table, thoughts and ideas about the body and sex would look a lot more like the contents of Hugh Hefner’s mind then, say, the mind of John Paul II. Hugh Hefner has been one of the most successful “evangelists” of the modern era. His message has gone out across the globe and had a tremendous impact on the way we think about ourselves and the world. To understand the mind of Hugh Hefner is, in a way, to understand the mind of our culture. So what led Hugh Hefner to start his pornographic revolution anyway? His own answer to that question is very telling.
The Problem of Sexual Repression
When asked why he started Playboy magazine, Hefner said it was “a personal response to the hurt and hypocrisy of our Puritan heritage.” Hefner elaborates: “Our family was …Puritan in a very real sense…. Never hugged. Oh, no. There was absolutely no hugging or kissing in my family. There was a point in time when my mother, later in life, apologized to me for not being able to show affection. That was, of course, the way I’d been raised. I said to her, ‘Mom, …because of the things you weren’t able to do, it set me on a course that changed my life and the world.’ When I talk about the hurt and hypocrisy in some of our values — our sexual values — it comes from the fact that I didn’t get hugged a lot as a kid” (interview with Cathleen Falsani, somareview.com).
When I first read this I wanted to weep for this man. He, like the rest of the world, is simply starved for love and affection. His God-given yearnings to be touched, hugged, kissed, held, affirmed were never met in healthy, holy ways, so he sought to satisfy them in other ways. It’s a basic principle: If our hungers are not fed from the banquet, we will inevitably eat out of the dumpster. We as Catholics actually agree — or should agree — with Hugh Hefner’s diagnosis of the disease of puritanism. The fear and rejection of the body and sexuality typical of puritanism is laced with a list of interrelated heresies long condemned by the Catholic Church (dualism, gnosticism, spiritualism, Manichaeism, Jansenism, etc.). But if we agree with his diagnosis of the disease, where we as Catholics differ — and differ radically — with Hugh Hefner is in the medicine we offer for the disease.
Indulgance: the False Solution
Hefner’s remedy doesn’t, in fact, solve the problem of puritanism at all. All he did was flip the puritanical pancake over from repression to indulgence. Both approaches flow from the same failure to integrate body and soul, spirituality and sexuality. Only through such an integration can we truly cure the disease of puritanism. St. Paul called this cure the “redemption of the body” (see Rom 8:23). And John Paul II called it living the theology of our bodies.
Catholics in this country seem to be eating out of Hef’s dumpster just as much as everyone else. We’re prone to it because we, too, have been deeply affected by our puritan heritage. Many of us have so “spiritualized” things that we’ve lost sight of the purpose and meaning of the Incarnation, of the Word made flesh. Christ took on a body and sacrificed it for his Bride, the Church, to redeem and transform the way we experience our own bodies. Christ ascended bodily into the life of the Trinity to fill our bodies once again with the life of his Spirit.
When we apply the “redemption of the body” to our sexuality, we realize that indulging or repressing our lusts are not the only options. As John Paul II expressed, Christ wants to impregnate our sexual desires “with everything that is noble and beautiful,” with “the supreme value which is love” (see TOB, 46:5). To the degree that our sexual desires are inspired with divine love, everything the Catholic Church teaches about sex begins making sense. And we come to see the dumpster for what it is — utter poverty. Perhaps if we, as Catholics, lived more fully in the joy and fulfillment of the banquet, we could save our country from its puritan heritage. In the process, perhaps we could evangelize Hugh Hefner rather than Hugh Hefner continuing to evangelize us.