Edited for snark and tone on 4/27/2012 — not because I’m a nice person, but because I do understand it’s the right thing to do.
You’d have to not read Catholic Mom Blogs or popular Catholic publications to not have heard of the new Catholic women’s book Sex, Style, and Substance, edited by Hallie Lord and published by Our Sunday Visitor. Seemingly, everyone who’s anyone in the world of popular Catholic bloggers has read and reviewed the title and given it ten thumbs up.
When I looked for reviews of the book that made substantial criticisms, I couldn’t find any. Not one. In fact, the gushing over SSS has been louder than Igazu Falls. Now, no book is perfect, and no book is positively 100 percent adored by everyone who reads it. Not even the works of Dickens enjoy that kind of popularity. After reading yet another rave review last week, I ordered a Kindle copy to satisfy my curiosity.
I have to admit I have found the title off-putting from the start. I simply don’t like Catholic advertising that aims at being on the relevant/edgy side. I know, I know, you get folks who would never read something called, perhaps, “Modesty, Married Love, and Faithfulness” to crack the cover and change their lives. You gotta “meet your readers where they’re at.” But it seems to me that splashing the word “sex” into the title of a Catholic book is just a bit too coarse.
Speaking of meeting your readers, one of the biggest flaws of the book from an editorial stand-point (aside from the odd overuse of the word “jettison” in the first couple chapters) is a failure to give a consistent sense of “audience.” There’s one chapter for the single woman but the other 70-90 percent of the book is aimed at married women. Who’s going to buy a whole book for one personally relevant chapter? Perhaps, they’re thinking married women can pass on that chapter to their single friends?
I also couldn’t tell if the book was written for very devout and knowledgeable long-time Catholics or newbies. The majority of the book was a bit too basic for more devout and informed Catholics. But certain newbie chapters toss in Catholic words such as “magisterium,” which would probably best be footnoted with a definition for folks just coming to the Church or thinking about it.
The very last chapter by Barbara Nicolosi seemed randomly tacked on without any sense that it belonged in the same book with any of the other essays. Oddly enough, it was one of the better written articles in the book (even if I somewhat disagree with Nicolosi’s premise). I wish Nicolosi had chosen or been given another topic, as she’s covered Catholics in the media amply elsewhere and frequently.
This book has more serious problems, though. While there’s nothing in it that a person can point to and say: “A-ha! Here! This contradicts Catholic teaching!” there seems to be a failure to synthesize traditional Catholic teaching with traditional Catholic sensibilities. There’s a little too much “of the world,” not just “in the world” throughout the book, beginning with the Introduction where Hallie Lord casually makes reference to the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary. A movie that merits an L (limited audience – a rating just below “you’re going to hell if you watch this”) — from the rather liberal movie reviewers at the NCCB. I could see how it would happen that someone could see the movie by mischance. But when writing something for a Catholic publication, I’d hope one’s “Catholic filter” would keep her from making a casual allusion to this R-movie. At the very least, if I felt quite compelled to make reference, I would tag on the parenthetical “a movie I don’t recommend you ever see” caveat.
I could go through each chapter and pluck out items that made me vaguely uncomfortable and outright cringe-y. I have dozens and dozens of underlines and scribbled notes throughout the book. But so I don’t beleaguer my few readers too much, I’ll try to hit the most problematic areas. (I’m still not promising this will be short.)
Let me start with the positives: Simcha Fisher’s chapter on Motherhood and Danielle Bean’s chapter on Marriage. I found their perspectives real, accessible, appropriate and insightful. Bean offers simple, culturally controversial (speaking of secular culture here), but fully Catholic advice on how to bring peace and healing into struggling marriages. I also liked Karen Edmisten’s chapter on making time for prayer. Though, I’d quibble with the section “Dance in the Kitchen.” I found it a little…odd. It’s a personality thing, maybe. Suggesting that we dance to Rock or Jazz or whatever other kind of music so long as it makes us think of God…as prayer? Meh. Not so much.
I wanted to like Jennifer Fulwiler’s chapter more than I did because I love so much of her other work, but I found her experience of finding the modern Mary a little too open for misunderstanding. The sort of thing that leads to art where Our Blessed Mother is depicted in modern times wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I also found her language and examples intended to parse sins from quirks which are part of our personal uniqueness much too vague to be truly helpful. Sometimes what people perceive as “quirks” that are to be, according to Fulwiler, “embraced” are not sins but faults to be overcome.
Now for the not-so-great:
Hallie Lord’s chapter on Style — which includes the topic of modesty. Her bottom line is that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to modesty, and it’s up to each person’s individual conscience to decide upon the specific details of modesty for herself. (Having done a little experiment on my Facebook page, I can say Catholic women’s personal perceptions of what is modest are ALL OVER the spectrum.) Lord mentions that the saints and leaders in the Church have had guidance to offer on what modesty looks like, but does not drop any names or documents for the reader to follow-up on. That would have been much more helpful than a vague allusion to these writings. The general “rule” she offers her readers is that a dress should be tight enough to show it is a woman wearing it, but loose enough to show she is a lady. Catholic women need a little more guidance with regard to modesty, not to be restrictive, but ultimately to free us — of scruples and misguided perceptions of “modest” attire.
And, while I recognize the essence of what Lord tries to express in the section of her chapter entitled “Taking Care of You,” there is something in the way she expresses herself that makes me uncomfortable, and leaves me wondering how mothers who were saints would advise women on the notion of “self-pampering.” And, how many women do we know who insist on their own “me time,” while never considering their husband’s need for down time from obligations?
“What Works for You” by Rebecca Ryskind Teti touches on a topic I’ve written about before. Her thesis is that it doesn’t matter if you’re a SAHM or a mom who works outside the home, you gotta do what you gotta do and whatever you want to do is great, there is no ideal. I disagree. Sometimes mothers have to work for financial reasons. But staying home to raise your own children is the Catholic ideal. No, there’s no document stating it’s a sin not to stay home, but there are plenty of popes who iterate that a mother’s fundamental job in normal circumstances is to be in the home taking care of her kids.
Like Pope Pius XI:
Mothers, concentrating on household duties, should work primarily in the home or in its immediate vicinity. It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father’s low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home to the neglect of their proper cares and duties, especially the training of children.
Anna Mitchell’s chapter on marriage and the single gal is okay, but she hits a sour note when she says women should not judge a potential suitor based upon “marriageability.” She goes on to say you shouldn’t reject an upstanding guy because you cannot immediately imagine him in a tux standing next to you in a white dress. I’m not really sure what this means practically speaking, but the whole point of dating is “marriage.” A guy should be “marriageable” in some basic respects, at least within the foreseeable future, before getting too involved an an exclusive relationship. Since Mitchell admits giving advice on courtship and dating as a single, she peppers her chapter with “my friends say … ” That explains her, at times, rather inexperienced/immature perspective. I think this chapter would actually have been better written by a married person.
Rachel Balducci’s chapter on Friendship is rather basic and includes too much pop psych talk for me. Any time someone speaks of “toxic relationships” or “setting healthy boundaries,”I think: Secular self-help book. I don’t believe friendships should be judged by whether or not they “bring us down;” the merit of any friendship is based upon whether or not it brings us closer to Christ or further away — that can take the form of sacrifice in friendships that are one-sided. If there’s little in the friendship for you, that’s called “true charity.” Friendships that lead you to sin –to gossiping, to feelings of vanity, to worldliness, or to developing negative attitudes about men or your marriage — those are the ones you should avoid.
The inclusion of Elizabeth Duffy’s chapter titled Sex, Passion, and Purity, makes this book, which has some truly laudable elements, something I could not honestly recommend. The chapter started out good and solid and then took a nosedive because of the nature of the humor and coarseness of language. I was encouraged when a friend sent me a link to Duffy’s blog in which she writes that she was disappointed with her chapter. I started to feel relieved, maybe she realized she got carried away trying to be “relevant,” then she fleshed out why she was disappointed:
With my own chapter, I felt a bit of disappointment. Even my mom said, “It contained more restraint than I usually associate with your writing.” And I thought, “That’s no good. It’s the sex chapter. It’s supposed to break through the membrane of silence that surrounds the sex lives of Catholic women.”
Oh, boy. Again, there was nothing in it that specifically contradicted Catholic teaching. It was meant to be “fun” and “honest” and approachable so a nominal Catholic wouldn’t think orthodox Catholics have to be all stodgy about the topic of sexuality. But thinking about this chapter reminded me of something Scott Hahn once said to my Freshman theology class back at Steubenville: “Sex is not ‘good;’ Campbell’s Soup is ‘Mm-mmm good.’ Sex is not ‘great;’ ‘Tony’s Frosted Flakes — They’re grrrrrrr-eat!’ Sex … is holy.”
Duffy on how Catholics ought to speak about sex:
In many Catholic books that discuss sex, you’ll find words like “connubial embrace” and “marital act,” — words that elevate sex to heavenly heights no mortal can breach. While sex is no joke, let’s also not take it too seriously. Any time two adults proceed in a game of Twister, they’re going to need a sense of humor. Here are some ideas to put fun back in the funny business.
Since I think her message is influenced by the spirit of Christopher West’s “Theology of the Body,” I will preface some of the other objectionable quotes from the chapter with a quote from Alice von Hildebrand’s critique of West:
The French have a wonderful word to capture the veiling of one’s intimate feelings, out of a proper sense of shame—pudeur, a “holy bashfulness,” so to speak. Seized as he is by what he regards as his calling to evangelize a new generation with this theology in “modern” ways they can supposedly better understand, West practically ignores the importance ofpudeur, and, by his imprudence, winds up undermining his own message.
It is holy bashfulness and reverence which creates the “membrane of silence” Duffy decries in her regrets. I’m only going to use a few examples to illustrate the sort of thing in Duffy’s chapter I found deeply objectionable:
Before marriage I thought that sex was a right for married people, an all-you-can-eat sex buffet. My husband and I gorged at that buffet for the first two years of marriage, and then we felt sick. I resented him because sex didn’t have the same risks for him. … I often put him in the position of begging for sex that I made clear that I was in no mood to enjoy (“Mind if I read a book while you do that?”)
I’ve concluded that many of us downplay the importance of our own pleasure in the married relationship. It’s easy to do. At the end of a day spent meeting the needs of our children or the demands of our jobs, our husbands can seem like one more person who wants something from us. We may feel tempted to fake climax, or to give up and get it over with. But we’re not running a sex charity here…
Though there are times in life for the occasional ‘quickie,’ giving up on finding our own pleasure in sex is not an option. … Repeatedly omitting our own pleasure in sex is a tacit consent to being used…
Whatever her good intentions are in being helpful to Catholic couples, Duffy undermines the reality, beauty, and transcendence of Catholic teaching on human sexuality by speaking so crudely and so openly her personal experience.
My friends, I am disconcerted that this book has reached such an exalted state of popularity among serious Catholic women. While there are certainly praiseworthy elements, there is much in it that should send the red flags up. Yet, not a word of criticism is offered from any corner. That’s odd and upsetting to me.
I am concerned with what I perceive to be a central group of influential Catholic female authors who are shaping Catholic culture. I do wonder if some of the authors of this book lack a sense of the cultural traditions of femininity/motherhood/marriage within Catholicism, or are they engaged in actively “updating” tradition? I truly hope that they are not agitating for “changes with the times,” having been influenced by secular feminism. Perhaps, they believe Pope John Paul II’s ideal of the Feminine Genius heralded a call for such changes in Catholic thought. My hope is that there can be a revitalization in Catholic women’s culture by a rise in popularity of Catholic writers who respect the traditions and advice of popes and saints through the ages…and make those accessible to average Catholics.