Tony Woodlief | Author

Bare shoulders and barren hearts

If you follow the tempests that froth over Twitter’s teapot on the regular, you may have seen the teeth-gnashing inspired by this Catholic priest’s tweet about a female parishioner’s shoulders:

Tweet by Catholic priest

He’s since been run off Twitter. His antagonists employed two predictable lines of attack: 1) Naked lady shoulders are not the sex scandal Catholic priests ought to be focused on; and 2) How dare you suggest women are responsible for the lewd thoughts of men?

Since it’s not my purpose here, I’ll note in passing that neither critique is reasonable. Regarding the first, we have every reason to believe, given his statements on other matters, that the good father favors harsh penalties for pederast priests and their protectors, including preventative measures that conflict with the LGBTQ sympathies of his detractors.

Regarding the second, one has only to visit any neighborhood bar on a Saturday night to see that many women believe they have some influence over men’s sexual thoughts, else they’d wear more comfortable clothing. That’s not to suggest that women are responsible for the actions of men, but that’s not what the priest was saying. He was asking that churchgoing women have mercy on men who might be distracted from their contemplation of God by alluring get-ups.

So as you can see, I was inclined to support this priest, but instead his words got stuck in my craw. I mean, on the one hand, I am precisely the kind of weak-minded man he wants to protect. Ample breasts in a low-cut blouse, a thong strap protruding over a skirt’s waistband—believe me, if there’s anything lurid to be noted, my lizard brain is going to catalog it.

Yet on the other hand, well, that’s my daily existence. At least in church I have the juxtaposition of holiness and degradation. I see myself for what I am. I experience the grace of God which is poured out on any one of us where we are, despite who we are.

But that’s not really it, either. I think his admonition bothers me because it’s so, well, 90’s evangelical youth group culture. I mean, if you’re a Catholic priest, you believe (as we Orthodox Christians believe) that you are handling the body and blood of Christ. You believe you are in the presence of God and a host of heavenly angels. I don’t mean symbolically. I mean you affirm your conviction that they are right by-God there, and they are not amused by your trivial bullshit.

The affront of immodest dress in church isn’t that some dude might get an erection (which, let’s be honest, if bare shoulders are going to rev your engine, you’ve got way deeper trouble the other 110 waking hours of your week, and you really ought to consider counseling or perhaps a monastery). The affront stems from the fact that a lot of us believe we are literally standing in the presence of God. Which means you put on something decent, or at the very least try not to look like you’re on the Saturday night prowl in your local bar. If you’re a man, you wear long pants like a man. You spit out your gum. You shut your damn mouth and pay attention.

In other words, unless you oversee a miraculous church where all the men are dressed respectfully, and parents have their kids under control, and nobody is whispering or looking at his phone, well then, don’t limit your tweet to the bare-shoulders lady. Lay on, MacDuff. Speak some hellfire truth to indifference. Because if she’s not comporting herself like she believes she’s coming into the presence of God, I guaran-damn-tee you a lot of other folks aren’t, either. And singling her out just makes it sound like your audience is the people in the pews. God knows there are enough churches that really believe that, but there’s no need to follow suit.

And the thing is, if we cultivate that sensibility—if we really live and speak and behave as if we believe with all our hearts that we are in the presence of the all-powerful God, we’re not pondering bare shoulders, we’re approaching the barren heart. We’re in the territory where lives get transformed. Where people are drawn to the Church not by clever tweets or dress codes, but because its inhabitants are lights on a darkened plain.

I’m probably not saying anything the good priest doesn’t already know. As with most things here, I direct them outward, but the person who most needs to hear them is me.

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