By: Christopher West
In 2008, Playboy magazine sunk to new lows in mocking the holy. Of course, every edition offers a mockery of the holy — the holy, in this case, being the female body. Precisely because of the exquisite holiness of femininity, the Serpent has had his sights set on woman from the beginning. The ultimate Biblical “woman” of course, is Mary. And now Playboy set its sights on her too. Reuters reported that the December issue of the Mexican edition of Playboy features a semi-nude Blessed Mother figure standing in front of a stained glass window. The caption below reads “Te Adoramos, Maria” (We love you, Mary). The fact that the posing model’s name is also Maria wasn’t a sufficient alibi.
The outcry from the faithful of Mexico was swift. In response, the Chicago headquarters of Playboy Enterprises issued the following statement: “While Playboy Mexico never meant for the cover or images to offend anyone, we recognize that it has created offense, and we as well as Playboy Mexico offer our sincerest apologies.” (Hmmm… Playboy has been “causing offense” for over fifty years. Are we really to believe the sincerity of such an apology?)
Vatican Calls for More Images of Mary Nursing Jesus
I can’t help but juxtapose this news story with an inversely related story from prior summer. The Internet was abuzz that June when the Vatican’s newspaper called for an “artistic and spiritual rehabilitation” of semi-nude portrayals of the Blessed Mother breast-feeding the Christ child. Catholic News Service (CNS) reported the story as follows: “A vast iconography of traditional Christian art has been ‘censored by the modern age’ because images depicting Our Lady’s naked breast for her child were deemed too ‘unseemly,’ the [Vatican] paper said June 19. Artists began depicting a fully clothed nursing Mary in sacred art in an attempt to make her seem less ‘carnal,’ but the depictions unfortunately also diminished her human, loving and tender side ‘that touches the hearts and faith of the devout,’ the newspaper said.”
Artistic portrayals of a bare-breasted nursing Madonna — known as “Our Lady of La Leche” (Our Lady of the Milk) — were plentiful throughout Christian history until the 16th or 17th century. Then, various Protestant reformers were quite critical of what they considered “the carnality and unbecoming nature of many sacred images,” wrote Christian historian Lucetta Scaraffia in the Vatican newspaper article. In turn, even though the Catholic Church officially rejected this anti-incarnational view, many Catholic artists — not to mention vast numbers of the Catholic faithful (or, in this case, unfaithful) — were influenced by the reformers’ condemnations. “The splintered views concerning the sanctity of the human body were not repaired and therefore an ‘artistic and spiritual rehabilitation’ of a breast-feeding baby Jesus is needed, [Scaraffia] wrote” (CNS).
The Problem with Playboy
So, we must ask — what makes Playboy’s semi-nude portrayal of a Blessed Mother figure a terrible offense (even a sacrilege) and what makes the semi-nude portrayal of Our Lady of La Leche a sacred image promoted by the Vatican? In his Theology of the Body, John Paul II wrote that pornography raises objections not because it exposes the naked body. The human body in itself always retains its inalienable dignity. Rather, pornography raises objections because of the way in which the human body is portrayed (see TOB 63:5). Pornographers portray the body with the explicit intention of arousing lust in the viewer.
That is why seeing a Blessed Mother figure under the headline “Playboy” is so jarring and offensive. The goal of Playboy is to insight lust. The sacred artists’ goal in portraying a semi-nude Virgin Mary, on the other hand, is to help us ponder the God-given beauty and dignity of Mary’s femininity and sacred motherhood. Mary’s body reveals a gloriously sacred mystery, and tasteful, sacred art has the ability to get us in touch with that mystery. Lucetta Scaraffia “said the sacred image of Mary nursing her child is ‘an image so concrete and loving’ that it recalls her offering her body for nourishment and giving herself completely to her son as he offers his body and blood in the Eucharist” (CNS). I’m certain that’s not what Playboy Mexico had in mind.