Thursday, May 28, 2009

What is Puritanism?

Amid the controversy over "theology of the body" I have been perturbed to see a beloved Catholic author such as Dr. Alice von Hildebrand vilified all over the internet as a "puritan." I have seen Dr. von Hildebrand and other respected Catholics labeled as "puritanical" or "prudish" for daring to utter a charitable critique of certain methods of teaching about marital intimacy.

Yes, people love to throw around the word "puritan," but do they even know what it really means? Puritanism is an extreme Calvinist theology which sees the created world as evil, very similar to the Manichean approach of the medieval Cathars. In fact, the terms "Puritan" and "Cathar" both mean "pure one." Puritanism was brought to New England in the seventeenth century and has tinged the American view of reality ever since. According to an article by the National Humanities Center:
Puritans in both Britain and British North America sought to cleanse the culture of what they regarded as corrupt, sinful practices. They believed that the civil government should strictly enforce public morality by prohibiting vices like drunkenness, gambling, ostentatious dress, swearing, and Sabbath-breaking. They also wished to purge churches of every vestige of Roman Catholic ritual and practice—the ruling hierarchies of bishops and cardinals, the elaborate ceremonies in which the clergy wore ornate vestments and repeated prayers from a prescribed liturgy....But both Congregationalist and Presbyterian worship services were simple, even austere, and dominated by long, learned sermons in which their clergy expounded passages from the Bible. Perhaps most important, membership in both churches was limited to the “visibly godly,” meaning those men and women who lead sober and upright lives.
Because of the belief in predestination, of material and earthly prosperity being a sign that one is saved, Puritanism had an emphasis on looking good for the neighbors. The flip side of everything being bad and forbidden is the other extreme of nothing being bad or forbidden, so that under the facade of righteousness there is a lot of hidden corruption that is never brought into the light of repentance.

Having read many of Dr. von Hildebrand's books and articles and listened to her programs on EWTN over the years, I have never detected even a glimmer of Calvinism. For one thing, Dr. von Hildebrand is a Belgian and Belgium has never exactly been known as a hotbed of puritanism. In fact, I know of very few Europeans whom I would describe as "prudish." Dr. von Hildebrand is, however, a person of refinement and culture. She is a lady. It does not speak well for the state of American Catholicism when ladies and gentlemen cannot express their opinions about basic decency without being called "puritans" and "prudes." There is a difference, a big difference, between the puritanical view of the body as dirty, and the view which approaches the body with modesty and reverence. The fact that people are unable to discern such distinctions makes for a pathetic combination of circumstances.

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