Recently, under the “theology of the body” section at the website Catholic Exchange, Christina King does precisely this. According to Miss King:
I was told by a priest that I was not allowed to wear pants because I was an attractive woman and to do so would lead men to sin. I had many of the women comment that I should not work and that I should not wear make-up or extensive jewelry as it adorns the body. I remember at one point when there was a discussion to restore an older church, most of the argumentation was by members appalled that the Institute was raising money to make fill it with beautiful things. No Gold, no statues! No paintings! It was remarked by many that these “things” take the attention away from Jesus and are all aesthetic beauty and sinful to spend money on. This reminds me of Caryll Houselanders book “The Reed of God” in which she says in her chapter “The word made flesh” that some have such a fear of the body that they even reject beautiful things in churches. This is all a part of the Manichean heresy and it is alive and well among conservative groups. To say that it is not alive and well in the Church today is ignorance. Yes, pornography is rampant in our culture; however, the knee jerk reaction of many conservative Catholics has been to run the other direction and so it seems the two extremes do in fact exist.
For the record, I belong to one of these “conservative” groups. (She is referring to those attending the extraordinary form of the Roman liturgy, the common term for them being “traditionalists.”) I cannot speak with any certainty if what she says is true (she provides absolutely no evidence for this, I especially doubt that traditionalists rejected adding adornments to their parish, since traditional churches are normally covered with statues, gold, etc. There needs to be more proof of this.) Yet there can be problems at times along these lines. Yet is this really a latent Manichaeism under the heart of Catholics? Or is this just another gratuitous swipe against traditionalists? (Which their crowd has made a cottage industry out of.) Or is the person simply way out of their league, having no clue what they speak on? Most of those who play the heretic card come from the third school. I intend to demonstrate that whatever she may feel, she is way out of her league, and should leave the leveling of heretical charges to where it belongs: The Magisterium.
First, let us give a little bit of a background on what Manichaeism is. The Manicheans followed their prophet Mani (one does not know his real name, the title means the illustrious and he became known as that.) The religion founded by Mani was a synthesis of a lot of the major religions of that timeframe, with some superficial Christian elements, that flourished throughout the East. Their theology was heavily dualistic. In other words, there were two “forces” (gods) in the world, a non-omnipotent god of light (good), and a force of darkness (evil.) Skipping some interesting cosmology that would make modern readers wonder what psychedelic drugs Mani was on, we get to the crux of the issue. Mankind was the creation of the evil power, the creation of demons, as part of their plan to rebel against the light. The “luminous being” (ironically called jesus, but a pantheistic concoction, not as we would understand it) made man see the truth, and they cursed their bodies, living a life of rigid discipline and self-denial, loathing their flesh. Matter and all creation on this planet were evil, and the just soul had to abstain from them as much as possible in freeing the light (the good spirit) from our evil bodies. They also opposed entirely marriage, because through marriage, the status quo of the imprisonment of good within flesh continued.
One need not be an expert on the traditionalist movement to understand it believes none of these things. Central to the entire traditionalist concept of church architecture is that matter is not evil, and churches should be adorned with the finest of the finest. Far from taking away from the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, it heightens it. It’s why we have such an emphasis on the location of the tabernacle in relation to the altar for example. Every Sunday the prologue to John’s Gospel is proclaimed, stressing the importance of the Incarnation and the goodness of human flesh, since our Lord took it. To say traditionalists frown on pro-creation, well, one has never been to a Latin Mass if they say that. The average family at your Latin Mass has been married for 6-7 years, and they have 5-6 children. Nor do they teach that their soul is good but their body evil, since many of the prayers of the liturgy asks for the health of soul and body. Both are transformed by the grace of the Eucharist.
This leaves us with one of two conclusions. One, the author is being deliberately dishonest. The second is more likely. She actually has really no clue what a Manichean is. She heard the word floated around, it has a nice evil ring to it, and her opponents can get tarred and feathered with it.
There are some who will attempt to say “well, their attitudes regarding modesty and sexuality are Manichean, since they are afraid to talk about sex!” Here they see a correlation, and imply traditionalists and Manicheans are identical. This is obviously a fallacy. Scrupulosity, regrettable as it is, is not heretical. The scrupulous individual does not deny an article of the Catholic faith.
Yet even if one has a balanced understanding of the faith, one can think that the current craze over sex, based on a false understanding of John Paul II, is taking things a little too far. The objections of many are not just prudish sensibilities; they are a natural reaction of pious souls when they say “something is not right.”
What about the complaint that when it comes to sexuality, we go to the "opposite extreme?" Since no evidence was provided, again, it is tough to substantiate. Yet I'm going to assume that since traditionalists are really big into modesty, and we tend not to talk about sexuality much.
To the first, one needs to distingiush between modesty and prudery. Sure, there are those who dress modest simply out of "not wanting to entice men." Yet to say all or even a majority of traditionalists are like that is a gross slander.
We are not primitive cultures, where everyone walks around naked. As all civilizations grow in their ability to become civilized, they began to adorn themselves with clothing, an outward sign of an inward reality, of the dignity of the individual. When I go to Mass, I wear a white button down, dress pants, and dress slacks. I don't wear this to attract the attention of women (they really aren't getting much in that department!). I wear it because they are amongst the best clothing I have. Since the Sunday Mass is the most important part of my week, my clothing represents this.
Likewise, when a woman dresses modestly, she is not saying "I need to cover myself up, lest men lust after me." At least she should not be saying just this. Rather, she says "I am a woman, a creature of God, but I am more than just a physical body. My choice of dress will show beauty, but also sophistication. Elegance, but also simplicity." Something that has the aim of raising the human person cannot in its very nature be Manichean.
Let us take the classic example “women should never wear pants.” I myself dated a girl with this worldview. I found it simplistic and wrong, yet that’s a far cry from Manichean. Far from stating matter was evil, they believe what they do because they want to emphasize the beauty in the difference between male and female. One might think they have an interesting way of going about it, but that’s different than stating they are a heretic.
Others will protest that we are prudes because we do not talk about sex enough. I say we just do not view sex through the prism of absolutely everything in our life. Men and women are not sexual animals. They are social in nature. There is more to society than sex. Sex is also a great mystery. Indeed, it is one of the highest of mysteries that ordinary individuals will partake in. As a result, there is a certain reverence given to it. I won't talk in-depth about sexuality with some random woman, not because I hate my body and view sex evil, but because I view thse things as of the highest nature, and in many cases words cannot do justice. One can only visit my secular friends, who will watch my eyes roll when a sexual joke is made, or the topic is talked about too much. Does this make me a Manichean? Not if words have meaning!
Yet, as I mentioned at the beginning, it’s a lot sexier to label someone as a heretic than someone who is seeking to protect a good, yet you might disagree with the way they seek it. Leave these judgments to the Church when it comes to heresy. If you cannot substantiate your case without wild assertions, perhaps you need to examine if you ever had a strong case to begin with.