Friday, February 1, 2008

"Bodies ... the Exhibition" and theology of the body

Great controversy is stirring in the Queen City as, "Bodies ... The Exhibition" is opening at the Cincinnati Museum Center today. Ethical issues about the exhibit were largely unspoken until Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk released a statement urging Catholic schools not to take field trips to "Bodies." Bishop Roger Foys followed suit yesterday.

I spent a great deal of time yesterday contemplating how the principles of Pope John Paul II's theology of the body could relate to "Bodies." Below are some main points:
  • What is the purpose of the body? According to Pope John Paul II, the body reveals the person. We are able to experience our own personhood and that of other people through the body. We are more than a collection of body parts -- we are emotional, spiritual and mental, as well. The body is also meant to reveal God to us. He created us male and female, with intellect and will, in order for us to know Him, love Him, and serve Him.
  • Our bodies are not skin to be shed upon death. God-willing, in heaven, we will experience the resurrection of our bodies, not just our souls. Therefore, the body deserves respect and proper treatment during and after earthly life.
  • "Bodies" is only focusing on the biological aspect of the person, thereby reducing a someone to a something. While staring at someone's circulatory system or skeletal structure, I doubt most visitors will contemplate who this person was -- their feelings, dreams, goals, age, and purpose in life. Instead, these people become objects used not persons loved.
  • What Pope John Paul II said about pornography can be relevant to this situation as well. He said that those objectified in pornography, become, in a certain sense, "public property." In "Bodies," people are paying money in order to see a public display of human persons, reduced merely to their body parts.
  • Many attendees commenting on the "Bodies'" website have likened the exhibit to art. The use of naked bodies in the exhibit, often posed in rather disrespectful ways, bring to mind these words from Pope John Paul II, "Following his personal sensibility, man does not want to become an object for others through his own anonymous nakedness." Does this change after death? Suppose your mother or brother or best friend were one of the "models" in this exhibit? Would you be supportive of that? Why do we commend the use of anonymous people when we would be likely to condemn the use of people close to us?
  • Those in the exhibit did not give consent. There are a host of ethical questions regarding the use of "unclaimed bodies" from a Communist country hardly renowned for human rights. Would these deceased people have wanted the world to see them as anonymous collections of body parts?
  • In theology of the body, Pope John Paul II talks about the concept of shame. He says that shame is experienced after Original Sin in order to protect us from being used by another. We don't want to be seen naked by the public because we have an innate fear (rightfully so) of being used not loved. When a body is donated to science, it is done with free consent, presumably not for money and with the knowledge that those looking at the body have a certain purpose: Learning how to save other lives. The context must provide respect to the deceased person whose body has been donated for this cause. In "Bodies," there is no way to guarantee that the bodies will be looked on respectfully. People can gawk, stare, glare, comment and deride those featured in the exhibit without any care or protection from objectification given. This cannot be respectful of the human person, whether dead or alive.
  • It is a good to learn how our bodies work, but I would argue that learning about anatomy or biology can be done apart from using human persons. With the millions of dollars pouring into Premier Exhibitions, one must question their motivation -- education or profit?
  • Whenever we are in doubt that something is morally licit, we must lean toward caution. If we are unsure that "Bodies" is ethical and moral, then we should refrain from supporting it.

If you are looking to read more about this subject, check out Peter Bronson's op-ed in yesterday's Cincinnati Enquirer, a statement by the Archdiocese of Vancouver about a similar exhibit, and an article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.


Ellie said...

A wonderful article, Emily. I wonder: where are the people who were so outraged by the scandal at the Coroner's office when peoples' dead bodies were photographed in the name of art.

FatMan said...

Good article. I find it interesting that the portion of the exhibit showing the fetuses can be by-passed. Why? What are we afraid of learning in that part of the exhibit?
Could it be that it's harder to be pro-abortion if you have to look at what has been aborted? Not to mention the fetuses come from a country that endorses a one child policy and practices forced abortions by the its government!
We get closer to the Roman Coliseum by the day.

Jenny said...

Ughh, I was totally disturbed by ads for this "exhibit" during its tenure in Pittsburgh last month. What an appropriately grotesque caricature of the degredation of the human person...