Matthew Sewell is the author of the popular “Popes in a Year” daily email series, and hosts The Popecast, a podcast about papal history. Matthew writes about intriguing stories from Church history, the messiness of the Christian life, and (occasionally) insights into Catholicism through Denver Broncos football. By day, he works at Flocknote to help parishes and dioceses build a more connected Church. Matthew, his wife, and their unborn child make their home in Spokane, Washington.
The Hollywood sexual harassment scandal seems to be perpetual news these days, with story after story cropping up daily of a new star being accused of misconduct. What’s inarguable about this whole mess is the rightful collective outrage on the part of the American public. Opinions differ, however, in the needed response to such a debacle, and what appears to be getting talked about much too little (with Catholic circles perhaps being the exception) is the why.
It was this why that came to mind as I was watching Disney’s new rendition of Beauty and the Beast recently, particularly a scene in which Belle and the Beast are enjoying a leisurely walk through the grounds of the Beast’s castle. As they cross a bridge over a gently-flowing stream, the Beast looks over and is drawn to a sudden halt.
However, it wasn’t the onset of danger or a selfish protection of his domain — his sole concerns up to that point in the movie — which prompted such a reaction. Instead, it was a simple realization of the beauty that surrounded him in that very moment (and in fact had surrounded him throughout his enchanted captivity) which stopped the beast in his tracks.
We all know the ending, of course. The Beast continues to let his heart be opened by Belle, grants her the freedom to choose the love she desires for herself, and ultimately gives his life in pursuit of her, only to be rewarded with the breaking of his enchantment, thus returning to his fully human self and (surprise, surprise) living happily ever after.
There’s a very profound truth to be found in this scene and in Beauty and the Beast as a whole, especially as it relates to our present crisis of objectification and use. Namely, that the beholding of beauty — the loving of beauty — inherently makes one less beastly. Beauty, in short, begets beauty.
Christian anthropology down through the ages has keyed on humans as being body and soul composites — not mere bodies traipsing about, operating on instincts; and not pure spirits or souls trapped in a deprave material existence. Revelation teaches us that our bodies and souls alike are very good, and that the two should always operate in communion with one another, by the sheer fact that God himself came to earth and took on our human flesh.
This can all be summed up in the concept of beauty as spelled out by St. Thomas Aquinas, and lately oft-repeated by Bishop Robert Barron. Beauty, according to Aquinas, has three essential qualities: integritas (wholeness), consonantia (harmony or proportionality) and claritas (radiance).
First, a beautiful thing is an integrated whole, that is, it isn’t lacking in any of the qualities that would make it completely what it’s intended to be, and no division exists within it. Second, a beautiful thing is well-ordered, it has internal unity in how its parts are arranged, and we’re able to discern this aspect of beauty through our reason and in its relation, ultimately, to the Creator. Third and finally, a beautiful thing is radiant, giving clarity in showing forth its intended nature — the truth of itself — without needing explanation.
It’s worth noting that these criteria are precisely what Our Lord desires for us in our own lives, since it’s what Jesus himself patterned for us in His Incarnation. Jesus beheld beauty perfectly in his approach to those around him, because humans are — objectively speaking — inherently beautiful. He treated them as eternal creatures, because that’s what humans are, and Jesus radiated claritas to those who saw Him as a result.
The Beast, by contrast, was a powerful man and lover of decadence, using all for the fulfillment of his own selfish desires, and having no patience for those who stood in the way. He utterly disregarded the truth that, as St. John Paul II wrote in Love and Responsibility, “a person's rightful due is to be treated as an object of love, not as an object for use.”
In short, the Beast is a prime example that when selfishness and the will to money, pleasure, power, or honor is put first, “there will be disorder and every vile practice.” (James 3:16)
One need not stretch the mind to see how this relates to the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, or others. However, the Hollywood sexual harassment epidemic is just a sinister example of the foundational human problem that we each become beasts in the measure that we use others for our own gain.
This sin of using another person inherently divides us — the Beast, by exalting the body and trampling over the soul, became a divided person, a “person incomprehensible to himself,” to quote John Paul again. A person who becomes a beast is ugly because they lack the integritas, consonantia, and claritas of a human person.
If God is love, and we are made in His image, then we are made to love and to be love to those around us. The only way to achieve such great heights is to behold beauty in all its splendor, which is eternally on offer to us from Our Lord, and through Him from the Church, the Blessed Mother, and all the saints.
The best part about this whole thing — renouncing beastliness, accepting the mercy of God, and becoming whole once more — can be summed up in the Beast’s words, as he gazed upon the beauty before him that day on the bridge:
“It’s as if I’m seeing it for the first time.”