Matt C. Abbott
May 9, 2009
Christopher West, Hugh Hefner, and the 'Theology of the Body' controversy
By Matt C. Abbott

(Just a heads-up to readers: Some of the information pertaining to this topic is of a frank nature and is not suitable for children. Then again, most of my columns aren't exactly children's reading material...)

Christopher West, perhaps the most well-known promoter of John Paul II's Theology of the Body, said on ABC's Nightline, "I actually see very profound historical connections between Hugh Hefner and John Paul II."

That'll get one's attention.

From the Nightline report:

    'And it's not just the red slippers?

    ''No, it's not just the red slippers.' Each man in his own way, West insisted, rescued sex from prudish Victorian morality.

    ''I love Hugh Hefner,' said West. 'I really do. Why? Because I think I understand his ache. I think I understand his longing because I feel it myself. There is this yearning, this ache, this longing we all have for love, for union, for intimacy.'

    'West said John Paul II took the sexual revolution an extra step, outlining what he called the 'Theology of the Body.' The pope emphasized how God made Adam and Eve naked and without shame, in his own image. And told them to be fruitful and multiply.

    'In other words, according to the pope, from the very beginning, sexual love has been at the heart of God's plan for us.

    ''Catholicism, properly understood ... is one of the sexiest of the world's religions,' said West. 'But what do we mean by that statement? Catholicism is a very physical, very sensual religion. And indeed the authentic soundtrack for Christianity is a small book in the Old Testament called the Song of Songs. And what is it? It is glorious erotic love poetry.'

    'West goes so far as to call the Song of Songs 'the centerfold of the Bible,' providing what he sees as a Biblical acceptance of oral sex as foreplay, among other things....'

While I'm no expert in the Theology of the Body, I am a bit concerned about Mr. West's approach to this subject, keeping in mind, of course, that the media's editing process can be problematic for, and unfriendly to, pro-life, pro-family advocates.

Besides not being comfortable with Mr. West's "sexualization" of Sacred Scripture and Church teaching, I didn't care for his remarks about Hugh Hefner and John Paul II, though I concede the remarks may have been taken at least somewhat out of context.

I sought comment on the subject from a few "in-the-know" Catholics, including Father Greg Jozefiak of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., who incorporates the Theology of the Body when teaching chastity to sophomores at the Catholic high school where he's a chaplain.

Said Father Jozefiak in an e-mail exchange with me:

    'When I reference Hugh Hefner, I use him as one of those individuals who promoted an attitude that clashed and crashed into Pope Paul VI's prophetic encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in particular, paragraph 17. The kids understand completely. I understand what Mr. West is trying to say, but he can talk about John Paul II's Theology of the Body without giving any credence to Hefner.'

Father James Farfaglia, pastor of St. Helena of the True Cross of Jesus Catholic Church in Corpus Christi, Tex., and author of the soon-to-be-published book Man to Man: A Real Priest Speaks to Real Men about Marriage, Sexuality and Family Life, said in an e-mail:

    'The Christopher West segment on Nightline was very good. I don't understand the connection with Hugh Hefner. I get the point he was making, but it could have been made without the reference to Hugh Hefner. All West had to do was stick with Pope John Paul II. The comments West made about the pope got the reporter's attention. Aside from the Hefner comment, the interview was great. It would be nice if many of our bishops and priests were able to explain the contraception issue with Christopher's clarity and passion.'

My anonymous friend, whom I occasionally quote on matters theological and moral, said in an e-mail:

    'The Hugh Hefner part in the title seems likely taken out of context — it depends on what West meant by 'love' Hugh Hefner. If he means that he understands Hefner is a deeply flawed person at the bottom of whose heart lies a deep ache for God — which is true of all of us, including notorious sinners — and West 'loves' him out of Christian charity, I have no problem. But 'I love X' is the American vernacular that normally means 'I really like and endorse X," and if that's what West is saying about Hefner, then he's wrong, wrong, wrong. I think it's the former, but I wish West had been more careful because he opened himself to being badly misused by the phrase 'I love Hugh Hefner.'

    'West does stand with the Church on contraception, and, in my view, that's the key. He's right about the goodness of non-sinful erotic love. There's a long Christian tradition of unabashed chaste eroticism; I think that's what West is preaching. But he should be more careful because in our pornography-drenched culture, the 'chaste' adjective is totally absent, and when he — provocatively, for rhetorical impact — alludes to contemporary aspects, it's very hard for most people to envision the 'chaste' aspect because their minds are bombarded with a lot of unchaste, pornographic material — it's deeply, deeply embedded, especially in men but increasingly in women.

    'From the descriptions of some of those whose lives were changed by West's seminars, I have the sense that what he teaches is pretty solid, level-headed marital advice. Yet I have my own reservations about making the wife's climax so absolutely central to everything; and in emphasizing that the key to this is largely the man's ability to restrain himself. That's true, to a degree. I'm convinced, however, that more important than the 'mechanics' is the psychology, and an overemphasis on the mechanics actually makes it less likely that both partners will succeed in climaxing. I think much deeper psychological and personal issues underlie this, especially for the woman.

    'And in our world, where women give themselves to men without first insisting on the security of marriage and where, even within marriage, both men and women are free unilaterally to end the marriage, a pervasive insecurity is introduced into many marriages such that women in particular have more trouble with satisfying sexual intimacy. If West is emphasizing the mechanics too much, he may be doing more harm than good.

    'Then again, he may not overemphasize this and may put it in a healthy context of personal commitment and intimacy, but the reporter grabbed this sensational idea about the woman's orgasm and highlighted it. West needs to be aware that he's delivering this sort of sound bite capable of overwhelming in the popular media output the more subtle truths he does teach.

    'So I'd take this particular reporting [Nightline] with a huge, huge dose of salt. I do have some worries about West's approach, but I think he's basically doing the right thing.'

Far more critical of Mr. West's writings and television appearance is Catholic author Steve Kellmeyer, who also has considerable knowledge of the Theology of the Body. Mr. Kellmeyer wrote the following on his forum (excerpted; to see the entire post, click here):

    '...[I]f he sees a connection between John Paul II and the objectification of the person as practiced by Hugh Hefner, what on earth would that connection be? John Paul II fought against pornography; he didn't embrace it, extol it or promote it. Did both experience an 'ache'? We may grant that they did. What of it? That's the fallen human condition. If we wish to emphasize that connection, there is no quarrel, but what would the point be?

    'Third, the theology of the body, indeed, the whole of the Catholic Faith, is dedicated to the exact opposite of Hugh Hefner's view, and the view of the entire sexual revolution. Margaret Sanger provided the funds to create an hormonal contraceptive in 1951, the Catholic Dr. John Rock started working on the problem in 1952, Playboy was founded in 1953, and by 1955 the hormonal contraceptive had completed its trials. The sexual revolution is founded on pornography and contraception — the total objectification of women....

    'The phrase about musing on Hugh sounds nice, the phrase on completing the sexual revolution sounds nice, but when any consideration is given to exactly what is being said, the conclusions are insane. John Paul II and Hugh Hefner are not working together in any sense. As every book on the subject describes, as every historian knows, the sexual revolution is built on pornography and the Pill. It is not a Catholic movement; it cannot be baptized.

    'Communication is supposed to clarify. But the more one studies certain kinds of rhetoric, the less clear the ideas become. This is not what the Church intends should happen when we study the Faith.

    'One could argue that, given editing constraints, Chris West did the best that could be done. But is that fair to all involved? If the interview was not an accurate portrayal of John Paul II's teachings, then we can say, at best, it was not wise for West to allow ABC to follow him around for hours so they could edit him down to seven minutes. Either through ignorance or intent, that level of extreme editing lends itself to a biased portrayal. Anyone involved in media production, as Christopher West has been for years, knows this.

    'At worst, ABC accurately portrayed West's intended message during the editing process. Either way, the interview does not put West in the best light.'

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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