Matt C. Abbott
May 31, 2009
Christopher West: supporters vs. critics
By Matt C. Abbott

The debate over Christopher West's analysis and teaching of John Paul II's Theology of the Body continues, and it's gotten somewhat heated. I've compiled quotes from respected Catholic voices in each "camp" (keep in mind that the critics are not opposed to Mr. West per se but have varying degrees of disagreement with his style and/or theology). To see the commentaries in their entirety, click on the hyperlink to each person's name. And just a friendly reminder: This material isn't suitable for children.

Christopher West's supporters

Dr. Janet Smith:


    '...I want to add my voice to those who are enthusiastic about the West/Theology of the Body phenomenon. I think it is important to keep in mind, as [Jimmy] Akin does, who West's audience is. It is largely the sexually wounded and confused who have been shaped by our promiscuous and licentious culture. People need to think long and hard about the appropriate pedagogy for that group. Yet, as West himself knows, his approach is not for everyone. An analogy that pushes the envelope may be 'offensive' to one person and may be just the hook that draws another person in. West has adopted a style that appeals to a large segment of that population — and even to some who are 'pure and innocent.'

    'It is not hard to find hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals who will testify that they have come to love Christ and his Church, and better understand and live the Church's teaching about sex because of the work of Christopher West. Cohabiters separate, contracepters stop contracepting, and men cease looking at pornography — and that is the short list. Countless young people are now taking up the study of the Theology of the Body because of West's work. 'By their fruits ye shall know them'.....

    'My point is this: The fact that the dean of the John Paul II Institute in Washington D.C. has issues with West's approach should not discourage anyone from reading West's work or attending his lectures. Schindler has serious disagreements with other reputable, orthodox theologians, including professors on staff at the John Paul II Institute. West's extensive commentary on the Theology of the Body, 'Theology of the Body Explained,' was reviewed for the nihil obstat for the Archdiocese of Boston by Prof. May, a longtime colleague of Schindler at the John Paul II Institute, who also gave it a glowing endorsement for the book jacket. (I also reviewed and strongly endorsed West's book Good News About Sex and Marriage). Several times in his piece Schindler refers to West's 'intention' to be orthodox which could imply that he has not necessarily achieved orthodoxy. We should be clear that West's works have been given an imprimatur, an ecclesiastical judgment that a work is doctrinally sound. I share the view of others that it is completely theologically sound....'

Dr. Michael Waldstein:

    '...The salacious spin Nightline put on West's work (suggesting West is a fan of Hefner's Playboy Magazine) did not come from West, but from ABC, which knows that 'sex sells.' I see a great irony in these circumstances. Schindler has a remarkably clear and profound perception of the defects of our dominant liberal culture. He also has a correspondingly keen x-ray vision for the regular distortion of Catholic life and theology in the dominant media. Yet in this instance, he is ready to accept ABC's spin at face value, regardless of West's protestations to the contrary and, more importantly, regardless of West's published works. To use ABC's spin against West is an act of injustice. It does violence to one of the most eloquent and effective messengers of the Theology of the Body....

    'West's main strength lies in his effective communication of John Paul II's teaching on a popular level. An academic might look down at such 'popularizing' and disdain serious intellectual engagement with West. In fact, West's theological penetration of John Paul II's work and the expression of his insight in his published materials have high academic quality. They are worthy of serious scholarly engagement. In writing my own book about the Theology of the Body (which is almost completed), I turn to West's commentary often and with profit.

    'Both ABC's spin on West and Schindler's condemnation of him in agreement with that spin do harm to the cause of the Theology of the Body. I appeal to all who work for the promotion of the Theology of the Body to do their utmost to counteract this harm.'

Michael Phelan:

    'Nightline did about a seven-minute piece (derived, I'm told, from an eight-hour interview! God help any of us in that situation.) on Christopher West and his presentation to Catholics of sexuality and the Theology of the Body. Overall, it was a remarkably fair piece of work, I thought, with regard to the Church. The priest-sex scandal was not mentioned, and there was no hit on the Church at all. Most of the use of Christopher's teaching was helpful. However, you will notice a couple of 'ouch' moments where an illustration Christopher uses is just left hanging, without qualification, an editing decision — most notably the comments on Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy. Here are my thoughts.

    '1. Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, former wife of the now deceased great philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, is a respected philosopher and Catholic thinker herself. She also seems very uncomfortable with much of the popularization of the TOB, as done by folks such as Christopher West and our own Katrina Zeno. She also went after Katrina publicly regarding one of her analogies which was not in the least vulgar, I thought, the analogy of dance. She seems somewhat familiar with the writings of John Paul II. We must take her warning seriously, that we can all potentially fall into a way of speaking about sexuality that is irreverent, in order to get the attention of the culture.

    '2. That being said, Christopher West's role in all this is to get the attention of a group of Catholics — and other Christians — who are infinitely more familiar with the exceedingly vulgar pop culture than they are with even the most basic of Church teachings. For their own sake, out of agapic love. He pushes the envelope to get people's attention. If you see the video, Christopher makes a historical comparison (which I think is certainly valid) that Playboy and the Theology of the Body developed at the same time, historically. Then the news writers bend this to say that 'JPII and Hugh Hefner are Mr. West's 'muses'' regarding sexuality. So they take one illustration and blow it up into West's supposed main point. And the point according to Nightline is supposedly 'Woohoo! Catholics can have crazy sex, too.' But of course those of us who have read and heard Christopher know what the main point is. Christopher's reply to the comments from Nightline left out of context is here.

    '3. Do we have a tremendous responsibility to convey the truth faithfully? Yes. Do we have a tremendous responsibility to choose illustrations as we teach that people can understand without being scandalized? Yes. Must we balance these responsibilities with the fundamental responsibility to share the Good News regarding Church teaching with people who need us to reach them in a language they can understand, without fear? Yes. I had a great coach once who told me that he did not mind my mistakes made from enthusiasm, from over-effort. Far better these than the mistakes of the coward, he would say. I think in the end it will bring about much good, as Christopher's work and Katrina's have brought about so much good in many of our lives.

    '4. Final point: Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have urged us to not be afraid to speak to the modern media to get out Christ's message. This may be the kind of hit we have to take to get the message out. In any case, we need to pray for him and for the TOB to be authentically presented, and for the love, courage and prudence to do it ourselves. There are no coincidences with God, as Bishop Olmsted constantly reminds us, and I believe this story heading into our new marriage prep offerings is another sign that we can really be part of turning this culture around, with God's grace!'

Jimmy Akin:

    '...West is a man on the side of the angels, and he's an effective speaker who has done a great deal of good. He stands to do much more good in the future, and he should be encouraged in that.

    'Even the ABC piece, as flawed as it was, should do more good than harm on balance. Despite the Hefner-related flaws and the 'centerfold' business, it communicated the ideas that (1) the anti-Christian sex stereotype is wrong, (2) that sex is a good thing, (3) that people should admire and take seriously the Church's teachings on sex, (4) including its teachings on contraception, sex only in marriage, and heterosexual marriage, and (5) it had testimonies from couples and individuals saying how these messages turned their lives and marriages around.

    'Chris's critics should be honest enough to admit that the piece nudged more audience members in the right direction than the wrong one. And they should rejoice in that. Sure, there were things that went wrong — many of them not in West's control — but he can learn from this experience and help even more people in the future. That's something we should all hope for.'

Christopher West's critics

Dr. Alice von Hildebrand:


    'My feeling is that Christopher West has become famous because he started discussing the Theology of the Body, which is extremely appealing topic. The difficulty is that, in the meantime, he became so famous that I do believe he has become much too self-assured and has lost sight of the extreme sensitivity of the topic.... My feeling is that his vocabulary and his way of approaching it totally lacks reverence.... It seems to me that his presentation, his vocabulary, the vulgarity of things that he uses are things that simply indicate that even though he might have good intentions he has derailed and is doing a lot of harm....'

Prof. David Schindler:

    'What, then, are the objections to West's theology?

    'First, West misconstrues the meaning of concupiscence, stressing purity of intention one-sidedly when talking about problems of lust.

    'When I first pointed this problem out to him several years ago, his response was that he refused to limit the power of Christ to transform us. My response is that concupiscence dwells 'objectively' in the body, and continues its 'objective' presence in the body throughout the course of our infralapsarian existence; and that we should expect holiness to 'trump' temptations or disordered tendencies in the area of sexuality exactly as often as we should expect holiness to 'trump' the reality of having to undergo death.

    'Second, West has an inadequate notion of analogy. He conceives love in a reductive bodily-sexual sense, then reads the Christian mysteries as though they were somehow ever-greater and more perfect realizations of what he emphasizes as key in our own experience, namely, sex.

    'But sex is not even the most important part of human love, let alone the key to the Christian mysteries — the Eucharist, for example. Missing in West's work is an adequate idea of the radical discontinuity (maior dissimilitudo ) between the divine love revealed by God — and indeed the (supernatural) love to which we are called — and sexual love or intercourse. To be sure, the spousal love between man and woman is central in man's imaging of God, and the gendered body and sexual relations are an integral sign and expression of spousal love, which also includes what John Paul II calls all the other manifestations of affection. However, as Joseph Ratzinger says, it is only because man has a capacity for God that he also has a capacity for another human being. The former indicates the 'content,' the latter the 'consequence,' of man's likeness to God.

    'In the end, West, in his disproportionate emphasis on sex, promotes a pansexualist tendency that ties all important human and indeed supernatural activity back to sex without the necessary dissimilitudo.

    'Third, West's treatment of shame and reverence is marred by a too-male vision of things — not only too much maleness but distorted maleness. If we could just get over our prudishness and sin-induced guilt, he seems to think, we would be ready simply to dispense with clothes and look at others in their nakedness. He has no discernible sense of the difference between what might be a feminine as distinct from masculine sense of unveiling. He (thus) lacks a reverence for the body entailing a modesty not reducible simply to shame, or again a patient reverence presupposing the 'veiledness' proper to what essentially contains mystery. His work is preoccupied with what is external to the detriment of the interiority proper to persons. In this context, we can say that West's theology ultimately lacks a Marian dimension: not in the sense that he fails to make references to Mary, but because his work is not adequately formed, in method or content, in Mary's archetypal feminine-human sensibility.

    'Fourth, a style of preaching is not merely a matter of 'style' — a difference in personality or taste. It is always-also a matter of theology itself. West often tends to treat resistance to the content of his lectures, for example during the question periods, as matters of resistance to the Holy Spirit (to the Spirit now speaking in and through West's 'charism'), urging questioners to pray to overcome the fear induced in them by their bad theological-spiritual formation. Well-balanced persons have spoken of how West makes them feel a sense of guilt, of resistance to the Holy Spirit, if they experience uneasiness about what he is saying....'

Father Jose Granados:

    'It is highly inadequate and open to serious misunderstanding to say that John Paul II took the sexual revolution a step further. For the principles that were at work in Puritanism, with its negative vision of the body, are the same ones at work in pornography and in the sexual revolution. In both cases the body is seen without reference to the dignity of the person and to the plan of God for man; it is deprived of its symbolism and its language. Puritanism attempts this by silencing the body and its urges; the sexual revolution (as expressed for example in Hugh Hefner) by exalting it as an absolute. In both cases (but especially in the latter) the body, and with it the human person, are despised, because they are cut off from their ultimate origin and destiny. Pornography is in no sense an attempt to recover the beauty of the body and sexuality, but a sign of despair regarding this beauty and the possibility of finding meaning in human love.

    'The recovery of the meaning of the body, with reference to love and to the mystery of man and God, is the novelty brought about by John Paul II's Theology of the Body. The Pope's proposal is not about sexuality, but about the truth of love as the foundation of the person's dignity and the meaning of reality; and about the family as the place where the person finds himself and his way towards happiness....'

Michael Matt:

    'I have in my files plenty of letters from Catholics with obviously well-formed consciences who've been similarly scandalized by the approach of Christopher West — a man who evidently sees little merit in the Church's traditional prohibition against discussing some subjects — i.e., sexual intimacy — in mixed company. Mr. West has but one retort, it would seem: 'This is Pope John Paul!' But Pope John Paul is dead. So how far does Mr. West get to go in the name of Pope John Paul? Is anyone actually monitoring this fellow?

    'Can one even imagine Bishop Fulton Sheen discussing the ins and outs of sexual intimacy with men and women in any public venue, let alone his sanctuary? How about Padre Pio? Don Bosco? Even Mother Teresa? Are we to believe, then, that modern Catholics have become so 'enlightened,' so impervious to the temptations of the flesh, that these matters can now be discussed openly and in mixed company with no affront to dignity, purity or modesty? Please! Have we learned nothing from the tsunami of sex scandals that has rocked the Church over the past forty years?

    'Perhaps a warning from St. John Chrysostom would here be apropos: 'Are you perhaps of stone or of iron? No, you are a man subject to the common weakness of nature. Do you think that you will not be burnt if you take fire into your hand? How else could this be? Put a burning light into the hay and then say that there will be no blaze! Like hay is this nature of ours'.....'

Steve Kellmeyer:

    '...While the debate rages, at least a dozen bishops of various rank, all of whom have some part of their reputation riding on the outcome, are watching closely, and taking notes.

    'So, why do you think Dr. Schindler waited so long before he wrote a public critique of West's work — waited until the errors were broadcast on national television in front of millions and he couldn't stand it anymore? Put another way, given these names, what does Dr. Schindler gain by making his critique? On the other hand, in addition to being employed by Chris West, why might Dr. Janet Smith find it worthwhile to write a defense of West?

    'Consider it another way: At least two staff members of the JP II Institute, Dr. David Schindler and Dr. Mary Shivanandan, have come out against Chris West, as has Alice von Hildebrand. None of these three have financial ties to West, none of them gain any traction with a bishop by making public their positions. West came out of JP II, and JPII Institute has gotten quite a lot of students, quite a lot of federal grant money, by riding West's coattails. Financially speaking, Schindler and Shivanandan have absolutely nothing to gain from their critique of West and one heck of a lot to lose. This is the kind of thing that can get you forced out of a job.

    'On the other hand, who has so far publicly supported West? Dr. Janet Smith, who earns money by working at West's institute. Mark Shea, who works closely with Matt Pinto and Ascension Press, Chris West's publisher. Pay close attention to who is questioning West's theology, who is defending West, and who is keeping their mouths firmly shut. It is quite informative.'

Father Angelo Mary Geiger:

    'We are told: Ignorance of the principles of TOB along with the heresy of Jansenism have led to a deep-seated Manichaeism among Catholics. Waldstein writes that early 20th-century Jesuits hid their genitals with ashes when they were bathing, while trads want women to wear black cardboard boxes. The implied solution is to bless genitals and stand naked in front of a mirror — of course, while studying TOB and praying. Is this a caricature? I certainly am not arguing for the other extreme, but I know there are some confused people out in the blogosphere.

    'There is no sense whatsoever, contrary to what Waldstein suggests, in which Schindler minimizes the power of transforming grace. Yes, as St. Augustine says: 'Love, and then do what you want!' But transforming grace has to do with the life of perfect charity, and while the perfection of virtue leads to spontaneity in what is right and just, it is foolish to suggest to a general public that struggling with concupiscence that if they do things right, not only will they be freed from their dirty sex hang ups, but they will, in fact, live 'naked without shame.' I do not know where this 'holiness trumps temptation' comes from. Perhaps it is time for West and his supporters to cite some sources other than the oblique statements of John Paul II. If it is true, then let's see the tradition.

    'Both Puritanism and the culture of pornography are a function of original sin. Only a thorough sacramental catechesis and a developing spiritual life are going to manage these problems. An exalted view of human sexuality is part of the solution, but it is not a panacea. We should not confuse apologetics with catechesis, let alone with theology. As I said in my earlier post, I don't expect us all to agree on our analysis of Christopher West's impressive work, but I do think the issues raised should be taken seriously. And even if Professors Smith and Waldstein disagree with Professor Schindler, there is no reason to criticize him for saying publicly what many people have been saying directly to West for a long time.

    'Just for the record, I would like to say again that I do not question anyone's integrity or good will. But this needs to be talked about frankly and openly and in a spirit of charity. No one is being crucified and no one's reputation is being ruined. If it is, I will have none of it, but abusus non tollit usum, the abuse does not vitiate the use. There is no reason we need to be silent about this. God bless all those in the pursuit of truth.'

© 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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