Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Rhoades stated in their letter of support for Christopher West that “John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is a treasure for the Church, indeed a gift of the Holy Spirit for our time.” They also rightly point out that the “scholarly language” of the pope’s texts “needs to be ‘translated’ into more accessible categories if the average person is to benefit from it.” To that end, finally they affirm their belief “that Christopher West . . . has been given a particular charism to carry out this mission.”
Discerning the Spirits
It is the place of the pope and bishops to discern the presence of true charisms in the Church. The Spirit blows where He wills and moves with renewing graces those who are caught up in His wind. Nowadays, we generally think of more extraordinary manifestations of the Spirit as the object of the word “charism,” such as tongues or prophecy of future events. But anyone who has been moved by the Spirit to begin a movement within the Church can be said to have received a charism, if that fact has been so determined by the pope and the bishops.
John Paul II has written that the power of these kind of gifts “is not subject to any antecedent rule, to any particular discipline or to a plan of interventions established once and for all.” The Church is both institutional and charismatic, and what happens through the Spirit sometimes happens outside the box. By that I do not mean that the Holy Spirit contradicts revelation or the authority of the Church. That would be absurd. Only that some things happen outside the present structures in ways that are not anticipated and then need to be assimilated under the authority of the Church.
The catechism represents what is inside the box (Creed, Code, Cult). And while John Paul II affirms that “one can never expect to impose rules and conditions” on the Holy Spirit, he also says that the Christian community “has the right to be informed by its pastors about the authenticity of charisms and the reliability of those who claim to have received them.” There is a real necessity to keep what originates a bit outside the box from undermining its own certain and unfailing foundation, namely, what is inside the box.
In this way a true charismatic is both inside and outside the box. His or her particular task will be to maintain a balance, which because the Holy Spirit works His power in vessels of clay, can become, at times, very problematic. Even authentic charismatic persons or movements can go off the rails, as is the case in Father Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ. In that particular case, many question, with good reason if a true charism existed in the first place. I do not mean to make a direct comparison between Father Maciel and Christopher West. I only want to point out that ecclesiastical approval is no guarantee of infallibility, let alone of impeccability.
West as Charismatic
On the very face of things Christopher West is both inside and outside the box. The question is, whether he has found the right balance. His work has the curious nature of creating all kinds of images, never used by the pope (outside the box), but presumably supported by the pope’s text (inside the box?).
For example, West brings together the colloquial appeal of the Phallic interpretation of the Paschal Candle (outside) with the claim that it is consistent with the pope’s teaching (inside?). His success at this feat is a testimony to his extraordinary ability. Even though to this day he has not cited the patristic or magisterial evidence for the assertion he has not retracted it.
But true success at making the pope’s work more understandable is not only a matter of “translating” TOB into “more accessible categories,” for the “average person,” but of interpreting the “scholarly language” correctly so that the “categories” chosen (outside) actually correspond to the magisterial teaching (inside). Otherwise, the average person may become very enthusiastic about what they receive, but it won’t be the teaching of the Holy Father.
I believe this problem is further complicated by the fact that grace builds on nature. Grace both makes use of natural gifts and can be hindered by them, depending on the docility and prudence of the human instrument. In the case of Christopher West, he not only has a charism, but he also has some extraordinary talents. Frankly—and I do not mean this derogatorily—he is an entertainer. It is just a fact.
West as Artist
Most recently he has thrown himself into his pre-sabbatical road show with the musician Mike Mangione, called “Fill These Hearts.” This is performance art: music, visual art and the leading commentary of Christopher West. It is very powerful, as it should be. West argues eloquently in support of this venture (18:20):
As a teacher of theology I am always looking for ways to get complex theological truths to register, not just in the intellect of my students, but in their hearts. Theology that just stays in the head and is just an intellectual exercise is really a dead letter. It not only has to inform us intellectually, it has to transform us. And the real gift of art is that–like I have an image of a coin going into a fountain or something: it’s that kerplunk, where these truths can really go kerplunk. The heart opens up, the coin goes in, if you will, the truth goes in and it rests there, it finds a place there.
Music is, really you could say, music is God’s language. God is singing to us. He is singing a song. He is singing a love song. Scripture calls it “the greatest song ever,” “The Song of Songs.” God is singing to us. There is something about music that opens the heart to the love of God. As St. Augustine said, when you sing, you are praying twice. To sing itself is a prayer.
Mike as a musician is someone who I really respect, who has allowed these truths to register in his own heart, and so, as he was saying earlier, it is reflected in his music. And he and I in conversation over the years thought: “how could we combine this, how could his art be something that comes into my presentations, and my presentations something that comes into his art in the way that we have an integrated presentation of message that registers, yes, in the intellect, but then can also open you up in the heart?
Mike’s music is not entertainment at a Christopher West lecture. That’s the wrong way to look at it. It’s an integral part of the presentation of the message.
I am not going to minutely analyze this statement. I will just say that I can appreciate it very much and have reflected long and hard from a Scotistic perspective on the relation of the intellectual and artistic, of the abstract and concrete. The area of aesthetics is a very interesting aspect of philosophy for me. In particular, in this context, we might ask what the relation is between artistic inspiration and actual or specifically charismatic graces. How does one discern between the two?
In fact, the relation between intellectual truths and images (literary, visual or audible) is always very powerful. Lex orandi, lex credendi. Liturgical music, for example, can be used exactly in the way Christopher West described to promote the most sublime truths or the most pernicious heresies.
West speaks of art and its function of making the invisible, visible. In that case, the identification of what we see or hear is a matter of the discernment of spirits. And if the difference between artistic and charismatic inspiration is not always easy to determine, or if perhaps they are integrated, or on the other hand, contaminated by the world, flesh or the devil, then we had better make sure we have a firm grip on the inside of the box. Both Christopher West and Father Thomas Loya throw around the term “mystical” pretty freely, as “making the invisible visible.” West says that this is also the function of art. The question of the relation between art and mysticism is a very interesting one, but also one fraught with difficulty. I am reminded of something once said by Father Benedict Groeschel: “Mysticism begins in mist and ends is schism.”
I am posting below my transcription of a recent interview of Christopher West and Mike Mangione, from which I gleaned the quote above. The long section I give below begins toward the end of the interview (46:50 on), and concerns the critics of West. It is the most direct response I have seen from West, since the publication of his response, released shortly after the letter of Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Rhoades became public. In fairness, I will present his response without interlinear interruption, and reserve my comments for the end:
“Interview with Christopher West and Mike Mangione” (Fill These Hearts): Bishop Sheridan Presents (Diocese of Colorado Springs)
Guest hosted by Bill Howard (Editor of Colorado Catholic Herald)
September 18, 2010 Pikes Peak Center
(In-text numbering is mine.)
Bill Howard: . . . Before we ended, I wanted to just touch on something we had talked about earlier, how when you first discover the Theology of the Body it can come across as a radical message, but then after you start living it, it obviously, it just makes sense . . .
Christopher West: Why does it raise so much controversy?
Bill Howard: Yeah.
Christopher West:  First, I want to acknowledge that the first perfect evangelist ascended into heaven two thousand years ago. So, you know, my critics, I’ve always listened to them. They’ve helped me fine tune my presentations over the years, and I’ve admitted this on many occasions, that when I started this work, 12 or 15 years ago, I was really green, I was really green. I had all this enthusiasm. I wanted to share this message. But I did not know how to do it. I didn’t know the right language to use. So, yea, I don’t take any issue with the fact that critics have pointed out things in the past that needed some real work. It has been a process of trial and error to find the right language, images, anecdotes, to get some really dense theology out to a popular audience.
 At the same time, I think we have to acknowledge that a lot of Christians are uncomfortable talking about their sexuality. We are really uncomfortable in our own skin. And maybe we have overreacted to the license out there, the pornographic ridiculousness that is going on in the culture, which is so sad, and is destroying so many lives. Sometimes we overreact and go to another extreme, and end up rejecting the body. It is easier to reject the body than it is to look long and hard at the deep wounds and hurts and issues in our lives that cause us to reject the body.
 But that rejection of the body is the age-old heresy called Manichaeism, which basically says: “Spirit good, body bad.” That is not Christianity. So when you start talking about the body and human sexuality in the intimacy of husband and wife and the marriage bed, as something holy, as something sacred: when you take seriously what St. Paul says in Ephesians 5, that the one flesh union is a mystery refers to Christ and the Church, well people who are not used to thinking that way or talking that way, it is going to cause some discomfort, it is going to ruffle some feathers.
 A wise priest once said to me, you know: “If the sinners are flocking to hear you, and the scholars are up in arms about what you are saying, then there is a pretty good chance you are preaching the gospel, cause that is what happened to Jesus.”
 And that is not to say that I do it perfectly; I don’t. So my critics have their points. But you can see that going on: the sinners, the sexually broken are flocking to this message, and the scholars, meantime, are having lots of very heated arguments and debates about it, I think that’s kind of par for the course when you are going to bring the gospel out to the world. It is to be expected. Jesus told us it was to be expected.
Bill Howard: Yeah, I think that one of the most unfair criticisms of Theology of the Body is when people say: “They’re just portraying this as ‘Theology Below-The-Waist.’” And sometimes even with the way you present, it’s never really hit me that way at all. I’ve always found everything pretty integrated. But, I mean, is that something that you have encountered?
Christopher West:  Oh sure. I hear all kinds of—I hear, not Theology of the Body, but “Theology of the Bawdy,” that it is all very bawdy. You know, those kind of insults I don’t think are very helpful. But it does reveal how uncomfortable–even that expression “below-the-waist,” we need all these euphemisms to talk about our actual bodies as God made them.
 Why are we so afraid of the way God made us? God made us in our masculinity and femininity, and it is not a side issue. John Paul II says that the mystery of our sexuality, our being created mail and female, is the fundamental fact of human existence. It’s the fundamental fact.
 The most important question a man can ask himself is what does it mean to be a man. The most important question a woman can ask herself is what does it mean to be a woman. And let’s acknowledge those are sexual questions. By that I mean questions about our sex-uality [West’s deliberate intonation], our being created male and female. We’re so quick to reduce sexuality to sexual activity. And I am very quick to point out that sex is not first an action word. It’s not first a verb. It’s a noun. It’s an identity. It’s who we are. “Haven’t you read,” Jesus says, “that in the beginning God made them male and female and called the two to be one flesh.“
 There is so much confusion in the world about this today. The Church has the answer. The Church has the solution to the sexual crisis going on in the world. We need to be courageous enough to talk about it. If we cannot talk about it then pornography is going to continue to be what people go to answer their questions about sexuality, and that is absolutely unacceptable.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
(Refer numbers below to the in-text numbering of the West’s transcript.)
1) On West’s assertion that his pioneering led to mistakes and that he has always been willing to listen to his critics:
Fair enough. The guy is on fire. Good for him and for us. Critics are good for someone with enthusiasm. But West here admits, if only implicitly, that he only listened on points of “language, images [and] anecdotes,” which is what we have been saying all along. He has not really listened on points of substance.
Actually, I am least concerned about the language he uses, though, to be sure I am with Dr. Von Hildebrand on the matter of reverence. I know that the “charismatic” apologist is going to have to be given some room to exercise prudence in the evaluation of his audience.
2) On West’s assertion that disagreements with him on more substantial issues than “language, images [and] anecdotes” is an overreaction against the pornified culture:
So here we get to substance, and it is where West has not been listening to his critics. He assumes a historical assessment in regard to the problem plaguing Christianity’s teaching on chastity. He implies that the very fact that there are Christians who criticize anything more than his style is proof that repression is a big problem within the Church. This is where a fast-talking entertainer gains control over the argument. He does not offer any evidence. He is a prophet.
I will simply say that West, here lumps together modesty, reverence, prudery, scrupulosity and Manichaeism. Anyone who disagrees with him on anything more than “presentation,” according to him, has a hang up. Father Loya has taken this tack as well, in his most recent defense of the Phallic interpretation of the Paschal Candle:
There are a variety of reasons why phallic imagery–any “sexual,” or rather, “spousal” imagery of the art, liturgy, mysticism and theology of the Church—causes some people grief.
The fundamental reason why Fr. Loya, thinks the critics are “grieved” by the sexualization of Catholicism (notice he criticizes what he considers an emotional reaction, not an intellectual one), is because, he says, the critics believe that “anything sexual somehow must be lesser, dirty — never to be associated with things ‘holy.’”
I personally am not convinced that Christopher West or Father Loya can read hearts, especially when they do not appear to have read the arguments of their critics.
3) On the assertion that the critics reject the body and are guilty of Manichaeism:
West rhetorically blurs all distinction between modesty and heresy. The reason is, I believe, because he does not consider modesty to be a form of reverence. He believes it is only a defensive measure. He has enough moral authority, as an episcopally confirmed depository of the TOB interpretation charism, to throw around the name Manichaean and make it stick. He does not even suggest there is a difference between modesty and Manichaeism. This is just plain name-calling.
He says our “feathers” are “ruffled,” and we are experiencing “discomfort” because he is calling conjugal relations “holy,” and “sacred,” because he is taking Ephesians 5 seriously. Frankly, I think that statement is irresponsible. After all that has transpired, he makes an assertion about his critics’ position for which he provides no evidence, because there is none to provide. He is not investing in an argument here. He is spending his capital as a charismatic.
4-5) On West’s comparison of himself with Jesus:
I don’t think it is too bold to say that this is a bit presumptuous. Christopher West is a rock star, not Jesus. Indeed, this interview is about his TOB performance art road show. The masses flock to Oprah on a daily basis, even when she is promoting something as preposterous as The Secret. Would West’s test apply there also?
This brings to mind an unrelated but analogous topic. I have been reading up on the Harry Potter debate. One of the advocates argues vehemently that the numbers of books sold proves that there is something cathartic about reading Harry Potter, and that character is bestowed on it by its Christian message. So this defender of Harry Potter is claiming some kind of charismatic grace for the artist, J.K. Rowling.
In fact, it is not only the fundamental message of TOB that is at work in the promulgation of the movement. Indeed, talent, personality and marketing explain a great deal, as does subject matter itself. What could be a more effective tag line than “The Good News of Christian Sexuality”: man’s favorite topic dished as the best thing possible for his moral and spiritual life. How could that not sell, especially when a charismatic entertainer is the one selling it?
Furthermore, West once again rhetorically blurs all distinction when it comes to the scholars who are giving the “teacher” a hard time. It is not only scholars who have been trying to get West to substantially change his presentations. He has admitted this himself by responding at great length to a lay woman who objected to statements he made in his early “Naked without Shame,” presentations. Personal interventions with him by ordinary lay folk have been going on for years. Furthermore, being a scholar today does not put one in opposition with Jesus, anymore than it did in Our Lord’s own time. The problem with the scholars then, or at least the majority of those who were knowledgeable of the Mosaic law and with whom Jesus had contact, was not that they were scholars, but that they were hypocrites. Or is West suggesting that scholarship and charismatic graces are in opposition?
I am no scholar, and I am not complaining about the good West does. I disagree with his repudiation of modesty as reverence. It is as simple as that.
As for his comparison to Jesus, it infers his acknowledgment of his giftedness, which is fine, but one can easily presume too much. A true charismatic should beware, lest he fall.
Heresies have often spread like wildfire against the tide of scholarship and generally originated in charismatic personalities, some of whom claimed to be possessed by Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, perfectionism in Christianity is nothing new, nor are its sexual overtones. In discussing certain medieval heresies, Msgr. Ronald Knox mentions the Beghards, who
“looked upon decency and modesty as marks of inward corruption, as the characters of a soul that was still under the dominion of the sensual, animal, and lascivious spirit, and that was not reunited to the divine nature.” This was the account they themselves gave of their promiscuous lodging and the nudism practiced in their assemblies (Enthusiasm, c. 7).
6-8) On West’s contention that being created male and female is the fundamental fact of human existence:
In her critique of Dawn Eden’s Thesis, Janet Smith defends West’s continued use of this quotation from TOB (Feb 13, 1980). But neither West, nor Smith provides the context of the remarks. Here is the quote in context:
In the mystery of creation, man and woman were “given” in a special way to each other by the Creator. That was not only in the dimension of that first human couple and of that first communion of persons, but in the whole perspective of the existence of the human family. The fundamental fact of human existence at every stage of its history is that God “created them male and female.”
One must be careful when attempting to translate this “scholarly” language into “more accessible categories” not to go beyond the meaning of the original author. In the context of this interview—and I would assert that this is his consistent interpretation—West is addressing what he calls “fear of the body,” and “discomfort,” with sexuality. But John Paul II is not talking about the verb “sex” when he says that the “fundamental fact of human existence at every stage of its history is that God ‘created them male and female.’” He is speaking of the noun “sex” as is clear both from the words themselves and from the context of the general audience in which they are spoken. John Paul II’s discussion here has nothing to do with sexual repression.
West claims that he puts his emphasis on the noun, not the verb. But he wants to have it both ways, because he argues that the fundamental fact of the differences between men and women somehow translates into a mandate to be fascinated with genitals and with sex (verb). The whole point of his long answer here is to defend his unveiling of the body and its function in the marital embrace.
No one, among his noteworthy critics, is uncomfortable with Ephesians 5, or the holiness of the marriage bed, or with the nuptial meaning of the body. But the nuptial meaning of the body is in the first place, as West suggests, a noun, not a verb, and as such is related to Christ’s love for the Church as the primary analogue. In other words, the nuptial meaning of the body is discovered, not by contemplating with holy fascination the body and sex, but by studying Ephesians 5. Such a study ought to inspire in one a sense of mystery in regard to the body and sex, and a sense of reverence.
West has had contact with many people over the years who have had real experiences of sexual repression. I do not doubt that. But he has misconstrued John Paul II in regard to the relation of the Theology of the Body to its application. In fact, the corpus of TOB is fundamentally theoretical. It provides the orthodoxy but not a developed orthopraxy. That is left for the interpreter to work out. But a theoretical error in regard to the “scholarly language” can lead to some serious heteropraxy. West now assumes that anyone who disagrees with his enthusiasm for unveiling sexuality (nakedness and the verb sex) at every opportunity is repressed and Manichaean. This is based largely upon his misunderstanding of the Holy Father’s text.
In her critique of Dawn Eden’s Thesis, Janet Smith, claims that West is not proposing TOB as a theory of everything. But it is precisely West’s convoluted use of the text of TOB over many years and not accepting correction on the matter, that reinforces this interpretation of his use of phrases like “fundamental fact of human existence,” Weigel’s “theological time bomb,” “revolutionary,” etc. And as far as TOB constituting a development of doctrine and corrective is concerned, there would simply be no reason for West and Smith to put so much emphasis on this one series of general audiences, if that was not precisely what they considered it. They present themselves as having the balanced view, but in reality they have put all the emphasis on abandoning modesty and labeling their critics prudes. At the very least, this is revolutionary, considering they are the innovators.
9) On West’s contention that his critics want him to stop talking about sex:
I would be happy if Christopher West would just clear up the matter of modesty. I will concede, there is a kind of practical dilemma. The world is hyper-sexualized. Modesty has already been abandoned. Is it really possible or desirable simply to “sanctify” the current situation, or does modesty have a positive role to play because it belongs properly to the metaphysics of human personhood? The way back to modesty is difficult, but it is not impossible.
Christian apologetics to an unchaste age will certainly have to adapt the exigencies of the times, but it will have to include a way back to modesty, not a mythological way out of needing it. No one has ever said that West needs to stop talking about sex. Anyone who has read the critics knows this.
In a recent critique of West, David H. Delaney indicates that West errs on the matter of concupiscence “when he leaves JPII’s explicit words to concretely apply TOB.” This is exactly what I have been saying. In his effort to construct an orthopraxy in keeping with his understanding, he bends the text. West has clearly resolved upon a path that minimizes modesty and sees in it no real positive reverential power apart from an aspect of imperfect continence. He has not accepted correction on this point. That is a simple fact.
Looking for Answers
I recently wrote Father Thomas Loya a long commentary on his recent defense of the Phallic interpretation of the Paschal Candle. This was after I received from him an offer to appear on his radio show, an offer that I declined. I have not heard back from him, and am considering publishing the commentary I sent him here. I also wrote Christopher West some months ago about something he had written on the message of Fatima to which I took exception. He wrote me back very kindly and thanked me for having addressed my concerns to him directly, after having published other critiques on my blog. As he always does when he receives criticsm, he thanked me for my input and let me know that he appreciated his critics. He did not, however, address any of my concerns: not one. . . at all. I just hope he will from now on go light on the connection between his interpretation of TOB and Fatima.
In the interests of clarity, I will propose to Mr. West some of the same questions I proposed to Father Loya. I mean them seriously and respectfully. In all honesty, by the logic of their teachings, I cannot imagine how Mr. West or Father Loya could answer these basic questions in the negative:
Would it ever be appropriate for the conjugal act to be performed in the presence of an audience for the purpose of fostering a Catholic and integrated view of marriage and sexuality? Let us hypothetically establish that this would be arranged among close friends, all of whom are well-versed in TOB and intend only to exalt God’s intentions for marriage and sexuality. If this would not be appropriate, please tell me why.
Would nudism ever be appropriate among those who have advanced in the Theology of the Body, say, at a Mass in order better express the unity of the languages of the body and the liturgy? If not, would this only be because of the danger of participation by someone not properly prepared or, perhaps, because of the possibility of misunderstanding. Or, on the other hand, would this violate some fundamental moral principle or otherwise be contrary to Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxy? If so, why?
Don’t Forget the Box
Sometimes charisms are hard for the comfortable Catholic to understand. Sometimes it takes a great deal of work to integrate them into the life of the Church. But any innovative approach to Catholic life will ultimately have to resolve itself with what we know to be foundational and certain, namely, what is inside the box.
I give thanks for Christopher West’s charisms and talents. They are, to say the least, a bit outside the box. Let us hope, however that certain of his enthusiasms remain in continuity with the box and do not tend to produce a rupture.