Christopher West has quoted me in his new book, At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization.
Here is West’s own description of the book which he relates to the debate that has rippled across the internet and to which this blog has contributed:
In the midst of these conversations, my work as a popularizer of John Paul II’s teaching has been the subject of some rather harsh critiques. During an extended sabbatical in 2010, I reflected prayerfully on the various challenges my work has received, seeking to glean as much as possible from what various authors were saying. This book is the fruit of those reflections (2).
Kevin O’Brien of the Theater of the Word Incorporated has posted on the subject of West’s critique of my statements. The source of those statements was a guest post I wrote for Dawn Eden. West does not cite his source, so his readers have no ability to assess my statements in their context or to familiarize themselves with my overall line of thought.
I have commented on Kevin O’Brien’s post, so you will find there the substance of my response. Below the images of West’s book in this post I will summarize.
I will summarize first by stating what I think West and both agree on:
- The body and sex are good and holy as God intended them from the beginning.
- Modesty is not simply a matter of hiding the body of the desirable, but also of the interior transformation of the one who desires.
- Sexual desire and pleasure in and of themselves are very good.
- Concupiscence in respect to sexual desire and pleasure is never entirely absent.
- An exalted view of the body and sexuality is helpful to developing a life of chastity.
- Repression, prudery and body hatred are counterproductive to living a life of chastity.
- Lustful desires are always sinful.
Before I state the points on which we disagree I need to make a clarification about what I understand to be West’s position. When he discusses issues of modesty there are two things happening. Even if he is only at that moment suggesting a course of action appropriate to a man’s dealing with incidental exposure to a woman’s values, beyond this West believes that sexual values in and of themselves are the appropriate objects of spiritual fascination. It is not simply a matter of dealing with potential temptations in the most appropriate and spiritually developed way. It is a matter of subduing concupiscence and concentrating on sexual values for their theological significance. This has tremendous import to West’s position.
After all West speaks about the language of the body precisely in terms of sexual values. Those values, sexual desire, sexual pleasure and the conjugal act itself point beyond themselves to desire for unity with God, the bliss of heaven and the mutual self-giving of God and the soul. So when West suggests that we should have a holy fascination with the body and sex, as he does, for example in Heaven’s Song (notice the bed floating on the clouds), there is no question that West is advocating a holy rejoicing in the sexual values of the body, sexual desire and pleasure, and the conjugal act itself precisely in the incidence of a man’s exposure to a woman’s nakedness (not one’s spouse).
So here is where I disagree with West; I will express it in terms of my own position:
- The Theology of the Body offers no magic bullet. Consider that the sexual values of the body, sexual desire and pleasure and the very conjugal act are in fact good and holy. In view of this it is impossible to deny that a true and religious appreciation for such values, particularly in the presence of visual stimuli, is supposed to arouse sexual desire and pleasure. But the tendency to indulge such things in reference to a woman who is not one’s spouse is a function of concupiscence and is disordered. Specialized knowledge, namely, TOB, changes none of this.
- A holy appreciation for the sexual values of the body, sexual desire and pleasure and the conjugal act itself excited in conjunction with stimuli, provided by a woman not one’s wife, goes well beyond the theological, philosophical, and artistic expressions of John Paul II. This is the doctrine of West, not Blessed John Paul II.
- West & Co. are living in a dream world if they want to tell us on the one hand that our pure and holy fascination is precisely with sexual values insofar as they are the object of sexual desire and pleasure, and yet as we rejoice in such desire and pleasure we experience none ourselves. What exactly is a holy fascination with sexual values of real persons who are not one’s spouse, precisely because those values excite desire and pleasure, and which do not function under the influence of concupiscence and tend toward lust? This is not true mysticism. It is mystagogery—old fashioned, pagan sex mysticism.
- Stating plainly that there is an objective component to modesty is consistent with both Catholic doctrine and common sense. The sensory exposure to sexual values has an objective and per se normal and in se wholesome effect of the arousal of sexual desire and pleasure, and therefore, in reference to the body of someone not one’s spouse, is inappropriate insofar as the body of someone not one’s spouse becomes the object of sexual desire and pleasure. The realtime resolution of actual instances is a function of prudence. Sexual values are always present, whether or not there is a real infraction of objective modesty. The language of the body speaks eloquently fully clothed. I am not arguing for a modesty police, but I do advocate for solutions in which the man takes as much responsibility for his own reactions to what he considers immodesty as he would like a woman to take for the way she dresses. In the end no amount of modesty regulation will solve a man’s problem with lust.
- To suggest that there is an objective component to modesty does not put the blame on the woman. Some men, I am sure, think that it does. That is not, nor has it ever been my position. Assigning blame solves nothing, and it most often is unjust and uncharitable. However, if there were potentially blame to assign, say by some god-like knowledge, the inference would not be freudian. To suggest that there might be sexual motives behind the revelation of sexual values need not be based on the premise that everyone always acts for sexual motives. This is a non-sequitur.
Well, not totally lost. I am just reading most of the time that I don’t have other duties to which I must attend. I hope to soon have a post on an interesting aspect of the occult pertaining to the difference between Christian mysticism and neopagan, magical consciousness. The attraction of “alternative religion,” is that it promises “supernatural” or transcendent consciousness, the experience of unity, integration and joy without dogma. It is a big temptation.
Please pray that I get this book on Harry Potter and the occult done soon.
I am uploading here a very cogent list of 10 non-religious reasons why same-sex marriage should not be legalized for your consideration. (I am not the author of the list. I neglected to mention this. The author is anonymous.) BTW, did you know that 85% of all abortions, according to Planned Parenthood research arm, the Guttmacher Institute, are obtained by unmarried women. My understanding is that the latest statistic has it up to 87%, but I have not been able to verify that. Either way, it is a tremendous statistic. The erosion of marriage is directly related to the incidence of abortion, and the elimination of children from the culture of marriage is obliterating the most fundamental social institution of our race. If we want to stop abortion we have to address the problem with marriage.
It has been my intention for many years to install a Marian pro-life shrine in our chapel in Griswold, Connecticut. I wanted something very special that would be an exorcism against the culture of death, but would also be beautiful and positive—something truly representative of the Culture of Life. I spoke about this with an iconographer we have worked with over a number of years, Marek Czarneki, and he was very excited. He had thought about doing something along these lines also.
He told me about a devotional image used in the Orthodox Church by midwives, The Helper in Childbirth:
This particular image is not altogether liturgical, as Our Lady’ hair is uncovered, a feature which ordinarily has erotic connotations. This is why, Marek tells me, Eastern Christian tradition permitted unmarried women to uncover their heads as a sign of their availability, but not married women. In the case of this icon, I surmise the uncovered head indicates the Virgin’s recent delivery, which connects it to the labor of those who were blessed by this image during the experience of childbirth.
Parenthetically, I might note that the liturgical canons of iconography indicate a Theology of Clothing rather than one of nakedness. The nuptiality of the liturgy is not a carnalization of the sacred mysteries, contrary to the mythology of some.
So Marek went to work in order to make this wonderful prototype more fitting for public veneration in a liturgical context. Here is the result:
The following is Marek’s explanation of the Icon:
While there is only one Virgin Mary, scholars have catalogued more than 1,100 distinct icons of the Mother of God. Spread out in front of us, it is difficult to understand why there are so many. In their variety, we wonder if they all could possibly represent the same historical individual? Every icon represents a different part of Our Lady, emphasizing specific facets of her life, personality, and intercession. Despite the multiplicity of her icons, no single image has captured her fullness or proven adequate.
Some icons are named for shrines and places where miraculous events occurred, like the Virgin of Vladimir, a city in Russia. Some are titled with words of praise, like the icon called “Life-Giving Spring” or “All Creation Rejoices in Thee”. Other icons are titled after our own needs, and testify to Our Lady’s intercession. We know of icons called “The Mother of God, Confidence of Sinners”, or “She Who Soothes My Sorrows”, or the very beautiful and famous icon called “Perpetual Help”.
This icon of the Mother of God is called “The Helper in Childbirth“. The first prototypes of this icon appeared in Western Russia, in the early 19th century. It was made for a very practical and urgent need – the difficulties in conceiving and giving birth.
A variation of the ancient and famous icon of Our Lady of the Sign, this icon differs by showing the Mother of God folding her hands in prayer over her heart, instead of holding them outstretched to the sides. Under the protective arch of her hands, we can see the newly conceived Christ Child, emanating from inside her womb in an almond shaped-halo of light. To show He is the “Logos“, or Word of God incarnate, He holds a small white scroll. She is filled and radiant with light from inside.
Originally, in a time when too many women died in childbirth, midwives carried this icon to help alleviate the pains and dangers of this life-giving process. Because of the practical purpose of this icon, it belonged more to the life of lay people and popular piety than the public, liturgical life of the Church. It would have been unusual to find it venerated in a church, or depicted on a large panel, since it needed to be small enough to carry among the other urgent, portable tools of a midwife’s work.
This icon is a prayer, from one mother to another: “Mother of God, you know my anxiety. Help me in this time of danger and happiness”. It is an icon of remarkable empathy, from one Birth-Giver to another birth-giver. Yet an icon cannot be closed in its meaning and use; it must be open to everyone at all times, in all circumstances, as the Mother of God herself is open to us in all our needs. It is not an icon only for women in labor.
Every pregnancy is a miracle that fills us with joy, awe and dread at the same time. Surely the Mother of God will help us in this need.
We can pray for the difficulty in conceiving; she certainly understands miraculous conceptions, as did her own mother, St. Anne.
We can pray to her in the difficulty in carrying a child to term, and to safeguard us in the all the possible complications; imagine how she prayed, pregnant and riding on a donkey, only to give birth in a stable.
We can pray in front of it in joy and thanksgiving for her protection and guidance in helping us bear and raise children.
We can pray in front of it in the pain of the loss of a child, as the Mother of God herself knew the death of her only Child.
But what use is this icon of Divine Maternity to the single person, or the celibate? Despite her miraculous conceiving, she still remains a virgin; one Orthodox hymn calls her the “unwedded bride”.
We can all stand in front of her, and pray in thanksgiving for being born; all of us have experienced the mystery of our own conception and birth. We all have parents, and all are children.
Through her prayers, the Mother of God stands beside us as our midwife and model. In all ways, through our own human will and the grace of God, we all are expected to give birth to Christ into the world. St. Teresa of Avila reminds us, now we must be His hands, to bless and heal.
The icon will remain in the sanctuary of the chapel for forty days after which it will be installed in a special shrine at the side of the chapel. Our hope is that pilgrims will come to find strength in Her. It is an image of life through which mothers (and fathers) who have miscarried or who have had abortions might find healing; through which couples who wish to conceive may find a hearing, through which mothers who are carrying a child might find protection for a safe delivery. It is also an image through which pro-lifers of all stripes might appeal to the Mother and Son for a victory of the Culture of Life. We will also have a place for flowers near the image to be decorated at will by the Virgin’s clients.
The Queen of Courtesy will Conquer.
Alice von Hildebrand’s recent article entitled “Revelation and Curiosity” goes a long way to place the debate over the true meaning of modesty in the larger context of philosophical and theological thought. She highlights the basic distinction between supernature (God and the order of grace) and nature. The precise character of that distinction has always been essential to theological discourse, and the relation between grace and nature has often been the subject of unfettered speculation, to the detriment of the faith. (See, for example, Pelagianism and Jansenism.)
Faith and Reason
I believe that the distinction and relationship between supernature and nature is at the basis of much theological controversy today. I have often made the point, for example, that at times apologists do not sufficiently distinguish their work from Theology and Catechesis. Apologetics is the work of natural reason used to prove the existence of God and the possibility of supernatural revelation, and to show that supernatural truths revealed by God are compatible with reason. Sometimes, when we speak of Apologetics we refer to “proving the faith.” But strictly speaking the faith cannot be proven by reason because by reason alone supernatural truths, such as the Virgin Birth, cannot be comprehended. Ultimately, grace is the cause of Theological Faith. We are only certain of the supernatural truths God has revealed because He has given us the grace and we have assented to that grace.
This is not to say that reason is extraneous. Not at all. In the Catholic view of things, faith and reason are mutually compatible, although through faith we are able to know things that we could not know by reason alone. Hence, faith is both reasonable and transcends reason, just as grace builds on nature but also transcends it. Reason shows us that what God has revealed is compatible with nature. In other words, God is not arbitrary. The natural law written in our hearts is confirmed by supernatural revelation not contradicted by it. Pope Benedict, in his speech at the University of Regensburg has drawn our attention to the rupture between faith and reason: in the West by the denial of faith on the pretext of science; and in Islam by the fideism by which God’s revelation contradicts the natural law.
Apologetics, Theology and Catechesis
Apologetics is a kind of precursor to theology. Its principle tasks are to prove the existence of God and to show that supernatural revelation is possible, tasks that can be accomplished by reason alone. Secondarily, apologetics shows the reasonableness of what God has revealed.
However, Apologetics and Theology are truly distinct. Whereas the work of Apologetics is prior to faith, Theology begins with the assent of faith and builds on it. So also Catechesis builds on faith. One who has been received into the catechumenate is preparing for Baptism because he has a conviction of the true faith. Even though that person does not have the Theological Virtue of Faith, which is infused at Baptism, he must nevertheless be making acts of faith with the help of actual graces. Catechesis then extends beyond Baptism as a preparation for the other sacraments, and then again as a kind of ongoing deepening of the faith for those who desire to grow spiritually, always on the presupposition that the whole deposit of the faith is already held to be true.
Recipes for Disaster
In practice, however, especially in times when secularist ideology holds sway, the work of Apologetics, Theology and Catechesis are mixed together by the same teacher, very often in the same presentation. This is perfectly legitimate and necessary because even though the person catechized has already assented to the faith, his formation is often spotty, and the spirit of the world is continually challenging his convictions.
And so, while the mixture of these disciplines is legitimate and necessary, it demands that the teacher be aware of their distinction and not confuse Apologetics with Catechesis and Theology. The danger of confusing the disciplines lies in the possibility of the imbalance between faith and reason. This is precisely the warning given us by Pope Benedict at Regensburg. When Apologetics is substituted for Catechesis, reason usurps the place of faith: nature is substituted for supernature. This is the fault of Western rationalism. When Catechesis is substituted for Apologetics, the legitimate aspirations of reason are not met: supernature does not build on nature but supplants it. This is the fault of Islam.
Clearly, the modern Western tradition favors reason over faith. Thus, Apologetics is left in the precarious position of defending the faith without turning Apologetics into what is commonly meant by the word “apology.” Since, ultimately grace is the cause of Theological faith, the rationalist mind will have to cease to be rationalist before it can assent to the truths revealed by God. Simply indulging its vice is no solution; rather such indulgence only enables the vice. An apologist for Theism has said: “You can lead an atheist to evidence, but you can’t make him think.” In reference to our problem, we might return nearer the original metaphor and say: “You can lead a rationalist to living water but you can’t make him drink.” Thinking is not enough. Enthusiasm is not enough. In the end, one must assent to something he does not fully understand, and only the power of grace can make this possible.
As it turns out, the subject of Christian chastity is particularly susceptible to “apologies” and rationalism, since it is such a hot button issue, and one that is impossible to assimilate without grace. As long as one is closed to grace, no amount of reason is going to solve problems with chastity. We are tempted to look for shortcuts, tempted to go the extra mile to make chastity look appealing. The whole question here is one of balance. On the one hand, the Church has recognized the need to present chastity in a way that does not reduce it to negative precepts, but no matter how it is presented, as long as its fullness is not adulterated, it remains a “hard saying” (cf. Jn 6:60).
The truths of the faith are supernatural and while they are compatible with reason they absolutely transcend it. Super, from the Latin, means “above and beyond.” To “comprehend” something means to “hold it in one’s hand.” That we will never do with the truths of the faith, and it is why, as Alice von Hildebrand points out, that curiosity in respect to what God has not revealed, can be such a vice.
A Hard Saying
The idea of the Blessed Virgin ejecting a bleeding placenta at the birth of Jesus was surely intended to aid one’s assent to the truth that marriage, sexuality and procreation are beautiful and holy realities. But God deprives us of what indulges curiosity precisely because we must assent on the authority of His word. The Virgin Birth is a case in point. It is very significant, I believe, that an apologist is trying to defend the “hard saying” of chastity by minimizing the “hard saying” of the Virgin Birth.
Among Catholics there is much confusion as to the precise meaning of the Virgin Birth. It is not to be confused with the Virginal Conception of Our Lord. The Church, from the earliest times, has articulated the Perpetual Virginity of Our Lady as pertaining to three distinct moments: before the birth of Jesus (ante partum), during the birth of Jesus (in partu), and after birth of Jesus (post partum). Virtually every time the magisterium has spoken on the subject, this threefold distinction is made. This teaching is derived from the early fathers of the Church, who maintained, defended and made the teaching a universally held truth of the Catholic Church.
The Virginity of Our Lady “before the birth of Jesus” (ante partum) refers to the Virginal Conception, namely, that Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, and not by the seed of man. That is fairly clear. It is also clear that the Virginity of Our Lady “after the birth of Jesus” (post partum) refers to the fact that Our Lady never had sexual relations, even after the birth of Jesus, a fact that many Protestants deny. For many Catholics, unfortunately, these two points say everything that is to be said about the Virginity of Our Lady and such Catholics proceed to explain away the Virginity of Our Lady “during the birth of Jesus” (in partu). They say that the Virginity of Our Lady in partu, just refers to her “spiritual virginity,” an idea that is contrary to magisterial clarifications. Or, they say, that the “Virgin Birth” is a misnomer for “Virginal Conception.”
Explaining It Away
But the middle moment of Our Lady’s Perpetual Virginity is real and its reality is the only viable reason why the Church would continue to insist on a threefold distinction as opposed to a twofold one. In fact, unless the Virginity of Our Lady in partu means exactly what the Fathers of the Church said it means, namely, miraculous birth, then it means nothing at all and as a statement of faith is completely superfluous and meaningless.
Theologians can speculate all they want on what does or does not belong to the essential matter of the Church’s definition of the Perpetual Virginity, but the only reason anyone would doubt that the birth of Jesus is any less miraculous than the conception is a lack of faith. People will cite this or that theologian, whose convoluted explanation of the Virgin Birth allows for a natural birth, including pain and afterbirth, but they cannot cite any ancient authorities or magisterial affirmations. They do not want to believe the full truth of the Virgin Birth because it is hard to believe—and because it is not convenient doctrine for Apologetics.
In respect to this modern attitude toward the Virgin Birth, reason has supplanted faith, Apologetics has trumped Theology and Catechesis. Dr. von Hildebrand is exactly correct:
That a virgin could give birth and remain a virgin would never have crossed man’s mind. It is a fact inaccessible to human reason. It has a divine seal: it is mysterious, miraculous, can only be known by revelation, accepted on faith. It calls for trembling adoration, the only adequate response.
In man’s craving to penetrate behind the “veil” and know what is in no way necessary for our salvation, many are tempted – unwittingly – to cross the abyss separating the supernatural from the purely natural.
The assertion that Our Lady ejected a bleeding placenta is doubly rationalist. It firstly, vacates the meaning of the Virgin Birth, and secondly, it does so precisely to make Christian marriage and parenthood look more appealing. Somehow a natural birth of Jesus from Mary is supposed to show forth the glory of human procreation. Unfortunately, this “glory” is void of the supernatural meaning that God intended for the earthly birth of His Only Begotten Son.
The Great Sign
As Dr. Von Hildebrand says the Virgin Birth is a “divine seal,” a sign that is exactly parallel to and no less miraculous than the Resurrection. The Church has fought vigorously against every attack on the Perpetual Virginity of Our Lady, just as She has fought every attack on the Resurrection: because these are the principle signs that God has chosen as “divine seals” confirming the identity and mission of the Son of Mary.
Christian chastity shares in the character of the Virginity of Mary, whether that chastity involves perfect continence or marriage and parenthood. Chastity has a supernatural character. It is not merely natural. And that means that it can only be lived through the power of God’s grace.
It is a necessary and commendable endeavor of apologists to formulate better arguments and more appealing presentations of the faith in order to more effectively persuade human minds and hearts. However, apologists need to know their limits and to mortify their curiosity. Specifically, in respect to chastity, and more so toward the chastity of Our Lady, silence and reverence is in order.
Sometimes discussions on the blogs concerning Our Lady’s Perpetual Virginity have sounded like clinical examinations, as though the True Ark of the Covenant were brought into a gynecological theater and placed on the examination table. No one seems to have an inkling of how inappropriate this is. The Ark is placed behind the veil of the Holy of Holies for a reason. Uzzah was struck dead when he touched the Ark for a reason. God teaches us how to live the holy mystery of chastity through silence and reverence for a reason.
The saints have meditated on the beauty of the Blessed Virgin since the beginning of the Christian era. Nothing is more beautiful than God’s masterpiece. Yet none of the saints had the slightest inclination to remove the veil, or to speculate on the Virgin Birth in a clinical manner so as to makes its truth more palatable. Silence in the face of such a mystery is true mysticism. It is a place where those who persevere might find true contemplative ecstasy.
Sex talk is not going to solve the problem of chastity. Too much talk vacates mystery. The wordy prosaic explanation of a poem or painting is not the same thing as admiration. Oftentimes such explanations ruin the aesthetic effect of art. The signs God has provided need to be treated with the appropriate admiration. St. John Chrysostom said it best in a Christmas homily:
Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence, and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him Who Works.
The art of Apologetics is not just about what to say and how to say it. It is also about when to be silent and make an opportunity for reverence. Conversion is God’s work. Sometimes we just need to get out of the way.
It has come to my attention that Christopher West’s multi-media event, “Fill These Hearts,” has been designed to up the ante in our dispute over the Theology of the Body. He talks at great length in his recent interview about the power of beauty to convey the truth, to “make the invisible visible” (his definition for both art and mysticism). So “Fill These Hearts” is all positive energy, showing forth the beauty of the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Right?
No, Mr. West can’t get through the show without taking some pretty bitter swipes at the Church’s pre-TOB catechesis, in a rather ugly way.
I have not seen the show, but I have confirmed the accuracy of what is reported below.
“Fill These Hearts,” is a multi-media event that makes use of music, sacred art, video clips and, of course, Christopher West’s running commentary. Its tag line is
GOD, SEX AND THE UNIVERSAL LONGING: AN EVENING OF BEAUTY AND REFLECTION ON JOHN PAUL II’S THEOLOGY OF THE BODY.
Art has the power of reinforcing ideas. It is a particularly powerful tool for creating and perpetuating myth. The meta-narrative of the American TOB movement is that chastity education in the United States prior to TOB was the product of “prudish Victorian morality,” and that this single corpus of Wednesday general audiences rescued the Church from the “Manichaean Demon.” The treatment of TOB as a kind of self-contained panacea for the sexual revolution is justified on the basis of this mythology.
Myths make use of the fantastic in order to deliver their effect. In them the good is idealistically perfect and the evil almost unimaginably infernal. Beauty must be juxtaposed with the hideously ugly in order to make its deepest impression on the imagination. So perhaps a better version of the second part of West’s tag line might read: AN EVENING OF MORTAL CONFLICT BETWEEN BEAUTY AND UGLINESS IN THE SERVICE OF PROMOTING CHRISTOPHER WEST’S VERSION OF JOHN PAUL II’S THEOLOGY OF THE BODY.
I am not arguing that the Church was without problem regarding chastity education, or that there was no excesses along the lines of prudery. But this is the way that West consistently chooses to characterize the Church’s stance prior to John Paul II. This meta-narrative is necessary as a marketing tool for TOB. We are led to believe that prior to TOB the Church was simply crippled in regard to handing on the truth about marriage and sexuality. West does not look for continuity, but for rupture, and he is willing to go over to the dark side to find it. It is necessary, as a matter of the means adopted for a specific end, to harp on the defects of pre-TOB catechesis and to exaggerate them.
In “Fill These Hearts” he uses the following clip from the 1985 comedy-drama “Heaven Help Us,” a.k.a “Catholic Boys,” about an all-boys Catholic high school set in 1965 Brooklyn, New York. Please be advised by this WARNING that there is sexual content. Now, watch the dear Father Abruzzi put the fear of God into the boys and girls:
The movie is a gloomy, morbid look at Catholic life around the time of Vatican II. Even Roger Ebert, who is no friend of the Church, was put off by it:
Because “Heaven Help Us” does not have the slightest ambition to be a serious movie about Catholic high schools, I can’t understand why the classroom scenes are so overplayed. As the sadistic teaching brother (Jay Patterson) slams his students against the blackboard, all we’re really watching is a lapse in judgment by the moviemakers. The scenes are so ugly and depressing that they throw the rest of the movie out of balance.
Ebert was more than willing to have a little fun at Catholics expense, but as the scene above developed he changed his mind:
The strange thing about the movie is the way the moments of inspiration raise our hopes, and then disappoint them. Take the scene where the school plays host to the nearby Catholic girls’ school at a dance. The boys and girls are lined up on opposite sides of the room, and then an earnest little priest (Wallace Shawn, from “My Dinner with André”) stands up on the stage and delivers a lecture on The Evils of Lust, gradually warming to his subject. The idea of the scene is funny, and it has a certain amount of underlying truth (I remember a priest once warning my class, “Never touch yourselves, boys” – without telling us where). But Shawn’s speech climbs to such a hysterical pitch that it goes over the top, and the humor is lost; it simply becomes weird behavior.
Weird behavior? No, the priest in question is the mythical incarnation of quintessential prudery. He is obsessed with sex and and projects that obsession onto innocent children. The only thing the actor didn’t do in the service caricaturing a priest with the 1960′s “Catholic attitude” toward sex is drool.
The writer of the film, Charles Purpura, in an interview from the early 2000s, revealed his sentiments in respect to the Church. He had previously been a member of a band, Front Porch, and had written a song called “Only You Lady,” which he said
is about Mary, the mother of Jesus. I think. It should be clear to you by now that at the time I was still heavily influenced by my Catholic upbringing. As the Jesuits say, ‘Give us their first seven years, and we’ll have them forever.’ In any event, I’m better now.
West’s meta-narrative will tell us that poor Charles Purpura left the faith and made an anti-Catholic movie for the same reason Hugh Hefner became the king of porn: because puritanical functionaries of the Church let them down and burdened them with hatred for their bodies.
Ugliness packs almost as much wallop as beauty. But not quite as much, because it is only a privation of beauty. However, when you put the two ideals in opposition, ah, that is the stuff myths are made of.
Some myths are true. This one is not.
On another note, it appears that all Father Loya’s articles have been taken down from Catholic Exchange (check the links). What’s up with that? It is not nice to break links and then not explain oneself. Perhaps I should look on the bright side and believe that the TOB train is changing tracks. One may hope.
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.
Well, I have to admit that I have just about run out of steam with the Theology of the Body debate, which, God help us, is not preventing me from posting once again. I suppose I should say something about the end of Christopher’s West’s sabbatical. He has returned.
I don’t know that we are getting anywhere, unfortunately. Christopher West, for example, says he is always learning from his critics, but he still maintains that we have misrepresented him in a number of “serious” ways. And I am still waiting to find out what he considers we were right about. Just to remind everyone: the objections were not all about style and presentation. Well, at least he admits he lacked balance. I am not sure what that means, but look forward to finding out what his new approach will be.
Unfortunately, this debate runs the risk of turning into a propaganda war. Much of the criticism of one of my most recent pieces was that I was not nice. But I already knew that. Mea culpa. Pray for me. But also, please tell me why I am wrong about the doctrines contained (or not contained) in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
Well, anyway. I have said just about all I have to say for now. I am not making any promises though. Christopher West says he will be addressing the criticisms he has received in a number of articles. He thanked his critics in that context, but then went on to speak of how his ideas have been misrepresented. Again, I look forward to finding out both the reasons he has to thank his critics and the reason why he thinks they are wrong. I do not plan to comment on each of his articles. What interests me in view of avoiding a propaganda war is patterns verified by facts.
I will just leave you all with several thoughts. One thing that neither side has talked about in all this is the element of the diabolical, and especially the way in which the evil one uses sexuality as a snare. I only know of one article aside from the ones in which I have linked to it which comments on this phenomenon. I would be interested in what Christopher West has to say about this.
Another point to consider is it is absolutely incontrovertible that Christopher West’s version of Theology of the Body, along with that of Father Loya’s, minimizes the role of modesty. In this view, modesty is relative and primarily interior, necessitated by a lack of domination over concupiscence, but not fitting in itself. Where it does not fall away in the interests of a Christian regard for the body acquired by a growth in virtue it turns into prudery. Think about diabolical influence in this context. (In this vein, take a look at Father Loya’s defense of the paschal candle-as-phallus assertion and compare with my essay and the thesis of Dawn Eden. You decide.)
You should all take a look at Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouve’s critique of Dawn Eden’s thesis. From Sister’s essay, one gets the impression that the critics of Christopher West have completely misunderstood his work, and would not be able to properly assess it unless they had followed all his circumlocutions over the last fifteen years and more. Sister Lorraine asks:
Does any fair-minded observer really think it’s possible to accomplish this project in a master’s thesis of under 100 pages?
Huh? No one could possible critique West in a master’s thesis of less than 100 pages? I guess that means no one could possibly understand him at all unless they were capable of writing more than a 100 pages on what they had learned from him. People have brought up the same issues with West since the beginning. See West’s Open Letter answering an early critic who had approached him privately. Dawn Eden has not catalogued all the changes West has made over the years because she is interested in the positions West currently holds with which she disagrees. Or is Sister Lorraine claiming that at this point West and Eden have nothing really to disagree about?
This is like arguing that no one can really say anything intelligent on the matter unless they have read everything West has ever done and then attended all his public appearances and have done a textual analysis of all the content from a strictly technical point of view before one decides to agree or disagree with him. Until then, we should just all be obedient sheep and rely on episcopal approbations. West’s work has been effectively canonized. I have been a part of this debate for some time. I know how West’s disciples interpret him. Dawn Eden is not putting an adversarial spin on West’s work. She is criticizing West on the basis of the way he is being understood by those who support him. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard from disciples of West something to the effect that “we shouldn’t cover women up because that is to treat the female body as evil.” That is just one example.
Sr. Lorraine’s critique covers the whole of Dawn Eden’s thesis. I will let you compare and contrast. I would just suggest that before you accept anyone’s interpretation of John Paul’s text, that you read it for yourself. Whenever someone quotes one sentence, or paraphrases, or includes multiple incomplete sentences as quotes in a single paragraph, or inserts the telltale ellipsis (. . .), read the whole paragraph in the pope’s writings carefully, or better, read the whole general audience. I submit that what you will find is that the Westians are often hyper-sexualizing the text, making it do work for which it was never intended.
Here is an example from Sr. Lorraine’s critique. The first paragraph a quote from Christopher West, quoting the Holy Father. The second is Sr. Lorraine quoting directly the Holy Father:
“As John Paul shows us, the question of sexuality and marriage is not a peripheral issue. In fact, he says the call to “nuptial love” inscribed in our bodies is “the fundamental element of human existence in the world” (General Audience 1/16/80). In light of Ephesians 5, he even says that the ultimate truth about the “great mystery” of marriage “is in a certain sense the central theme of the whole of revelation, its central reality” (General Audience 9/8/82).” . . . . [Yes, please check out the text to see what I am leaving out with the ellipsis.]
But there’s one more thing. What does Pope John Paul say about this issue? Referring to the spousal analogy in Ephesians 5, he says: “Given its importance, this mystery is great indeed: as God’s salvific plan for humanity, that mystery is in some sense the central theme of the whole of revelation, its central reality. It is what God as Creator and Father wishes above all to transmit to mankind in his Word” (TOB 93:2)
I will now provide you with the actual texts of the Holy Father:
For the present we are remaining on the threshold of this historical perspective. On the basis of Genesis 2:23-25, we clearly realize the connection that exists between the revelation and the discovery of the nuptial meaning of the body, and man’s original happiness. This nuptial meaning is also beatifying. As such, it manifests in a word the whole reality of that donation which the first pages of Genesis speak to us of. Reading them, we are convinced of the fact that the awareness of the meaning of the body that is derived from them—in particular of its nuptial meaning—is the fundamental element of human existence in the world.
This nuptial meaning of the human body can be understood only in the context of the person. The body has a nuptial meaning because the human person, as the Council says, is a creature that God willed for his own sake. At the same time, he can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself (General Audience 1/16/80).
In the overall context of the Letter to the Ephesians and likewise in the wider context of the words of the Sacred Scriptures, which reveal God’s salvific plan “from the beginning,” one must admit that here the term mystérion signifies the mystery, first of all hidden in God’s mind, and later revealed in the history of man. Indeed, it is a question of a “great” mystery, given its importance. That mystery, as God’s salvific plan in regard to humanity, is in a certain sense the central theme of all revelation, its central reality. God, as Creator and Father, wishes above all to transmit this to mankind in his Word (General Audience 9/8/82).
It seems to me that the sense of these texts is that the nuptial meaning of the body points to the fact that God created us for Himself and that we find our true identity in self-giving. This self-giving of Christ is the central theme of all revelation and is expressed in the language body. It is the “nuptial meaning” of the body, not the body itself or sexuality that constitutes the “great mystery.” In other words, God gives us the body in order to point to Christ, He does not give us the body in order to point to itself. There is a real difference. And the difference is expressed, for example, in one’s willingness or unwillingness to simulate a sex act in the Easter Liturgy. For those who see the nuptial meaning of the body as central, such a thing is pornography. For those who see bodily sexuality itself as central, such is liturgical prayer.
I am not sure whether West still holds the following position, but I do remember that in the first edition of the “Naked without Shame” tape series, he claimed that it was important to understand the “revelation” of the nakedness of Christ on the cross. I am not here going to take up the question as to whether the loin cloth is historical. I remember West claiming that it was not. What is important to me is that he stated that while most people would not be able “to handle” the nakedness of Jesus, they miss out because of it. To me this is theological madness.
Yes, West may have “evolved,” but the tenor of his work has not.
And this leads me to Mark Shea’s latest piece on theology of the body. Shea sees what everyone else with open eyes sees, namely, that the TOB team USA is presenting TOB as a theory of everything. He sums up his points in the following way:
If you do smell something amiss, don’t panic or declare it to be the fruit of somebody’s monstrous will to subvert and destroy the Faith. Assume “blunder” before “diabolical plot.” Conversely, if you find something fruitful, good, and beautiful in the TOB, don’t run off and declare it a revolution in Catholic thought that will provide an All-Explaining Paradigm of Everything in Time, Space, and Eternity. It’s a human school of thought, not the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith.
In a word, relax. It’s just somebody’s opinion, not the End of the World or the Consummation of All Things.
Earlier in the essay he makes the point that the corpus of TOB is not magisterial because it is only a series of general audiences, and not an encyclical. I am not sure I would refer to it as “not magisterial,” but I certainly agree that it is essential to place this single corpus of general audiences in the context of the whole teaching of the Church, and give to it a relative importance and not an absolute authority. The problem with so much of this TOB enthusiasm is that it is being presented as a theory of everything and the absolute trump card for every possible objection.
I would just say that I find it odd that Mark Shea hovers over the controversy and declares it to be relatively unimportant, when in fact West, Father Loya and others are presenting TOB as the theory-of-everthing-trump-card. That is not a small matter because it is the sexualization of Christianity and more akin to the pagan religions that Christianity replaced than to the historical reality of Christian faith.
I imagine this game of theological ping-pong will continue until Rome intervenes. I had hoped that would not be necessary. What I see in this unwillingness to place the Theology of the Body in the larger context of Church teaching looks more like the pagan worship of sex than it does the Christianization of marriage and sexuality. It is time to abandon the sex-obssession and to stop trying to baptize it.
I think Heidi goes too far in attributing the controversy to differences in background and the difference between the work of a philosopher and that of and evangelist.
The fact that AVH took such exception to CW describing TOB as “revolutionary” is a good example of the tension between ideas and finding points of connection. She interpreted “revolution” to mean a destruction of past Church teaching—which I do not believe CW believes.
Actually, from a philosophical point of view, I think that AVH has shown West to mean exactly what he says he means. ”Revolution,” “theological time bomb” may be the terms of an evangelist, but they have implications in matters of truth. Either the philosophy and the popular message work together or they do not, and then one of them must be false. In any case, whether Heidi wants to believe that West sees TOB as a destruction of earlier Church teaching or not, both AVH, Dawn Eden and others have shown West to be innovating in ways that have no basis in the tradition. Hence when she says the following:
There is room for both schools of thought—so long as each is willing to be led by the Spirit, with humility and openness to change. . .
I have to say that she is ignoring the evidence, humility and openness to change notwithstanding.
I will agree that manner and content will differ to some extent between philosophers and evangelists, but the difference between AVH and West cannot be reduced to that or to differences in background. Put bluntly, West is inventing and AVH is not.
Interestingly, Christina King has attached an irrelevant comment to the discussion in opposition to Dawn Eden, for some reason, trying to distance the Theology of the Body Institute from Christopher West. That is a tough one to sell. I would like to know, how many of the speakers or board members of the Institute have spoken or published a critique of West’s work. On the other hand, how many speakers and organizers at the recent conference have publically defended his teaching?
And here it is with an article on her work by CNA.
Keep up the great work, Dawn.