Pinto Leads the Choir

Matt Pinto, founder and president of Ascension Press, the publisher of Christopher West, came to the defense of his star author the other day.  In the first sentence he resurrected Mark Shea’s “bayonet our own troops” line:

Over the past few weeks, I have watched a friend and fellow soldier in the Church get assaulted by his own troops . . .

There have been various ways in which the critique of West has been handled, but for the most part the thoughtful critiques were respectful and sedate.  In particular, I have made a point of trying to be constructive, as I said:

The problem is that sometimes the combox is too easy a place to lock and load, fire and reload. But the sword cuts both ways: I am not out to sentence and execute Chris West, so don’t suggest that a critique of his thought, even if you disagree with that critique, is an effort to, in Shea’s words, “bayonet our own troops.”

Matt Pinto, it seems, is counting on an easy dismissal of the critics based on the reputation of Christopher West.  He argues that the fruits are good, therefore, there is nothing meriting criticism.  One commenter (Which Fruits Shall We Pick?) notes the weakness of this argument:

For years, people defended the now disgraced pedophile and father of at least one illegitimate child Fr. Marcial Maciel by claiming that he couldn’t possibly have led an immoral life because “the fruits” of his work were so good. No less a Catholic intellect than the late Richard John Neuhaus made this explicit claim in an article still available at Catholic Exchange (a site Matt Pinto helped found). The article, available here bears a startling resemblance to Pinto’s current piece “By his fruits you shall know him.”

(I am not equating West to Maciel, but rather pointing out that an inadequate defense from 2002 makes a poor model for today).

It should serve as a cautionary tale to Pinto and all those who make the “fruits” argument. To them, I would caution – pardon the obvious pun – that you cannot pick your “fruits.” Are the fruits of those scandalized by West any less valid than the fruits of those who have seen benefit? How shall we weigh these obviously contradictory consequences?

Pinto, a publisher of West’s books and a colleague from West’s Institute has written an interesting response to David Schindler, but at the end of the day, I have a fundamental problem with his premise.

From the long-running discussion, and many people who have commented that West makes them uneasy, or worse, it is clear that there’s an abundant harvest here, at least some serious portion of which is not nourishing. Not all fruits are good. Perhaps those who make the fruits argument should remember Maciel, and, of course, the Garden of Eden…

In any case, Pinto completely avoids addressing any of the substantive concerns raised by the critics, apparently, in the hope of not having to, ever.  For the most part, this tactic will probably  work.  He is shooting the messengers:  “Bad critics. Nasty West haters, all of you.”

Another commenter (Where’s Waldo) asks:

Now that we have heard from West’s publisher, who is next? His literary agent? His copyright attorney? Or his Public Relations firm? Where is HIS response.

Good questions.  How will he respond to Schindler’s offer to discuss this with him over time in the pages of Communio?  I don’t think Schindler will be easily pooh-poohed by West or one of his choir boys.

21 thoughts on “Pinto Leads the Choir

  1. Excellent, Father. Thank you. Of course, Mr. West has helped many people with their hang-ups. He appears to be sincerely committed to his mission. I have heard his talks on EWTN and thought they were fine, although I did not care for the book of his that I read. It was not helpful to me.

    What bothers me about this whole episode is that anyone who dares point out the potential flaws in his presentation is vehemently attacked and accused of being puritanical and any number of awful things. Those are the people who have been bayoneted. It is as if Mr West’s writings and sayings have been raised to the level of magisterial teaching.

    I know, that is an exaggeration, but that is how some people act about it. I think that we should be free to offer an opinion, in charity, that a Catholic celebrity may not always be 100% accurate in their methodology, without being demonized.

  2. You have put your finger on it Elena. I think West is a good man and a very talented one, but to equate his presentation with the Holy Father’s actual writings, which it seems, is pretty much what is happening, is quite a stretch.

  3. Excellent Father! What I am really wondering is, when West finally does respond, will he actually address the theological issues brought up by others, or will he respond like most of his defenders, by appealing to emotion and grouping his foes into small traditionalst pockets.

  4. David Schindler’s critique of Christopher West reflects the Neo-Platonist and Stoic reservations about the body and the senses, and not the anthropology of St. Thomas Aquinas. It is a form of anthropological pessimism, drawn from thas come to be known as “Austinianism”. It sees the “flesh”, the body and its senses, as the tattered remnant of originl sin,and sex in marriage as the working of the “flesh”, and the flesh as little more than the “fomes peccati”, the root and ground of sin and the object of God’s retribution. St. Thomas posits the inhernet goodness of the senses and the sense life of human beings, including the role of the senses in sexual intimacy in marriage. The thrust of the virtue of chastity in the Thomist tradition is towards the “sophrosyne” of the Greek Fathers, rather than towards the “apatheia” of Origen and Evagrius Ponticus. Also, the portrayal of sexual intimacy in the Hebrew text of the Song of Songs is far more graphic and erotically frank than any words or images used by Christopher West. David Schindler’s critique of Christopher West does not hit home, and seems based on an anthropological bias that is neither Christian nor Catholic.

    Father Clifford Stevens
    Boys Town, Nebraska
    Author of “The Noblest Love: the Sacramenality of Sex in Marriage”, and “The Trinitarian Roots of the
    Nuptial Community.”

  5. I have never read the Song of Songs in the original Hebrew, but the English translations I have read are quite beautiful and tasteful. My only exposure to West was watching a video of a presentation he was making to a group of young men. It was vulgar, tasteless, and cringe-worthy. I was certainly happy that I was never exposed to anyone like West when I was a teenager. I think his presentations may drive many of the young away not only from a proper understanding of sexuality but from the Church itself.

  6. Father Stevens,

    With all due respect, you do not substantiate your assertions regarding Professor Schindler’s critique. In particular, your allegation that Schindler diminishes the value of the body and the conjugal act is a standard rebuttal posited against any critique against West, and yet, as one who understands the issues being discussed, as you do yourself, I do not see this assertion evidenced by Schindler’s critique. That Schindler says West underestimates the effects of fallen nature is not the same thing as delimiting marriage to being merely a remedy for concupiscence. Unless you show some concrete evidence to the contrary, it seems that your assertion is gratuitous.

    Schindler himself, in his response to Smith and Waldstein, explicitly states that his positions are open to critique and he welcomes an examination of his own work. In fact, he points out that he has had an ongoing and public discussion on theological matters with Professor Waldstein. I certainly do not pretend that anyone in this debate is beyond question.

    Even so, if you consider what you are saying then you should be able to see clearly enough that anyone who held the positions you are describing could not possibly uphold Humanae Vitae or John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in any possible sense. Insofar as Schindler is the Provost/Dean and Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, it would seem that such an assertion on your part requires at least some minimal evidence to warrant discussion.

    Furthermore, I do believe you need to presume a little more of those who are bold enough to critique West. I do not see any evidence that anyone in this debate on either side of the issue questions the “inherent goodness of the senses and the sense life of human beings.” This is a straw man, Father.

    Also, in regard to the Song of Songs, West’s Latest book, Heaven’s Song, is a reflection on John Paul II’s undelivered TOB talks on that book of the bible. West is, in fact, more graphic than either the Song or the pope.

  7. You would think that the Maciel story would cure this generation of the “by their fruits” argument, but apparently not.

    I heard Christopher West speak one time. It was from West that I first learned about JPII’s ridiculous position on male headship — which was the last straw for me re: JPII. I really don’t know why he’s such a rock star in conservative Catholic circles. He was no conservative.

  8. GregK,

    I am not sure what you think is ridiculous about John Paul II’s position on male headship. But since you seem to think that the pope was not conservative enough, I must assume that you take umbrage with his discussion of “mutual submission.” That is a reflection on Ephesians 5:21, and a fairly plain reading of it at that. It certainly is not a denial of male headship.

    But perhaps I have you all wrong. You sort of dropped a bomb without explaining yourself.

  9. Father, your post today on Dawn Eden’s blog is the best thing yet that anyone has written on this topic, in my opinion. I thank God for your guidance in this controversy. I sent you an email a day or so ago; I hope it did not become lost in cyberspace!

  10. Frangelo,

    I can’t find the references now, but after hearing Christopher West talk about male headship and submission, I did a little digging and came across several of JPII’s discussions of the subject.

    You’re right that his big emphasis was “mutual submission,” and that mutual submission does not inherently contradict male headship, but he went further than simply advocating mutual submission. He denied that the wife is supposed to submit to her husband in a unique way. I was quite surprised by it.

  11. Frangelo –

    David Schindler has to make more than an assertion that Christopher West overlooks the effects of concupiscence on marital intimacy. I think you should recall the debate at the Council of Trent on this very issue, and the debate between Cardinal Seripando and the Spanish Dominicans on this very subject. If Schindler’ critique were made in some scholarly journal whete the debate could take place with some kind of objectivity, that would be quite proper, but to attack someone’s orthodoxy in the popular press, seems to me, nothing short of character assassination. I am sorry but there are rules for this kind of debate and David Schindler has broken them.

    Father Clifford Stevens

  12. Frangelo – Why would anyone bring up the issue of “fallen nature” in connection with marital intimacy? Sexual intimacy in marriage is the immediate goal of sexuality in men and women and that is a noble, holy, sacred and eminently desirable experience. I disagree with Father Schindler that concupiscence inhabits the body primarily. It is the lack of harmony between reason and the senses, but that is overcome by the vrtue of chastity, which in its positive sense is “a healthy love of sexual intimacy”, healthy in the sense of according to right reason and the moral law.

    Every single human being is destined for that intimacy by their very biology, although some forego it for reasons that are personal to themselves. To hint that the enjoyment of sex in marriage has anything unseemly about it or something that borders on the forbidden, hints either of Stoicism or false ascetism. This view also tends to make one ashamed of the very possession of one’s sexuality and an even greater shame of the intimacies of married love.

    Fathrer Schindler seems to have a personal hangup about “concupiscence”. The Council of Trent stated , in contrast with the view of the Reformers and the Augusbeg Confession , that concupiscence is not sin , but the lack of harmiony between right reason and the senses, and that can be overcome by the use and enjoyment of the senses in accordance with right reason and the Divine Law.

    Father Clifford Stevens
    Boys town, Nebraska

  13. Father Clifford,

    Professor Schindler’s point is the same as that of the Catechism (1426), namely, that concupiscence is an objective fact related to original sin, one that is not eliminated by Baptism. To say that concupiscence resides objectively in the body is simply to say that it is experienced in the body objectively, not that it is present because there is a subjective defect in one’s intention. West seems to suggest that if one purifies his intention concupiscence virtually goes away. Schindler denies this, as do I.

    BTW, St. Thomas Aquinas says that original sin is concupiscence materially (I-II.82.3)—a further confirmation that we are talking about an objective privation related to the fall, not an intention on the part of the subject, nor a dualistic attribution of inherent evil to the body.

    No one is suggesting that there is anything “unseemly” about marital intimacy. In fact, you are the first person to bring something like this up. You are also the first person here to bring up any idea remotely approaching the affirmation that concupiscence and sin are the same thing. To say that sexual desire, a good in itself, is experienced in a disordered way after the fall, because of an objective fact, and not because of a defect in one’s intention, is not at all the same thing as saying there is something evil about sexual desire.

    For the record, here is the pertinent quote from the Council of Trent:

    If anyone denies that the guilt of original sin is remitted by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ given in Baptism, or asserts that all that is sin in the true and proper sense is not taken away but only brushed over or not imputed, anathema sit. For in those who are reborn God hates nothing . . . . The holy Council, however, professes and thinks that concupiscence or the inclination to sin remains in the baptized. Since it is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ. Rather, “one who strives lawfully will be crowned” (5th Session, Canon 5).

  14. Frangelo – I stand by my own interpretation of sexuality in marriage and I think you wrongly accuse Christopher West of toying with concupiscence in his marriage theology. That is a serious accusation. On that basis, you could accuse Pope John Paul II of the same thing because in his writings he speaks of rather intimate matters, or even Dietrich von Hildebrand in his “Man and Woman”, and in his article in the “New Catholic Encyclopedia.

    In this I don’t believe you are playing the moralist, but the puritan and you seem to be downgrading sexual intimacy in marriage to an occasion of sin for anyone who engages in it. I think it is rather ridiculous for two celibates even to discuss this question, but it another celibate, David Schindler, who made public accusations about Christopher West and I believe he owes Mr. West a serious apology. Are you actually saying what you seemed to say: “sexual desire is experienced in a disordered way after the fall”??? That is not what the Council of Trent said,and your interpretation of the Council text is warped, to sat the least. But I will say no more.

  15. Father Clifford,

    David L. Schindler is a layman who I presume is married. If it is ridiculous for celibates to discuss such matters, what could the magisterium of the Church possibly have to say about it?

    What I said is that when sexual desire is experienced in a disordered way it is because of the objective fact of concupiscence, which may or may not lea to sin, depending on what we do with it. That is not to say that sexual desire in se is an inclination to sin. And that is exactly what Trent means when it says that the inclination to sin remains after Baptism.

    Of course, this affects the way we experience sexual desire. Through prayer and cooperation with grace, and with the proper understanding of God’s plan for sexuality, we can become freer and more spontaneous in our ability to order our desires correctly, though that never means that we are free from concupiscence. What we hope for is that we become free from its domination.

  16. Frangelo – Then there is very little we disagree with. I have no problem with the Council of Trent, but with your low opinion of sexuality in marriage, which I consider the greatest gift that has been given to the human race after the Eucharist, which is God’s gift of Himself to us. Sexual intimacy in marriage is the gift that a man and woman make of themselves to each other and that is the whole teaching of Pope John Paul II. You seem to have a very low opinion of it.

    I have in front of me Pope John Paul II’s “Man and Woman He Created Them”, the source of his Theology of the Body, page 91 entitled: ‘Communion of Persons” and he says this remarkable thing about that Communion: “Man becomes an image of God, not so much at the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion” – and he means the sexual communion in marriage.

    You seem to under rate the significance and power of that sexual communion in marriage and reduce it almost to just an occasion of sin,. I am sorry but

  17. Frangelo – I think it is that Professor Schindler has not proved his case against Christospher West that is the issue here and not any differences we may have. I think an apology is in order from David Schindler for blackening the good name of Christopher West. Professor Schindler is no greater authority on these matters than Christopher West and if he has

  18. Frangelo – David Schindler has a position of great authority in marriage matters and it is misusing that position to publicly hint that someone in the same field is distorting Catholic Marriage theology – on the basis of what?? Perhaps a few exaggerated remarks. I claim his accusations against were irresponsible and that he should apologize publicly for at least an indiscretion, if not personal slander. “Thou shalt not bear false witness is still one of the Commandments.

    Father Clifford Stevens
    Boys Town, Nebraska

  19. I think perhaps David Schindler may feel a little threatened by the popularity of Christopher West in Schindler’s own field. After all, he has gone after other giants in Catholicism: John Courtney Murray, George Weigel, Norn Neuhaus and Michael Novak. It seems that he wants to be something of a Jack the Giant Killer of rivals in his field. Christopher West is only his latest target.

    Father Clifford Stevens
    boys Town, Nebraska

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