In his long-awaited reply to his critics, West honestly admits that he did not want to say anything until he had received the all clear from the bishops, a boon given in abundance by Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Rhoades. While the bishops’ endorsement is significant, it does not mean that West’s teaching is magisterial or that it is on the level of those who themselves hold the teaching office of the Church. Even a theologian who has gained the endorsement of a pope, such as Hans Urs von Balthasar or Cardinal Walter Kasper, is not considered above respectful criticism when he articulates views that may legitimately be shown to be difficult to reconcile with the Church Fathers and Doctors.
West is gracious for thanking his supporters, but his reference to the “profound consolation” proffered by the faithful is a bit off-putting. He has chosen the path of controversy of his own volition, and for him that it is a matter of truth. Speaking the truth has its consequences, as does making mistakes as a teacher. It must be difficult to the focus of so much criticism, so I do pray for him. Nevertheless, he is considered, the authority on Theology of the Body, even more so now that he has been so strenuously defended. Constructive criticism is in order.
The Pivotal Obfuscation
In my opinion, his concentration on the question of concupiscence is, for the most part, a straw man. It seems evident that since Cardinal Rigali has blessed his entire work without qualification, West considers it is sufficient to reply to what he considers the central issue of contention. Thus, he conspicuously omits any discussion his crusade against prudery or of any of the practical matters that have been dealt with at length by the critics (e.g. the phallic symbolism of the paschal candle, his treatment of interlocutors, his interpretation of his writings of the saints). I will even grant that the question of concupiscence is central to the discussion. However, West mischaracterizes the objections of his critics.
West suggests that those of us who disagree with him deny the possibility of the redemption of the body and that sanctity includes liberation from the domination of concupiscence. He also suggests that our argument is more with John Paul II, than with him. He says he concentrates on the question of liberation from the domination of concupiscence because it is the pearl of the Theology of the Body, as though, in this regard John Paul II is revolutionary.
In fact, no one to my knowledge denies that grace effects liberation from the domination of concupiscence. West himself admits that he was guilty earlier on of underestimating the factor of concupiscence in his presentation. His tendency is clearly in this direction. His critics object to this tendency, not to the possibility of a more spontaneous, less anxious, less scrupulous and less repressed attitude toward sexuality. That this problem still exists in West’s approach is evidenced in the way in which in his response he minimizes the value of continence, suggesting that St. Thomas Aquinas relegates it to a lower level of redeemed man. In fact, St. Thomas, as well as John Paul II, affirms that continence is a virtue, contrary to the assertion of West.
The Pearl of Great Price
No one is disagreeing with John Paul II. In fact, West’s critics are very appreciative of the positive and exalted view of marriage and sexuality expressed in the Theology of the Body. The real pearl of John Paul’s teaching, in my opinion, is not the question of concupiscence, but his emphasis on the positive aspects of the unitive dimension of marriage and sexuality. That emphasis surely changes one’s attitude toward concupiscence, but John Paul II in not really innovative on the transformative power of grace relative to concupiscence. We have had saints and mystics for the whole of Christian history that the Church has held up as certain guides to the way of perfection. Their example and teaching has been and will continue to be safely followed.
In my own commentaries, I have long since abandoned any argument with Christopher West over concupiscence, because very often this involves subtle interpretations of John Paul II, as for example when the discussion turns to the difference between liberation from concupiscence and liberation from the domination of concupiscence, and, to use West’s own words, “what that looks like.” I would most certainly agree that the saint is generally more spontaneous and less conflicted when it comes to all moral matters, not just sexuality, but I believe we will all be hard-pressed, short of prophetic graces, to unravel all the movements of the human heart, so as to analyze responses on the spot and set in hierarchy the less perfect responses and more perfect responses. I will just say that I believe West thinks he knows more than he really does when it comes to the assessment of human responses.
Instead I have concentrated on West’s penchant for unveiling sexuality and for identifying every resistance against this tendency as prudery and Manichaeism. Regardless of where theoretical discussions about liberation from concupiscence may lead us, this latter tendency of West makes is much clearer what he actually means by liberation from concupiscence. He is continually targeting the Manichean demon with his considerable rhetorical arsenal, and misidentifying disparate reactions as prudery and body-hatred. Shame is, for West, at the very best, a reaction of a man who has experienced redemption only imperfectly.. The idea that some sexual realities ought to remain veiled because it is fitting to treat them in this manner out of reverence seems foreign to his thinking. There really does not seem to be any room in West’s theology for holy bashfulness in a man who has experienced redemption fully, at least not for one who has been illumined by his version of the Theology of the Body.
In the essays I have written on this subject I have given a number of examples of this tendency, since it has been asserted that the critics of West do not substantiate their claims. For example, Professor Janet Smith humbly confessed to being a prude because of her reaction against West’s assertion that the paschal candle is a phallic symbol. Her conversion from prudery was occasioned by the discovery that such was the teaching of the “early fathers.” So I showed at great length that patristic authority for this idea is a myth. No one to my knowledge has even attempted to demonstrate the contrary. I have also shown that West’s use of St. Louis de Montfort to justify the use of sexual imagery in reference to the virginal conception was a complete misrepresentation of the saint’s writings (same link). There are many other examples that could be given. I will just mention one more, one that I have not mentioned in any essay up to now. (In the following critique I utilize a comment I made on The Linde).
There is a video on YouTube of West taking a young man from an audience and standing him up in front of everyone and then saying: “Everyone, look at Paul’s body.” A few of the listeners appear uncomfortable and others snicker, so he goes on to question them about their reaction. West tells them that the way they responded to his invitation to gawk at Paul indicates a discomfort with the body. He says that if he had said “Look at Paul” no one would have reacted, but because he said “Look at Paul’s body,” everyone got a bit nervous.
This is just another illustration of West’s tendency to see prudery and Manichaeism where is simply does not exist. I suppose that if West read souls–a claim that, to my knowledge, he has never made–he might divine the motives of men, but on the face of things discomfort with his remark has nothing to do with body-hatred or unacknowledged and unresolved lust.
First off, no one talks that way: “Look at Paul’s body.” The inappropriateness of the whole thing would have been obvious to everyone immediately had he invited a woman up in front of the audience.
Secondly, West would be the first one to say that we should not depersonalize anyone. But that is precisely what he does when he says “Look at Paul’s body.” The problem people have with that language has nothing to do with prudery; it has to do with the way the imperative objectifies the person of Paul and the way in which this language is used to manipulate the audience.
If you say to me “Look at Paul,” I will look and see his body, or better I will see him with his body, and I will have no problem looking at him (which is to see his body). But if you say to me, “Look at Paul’s body,” I will say “What the heck are you saying and what are you trying to accomplish?” The whole thing is absurd.
And then I am supposed to feel bad because I am a prude? No. It does not wash.
Examine Your Own Conscience
I don’t want to belabor this point. It is enough to say—and I think the critics have pretty well documented this—that West has cultivated a habit of seeing prudery everywhere and of suggesting that his doubtful interlocutors need to do an examination of conscience on the point of their discomfort with his presentation.
West’s practical behavior in respect to the whole question of prudery makes it clear, that, unlike John Paul II, he does not really attribute any essential appropriateness to external modesty. For him, it is all a matter of intentionality, and that is all a matter of the heart. The externals of modesty are necessary because there are unredeemed men, but in a more perfectly redeemed world, one for which we hope, the need for external modesty will pass:
But through the grace of redemption, can our sexuality not become in our practical, lived experience the realm of the sacramental and the holy? Can it not become the realm of a truly sacred conversation? “To the pure all things are pure,” St. Paul said (Titus 1:15). But to those bound by lust, even the pure seems impure. Oh, how tragic when we label as ugly that which is beautiful!
West misses the point of our critique entirely. It is not a matter of labeling that which is beautiful ugly. It is a matter of affirming the sacrality, the beauty and the mystery of marriage and sexuality by insisting on a modicum of reverence and holy bashfulness. The need for the externals of modesty shall not pass away. (I will just take this opportunity, once again, to reaffirm my own concern about prudery and the excesses of an over emphasis of external modesty to the detriment of modesty of the heart. But prudery, Manichaeism, and holy bashfulness should not get all lumped together. They are all different.)
There are two complementary but not entirely resolved movements in West’s work that underscore the problem that I have identified. West uses the colloquial language of an apologist in order to meet the people where they are. For most of us the veil over sexuality was ripped off and trampled upon a long time ago, so West tells us like it is, even very effectively utilizing his own personal witness concerning his past addiction to pornography. This, we are told serves as a justification for dispensing with veiled language. West certainly uses the idiom of the people, with plenty of references–some quite revealing–to pop culture (toying with the full-frontal nudity in the movie Titanic; giving us a play by play of a pop singer’s lurid video; whooping it up about the goodness of desire in the context of rock music).
West shows no bashfulness in suggesting that for the Blessed Mother sex with St. Joseph would have been a step backwards, or that what men are really looking for in a woman is exemplified by the exposed breast of the Blessed Mother being offered to the Child Jesus (Naked without Shame, tape series, 1999). Father Thomas Loya, faithful disciple and defender of West, takes the Westian verbal disrobing to a whole other level. There are many, many more examples that could be offered. West will just say I am trying to hide something beautiful because I am suspicious of the body. But that presumes that external modesty has no positive value of being a manifestation of reverence and respect for mystery. If West is wrong, as I believe he is, his approach is undermining a very important aspect of purity.
I am inclined to mind my own business when it comes to the work of popular catechesis. I am not a professional apologist. Nevertheless, holy bashfulness has been jettisoned without any regret and without any estimation of the loss. This is a big mistake.
Mystics and Mistakes
But the other movement is expressed in his response to his critics under the title of “The Journey of the Interior Life,” a matter that as a Franciscan I know something about—the great masterpiece of the Seraphic Doctor St. Bonaventure is his signature treatise on the interior life entitled The Journey of the Soul into God. West suggests that this freedom from the demands of external modesty is a matter of the unitive way, the highest and mystical state of the interior life. (St. Bonaventure, would differ from St. Thomas Aquinas on this, insofar as he would identify the three ways [purgation, illumination and union] as modes of operation in the soul irrespective of stages in the spiritual life.)
Without doubt, the mystical life pierces the veil of the sanctuary and is a revelation of the Divine Spouse analogous to that between husband and wife in the bedroom. But since when is the message of the Gospel synthesized as the New Evangelization in terms of a single corpus of Wednesday audiences of the pope, so that now the conjugal act becomes the central point of reference for everything spiritual? In fact the mystics, even when speaking in the terms of nuptial language, used a manner of speech that was largely veiled. The Song of Songs as erotic as it is, is not a peep show, nor is its imagery the central dictum of biblical typology.
The reason the nuptial language of the mystics is veiled language, of course, has nothing to do with prudery, but with reverence, a disposition which grows as union with God grows. That spouses should have eyes only for each other’s nakedness is not a sign of imperfection, but of fulfillment. Nuptial language for the mystic is a way of expressing what eye has not seen nor ear heard (1 Cor 2:9), what he or she has experienced but is unable to speak about adequately in human language. The use of nuptial language is not a reason to eroticize everything, or to criticize every effort to keep a veil on the mystery of sexuality. In fact, it is to speak with precision to say that mysticism is under a veil. That is exactly what makes it mystic.
The Parting of the Ways
Perhaps Christopher West chose to speak about liberation from the domination of concupiscence and not about prudery and his pastoral practices, because he knows there is far more possibility for common ground in the former. And perhaps he plans to modify his approach to modesty and prudery, especially as it touches upon his popular presentation and the way he deals with those who are not comfortable with his unveiling tendency. I hope so.
If not, it is time for many of us to part ways with Christopher West on the matter of the interpretation of the Theology of the body. At this point there are many people, some of them deep thinkers, who are not convinced and will not be convinced that the minimization of modesty is the way of perfection. I don’t see how the jettisoning of external modesty and holy bashfulness can be reconciled with the teaching and example of the saints. Furthermore, the perfection of wholesome modesty and bashfulness, is not an inconsequential issue. It is first of all a matter of truth, but it is also a matter of the authentic and effective practice of chastity. This is a good faith disagreement, but one that cannot, in my view, continue indefinitely. One is right and the other is wrong. Period.
Up until now the views of Christopher West have been the point of departure for everything said in the United States on the question of the Theology of the Body. I think its time that those of us who disagree not allow this particular interpretation to set the terms of our own reflection.
In Defense of Purity
I for one believe that Dietrich von Hildebrand’s writings on marriage and purity are a key to understanding the Theology of the Body, and Christopher West’s minimalistic attitude toward modesty is certainly not consistent with von Hildebrand’s work. At least it is pretty clear what his wife, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand thinks of the matter. Like John Paul II, von Hildebrand places great weight on the beauty and holiness of the unitive aspect of marriage and sexuality. He also addresses the problem of prudery frankly and vehemently, but, unlike Christopher West, he also has profound appreciation for modesty and holy bashfulness.
I will continue my own reflections on the complementarity of John Paul II’s and von Hildebrand’s thought and their mutual advocacy for a holy and pure kind of bashfulness in matters pertaining to the great gift of marriage and sexuality. This is just a small contribution, but I think it is a direction of thought which would be of great value to develop and a necessary corrective to West’s approach.
Dear Father, I’m really grateful for these essays of yours. Thank you.
I think one of the key issues in West’s writings is the lack of soteriological balance. He sees redemption as too much in the here and now and does not take eschatology into consideration enough. He does not account for the proper “already and not yet” aspect of redemption.
The second thing is that he is falling into the very problem he is attempting to address. He sees that the body is sexualized and seen as an object of sexual pleasure. This is well and good and is true. However, the problem is in the fact that West too focuses too much on the body. I myself wonder if calling this the Theology of the Body is sufficient enough. In fact, I think it is a misnomer in regards to JP II’s Theology. It is more of a theological anthropology that takes the ENTIRETY of man into account, not simply his body. West ultimately falls into the Manichaenism that he is trying so hard to destroy. He separates the body from the soul and thus focuses all the time on the body because he sees JP II’s entire theology in that light. I have a lot of other criticisms with his theology and I find it…off setting that he is unable to answer the critics, especially David Schindler.
I am also disturbed by this fundamentalism in terms of magisterial authority. Just because he gets an imprimatur (as Janet Smith attempted to argue) does not mean it is correct, it just means that is suitable for discussion in theology. This constant need to have the Bishops approve everything a theologian says is a bit much. The Bishops ought to be taking a role, but just because 2 Bishops say its ok can be quickly dismissed when we get 3 Bishops who say its not ok (and I am sure that would be very easy to find). Theology is about an open discussion to better explain the deposit of faith. This constant appeal to authority in so blind a way is a bit much for me and not exactly proper to theology. Heck, we can have Bishops approve Schindlers criticisms, thus having a magisterial deadlock.
Good point concerning West’s Manichean body fixation. The Manicheans separated body and soul so completely that their application of “to the pure all things are pure,” permitted some pretty debauched behavior. To be precise, West affirms the theoretical goodness of the body, but his reactionism gives too much credit to body-hatred, and as you say, effects the very separation he is trying to avoid.
Thank you, Father Angelo, for the insightful disucussion of Christopher West’s work. I have been waiting nearly ten years for someone to call him on the carpet, so it was with real relief that I read Dr. Schindler’s earlier critique, and also Dr. Alice von Hildebrand’s and Dr. Shivanandan’s. All of these were welcome contributions to what for much too long has been an overwhelmingly one-sided conversation. Your discussion is both accurate and charitable, but I personally find it incomprehensible that for the past decade this man has been running roughshod over the faithful, seducing them (and I do mean seducing) with his “sex-talk” while claiming that he speaks with the mind of the Church. Finally, peole are beginning to wake up!
As you correctly identify, West has a strong “penchant for unveiling sexuality and for identifying every resistance against this tendency as prudery and Manichaeism.” But so far, no one has taken the next logical step and asked the question, “If West puts so much energy into unveiling sexuality by relentlessly promoting ‘nakedness without shame’, what effect does that have on his private life?” According to West, the way we think about sexuality deeply affects the way we behave. I, for one, will not be surprised to someday hear that West’s very questionable teachings have been taken to their logical conclusion and translated into seriously questionable actions. With his kind of thinking, it’s only a matter of time.
I generally do not “take the next step,” in the interests of presuming the best about everyone. That is not to say that I believe that faulty doctrine leads to virtue. Of course, it does not. Even so, people make mistakes in good faith, and I, for one, would rather stand before the judgement seat of God and be faulted for having thought too well of someone than to have to answer for having faulted an innocent man.
This passage from Thomas Howard seems relevant to your concerns.
I’ve found your critiques of West very useful over the past few months, especially as I attended at theology of the body conference featuring West. I must say, however, that while I find your concerns to be quite important, I don’t find them to be all that well-founded with my own experiences hearing Christopher West (this was the third time). No matter which criticism, when taken in the context of attending a lecture given by West, it just doesn’t hold up, in my personal opinion.
Have you read Michael Healy’s article? Christopher West: A Von Hildebrandian’s Perspective:
(excuse me if I actually got that link from you in the first place, can’t remember where I stumbled upon it.)
I have linked to Healy’s piece before, so it is possible you found it through this blog.
I am glad you have found my posts helpful. In the end the doctrinal questions will have to be resolved, one way or another.
Don’t you think West would consider me too concerned about external modesty?
As a married man, I’m a little conflicted about this. On the one hand, it’s true that we should not tear down the veil over sexuality. An eagerness to do that in order to appear relevant is to fall into the same profanation of sex that comes from secular culture.
On the other hand, I don’t believe couples should be totally isolated about sex either. This is a part of human life, and part of the vocation of marriage, and people need to be able to share and talk about problems and challenges. Couples should be able to have some perspective broader than the horizon of their own personal experience. So there is a fine line to be walked.
Of course, Wojtyla talked about sex, and Hildebrand, but no one seems to take issue with them the same way as with West, though they were controversial in their own day.
It’s all a balancing act I guess.
I agree with you. As I have said before, I am content to let apologists make prudential judgments, as to what is appropriate, when and where. We can have good faith discussions about these things and still disagree. That is not a problem for me.
I would suggest, however, that JPII’s and von Hildebrand’s work have significant qualitative differences with that of West and it is not just a question that the former is philosophical and the latter apologetical. It is also that the pope and von Hildebrand make an effort to show reverence to the mystery, not only by saying that they reverence the mystery and by constantly talking about how wonderful sex is, but by actually being reticent to remove the veil.
On the other hand, West argues that the veil is only there because of prudery and Manichaeism and makes every effort to remove it.
I know that many need to hear some frank works about sexuality, but I do not think West has struck the balance.
Fr., I found an article that seemed pertinent to this discussion and was wondering if you would give your opinion on it. This is the link:
Another website gives many examples of what the first article is referring to and it is found here:
I would be happy to comment. In fact, I have written on the subject of Maria Lactans (image of Mary Breastfeeding) a number of times, here, on Dawn Patrol and on The Linde. I personally have no problem with the image, as I have stated many times before.
First off, I must point out that secular news outlets often hypercharge their headlines by attributing to “The Vatican” editorials from L’Osservatore Romano. They are no such things. The newspaper has a semi-official relationship with the Vatican, but the editorials, like all editorials, are the private opinions of the writers, nothing more.
In any case, I quote from a previous post:
I stand by these words. There are many images of Maria Lactans still in existence and they are venerated with devotion. In Italy, for example, they are common under the title of Madonna delle Grazie.
I really don’t know what all the fuss is about. In particular, I find that insisting that Catholics look at such images is going to cure them of prudery– a sickness the extent of which I find much exaggerated—a bit hard to swallow.
I found the articles interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the one article showed that within the Church, what was once considered acceptable art began to be perceived in a negative way and was subsequently removed from church buildings. To me that is more a testimony of the loss of understanding about these issues among the members of the Church than anything it would say about the art itself.
Also, that these images of the Blessed Mother nourishing the saints–symbolized by the image of her breast milk–is not a construct of TOB or CW but is part of the patrimony of the Church. I do believe that this is an indication that what is being considered novel by some in the teaching of TOB is not new, it is just one of those truths that we lost sight of somewhere along the way. Also, that these individuals were blaming Protestantism, a heresy, for this change in thinking.
I also find it interesting that there is a call by others outside of the TOB group to restore some of this art to the parishes. This could be quite interesting for those who consider any art depicting nudity to be inappropriate.
The images to which you refer have not been removed from Churches. You should take a tour of European Churches. Maria Lactans is everywhere to be found. Certain images that were deemed inappropriate for their voluptuousness may have been removed, but, then again, as I am sure you would admit, it does not seem appropriate to pose the Blessed Mother breastfeeding the Son of God in a provocative way.
I was in Benevento, Italy, in 1990, when JPII made a pastoral visit to the archdiocese. In the afternoon he celebrated Mass in the local football stadium and the image of La Madonna delle Grazie was processed into the stadium amid much solemnity. This is very typical in Europe. I suspect those who are making a big deal of this have an axe to grind. That is why I think a contrived effort to force these images on people, not out of devotion, but out a kind of zealotry unrelated to the image itself is ill advised.
As for the saints who mystically fed at the breast of Our Lady: a mystical gift given to a great saint that infuses into him the attitude of a infant toward the body of Our Lady is quite a different thing from resolving a pornographic attitude towards women’s breasts by transferring that to the regard of Christ for the body of the Blessed Mother. I think there is a disconnect somewhere here.
That is wonderful that these paintings are still in Catholic churches in Europe. I have never seen one in a church in the U.S. What I find sad is that in the past, unlike today, people understood and appreciated what those paintings were depicting. Today almost everyone I know would look at such a painting as inappropriate and almost pornographic and totally miss the beauty and meaning. I myself would have thought the same thing a few years ago.
I don’t think I understand your last paragraph. Could you explain what you mean by “resolving a pornographic attitude towards women’s breasts by transferring that to the regard of Christ for the body of the Blessed Mother.” Thank you.
Christopher West has told the story many times of how he knelt before the Blessed Sacrament and offered up all the pornographic images that he had in his mind from his past and asked the Lord to untwist the lie contained therein. At the end he says he had something like mystical experience in which he saw Jesus at His Mother’s breast. West says that then he understood what he had desired all along.
I don’t see the connection between the legitimate desire that is obscured by the lie of pornography and the attitude of an infant toward its mother’s breast, or even between it and the mystical gift by which one might assume the attitude of the Infant Jesus toward His Mother’s breast. I am just not getting it.
I think the value of these images in respect to resolving issues of prudery are overblown and out of context. The images themselves have a different meaning.
I have not ever heard CW explain specifically what he understood from his ‘mystical’ experience so I am just giving my own conclusion from what I have heard him say in general about TOB.
CW says that everyone who looks at pornography or engages in immoral sex is looking for one thing–God’s love. Therefore, I am concluding that when he had his vision, what he saw in the image of Christ nursing was pure, intimate, nurturing, holy love and he recognized that this love is what he had been seeking when he was doing all of those wrong things.
As far as images resolving prudery, I guess that one would hope that exposure to images(particularly in churches) depicting the human body unclothed in areas that we usually consider to be inappropriate, but done in a beautiful way as in the Maria lactans paintings, may help some to understand that modesty doesn’t mean that certain body parts must always and everywhere be covered, and that these parts of the person are not bad in and of themselves.
I do know that some people are so prudish that they are incapable of seeing anything positive in a painting or sculpture that has any nudity.
First off, thank you very much, Father, for all of your writings on this topic. You have done a great deal to help clarify the topic in my mind.
Also, just a quick response to something that Lauretta recently posted…
“CW says that everyone who looks at pornography or engages in immoral sex is looking for one thing–God’s love.”
I’ve heard Mr. West say similar things many times, and I think it is one of the problems with his approach. Let us be frank: the sexual urges in man are not always driven by some sort of profound desire for union, transcendence, or love. Sometimes (and, I think, very often), the problems merely spring from someone not taking the proper means to fortify his will and battle against his disordered appetites. I think it to be a gross over-generalization to claim that addictions to porn, mis-uses of sex, etc, all spring from a deep spiritual yearning. Sometimes they do, surely. But sometimes the cause is far simpler: hormones run amok and are allowed to run amok. There is nothing particularly spiritual about testosterone.
It strikes me as quite ironic that Mr. West sometimes comes across as treating the human person as almost an angelic reality, when it is his stated goal to spread the theology of the “body”. Some basic facts about the body just seem to have been forgotten somewhere down the line. I really think that a lot of the problems inherent in Mr. West’s technique and content spring from a faulty anthropology.
It seems that Mr. West is not alone in this idea:
And Christians have a higher view of human sexuality than most people. G. K. Chesterton hinted at this in an odd way when he said, “When once you have got hold of a vulgar joke, you may be certain that you have got hold of a subtle and spiritual idea.”1
And Bruce Marshall is even more startling: “The young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.”2
What Chesterton, always the provocateur for truth, is trying to have us understand is that human sexuality comes to us from God, and even when it is sadly perverted in vulgar joke, the teller is unwittingly referring to something that is, at its root, remarkably sacred and godly. (And that’s exactly why the perversion of it is so wrong.)
Marshall would have us know that even the search for intimacy in the wrong places, in the wrong ways, is intimately about seeking what God made us for. (And that’s exactly why it should be sought in the right places in the right ways.) This search drives all of us in many different and powerful ways. Some are simply more aware of what is really behind it.
Those are interesting comments you made about Chesterton and Marshall. I also think of an old tune (from the Eagles??) “Looking for love in all the wrong places; looking for love in too many faces … “. (Granted, I don’t want to compare this group to someone like GK Chesterton but clearly this is a recognized struggle.)
Now, I could be wrong, but I think the points that Father Angelo is making (and what sparksj3 was trying to make) is that the average man is NEVER going to reach this ideal. Yes, of course God created the human body and He created the hormones that drive our desires … just like He created our digestive system and our desire for certain foods. Like most ‘drives’, they can be abused and typically are in some fashion. We enjoy sweet foods and certainly eating sweet foods is not sinful. HOWEVER, we can abuse that and the American waistline shows it (I am throwing no stones here, believe me). So, as all people who are on a diet will tell you, JUST GET THE DESSERTS OUT OF THE HOUSE. Yes, the ideal is that you can just walk right by them and not have them call to you … that you can see the food for what it is and eat only those apples and carrot sticks. But the reality is that most people who struggle with weight simply cannot do this. The smell of the chocolate cake is just too much …they cave in.
I think this is the point (Father can correct me if I’m wrong) that Father is trying to make and the danger he sees in West’s teaching. It’s like conducting a Weight Watchers program and telling people to LOOK at the delicious chocolate cake, the pizza … SMELL how wonderful they are and then don’t eat it!! Don’t think about it all day long. How foolish is that? Now, are there people who can smell the delicious cake and simply not have it ‘call to them’? Yep. But, they are few and far between.
It’s the same thing here … the average man, no matter how lofty his hopes and attempts to view women without it stirring lustful thoughts that could lead to worse, is just not going to succeed at it. Are there men that can do this? Yep … probably few and far between.
So … don’t sabotage the diet by torturing yourself with foods that aren’t going to help you and don’t sabotage your soul (and vocation) by viewing and or discussing to great length, members of the opposite sex.
I’m sorry if my last post was lacking…I was blasting off a quick response and didn’t enunciate everything in all its necessary detail. Hopefully I will do a better job this time!
It is certainly true that every person desires happiness, and that every person, even if they don’t realize it themselves, ultimately desires Ultimate Happiness. Thus, one can truly say that when any man or woman is seeking after happiness in the wrong place, he or she is searching for something that can only be found in God. It can also be said that we are incapable of acting in any way other than a perceived happiness or good. This principle underlies all human actions. In this matter, we have no disagreement.
All that being said: I think that Mr. West grossly over-simplifies the nature of the problem–and it is not so much in what he says, as in what he fails to say. He speaks very, very often of the deep yearning in man for God, of the deep desire for transcendence and union, and of the “desire for heaven gone berserk”. This is all well and good, but if our treatment of chastity and lust ends there, we are really short-changing the complexity of fallen man.
Now, perhaps I am misreading Mr. West, but it seems as though he seldom, if ever, speaks about the role of appetites or passions in sexual sin. This, if my reading is correct, is a very grave omission. Most every saint or confessor would say that the control over the appetites has been considerably wounded by original sin, and that this control must be rebuilt by active and practical means (prayer, mortification, discipline, the sacraments, etc.). Original sin introduced a tension in man that should never have appeared. Bishop Sheen refers to his tension as an “animal-spirit” tension. St. Paul writes that the “impulses of nature and the impulses of the spirit are at war with one another.”
This is why Mr. West is wrong when he categorically asserts that children who are taught Theology of the Body simply will simply not be attracted to forms of sexual sin. The fact of the matter is that even saints who profoundly understand the beauty of God given sexuality contended with the pull of concupiscence. Perhaps if we perceived things as angels, and lacked the appetitive struggles as angels do, there would be something to this. Alas, that isn’t the case. As a result of the fall, we all wrestle with a certain inclination towards evil and a weakened will. This will can only be rebuilt through prayer and self-denial (As St. Paul puts it: “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection, lest, perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.”)
What I said above about not all sexual sin being “driven by a profound desire” for union or transcendence was not meant to deny that all men seek happiness and that all men were made for God. To restate what I was trying to say in a better fashion: many people have lost all sense of discipline and control over their appetites and just indulge them lazily. I think one would be hard pressed to find many teens who go to the local video store to rent the latest nasty unrated comedy simply because they are longing for deep transcendence. It seems far more likely that hormones have raged out of control and, lacking any discipline or control, they simply let passions take the front seat and indulge, indulge, and indulge. Sure, they want happiness, but I don’t think in this case they are principally “driven” by a deep longing for transcendence. They seem to be sins of weakness. There is far too much mediocrity in most sins like this; there is little truly great about them.
Ultimately, the point I wanted to make was this: There is an aspect of the physical and biological that cannot be ignored (nor, of course, should it be exaggerated). It is this omission that seems to me to be one of the big problems with Mr. West’s writings. Seldom, if ever, does Mr. West focus on the need of self-denial in the rebuilding of chastity and the development of “mature purity.” Seldom, if ever, does he focus on the need for renunciation and manly fortitude in this struggle. It seems to me that if anyone sets off to try to build a life of virtue without those very necessary components in their plan-book, they are in for some pretty serious difficulties.
Hopefully this made a bit more sense than my last posting!
Ouch! Those stones hurt–just kidding! However, you did “hit” home with that comparison for me. Food is my main battle with concupiscence. I would like to offer a few thoughts about that.
Let’s start with a person who only has a problem with sweets. Yes, it would be a possibility to never have sweets in the house so that you did not have access to sweets. But what if you have several young children? Is it fair to them to never be able to have sweets because you have no self control? Is that not an injustice to them because you have not mastered yourself?
Now let’s look at someone like me who struggles with all food and is stay at home housewife. I would have to have no food in my cupboards or refrigerator or freezer because I can snack on almost anything. How functional would I be as a wife and mother if I could never have any food in the house? Makes it a little difficult to fulfill my job of providing food for my family, doesn’t it?
Okay, now let’s apply this to the topic at hand, that of lust. From what I know of men, it does not take a deliberate decision to think about sex to have the thought enter their minds. Most men that I know usually only have to be breathing! Just kidding!! However, a man who struggles with lust needs only to see a woman to have the desires begin. How do you avoid seeing a woman in today’s world? Maybe back in the days when everyone lived on a farm and you only went to town once a week or so, that might be feasible. But let’s be real, most men are out in the world walking down the street where half of the people they meet are women, many times half of their co-workers are women, etc. Taking custody of the eyes to avoid looking at all women is just not realistic, is it? And it does not take an inappropriately dressed woman to incite lust. Believe me, I know.
Then there are those men who are married. How do they avoid any interaction with their spouses? And, remember, JPII stated that it was adultery to lust after even your own spouse. So, now the cake is in your house, not just on the street or at work. What does a man do now?
Even if you don’t want to use the term adultery for your spouse, if you accept that to use someone as an object is wrong–as JPII says, the opposite of love is not hate, it is use, then married men are still stuck in an impossible situation. So, they recognize this, and hate being that way but they don’t know how to overcome it. What is that going to do to their relationships with their spouse and with God? They are burdened with guilt and shame and yet are forced to make their spouses submit to their lusts because they have no control over themselves. Where is the joy, where is the freedom? For anyone?
For us Catholics there is an added difficulty–no birth control. How many women are having children that they are not ready for physically, emotionally, etc. just because their husband doesn’t have the mastery of self to abstain while she regains her strength? I know several.
It is for all of these reasons that it is necessary to face this demon and overcome it. Otherwise, we will be living lives devoid of most of the fullness that God desires us to have.
Joe & Lauretta:
Joe says, “…many people have lost all sense of discipline and control over their appetites and just indulge them lazily.” Lauretta, you made some excellent points about how the food is all around us and we should not ‘starve’ our families due to our personal lack-of-control. This is very true. You then said how men are always surrounded by women … very true. But, as Joe states, we have lost all sense of control over our appetites. We live in a world of abundance and self-control is no longer something to strive for. If our cupboards were filled with fruits and vegetables, we’d be okay now wouldn’t we? My father once told me how when he was a boy, his grandmother would give him 2 hot baked yams for snack after school … they’d keep his hands warm when he went out to play and he’d nibble on them while he was out there. Now, do you know of ANYONE today who would consider that a treat for a snack? No way! That’s the real problem … we have ALTERED our taste buds … we have corrupted them.
How does one turn the clocks back? I do not know. I truly do not, but the answer isn’t to say that we need to feel we’re depriving our family of food by not stocking our cupboards with ‘snack’ foods.
I feel there is a similar link to that of concupiscence. We have been exposed for so long now to poorly clad, immodest men/women … movies and songs that incite lustful desires, married couples who don’t act married, etc that we have CORRUPTED our appetites. What to do? I do not know how we get ourselves out of this bed we have made. We must abstain from the garbage that is coaxing us in. We can’t kid ourselves. We must line our fridge with HEALTHY foods and painfully mortify ourselves of the garbage we crave.
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Hi Fr. Angelo,
I think that you hit the nail on the head when, in your conclusion, you said:
“I for one believe that Dietrich von Hildebrand’s writings on marriage and purity are a key to understanding the Theology of the Body, and Christopher West’s minimalistic attitude toward modesty is certainly not consistent with von Hildebrand’s work.”
Keep up the GREAT work that you do via your blog in building up the Church!
Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,