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.