Christopher West: Sexualizing Christianity

I recently became aware of an exchange between Dr. Mark Lowery and Christopher West that took place in around the turn of the year 2002.  Dr. Lowery’s assessment of Mr. West’s work was fair.  Like many today, he commended the Theology of the Body apologist for his flair getting across to audiences around the country the reason why “the bedroom needs the Church.”  And like many today, he expressed his reservations about the way in which West “sexualizes Christianity.”  Lowery intimates that a kind of inversion has taken place in West’s understanding of the relationship between sexuality and Christianity:

Put another way, so clearly does he see how sexuality must be taken up into Christianity that he can give the impression that Christianity has been taken up into sexuality.

The Great Sign

I made essentially the same point some time ago when I asserted that West is misusing theological analogy.  The basis for the use of analogy in theology is the fact that created things reflect the Creator.  God leaves signs of Himself in the things He creates, and the truths that he reveals to us supernaturally illumine the meaning of the signs.  Hence, for example, marriage and sexuality reflect that communion of the three Divine Persons and the revelation of the Blessed Trinity helps us to understand the meaning of sexual union.  However, it would be an unnatural reversal to project the reality of the sign onto God.  Hence, while it is true that sexual pleasure is a faint reflection of the bliss of heaven, the inverse is not true, namely that heaven is like the “ultimate climax.”

Over the years West has tried to qualify this remark and suggest that he means this in a very restricted sense, but in effect, when he says things like this, or compares the Easter Liturgy to a fertility rite, or proposes that the virginal conception of Our Lord is aptly described impregnation by the seed of God, he really is doing exactly what Dr. Lowery suggested eight years ago.  He is sexualizing Christianity.  So when Dr. Schindler responded to West’s Nightline interview, he made essentially the same contention proposed by Dr. Lowery:

In the end, West, in his disproportionate emphasis on sex, promotes a pansexualist tendency that ties all important human and indeed supernatural activity back to sex without the necessary dissimilitudo [unlikeness].

Same Old Thing

What interests me most about this, and the reason I am posting on it, is that it does not seem that much has changed over the last eight years.  The recent firestorm over the Nightline interview is not really a new controversy, though to some it might seem new, due to the fact that not many dared to challenge West publically on his positions before then.  But neither is West’s response to the Nightline controversy new.  He uses his same old standby arguments he has been using for years, namely 1) that people take exception to his form because he is addressing the problems of sexuality frankly in a popular way, and 2) that for this reason people have taken him out of context, and really object, not to his position, but to that of John Paul II.

Over the years he has refined his argument by focusing on his contention that the real reason anyone objects to the substance and manner of his presentation is that they are prudes who are afraid of their bodies and are projecting hidden sexual anxiety onto him.  This is his failsafe.  Any objection can be dismissed as downplaying the value of sexuality, as treating it as something dirty, or worse.

This fact, along with his augmented reputation as the authority on TOB, has allowed West to be less forthcoming in his responses to his critics than he has in the past.  For almost six months he withheld a response from those who took exception to his Nightline presentation, and rendered one only after having received a quasi-canonization of his work from Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Rhoades.

Slippery Fish

When he did finally respond, his statement was completely generic.  He asserted that the “pivotal question” in the whole controversy is that of the victory of redeemed man over the domination of concupiscence, declaring that John Paul affirms it and that his critics deny it.  I presume he really believes this, but that must be because, as he admits, he sees the Theology of the Body as a

“new lens through which to view the most essential theological and anthropological truths of the faith.

So while he does not admit to “sexualizing Christianity,” in the sense that he has really added anything to the reality of Christianity, neither does he deny that that the Christian view of reality is sexual.  Hence, it is telling that in his response to his critics he makes no rebuttal to the charge of pansexualism.  All he does is insist that anyone who disagrees with him disagrees with the pope.

So when, on the ground of the absence of patristic and magisterial evidence, critics object to his claiming that the Paschal candle is a phallic symbol he contends really they are just prudes and just can’t handle the teaching of John Paul II.  Or more precisely, he just ignores the specific criticism and chooses only to speak in generalities about the “pivotal question.”  All of which is ironic considering that Professor Janet Smith and Michael Waldstein came running to West’s defense with cries of foul on the ground that Dr. Schindler’s critique was not specific enough.

The Real JP II

But concerning the “pivotal question,” West is quite forthcoming.  He marshals his legions of quotations from the text of the Theology of the Body, asserting typically that everything he says is already said by the pope.  This also he has been doing for years.  So, for example, when West attempts to answer the charge of Dr. Lowery that he has replaced the more fundamental truth of “the Trinitarian life, dwelling in us as grace, through the Incarnation” with sex, he replies:

Lowery is right: Grace belongs at the foundation of Christian truth. But how is grace communicated to man? Without this, grace remains abstract. John Paul stresses that in creation grace was communicated “through the union of the first man and woman in … marriage.” In redemption this same grace is communicated through “the indissoluble union of Christ with the Church, which … Ephesians presents as the nuptial union of spouses” (Oct. 13, 1982).

In the reality this is what the Holy Father says in context:

In this way the Mystery hidden from all eternity in God—a mystery that in the beginning in the sacrament of creation became a visible reality through the union of the first man and the first woman in the perspective of marriage—becomes in the sacrament of redemption a visible reality in the indissoluble union of Christ with the Church, which the author of Ephesians presents as the spousal union of the two, husband and wife (Waldstein translation, 4, see original translation from which West most likely worked for his reply to Lowery).

Nowhere here does the Holy Father say what West claims he does, namely, that “in creation grace was communicated ‘through the union of the first man and woman in … marriage.’”  John Paul II is talking about the transformation of marriage from a “sacrament of creation” in the garden to a “sacrament of redemption” on the cross.  And the point he is really making is that the real source of grace is the nuptial mystery of Christ’s union with the Church.

In both cases marriage is a sign.  It makes the invisible visible.  However, the Holy Father is careful to point out that the sign does not mean “a total clearing of the mystery.”  In fact, he says:

The visibility of the Invisible belongs thus to the order of signs, and the “sign” merely indicates the reality of the mystery, but does not “unveil” it (5).

None of this suggests we need to be fascinated with nakedness and the mechanics of sex in order to perceive the sign.  Indeed, the reference to the fact that signs point to the mystery but do not unveil it, suggests exactly the opposite.

Dr. Lowery, like West’s other critics over the years, does not seek to minimize the validity of the nuptial analogy maintained by St. Paul in the fifth chapter of his Letter to the Ephesians, nor its reaffirmation by Pope John Paul.  The charge of Lowery was the sexualization of Christianity not the adherence to fundamental value of the nuptial analogy.  The difference is between the two is to understand the importance of marriage, in its whole reality, as a fundamental sign, or to see coital images in everything Christian.  The first is the assertion of John Paul II, the second is that of Christopher West.

That’ll Do It

This, again, is just another example of the theological method of Christopher West, whereby he takes a passage from TOB or from the writings of the saints and forces it into labor for which it was never intended.  And then when anyone disagrees, he dismisses the objection with the assertion that his critic is out of step with the pope.

This has been going on for an awful long time.  Hopefully at West’s Theology of the Body Congress coming up in July he will take the opportunity to correct some of these mistakes and abandon once for all his pansexualism.  He does so much good work.  Why should he continue to undermine it by error?  Unfortunately, the literature does not sound promising:

Because the Theology of the Body is rooted in the Catholic sacramental worldview, it is destined to affect all aspects of faith and life—from worship, to how we conduct business, to how we experience leisure, to how we live out our creation as male and female. It is for these reasons that we have been compelled to gather some of the most renowned teachers of the Catholic faith and Theology of the Body.

When West uses the term Theology of the Body in contexts like this, read “sexuality,” because when he uses umbrella terms like TOB and “nuptiality,” he is trying to place his preoccupation with sex within the context of the Church’s teaching.  The problem is that, as Dr. Lowery indicated, sexuality needs to be taken up into Christianity, not Christianity into sexuality.

14 thoughts on “Christopher West: Sexualizing Christianity

  1. Pingback: Compendium of TOB Posts « Mary Victrix

  2. TOB elevates our understanding of our mateial bodies to their proper dignity – their sacramental dignity.

    From this we can understand that all we do with our bodies ought to likewise be elevated to that same dignity.

    We can say that TOB is a foundation for the theology on labor and charity.

    So, yes, TOB is pervasive – and in our hypersexualized culture wherein our bodies (and the labor and charity which are bodies make manifest in this world) are treated as objects, it makes perfect practical sense to speak in terms that the audience undertands so that they can see how the pervasive hypersxualized (aka objectified) culture needs to be replaced with the culture of TOB.

    Clergy (or even a layperson, as canon law anticipates) assist and witness the sacrament, but do not confer it. The sacrament of matrimony is conferred by the spouses unto one another (CCC 1623). That conferral seems to have full effect only after it has been consummated by the marital embrace itself (sexual union). The conjugal marital act brings a “ratum tantum” (ratum = ratified; tantum = only, just) marriage (Canon 1061), which can be annulled even if it is otherwise completely proper (Canon 1697, et seq), into a state where even the pope cannot annull it.

    In fact, “after a marriage has been celebrated, if the spouses have lived together consummation is presumed until the contrary is proven,” clearly indicating that there is no real marriage until “spouses have performed between themselves in a human fashion a conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring”.(Canon 1061).

    So it would seem that the inurement of grace does not occur until that time – in other words, sacramental grace inures during the marital union.

    Sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” (CCC 1131)

    As your quotation demonstrates, John Paul explained that Christ deliberately elevated the corporal and spiritual union within a marriage by explaning that union as a sign of the “sacrament of creation” and the “sacrament of redemption”.

    Given Jesus’ linkage of marriage to the beginning (to the Creation of bodily man and woman), it certainly seems that God continues to communicate grace to us in marriage, and in a particularly important way during each truly marital embrace (sexual union).

    In light of the Church’s canonical and theological understanding of marital union, it seems that West is very correct to say:

    John Paul stresses that in creation grace was communicated “through the union of the first man and woman in … marriage.” In redemption this same grace is communicated through “the indissoluble union of Christ with the Church, which … Ephesians presents as the nuptial union of spouses”

  3. Thank you, Father. Chris West has little or nothing in common with Karol Wojtyla. It’s not a secondary theology, but rather something totally different – cheap and puerile.


    Rob Collorafi

  4. Sacralizing sex is not “sexualizing Christianity” (as you claim it is).

    By canon and by theology the conjugal sexual act is necessary and proper to the sacrament of matrimony.

    It is likewise necessary and proper to baptism (infant baptism presumes sacramental sex by the infant’s parents, and adult baptism affirms the goodness of that adult’s human birth brought about via a sexual union).

    And since baptism is necessary for the Church to exist, it seems that sex is necesary and proper to the sacramental sign known as the Church.

    What am I missing?

  5. Pingback: Sexing up Canon Law « Mary Victrix

  6. Dear PSS,

    Could you please clarify what you mean when you state that “infant baptism presumes sacramental sex on the part of the infant’s parents”? To my knowledge, infant baptism presumes proper form and matter applied to the infant regardless of the sacramental or non-sacramental quality of the parent’s sexual encounter. To make the point in the extreme, a infant whose conception was the result of the violation of his mother would still be a candidate for the grace of baptism, wouldn’t he?

  7. As I recall, the normitive text in the rite of matrimony and the rite of baptism presume that a married couple will create children through conjugal union and present thes echildren for baptism.

    Of course that is normitive, not always the cas – which is why I used the word “presumes”.

  8. Thank you, PSS. I’m not certain that your use of “presumes” communicated the thought content you intended. So, thank you for the clarification. At the same time, I do wonder if bringing baptism into the mix is actually helpful to your line of argumentation. Peace and good.

  9. Pingback: Father Peter Damian Fehlner on Ratified, Non-Consummated Marriages « Mary Victrix

  10. I am adding the following comment from Thomas (Tue, Feb 9, 2010 at 5:33 PM), which failed to post, I gather, because the email notification was trapped in my spam filter:

    I think Mr. West’s statement was sincere and express willingness to take criticism and improve his presentations. I think we need to give him a chance and give him the benefit of the doubt and see what improvements he will make. From what I understand, his books are excellent; it is his presentations that have caused many to question his interpretations of TOB teaching. Can anyone recommend other authors or presenters that may have a clear orthodox view of JPII TOB?

    Well, many have been waiting an awful long time for clarifications from CW.

    I would recommend Steve Kellmeyer’s Sex and the Sacred City as a excellent starting point because it places Theology of the Body in the larger context of the Church’s ordinary magisterium, and and also in the larger context of family life. It is a great example of the hermeneutic of continuity in action.

    At 100 pages, it is also fairly brief and serves a a great introduction.

  11. Pingback: Theology of the Body: Of Sign and Fulfillment « Mary Victrix

  12. Pingback: Theology of the Body: Of Sign and Fulfillment |

  13. Pingback: On “Higher” Vocations and the “Marital Paradigm” | Spiritual Friendship

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