Recently, the Theology of the Body Institute conducted its first national congress, during which the triumphal march of the new chastity catechesis pressed forward–in spite of the fact that the movement’s avatar, Christopher West, was absent, presumably to reflect upon his method of presenting the Theology of the Body. Perhaps I was naïve, but I thought West’s sabbatical meant that his critics had made some headway. Such progress, unfortunately, did not seem to be reflected at the congress. Dr. Janet Smith, for example, stated the following:
The 1st thing we need to know is God is chasing us down like a lover. Every lover is a pathological stalker. God is a stalker.
Am I quoting out of context? I would like to know in what context the comparison of God to a pathological sexual deviant would be appropriate. Please note that the above statement was published as a tweet by the congress organizers themselves. So this is what they themselves decided to feed the public.
Shock Treatment on Rails
The continuing shock treatment approach to Theology of the Body continues the tradition instituted by Christopher West. Criticisms are persistently met with accusations of personal attack [this link has been updated, as the author, Christina King, changed the name of her post from “Witch Hunt Part 2” to “Theology of the Body Part 2”], the exigencies of popular catechesis and the evolutionary quality of West’s work. The flamboyant, embarrassing and irreverent presentation of the Holy Father’s work has become the sacred cow of this movement in the United States.
So what is Christopher West up to, if he is not in the process of modifying his presentation? Well, apparently he is preparing to speak again on September 11, which will be a premature end to his six-month sabbatical.
So, the Theology of the Body Institute, steaming forward undaunted by opposition:
TOB is a locomotive: Lead, Follow or Get out of the way!
Meriting particular caution is that locomotive force by the name of Fr. Thomas J. Loya, one of the premier speakers of the Theology of the Body International Alliance, an organization which was honored by the TOB Institute at the congress. I wish we could say that the following statements of Father Loya at the conference were just hyperbole, or were taken out of context—after all they were recorded on Twitter:
TOB is not a big idea. It is THE big idea
For the last 500 yrs, we’ve been looking through a veil of unreality.
We have not really seen what the world looks like through true Catholic vision. JPII took away the veil to help us see!
But no, these remarks were not taken out of context. On the contrary, this is classic Fr. Loya. I was just watching one of his videos in which he remarked:
You cannot escape the Theology of the Body. It is everywhere. It is the answer to all of life’s questions.
I guess there is no use trying to get out of the way of the TOB runaway train. But I will try anyway.
With Faces and Bodies Unveiled
So what are we supposed to see when we put on the indispensible TOB lenses provided by the Theology of the Body Institute? When we shed the “veil of unreality,” in the light of the “mystical text” of the Theology of the Body, what are we to see?
To answer this question we need look no further than Father Loya’s stunning website. And yes, I mean stunning. It is a real eye opener. But I do not recommend you look: us old-school types—you know, the one’s living behind the veil of unreality—would call it an occasion of sin. Anyone who happens upon Taborlife.org will get a whole memory full for their imagination to play with: a naked woman and a couple having intercourse (along with bizarre images of tattooed bodies, sacred images of Jesus and Mary, a woman with a crystal ball and another covered in mud). No, it is not hardcore pornography and Father Loya has designed his animated banner so the viewer only gets fleeting glimpses of images superimposed with text (for example: “naked without shame,” “sexuality,” “truth,” “mysticism,” “nudity,” “hate,” “womb tabernacle”). But I am not sure the speed at which the images appear and disappear mitigates the experience. It is rather creepy, actually: agitated, subliminal and looped to play over and over again.
Then there is Father Loya’s radio show, A Body of Truth. Several slices of the body, in particular, a woman’s breasts, become the focus of attention of several of his shows. One is entitled “Breasts,” in which the said body part is displayed in the web page’s thumbnail without the woman’s face. The other is called “Less is More,” which contains in the thumbnail the Hooter’s restaurant logo, which caricatures a woman’s breasts.
In his show on “breasts,” Father Loya announces a “Vatican” initiative to have the Blessed Virgin Mary represented anew by artists with exposed breasts, feeding the infant Jesus. This is a traditional image that was quite popular before the Council of Trent, which attempted to regulate liturgical images more strictly. Images of Maria Lactans (Mary Breastfeeding) were never forbidden, and have remained in use in many places in Europe. In fact, the modern church of Maria delle Grazie (1956) in San Giovianni Rotundo, which was built to accommodate all the penitents who came to see Padre Pio has a very large image of Our Lady with Our Lord reaching for her exposed breast.
Actually, the so-called “Vatican” initiative is really the inspiration of certain editorial writers for the L’Osservatore Romano, the semi-official newspaper of the Vatican. Such opinion pieces do not represent the work of the dicasteries of the Holy See, nor are they any necessary indication of the will of the Holy Father.
What interests me in this regard is not the fact that these images are being defended in the Vatican newspaper. Rather it is the fact that their production is being proposed as a remedy for prudery and propaganda for breastfeeding. These purposes really have nothing to do with the goals of liturgical art.
In his show “Less is More,” Father Loya excoriates the Hooters restaurant chain for exploiting women by marketing their stores on the basis of men’s desire to gawk at women’s breasts. He makes it very clear that he totally disapproves of this exploitation.
A similar theme runs throughout both shows. It is not the exposition of naked breasts for all to see that concerns Father Loya, but the context and intentionality, or what he describes as “the sacramental world view.” He claims that we have a hang up, an obsession with women’s breasts because we have dissociated their beauty from their function. He suggests that the best cure for this obsession is for women to breastfeed in public. He actually believes this plan with clear up the whole problem men’s obsession with a woman’s breasts.
In the show on “breasts,” Father Loya suggests that the advent of science led man to devalue created things because they could be more easily manipulated and controlled. This undermined the sacramental worldview and cultivated in us an unhealthy dualism, which holds spiritual things to be good and physical things to be bad. In this context a woman’s breasts, allegedly, came to be looked upon as evil.
I find this analysis breathtaking. I would suggest Father Loya is creating a mythology to support what he misnames a “sacramental worldview,” which could be more properly described as a “magical worldview.” Does he really believe that the obsession of men with women’s bodies began in the 16th century?
What is totally overlooked in all this is the question of concupiscence and the wholesomeness of modesty. Of course, the body must be considered in the light of a sacramental worldview, and from the point of sexuality the sacrament that informs the worldview is Holy Matrimony. A man’s regard for his wife’s body is unique. Such regard is misplaced when men are encouraged to look any and all woman up and down and pretend it is a true sacramentalized perspective.
So Father Loya wants us to believe that reality is looking at naked people through the specs provided by the Theology of the Body Institute.
In a way, I suppose it is. Only in our age would a well-known Catholic speaker compare God to a pathological sexual deviant. Only in our age would the Catholic intelligentsia distinguish between pornography and “holy” preoccupation with the body with hair-splitting nuance (pornography vs. theo-graphy, according to West).
But apparently Father Loya is up for the task. The good father recently gave a conference at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago during which he used a slide presentation to help the attendees distinguish between good nudity and bad nudity. According to Catholic columnist Matthew C. Abbott, who was there, Father Loya displayed “nude models (who were shown in, er, strategic positions so as to not reveal everything),” as well as
“soft-porn” ads, i.e. Hooters ads and other provocative photos, where he described, by pointing to various spots on the photographs, why those were the “bad/suggestive images” as opposed to the “good/innocent images” of, say, nudity on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (E-mail, August 4, 2010, quoted with permission.).
In fact, Father Loya, who was an artist at one time and admits to having spent several hours everyday for several years looking at naked people while rendering the human figure in art, guarantees that when anyone who is “sincerely searching to perceive the limitless principles of beauty in the human body and is furthermore ‘co-creating,’” there is “no room for lust.”
A true freedom in the Spirit, a true, lasting and integrated purity of heart comes not from “looking away” from the human body. Rather it is in learning to look “at” the human body with the eyes of God, with the deep soul of true Catholicism and the sacramental worldview.
We must never, ever look at pornography. But since we are immersed in a pornified world and surrounded by various degrees of soft porn our only way out is to fight fire with fire. We have to learn to see through the lens of the theology of the body. In terms of some practical advice I suggest a three part technique that I call, “see–pray–and pass on.”
Father Loya has also recommended, in more practical terms, how to implement this magical “three part” technique, with particular emphasis on the “see” part:
“Alright Look at her!! That’s right, look at her!! Look at her butt, her breasts, but don’t stop there. Look at every aspect of her magnificent femininity! Take her in completely and say, “How many are your works, O Lord, in wisdom you have made them all!” (Psalm 103).
Okay, ladies, are you now feeling uncomfortable riding the TOB train? Gentlemen, the chivalrous thing to do is to pull the emergency stop and then escort the ladies and yourselves off this ride to hell.
Both Alice Von Hildebrand and Dawn Eden have shown this approach to the question of concupiscence and modesty is foreign to Catholic tradition. In particular, Dawn Eden in her thesis shows how Christopher West and Father Loya have cloaked their own imaginative approach to modesty with the authority of John Paul II.
In order to explain himself, Father Loya, makes an appeal to mysticism, an appeal which is more mystifying than it is enlightening. Father Loya claims that the Theology of the Body is “John Paul II reaching into the mystical foundation of reality.” Father Loya claims that mystical “means the most real.”
It means seeing things as they truly are as greater than the some of there parts as pointing to something beyond themselves. That’s reality people! Not what we live—until this weekend. We all become mystics.
Now, if this was being applied simply to our understanding of the nuptial meaning of the body, and to the exalted vision of the human person, of marriage and sexuality that is enshrined in the corpus of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, then I would be right at Father Loya’s side. But in the above quote, he implies that the immersion of his listeners in his explanation of Theology of the Body is going to give them new eyes to see and with that new vision there will be “no room for lust.” It would seem to me that Father Loya is applying the mysticism of the Theology of the Body to the esoteric nature of the texts themselves. Elsewhere he writes:
The TOB, like all of John Paul’s thought, is dense and intellectual. But it is primarily mystical. And it’s this element that brings us to the “problem” of Christopher West and even the “problem” of the TOB itself.
This is precisely where popularizers like Christopher West and Father Loya have the average Catholic at a disadvantage. The highly intellectualized presentation of John Paul II is being sloughed off as mysticism. We are supposed to believe that because we have connected to these charismatic personalities who have become our channel to Theology of the Body—are they channeling John Paul II, perhaps?—that we have entered into the magical power of lust control. For five hundred years, according to Father Loya, we have been living in unreality. Now with the magical text of Theology of the Body, and with a wave of the hand of Father Loya over the rune covered pages, we see visions of holy naked bodies. Blessed be!
As this question continues to be discussed I hope the defenders of Christopher West take Alice Von Hildebrand’s remarks concerning the use of analogy very seriously. It is one thing to see in human sexuality a sign of things to come. That is a truly mystical approach. It is another thing for fallen men to rest in the beauty of the human body as though it were a mystical experience of God. That idea is not much different than the sex magic of Dan Brown, Aleister Crowley and Anton La Vey.
In any case, these popularizers simply are not clearly representing John Paul’s teaching. They are using his impenetrable philosophical language to push their own pet ideas.
Principle of Decency
The presentation of Father Loya at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago was a Theology on Tap event, sponsored by the church’s young adults group. Unfortunately, the magisterium’s instructions on the passing on of sexual information to young people states that it should exclude all “material of an erotic nature.” This goes for information passed on to “children,” as well as to “young people of any age, individually or in a group.”
But it seems to me the principle of decency applies to all:
This principle of decency must safeguard the virtue of Christian chastity.
I don’t think this principle makes an exception for those who believe in magic.
In a particular way, the principle of decency applies to images, especially photographs and motion pictures. John Paul II indicates in the text of Theology of the Body that in photographs and film the image of the body is not “the model transfigured,” as it would be in the case of “the plastic arts, sculpture or painting,” but the “reproduction of the living man, minus his or her identity. Christopher West, unlike Father Loya, recognizes this:
A real danger exists of objectifying the naked body through artistic portrayal. John Paul describes this as the danger of anonymity, which is a way of “veiling” or “hiding” the identity of the person reproduced. Through photography in particular, the Pope observes that the body very often becomes an “anonymous” object, especially when the images of a person’s body are diffused on the screens of the whole world.
Perhaps Mr. West needs to speak to Father Loya about his website and travelling show and tell.
Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy
The Theology of the Body Institute is engaged in mystagogery disguised as orthodoxy and sentimental enthusiasm disguised as orthopraxy. According to “Katherine Blanchard, the Theology of the Body Institute’s director of development, the disagreement between the Institute and its critics
is really on a philosophical level, and we’re focusing on the practical application of the theology. We’ll let the academics work out the details and respect their conclusions. This is such an original message that there are always better ways to learn and teach about it. That’s what we’re here to do.
This is an obfuscation. This radically new approach to chastity formation, which suggests, as it does, that one may and should play fast and loose with the occasion of sin is based on doctrinal sleight of hand. I am not sure which came first: playing fast and loose or the sleight of hand. My guess is that difficulties with concupiscence and conscience has lead some to use the Holy Father’s writings in a rationalistic way, in ways he never intended. Perhaps the “Spirit” of the Theology of the Body needs a good exorcism.