The following is a guest post from Christina Strafaci, who works in the Diocese of Phoenix and emailed me with a proposed comment to my last post in response to Father Thomas Loya’s comment there. Christina thought her comment might be too long, so she wanted to run it by me first. I believe it is worthy to be a separate post, especially since it comes from someone who has a graduate degree from the JPII Institute and who teaches Theology of the Body.
Since this post falls into the category of a “response” to the “TOB…Train” article, let me begin by offering my sincerest thanks to you, Fr. Geiger, for your straight-forward insights into this “discussion” that, while not new, has reached fever-pitch over the course of the last twelve months. While I have much more to say on this subject, I will try to restrict my comments to addressing to Fr. Loya’s response to Fr. Geiger’s article – at least in the beginning.
I have a Masters of Theological Studies from the JPII Institute, I have read and studied the series of Wednesday audiences popularly known as the “theology of the body”, I’ve spent five years teaching the audiences to high school seniors each spring, and since last year, I have read every substantial post related to this “discussion” about Christopher West, both critique and defense. (I must add here that I am also grateful for the thesis completed by Ms. Dawn Eden.) I offer this information as evidence that I am not new to the discussion, that I have listened carefully, and that I realize much more is at stake than what has been addressed in the blogosphere.
What I glean from Fr. Loya’s response is that he is proud of Tabor Life’s website, both the medium and the message, particularly its ability to capture visitors’ attention, choir-members and wayward-onlookers alike. Therefore, I’ll cut to the chase: May we not claim that the site’s offering of “one-minute meditations” and “freaky” “flash images” is itself guilty of the same reductionism for which Fr. Geiger is now accused? Fr. Loya defends the intro images to be “a very tiny part” of Tabor Life, and yet this “part” is what first attracts – dare I say, baits – the visitors’ vision. Yet, once again, we’re hearing the defense of having been taken out of context. The site hopes to draw in visitors using sensational headlines, images, etc., not unlike the flat-screens flashing ads in shopping malls. What happens when visitors discover that the real “theology of the body” (versus an interpretation of it) is hundreds of pages of complex reading, requiring prayer, meditation, the Holy Bible and a dictionary? Does this site employ the same “partial representation, selective emphasis and soundbite style” – here, a “technique” applied to the content of the Wednesday catecheses? Examining the images and headlines of the Tabor Life website communicates to visitors that the “theology of the body” is a theology of sex, and it – rather than Christ – is the answer to every question in life. Indeed, (too) many popularizers of the “theology of the body” have selectively chosen what is most popular in the Wednesday audiences – most popular to a secular culture – in order to appeal to listeners, unfortunately to the detriment of the whole. I will not restate here what those more eloquent have already observed on this issue. I would like now to broaden the scope of my comments beyond addressing Fr. Loya’s response and his website.
As Ann Hanincik astutely recalled from Ms. Eden’s thesis, the Wednesday catecheses “cannot be taken apart from the whole Tradition” nor treated as a magic bullet to overcome the very real and deeply-felt effects of concupiscence. But let me go one step further to examine this “taking apart” and its effect on JPII’s catechesis. Recently, I was discussing the audiences with a popularizer (also an Institute grad) who referred to the audiences as “TOB” – pronounced “tobe” to be sure. Now, I am not unfamiliar with the trend of referring to the audiences as “T-O-B”, but this new(er) development captures the essence of my concern: What are the (bitter) fruits of reducing JPII’s five-year-long catechesis in such a way? In all the ways that we see being done today? Is it not the very nature of pornography – as we see every day in this “pornified world” according to Fr. Loya – to fragment the whole, reduce it into little pieces, dissociating the fragments to be objects of use, separate from the unified and meaningful integrity of the whole? Some of my classmates engaged in the work of marriage preparation will protest such a plea for a more holistic approach with the claim that there is not enough time or willingness in their listeners, that “reduction” is absolutely necessary in light of the precious few opportunities they have with engaged couples. This doesn’t change the evidence that in the distillation process applied to the audiences during the past decade, important elements have been lost.
For example, Dr. David Schindler has noted two elements (among others) missing from what has become popular catechesis: the question of filiality and the Marian-feminine dimension. First, the spousal meaning of the body cannot be taken apart from the original, filial meaning of the body:
sexual love as understood in the work of John Pope II must be inserted within a love between spouses that itself takes its most radical meaning from filial relation to God. Sexual-spousal love participates in this more original filial relation to God as its sign and expression, but does so only as consequent to and distinct from this more original filial relation.
It sounds very much like we quickly move past “solitude” in order to get to “unity” as if the former is to the detriment of the latter in the eyes of our students. Second, studying the audiences cannot be taken apart from contemplating the virginal-fruitful embodiedness of Mary, and indeed, must be more thoroughly considered in light of her and what is “revealed” by the feminine:
The third of my criticisms meant to indicate the sense in which the Church’s Marian mystery, and also the feminine dimension, are central for the theology of the body. After Christ, Mary reveals to us most profoundly the “original” meaning of body that needs to remain present within sexual-marital love. In her fiat, we discover the contemplative meaning of the body (Mary “pondered these things in her heart”). In this light, contrary to what is assumed in the dominant culture, women have a naturally more profound sense (than do men) of the implicit, and of interiority or of what develops slowly-organically and from within. Women have a naturally more profound sense of mystery and thus of what is entailed in the unveiling of the body–for example, an organic in contrast to mechanical sense of time, and consequently a different idea of the meaning and significance of nakedness itself.
Is it sufficient to ask for Mary’s protection and intercession, to post an icon of her on one’s website, or even to palliatively mention her fiat and purity in a discussion about the sexual union and then in the same breath, claim that one fully appreciates this Marian-feminine dimension? (It is only on Fr. Geiger’s site and in Dr. Alice von Hildebrand’s writings that I have read an adequate probing of the question of veiledness since the question was raised last year.) Our culture disregards, dismisses as weak, and holds in contempt interiority, silence, and contemplation. How has this affected even our own approach to the audiences?
As I stated earlier, I have taught the “theology of the body” and will continue to teach it. Like West, Loya, and catechists across the nation, we are trying to teach calculus to a classroom full of students that never learned how to do basic math. Translation: We expect students to understand the spousal meaning of the body and sacrificial self-gift before they understand their own unique identity as God’s creation, made for union with Him. Praise God for all the good fruit that has already and will continue to come from our efforts, but if consequences of a certain reductionism are coming to light today, why are we – all of us, myself included – reluctant to address and correct our missteps?
In all honesty, I am tired of the hackneyed claim that those who have raised serious concerns, pointed out errors of interpretation, and/or offered constructive criticism are somehow being uncharitable – lacking “charity” in the tenor of their voice, choice of words, whatever. Really? Are we all so thin-skinned? Are we all that full of pride? How many times does the caveat need to be set forth that no one in these discussions attributes to West, Loya, et. al. anything but the desire to bring persons closer to Christ? When will the faithful see demonstrations of humility rather than defensiveness? When are the real discussions going to happen? As much as I dislike this ubiquitous expression, it is time for us to move forward. The content of this response notwithstanding, I have very little interest in devoting my spare time to critiquing Tabor Life, Christopher West, or the current trends of popular catechesis on the Wednesday audiences. I think we’ve all got more work to do, I’m confident that we can do better, and I’d rather be working together with all of these dedicated teachers rather than in spite of them: “I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10). Praise God for the gifts of inquiry, intellect, and discernment that He has bestowed upon us. Ad Jesum per Mariam.