More TOB Discussion

Genevieve Kineke and Heidi Saxton have published in interesting conversation about Heidi’s article on Alice von Hildebrand’s critique of Christopher West.

I think Heidi goes too far in attributing the controversy to differences in background and the difference between the work of a philosopher and that of and evangelist.

For example:

The fact that AVH took such exception to CW describing TOB as “revolutionary” is a good example of the tension between ideas and finding points of connection. She interpreted “revolution” to mean a destruction of past Church teaching—which I do not believe CW believes.

Actually, from a philosophical point of view, I think that AVH has shown West to mean exactly what he says he means.  “Revolution,” “theological time bomb” may be the terms of an evangelist, but they have implications in matters of truth.  Either the philosophy and the popular message work together or they do not, and then one of them must be false.  In any case, whether Heidi wants to believe that West sees TOB as a destruction of earlier Church teaching or not, both AVH, Dawn Eden and others have shown West to be innovating in ways that have no basis in the tradition. Hence when she says the following:

There is room for both schools of thought—so long as each is willing to be led by the Spirit, with humility and openness to change. . .

I have to say that she is ignoring the evidence, humility and openness to change notwithstanding.

I will agree that manner and content will differ to some extent between philosophers and evangelists, but the difference between AVH and West cannot be reduced to that or to differences in background.  Put bluntly, West is inventing and AVH is not.

Interestingly, Christina King has attached an irrelevant comment to the discussion in opposition to Dawn Eden, for some reason, trying to distance the Theology of the Body Institute from Christopher West.  That is a tough one to sell.  I would like to know, how many of the speakers or board members of the Institute have spoken or published a critique of West’s work.  On the other hand, how many speakers and organizers at the recent conference have publically defended his teaching?

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Father Loya: Peer Reviewed

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.

Theology of the Body and the Mystical, Magical Train

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. Continue reading

Alice Von Hildebrand’s New Essay on Her Husband and Christopher West

Dr. Alice Von Hildebrand has just published a comparative study of her late husband and Christopher West.  Here is a link to the essay and another one to a new interview with her.  I had the privilege of collaborating with her, along with others, on this project and I am profoundly humbled that she has considered my own work on Christopher West worthy of admiration:

Acknowledgements:

This article (for which mistakes, inaccuracies and imperfections I carry full responsibility for) is in fact a work of collaboration with several thinkers I admire and respect. Let me mention, among others, Father Brian Mullady, OP; Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger, F.I., Fr. Anthony Mastroeni and James Likoudis. They have read the manuscript. Their comments and criticisms have been highly appreciated and most helpful.

Dawn Eden also deserves notable mention: her in-depth knowledge of the work of Christopher West has been crucial to me. Through her scholarship, I made the acquaintance of several texts I had not read. I owe her a special thanks.

Last, but not least, this article was truly done in collaboration with my friend, William Doino. His knowledge of history , his intelligence, and  endless patience with the changes I kept introducing, was of such value to me, that I do not hesitate to say that without him, this manuscript never would have been published. Thank you to all these dear friends. May it all be ad majorem Dei gloriam.

I have believed for some time that it is essential for Dr. Von Hildebrand to secure the legacy of her husband as clearly distinct from that of Christopher West, and I believe that she has done a masterful job at that task in this essay.  May this work be an instrument of grace to communicate the Church’s true doctrine of chastity, modesty and the beauty of Christian marriage.

That for Which We Fight

Over the last week or so my attention has been drawn to two articles that touch upon the subject of the “feminine genius.” Both of them tend to underscore, in different ways, the problem I mentioned in my recent post, “War in Paradise.” To reiterate what I wrote there: The feminist narrative has dictated our presentation of sex relations in such a way that fatherhood has been left to hang out to dry.

The Thinking Housewife has rejected John Paul II’s use of the feminine narrative outright, in particular, where he seems to overcompensate for historical discrimination against women by asserting that every woman, by the “simple fact of being a woman,” makes the world a better place.
The Thinking Housewife responds.

This is not true. Every women [sic] is not good, nor is any woman entirely good. All women do not enrich the world’s understanding by their sheer existence. John Paul II was a holy man fulfilling a complex role. These words are grave missteps on his political journey. It is no exaggeration to say that these particular words are anti-Christian. No human being is to be exalted for the sheer fact of being human. We are born in sin and error.

On the other hand, Bill Donaghy from the Theology of the Body Institute, sets up a hypothetical dichotomy between the Petrine and Marian principles of the Church, which he never entirely resolves. Mr. Donaghy uses the familiar caricature of St. Peter as the archetype of the masculine side of Catholic spirituality: plodding “impetuous, lovable, ‘open mouth, insert foot.’” And on the feminine side the spectrum he posits Our Lady as the “the primordial way, the first way, the fundamental posture for those who thirst for the Holy Spirit.”

I believe these two very different perspectives highlight the extent which gender confusion has made a mess of sex relations.

In fact John Paul II did ascribe a certain primacy to the Marian principle over the Petrine:

This Marian profile is also—even perhaps more so— fundamental and characteristic for the Church as is the apostolic and Petrine profile to which it is profoundly united. In this vision of the Church Mary precedes the People of God who are still pilgrims. . . .

Mr. Donaghy rightly points out that

The Marian Way is receptive, it waits, receives and is still. It listens to words and contemplates the Word. By no means, incidentally, is it to be confused with passivity.

Unfortunately, he goes no further with his rejection of passivity as to affirm “active listening and eager expectation.” From here he proceeds to the familiar “impregnation” analogy typical of the school of Christopher West. There is more to active receptivity than listening and expectation and it has nothing to do with being “impregnated.”

Without question, the Marian principle enjoys a certain priority over the Petrine on the basis on the consent of Our Lady upon which our salvation was conditioned. However, it is necessary that this be stated precisely.

First off, John Paul II states that Mary is the “archetype of the Church” on the basis of the “divine maternity,” because the Church is called to be both “mother and virgin.”

For this reason, I believe the hyper-eroticism of the school of Christopher West is fundamentally misguided. God did not impregnate Mary. She conceived virginally by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The analogy to be used is not sexual reproduction. Mr. Donaghy says to men that the Marian dimension is “NOT an affront to our manhood,” but then goes on to suggest that in the spiritual life we are all impregnated by God. Personally, I am not particularly interested in being impregnated, and I am quite convinced that the vast majority of men feel the same way—for good reason.

Incidentally, Dawn Eden has shown in her thesis that the phallic interpretation of the Easter Candle is completely misguided, confirming much of what I have written on the subject. She has shown by means of more extensive research that is certainly no patristic basis for asserting any phallic interpretation, and that, on the contrary, it is of modern origin and connected to pagan interpretations of the liturgy. Furthermore, Dawn has shown that when the Easter liturgy was revised as mandated by Vatican II, those responsible deliberately undertook the work so that the triple immersion of the candle would not be construed to be symbolizing the sexual act.

The insistence on using the sexual analogy to represent the bridal aspect of spirituality has the curious effect of exalting male eroticism on the one hand and of making female submissiveness the definitive archetype of spirituality on the other. This promotes the worst kind of chivalry. One extreme of historical chivalry idealizes sex by way of the worship of the goddess. Another—not entirely unrelated to the first—reduces the noble behavior of men to purpose of serving women.

But if all this is problematic, in what sense dose the Marian principle hold primacy over the Petrine? Or in what way do we begin our journey in receptivity without being purely passive?

I believe that the answer lies in understanding that adult faith is expressed in a particular way by that virtue and—more importantly—gift of the Holy Spirit known as fortitude. Confirmation is the Sacrament that strengthens us to become soldiers for Christ, and this is principally a matter of fortitude. In the first place, it is constituted by a kind of receptivity, which is endurance in the face of fear. Hence, fortitude helps us to overcome fear of death on the battlefield and even to count it as our greatest honor, as in the case of the martyrs. However, fortitude also concerns, secondarily, a moderate assertion of daring in order to overcome the aggressor. Spiritually, the aggressor is Satan, but in the social order, there are temporal evils that must be opposed.

Hence, “receptive but not passive,” means that grace is always primary and is first of all a matter of resisting a spiritual enemy through endurance. But it also means that we will have to actively oppose what is dishonorable and contrary to the common good.

This is true for both men and women, but, in a particular way, fathers will be called upon—not to be impregnated, but to fight the good fight. It is, therefore, telling that Mr. Donaghy uses the caricature of St. Peter to represent the masculine and never once mentions fatherhood in connection with the Petrine principle.

It is also understandable, then, that The Thinking Housewife has had enough of the feminist narrative and has tired of the “feminine genius” being construed as the supreme archetype. On the other hand, all women do represent something by means of their femininity, even if they do not realize it in their persons.

Bob Hope was right in what he used to say to the fighting men when he visited them on his USO tours. He would bring a starlet out on stage and say: “I just wanted to remind you what you are fighting for.” While there is much to criticize about this, there is also a grain of truth to it. Sorting it all out is never easy.

The most fundamental archetypes of the Christian life are not Peter and Mary, but Jesus and Mary. Our Lord was a fighting man and ultimately answered only to His Father. But He also condescended to become the Child of Mary and asks us to have the humility to do the same.  By reflecting on this, we may learn to redeem the relationship between man and woman, but it is unlikely that we will ever redeem feminism.  Or as Dawn Eden has written:

The Word who saves us was, like the woman who brought Him forth, immaculately conceived. Not so with the word feminism — which is why it cannot save, and should not be saved.

The real mysticism of the Church is not eroticism or worship of the goddess, but the heroism that unites authority and power with the willingness to die in battle for those one loves.  Instead of advocating a new feminism and asking men to imagine themselves as being spiritually impregnated we need to examine more closely what I have called Marian Chivalry.

Dawn Eden’s Thesis and Defense

The following is cross-posted here from Dawn Eden’s blog.

My master’s thesis is now available for purchase

Today, in response to requests, I am making my master’s thesis available for purchase by the general public as an eBook. At the same time, it is available for free to priests, seminarians, and lay catechists who work in an official capacity for the Church (e.g. for a parish, diocese, or religious order).

It is titled “Towards a ‘Climate of Chastity’: Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity.” (I had made it available briefly before, but decided to pull it until after making my defense, so that I might revise it to incorporate the official readers’ suggestions.)

The 81-page, heavily footnoted thesis is a critique of Christopher West’s presentation that reveals the substance behind recent criticisms of his approach, contains new information (including how the fathers of Vatican II condemned the Jungian phallic interpretation of the Easter Candle ritual), and makes positive suggestions for improving instruction on the TOB.

Those who qualify for a free copy of my thesis are invited to write to request one to be sent by e-mail. Others who would like to read it are asked to donate $10 or more to a fund I have created to finance my doctoral studies in moral theology at the Catholic University of America this fall. Click here to donate, and I will e-mail you the eBook (PDF file).

(Some requests for free copies have come in from people who do not work for the Church, but are “starving students.” I ask them to consider prayerfully the possibility of aiding this “starving student”‘s education by donating the cost of a pizza in exchange for her hard work.)

I greatly appreciate the support of those who read this blog during the years when I maintained it, and of all who have encouraged me in my studies. Your prayers and encouragement keep me going as I begin the long road towards a doctorate and, Deo volente, my further goal of teaching at a small Catholic college.

Following is the speech that I delivered when defending my master’s thesis at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2010:

Good evening. I am here tonight to defend my master’s thesis, which is a critique of Christopher West’s presentation of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. By “Christopher West’s presentation,” I mean not only his own personal presentation, but also, more generally, the presentation that he promotes through his Theology of the Body Institute, which trains priests and lay catechists to teach his particular interpretation of John Paul II.

I chose this topic, first, because the issues it encompasses—the promotion of the Catholic vision of marriage and family—are close to my heart, and second, because it is highly topical, given that West’s presentation has recently been the subject of public debate among theologians.

In fact, after I completed my thesis, the subject became even more topical with West’s unexpected announcement at the end of March that he was taking a six-month sabbatical, effective immediately. The Theology of the Body Institute, which is the nonprofit created to promote his presentation of the theology of the body, stated that West was taking this leave “to attend to family needs, and to reflect more deeply on fraternal and spiritual guidance he has received in order to continue developing his methodology and praxis as it relates to the promulgation of the Theology of the Body.”

This is noteworthy because it marks the first time West has ever publicly affirmed a willingness to reflect upon his presentation, something that his critics have asked of him for nearly ten years.

My thesis is titled, “Towards a ‘Climate of Chastity’: Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity.”

The first half of the title, “Towards a ‘Climate of Chastity,'” is a reference to Humanae Vitae. In that encyclical, Pope Paul VI called attention to “the need to create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of chastity so that true liberty may prevail over license and the norms of the moral law may be fully safeguarded.” That passage was a key text for John Paul II in his Wednesday catecheses on the theology of the body.

The second half of the title, “Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity,” refers to a central point of my thesis. Christopher West asserts that the theology of the body is “revolutionary” because “previous generations of Christians” grew up under the burden of a “repressive approach” to sexual issues. His intention is to counter a popular myth—the idea that the Church is, as he puts it, “down on sex.” However, in countering the one myth, he inadvertently fuels another—the idea that, in the wake of Vatican II, we are “building a new Church,” a Church that is fundamentally different from that which preceded it. His praise on Pope John Paul II is predicated on the repeated assumption, sometimes explicit, that the preconciliar Church was stodgy and prudish. While he no doubt intends to promote charity and unity, his approach effectively encourages division and disdain for our past.

That is why I argue that his presentation on theology of the body needs to be reconciled with the “hermeneutic of continuity.” That expression is drawn from the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, which stressed that the Second Vatican Council “must be understood in continuity with the great tradition of the church, and at the same time we must receive light from the Council’s own doctrine for today’s Church and the men of our time. The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils.”

Having said that, the very use of the words “hermeneutic of continuity” in my thesis title reflects a paradox inherent in applying theological analysis to popular catechesis and apologetics. West himself almost never resorts to language as obscure to non-theologians as “hermeneutic of continuity.” He directs his words to the ordinary people in the pews. The one who dares to critique him on an academic level risks pretentiousness or even self-parody–like the Times of London music critic who praised a song from the Beatles’ first album for its “Aeolian cadence.”

Nonetheless, I am willing to take that risk, because Christopher West does not present himself as a mere apologist, seeding the ground for faith via rational arguments. Nor does he present himself as merely engaging in catechesis, which, as the Holy See has stated, consists of “transmitting the Gospel, as the Christian community has received it, understands it, celebrates it, lives it and communicates it in many ways.” Rather, Christopher West presents himself as the definitive interpreter of teachings of John Paul II—teachings which, as I will explain shortly, he claims “will lead to a dramatic development of thinking about the Creed.” He is essaying apologetics and catechesis and theology itself. As such, his approach merits serious critical analysis by theologians—especially in light of its overwhelming popularity.

Along with West’s undeniable talent as an author and speaker, there is an element of marketing genius at work. As I noted, he presents himself as the definitive interpreter of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. Until last year, when his then-ordinary Bishop Kevin Rhoades and Cardinal Rigali issued a public endorsement of his work, the main evidence that he offered for his teaching authority was that he was fulfilling an imperative laid out by George Weigel in his 1999 biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope.

Weigel wrote that the theology of the body was a “theological time-bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences … perhaps in the twenty-first century.” He added, “John Paul’s portrait of sexual love as an icon of the interior life of God has barely begun to shape the Church’s theology, preaching, and religious education. When it does it will compel a dramatic development of thinking about virtually every major theme in the Creed.”

From the start of his public career, Christopher West has marketed himself as carrying out this mandate. One sees this most recently in the promotional material for the upcoming TOB Congress sponsored by the Theology of the Body Institute, which was formed to promote West’s presentation. The promotional material states that the conference is “building on the words of papal biographer George Weigel—that this teaching ‘will affect every major theme of the Creed.'” The congress’s workshops are structured around that same premise; the one on catechesis is actually titled, “Catechesis and the Creed in Light of the Theology of the Body.” The overriding implication in that title—and with West’s entire presentation—is that that the Creed is something to be viewed in light of the theology of the body, rather than vice versa.

Having explained why Christopher West’s presentation of the theology of the body merits a theological critique, I will now summarize my thesis.

Chapter One begins with some biographical background on West. As mentioned, a foundational point of his presentation of the theology of the body is that John Paul II’s teachings are “revolutionary” because “previous generations of Christians” grew up under the burden of a “repressive approach” to sexual issues. Because he uses his own experiences to support this point, it is relevant here to explore those aspects of his upbringing that informed his understanding of the attitudes he believes are ingrained in “most Christians.”

West’s understanding of what constitutes a normative Catholic upbringing may be shaped from his experiences during his late teens and early 20s living with his family in the Mother of God Community, a Catholic community in Gaithersburg, Maryland. At that time, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the community’s leaders exercised puritanical control over members’ lives—including their dating. Eventually, in 1995, James Cardinal Hickey, the Archbishop of Washington, would order reforms to the community to correct its abuses of power. But those changes came too late for West, who, during his time in the community, was subject to its strict rules.

Christopher West told the Washington Post that, after spending years living in the community and submitting to its leaders’ control of his social contacts, his work, and his studies, he realized, “It’s a cult. I’ve been living in a cult.”

Now, one certainly doesn’t have to grow up in a cult to appreciate the dangers of a puritanical approach to sexuality. However, I have found in my research that West’s experiences in the Mother of God Community appear to come into play in his interpretation of John Paul II’s teachings on continence. I will return to this point when I describe the particulars of West’s presentation.

The rest of Chapter One is taken up with a list I compiled, comprising ten major themes of West’s presentation of the theology of the body. In Chapter Two, I examine the criticisms that his presentation has engendered, as well as his responses to those criticisms, and add my own critique. I conclude my critique in Chapter Three, identifying the aspects of West’s presentation that I believe are in most serious need of modification, and recommending specific positive correctives.

I will now briefly list the ten major themes of West’s presentation that I identify in Chapter One:

1. The TOB is an all-encompassing theology that requires theologians and religious educators to recontextualize “everything” about Christian faith and life.West says, “Indeed, a ‘holy fascination’ with our bodies as male and female is precisely the key that opens the holy door to the divine bridal chamber, allowing us to experience what the mystics call ‘nuptial union’ with God.” He also says, “Sex plunges us headfirst into the Christian mystery.”

2. The “sexual revolution” was a “happy fault.” West praises the sexual revolution because, as a reaction against generations of repression and prudery, it “got us talking about our hunger.” What Pope John Paul II did was redirect the discussion in the right direction. So, West says, “The Church looks at the sin of Adam and proclaims, ‘Oh happy fault that won for us so great a redeemer.’ We can look at the error of the sexual revolution and say ‘Oh happy fault that has won for us so great a theology of the body.'”

3. “Dumpster” vs. “banquet.” West likens using pornography to eating out of a “Dumpster,” whereas the joys of sex according to the theology of the body is the “banquet.” West says, “Why was [Playboy magazine founder] Hugh Hefner a successful ‘evangelist’?” West asks. “Because eating fast food is a lot better than starving to death.” Whereas Hefner was “just going to the wrong menu to feed the hungry,” the TOB offers “the banquet of love that truly satisfies.”

4. The nuptial analogy is the primary means by which the faithful should understand their relationship to God—and “nuptial” is to be envisioned in sexual terms. This leads to—

5. “[T]he whole reality of the Church’s prayer and sacramental-liturgical life is modeled on the union of spouses.” In participating in the liturgy, “we are called to deep, intimate, ecstatic joys with Christ the bridegroom.” The faithful who “have eyes to see” are called to be “inebriated,” getting “drunk in the Spirit” on the “new wine” of the “wedding feast of the Lamb.” “In this ‘blessed death’ of holy intoxication, sexual desire passes-over [sic] from lust to an immeasurable love.”

In this regard, West says that the Paschal Candle is intended to be a phallic symbol. I write, later in my thesis, that I was unable to find any source for this in Tradition. Since completing my thesis, I have found evidence that this interpretation is of secular origin and was condemned by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council. [N.B. The revised edition of my thesis that I have made available contains background on the Council’s condemnation of the Paschal Candle “phallacy.”]

6. “The joy of sex—in all its orgasmic grandeur—is meant to be a foretaste in some way of the joys of heaven.”

7. “God created sexual desire as the power to love as he loves.”

8. “Mature purity” enables “liberation from concupiscence.” I will have more to say about this assertion shortly.

9. “The Song of Songs is of great importance to a proper understanding of Christianity.” It shows “[h]ow we come to see the sexual embrace, the deep intimate erotic love of husband and wife, as a passageway into deep transforming intimate union with God.”

10. The meaning of marriage is encapsulated in “intercourse.”

These themes, taken in their entirety, imply that God’s spousal love for His Church should be envisioned by the faithful in an explicitly sexual manner.

Now, there are certain elements of truth in these interpretations that cannot be ignored. To use a favorite phrase of John Paul II—”in a certain sense”—the liturgy is spousal. Likewise, in a certain sense, the sexual union of spouses may be said to image Trinitarian love. If West’s theology stopped there, one could enter into discussion with him over the extent to which, in this day and age, it benefits the faithful to have explicitly sexual imagery introduced into their prayer life. One could also discuss how, in comparing the sexual union of spouses to the beatific vision, one might avoid the risk of either overselling sexual pleasure, or underselling heaven.

The problem, as I see it, is that West doesn’t stop there. He believes that the true message of John Paul II’s theology of the body is that sexual desire necessarily mediates desire for God.

The key word here is “necessarily.” I am not denying that sexual desire can mediate desire for God. For West, however, there is no other way. This is why University of Dallas Professor Mark Lowery, back in November 2001, wrote in the National Catholic Register that, while West’s intention clearly was to convey the truths of the faith, “his overarching lens or perspective” led to “the lurking danger of conveying that Christianity really is all about sex.” In other words, as Lowery put it, instead of Christianizing sexuality, West risked “sexualizing Christianity.”

The implication that sexual desire necessarily mediates desire for God is an undercurrent throughout West’s oeuvre. One sees it particularly in his repeated insistence that every opportunity to sublimate sexual desire is an opportunity for holiness. I cover this in detail in my thesis. The Church has traditionally stated that chastity education should include instruction on avoiding occasions of sin. West states, by contrast, that mature purity is found only in those who are willing to “risk” concupiscence so that they might reap the benefits of “union with Christ and his Church.” By “risking,” he means specifically that men who struggle with lust should practice looking at beautiful women so that they might learn to raise their thoughts and feelings from lust, to joy at encountering the image of God in female beauty.

Now, borrowing a page from West himself—who is known for quoting classic rock songs in his talks—I would call this the Harry Nilsson approach to overcoming lust. Nilsson wrote and sang the hit song “Coconut,” in which a woman puts the lime in the coconut, drinks them both up, and then calls the doctor to complain of a bellyache. The doctor’s prescription is to put the lime in the coconut and drink them both up. The cause is the cure. So it is with Christopher West’s prescription for men who lust after beautiful women: Look at beautiful women.

West’s implication that sexual desire necessarily mediates desire for God also appears clearly Heaven’s Song, his 2007 book that is directed primarily toward aiding the reader’s “sexual healing and integration.” There, West insists “sexual love is the earthly key that enables us to enter into heaven’s song.” He elaborates, “[T] he road to holiness passes by way of sexual healing and integration. The way we understand our bodies and the union of man and woman has a direct bearing with the way we understand Christ’s body and his union with the Church. Hence, if we are to enter in to proper union with Christ and his Church, the diseased images and ideas we have about our own bodies and sexual union must be healed. It can be a long and painful journey—and there is no detour.”

What concerns me is West’s insistence that the “long and painful journey” of sexual healing and integration has to precede holiness. As Mark Lowery noted back in 2001, sexual healing comes from grace—not the other way around.

Moreover, in a point also made by Lowery, grace does not always heal us of everything from which we would like to be healed. It is not a zero-sum game. Self-control is possible with the gift of the Holy Spirit, but, as Paul learned, God does not remove every thorn in the flesh.

A major concern of my thesis is the divergence between West’s presentation and John Paul II’s teachings with regard to continence. I mentioned earlier that West says mature purity is found only in those who are willing to “risk” concupiscence so that they might reap the benefits of “union with Christ and his Church.” To underscore the importance of taking this “risk,” he attacks the notion that an engaged couple wishing to stay chaste should “never spend any extended time alone together.”

Now, the concern that engaged couples may be too chaste seems anachronistic in the wake of the sexual revolution. But remember that West spent his late teens and early 20s living in a community where engaged couples were in fact barred from spending time alone together. So this is a very real concern for him, and he is understandably eager to point out that Catholic teaching permits individuals a certain amount of latitude to responsibly exercise their freedom.

Unfortunately, in his desire to counter puritanical attitudes, West ends up promoting an ideal that has the net effect of promoting puritanism. I discuss this in detail in my thesis, and explain how it is based upon a misinterpretation of both John Paul II and St. Thomas, whose theology is the basis for John Paul’s discussion of the virtue of continence. Essentially, West says that not only must an engaged couple be continent, they must possess the virtue of perfect chastity prior to marriage. That is, they should have no fear of being alone together, because they should have no lust for one another. West said in a talk just last year that an engaged couple who are merely continent cannot be called virtuous because “[t]here is no magic trick on the wedding day that suddenly makes what you do that night an act of love. If you could not be alone together the day before you got married and not sin, there is no magic trick, there is no waving at the wand at the altar, that suddenly makes your sexual behavior beautiful, true, good, lovely, and pure.”

What is wrong with this picture? As I explain in my thesis, what is wrong is, (A) the implication that continence is an insufficient preparation for marriage, and (B) the claim that the sacrament of marriage in no way affects the development of virtue. In fact, the Church does not expect perfect chastity of couples before marriage, precisely because she recognizes that the grace of marriage is what enables couples to transform their imperfect virtue of continence to the perfect virtue of chastity. All that is required of an engaged couple is that they control themselves “in holiness and honor,” as St. Paul writes in First Thessalonians.

By raising the bar so high, to the point where any feeling of lust is proof that one is not ready for marriage, West is effectively promoting the very angelism that he decries. In an age when Catholics—along with singles in general—are marrying later and later, such a misinterpretation of Church teaching has real pastoral implications. I see them when speaking on chastity to young adults. Twice when I have spoken in Manhattan, someone in the audience has asked me, “Why are Catholics in New York City so afraid of dating?”

I was last asked that when I spoke at Columbia University in March. The questioner added, “Catholics here in the city think that they can’t date before marriage—they can only be friends. And these are Catholics who know the theology of the body.”

Young Catholics who are told that they are not ready to marry until they have not only continence, but perfect chastity, are simply avoiding the rituals of courtship. I have since discussed this problem with others, including a priest who is a vocations director, and am confirmed that it is a genuine pastoral issue.

Towards the conclusion of my thesis, in suggesting positive correctives to West’s presentation of the theology of the body, I emphasize the need for catechists to incorporate into the theology of the body the Church’s teachings on suffering. Pope John Paul II himself said, in his final Wednesday address on the theology of the body, that catechesis on the topic would not be complete without addressing “the problem of suffering and death.” If catechists do not account for this—if they present a vision of married life that is all about couples’ sharing in Trinitarian communion, without articulating how they also share in Christ’s sufferings on the Cross—then their words will be like those in the parable of the sower, that fall on rocky ground. As Our Lord said, “Those on rocky ground are the ones who, when they hear, receive the word with joy, but they have no root; they believe only for a time and fall away in time of trial.”

I think it is significant that in 1984, the same year he would complete his catechesis on the theology of the body, John Paul produced his great Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering.” In that encyclical, he wrote, “The eloquence of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and of the whole Gospel, is especially this: every individual must feel as if called personally to bear witness to love in suffering.” It is the task of the catechist to seek out the connection between that witness to love mandated by Salvifici Doloris and the witness to love mandated by the theology of the body.

Would you like to read my entire thesis? Please click here to donate $10 or more towards my doctoral studies, and I will e-mail you the eBook.

Marian Chivalry and the Soul of the Apostolate

Updated below (6/21/10)

Since the new year I have been instructing our MIM Cenacle in Griswold on the spiritual life, on the basis of Dom Chautard’s The Soul of the Apostolate, a book, I have mentioned here a number of times before.   The book was not really written for laypeople, so I have been adapting it for my class.  Reflecting on this effort, I can see it also needs to be adapted to the needs of Marian Chivalry.

Dom Chautard was a Cistercian abbot, whose service of the Church took him frequently from the monastery and often placed him in circumstances less than conducive to the contemplative life. To a large extent, The Soul of the Apostolate is the fruit of his own soul searching—his effort to make sure that he remained a contemplative when he was forced to live outside of his monastery.

As anyone who is trying to live the interior life knows, there is an inherent tension between the interior and active life, and though in no way mutually exclusive, one can tend to dominate and destroy the other.  In the vast majority of cases it is the active life and encroaches on the interior life, because, in fact, it is easier to be active than prayerful.  In fact, Dom Chautard writes that nothing is more difficult than fidelity to the interior life.  It also may and does happen that certain interior souls adopt unsound habits and allow their personal devotions to impinge upon their responsibilities, for example, a mother to her children, but by far the most common problem is that we sacrifice our prayer to our work.  This problem is critical because of the primacy of prayer over action: without grace our work has no merit and prayer is our conduit to the grace of God.

When teaching the doctrine of Dom Chautard to laypeople, I have to emphasize in a particular way the great spiritual writer says that the idea that action is inherently harmful to the interior life is a heresy.  In fact, the exact opposite is true: when there is the proper ordering of the interior and active life, not only does action not harm prayer, action improves it.  In reality, there should be a reciprocal influence of prayer and action on one another.  Prayer leads us to perform our duties better, and our duty fulfilled is prayer made fruitful and sincere.

In a layman’s life, indeed, in anyone’s life, the primacy of prayer is not necessarily measured by the amount of time spent in prayer, relative to activity, but rather the fidelity with which one strives to cut out a reasonable measure of space and time for prayer, and the holy anxiety with which one gives up that time and space only to fulfill one’s duty.  For someone who strives to maintain this discipline, even a few moments respite from the din of family preoccupations can be of incalculable value.

I thought about how this might be applied to the ideals of Marian Chivalry while reading the third part of the book, where Dom Chautard expounds on the five characteristics that the power of Christ takes on in us.  (The author claims the Seraphic Doctor, St. Bonaventure as his source, which I have not been able to verify as the work cited, Compendium Theologiae, is not known to me.  It is likely a pseudo work, that is, something based on the doctrine of St. Bonaventure but not actually written by him.)

The characteristics of Christi’s strength in us are as follows:

The first is that it undertakes difficult things and confronts obstacles with courage: “Have courage and let your heart be strong” [Ps 30:25].

The second is contempt for the things of this earth: “I have suffered the loss of all things and counted them but as dung that I may gain Christ” [Phil 3:8].

The third is patience under trail: “Love is strong as death” [Cant 8:6].

The fourth is resistance to temptation: “As a roaring lion he goeth about . . . who resist ye, strong in faith” [1 Pt 5:8-9].

The fifth is interior martyrdom, that is, the testimony not of blood but of one’s very life crying out to Christ: “I want to belong to Thee alone.”  It consists in fighting the concupiscences, in overcoming vice and in working manfully for the acquistion of virtues: “I have fought the good fight” [2 Tim 4:7].

Courage, contempt of earth, patience in trial, resistance to temptation, and martyrdom are characteristics of the strength of Christ within us, first of all, but also of His strength in our actions.  Dom Chautard says that through the progress of a soul in the interior life the divine action works in inverse proportion to our own effort.  That is to say, in the beginning of our journey, we act under the influence of God’s grace, but it is we who act primarily, while God guides and often restrains us from compromising our life of prayer.  But in one who is more advanced, God’s power manifests itself more fully and directly, the apostle being moved by grace and collaborating more transparently with the Holy Spirit.

The trick here for a knight of Our Lady is to understand that the spiritual discipline of the “strength of Christ,” is a kind of surrender, trust and long-suffering, while the vigor of the active life is generosity and mercy.  The inverse proportion of God’s activity within the soul must not become a kind of quietism, where we just assume that our prayers will supply for our lack of zeal for the works of justice and mercy.  In fact the spiritual life itself is a battle and can only thrive where there is the courage to face and overcome obstacles and enemies.

This has too often been the case among religious men, who have either tried to imitate the piety of women, or who ceased being religious men altogether.  Dom Chautard makes reference to the principle of St. Ignatius, the great soldier saint, whose maxim has been popularly rendered: “Pray as though everything depends on God and work as though everything depends on you:

Let this be the first rule of your undertakings: confide in God as if the success of those undertakings depended completely upon you and not at all upon God; nonetheless give your whole self to the undertakings as if you yourself would be doing nothing in them but God alone would be doing everything.

What St. Ignatius actually says is considerably more nuanced than the way it has been popularized.  St. Ignatius’ longer statement does more to integrate the active and interior.  He is not really speaking about the interior and active separately. His statement is about how the active life is to be conducted in a contemplative way. He says we must entrust the active life to God so as to be fully cognizant of how much our efforts make a difference and yet be docile enough in the actual doing to realize that our success depends entirely our union with God.

[The following insertion is from my email answer to a reader who had a concern about my lack of sourcing for the above quote allegedly from St. Ignatius and who notes that the CCC [2834] quotes St. Ignatius in a way that seems to him to be at odds with the quote I have used:

I will update the post to reflect the fact that I have not found a primary source. My source was a Jesuit blog. I have seen the passage quoted in a number of places without documentation. The particular site that I used is authored by more than one Jesuit priest, so I considered it safe enough. One may argue whether it meets an acceptable standard for a blog. In any case, I should make the lack sourcing clear.

In addition, I think several things are worthy of note. Maxims by their nature, truncate the truth into a slogan that can be easily remembered. They are by nature, statements of the truth (if they are true) that require some clarification. In this regard, it is a matter completely consistent with Church doctrine and the science of the saints that prayer and action are so integrally related, with the primacy of the former, that they must interpenetrate in order to survive and grow. Grace is always primary and free will always essential. So, there is a sense in which both prayer and action depend entirely upon God’ grace, but at the same time, there is a sense in which progress takes place only to the extent that we are heroically invested in the prayer or work, or better, in both.

So should we pray as though everything depends on God or pray as though everything depends on us?  Should we work as though everything depends on God or work as though everything depends on us?  The fact is that we can do nothing without God.  No prayer or action can happen without grace. Yet every good act also depends on the relative investment of our free will.

The catechism quotes the more well-known and shorter version of St. Ignatius’ words, but also without sourcing the quote. In fact the note says “attributed to St. Ignatius.” As I say, and in part, this is the point of the post in which I used the quote, it is helpful, especially for men, to see both sides of this.]

I have always said that a truly Catholic approach to spirituality that is suited for men will help translate the life of prayer into a plan of action.  But the inverse is true as well, the active knighthood of Christ will also make us men of deeper prayer.

Towards a Climate of Chastity E-Book

Dawn Eden has just published an e-book version of her master’s thesis through Bridegroom Press:

In this downloadable e-book, Dawn Eden, author of The Thrill of the Chaste, explores the strengths and weaknesses of Christopher West’s presentation of the theology of the body. She examines West’s theological background, his lectures and published works, and points of contention which surround his work.

This work is a must-read for every Catholic interested in how the Church approaches human sexuality. Whether you are new to the Church’s teachings or not, this comparison and contrast of West’s work with the traditional teachings of the Magisterium will inform your understanding of the debate that currently surrounds this subject.

Requests have poured in for an officially published version of this work ever since the author mentioned it on her Dawn Patrol blog. It was originally written to fulfill the thesis requirement for a master’s degree in theology from Dominican House of Studies.

If you work for parish or diocese, you may obtain this work free of charge. Contact Dawn Eden directly by using her contact form.

An excellent, balanced, charitable and necessary work for anyone who wants to place the Theology of the Body in the context of the Church’s perennial teaching.  A great deal of work has gone into the production of this thesis and is a tremendous contribution that clarifies the issues under debate, and offers sound alternatives to the pop-catechesis of Christopher West.