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.

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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.

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.

Getting Something Done this Lent

On Ash Wednesday our lives round the bend on the road to Jerusalem only to find the hordes of Babylon blocking our way. We are marked with the cross and there can be no avoidance of the fight.  This is the imagery used by the nineteenth century Anglican, Father Congreve, SSJE to describe the “advance of Lent.” I can hardly think of anything more appropriate for our meditation:

Lent awakens spiritual hope in us, just as the sight of the enemy awakes the spirit of an army. They were lagging just now, tired with the march, dispirited; but a sudden signal, one turn in the road, shows them the enemy’s lines stretching right across their way. How the men’s hearts leap up: who is [wearied] now? So Lent awakes the energy of hope by showing us our enemy, the reality of the battle of life, of our conflict with evil. We all know that our fifty or seventy years in this world were given to us for a great achievement–to conquer the world, the flesh, and the devil, to win holiness for eternity; but we easily forget this, and slip out of range. But Lent rallies us, reminds us of the seriousness of our moral life, of the reality of sin, of bad tendencies of our childhood not conquered yet, of the strength of sins of the flesh, of pride and temper, of love of the world, of cowardice in confessing Christ, of sloth and depression, of neglect of prayer and the sacraments.

The Two Standards

Though Congreve was not Catholic, his imagery reflects one of the most important metaphors used by St. Ignatius in The Spiritual Exercises, namely, the two standards.   Christ and Satan are captains of two immense armies that rally around them in the respective regions of Jerusalem and Babylon.  For St. Ignatius, this a fundamental image of the spiritual life: mortal strife, that can have only one of two outcomes, heaven or hell.

The strategy of Satan is as simple as it is deadly.  St. Ignatius tells us that the demons are sent forth by the Prince of Darkness to tempt us with love for the world:  a “longing for riches,” “vain honor” and “vast pride.”  He says that it is this love for the world  by which he opens the door to every other vice.

But the assets laid to bear against Satan by the Lord are more powerful: “highest poverty,”contumely and contempt, and “humility.”  As with the “beatitudes.”  This is an inversion of values, the paradox of the gospel:  life through death, going up by being brought down.

The Hardest Road

How is a man to in the word but not of the world? How is a man to be a soldier, a knight, and a courageous man without the arrogance and pride that are the tools of Satan? How are we to fight Satan without capitulating to his manipulative and dishonorable methods? In a word, how are we to be wise as serpent and simple as doves? (cf. Mt 10:16).

The first step consists in recognizing that the road that Our Lord took is the hardest road.  He remained in the fight to the end and at the same time never sought His own glory and good, but glory of His Father and our salvation.  This is the humility of which St. Ignatius speaks.  Here is Father Hardon’s commentary on the two standards in which he recommends humility, calmness of spirit and the discernment of spirits as the particular means by which we fight under the standard of Christ and overcome the devil.

Our battle is first of all one that must take place within, but for it to be brought to a victory for Christ, it must be extended to the ends of the earth.  It is a fight that we must never concede.

The Abomination of Desolation

Anthony Esolen has written an excellent article, entitled, Where the Battle Was Not Fought, in which he chronicles the woes of the Church in Canada. (Not to pick on Canada, we have our own similar problems in the U.S.) Esolen notes that there is really no place for men, because no one wants to fight, and because virtually no effort has been made to attract men to the faith, let alone to the priesthood.

The spiritual apathy of men, and by which men no longer have a place in the Church—a fight conceded or never fought—leaves us in a desperate situation.  For far two long our leaders have largely derelict of their duty, and we are left with the extremes of effeminacy and bravado.

Battle Scars

The solution consists in the rigors of an examined life that is bold enough to make mistakes and get hurt, and humble enough to reassess and revise in order to get it right.  This has to happen both spiritually and externally.

Recently, Dawn Eden and William Doino wrote a piece for Busted Halo, in which they called into question the adaptation of Saul Alinsky’s radicalized activist philosophy by conservatives being used against the expert liberal practitioners of that philosophy.  In particular, the writers criticized activist James E. O’Keefe for his syncretistic melding of the ideas of Alinsky and that of G.K. Chesterton, and for his practical application of that thinking which included the questionable participation of a young woman who posed as a prostitute in his ACORN exposé videos.  Eden and Doino, underscored the utilitarian ethics at the heart of O’Keefe’s methods, taken right out of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: “in war the end justifies almost any means.” In a subsequent interview Dawn Eden did not fail to mention that the work of Lila Rose, with whom O’Keefe has also collaborated, and who has been given favorable treatment on AirMaria, is not above critical review.

In response, Christian Hartsock, has penned, or should I say, slashed a rather purple piece of vitriol worthy of Keith Olbermann, in which he ostensibly adopts another rule from Alinsky’s playbook: “ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”  A comparison between the Eden/Doino essay and that of Hartsock, is the difference between a consideration of principles in view of success and a disregard of them justified by success.  We can leave everyone free to consider the question, but that the question ought to be considered, seems a difficult thing to reject.  That certainty may be something that Alinsky would ridicule, but it is not something that Chesterton would make fun of. On the contrary, for Chesterton such philosophical considerations belonged to the most practical order:

But there are some people, nevertheless—and I am one of them—who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy.

The Philosophy of Light

For Chesterton, this consideration of his enemy’s philosophy was not merely a tactical necessity, but a metaphysical and moral requirement, as he infers when he considers the philosophy of George Bernard Shaw.  He says that while his intellectual enemy was  genuinely “brilliant” and “honest,” his philosophy was “quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.”  A man’s philosophy has consequences in the practical order, and so the practical thing to do is

. . . revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done.

Activism, or better, Catholic Action, will ultimately be fruitful only if it is an examined energy, like our own moral lives.  It is the hardest road.  It is not the merely the rough and tumble road of unchecked prowess, nor is it comfy road of the false courtesy of human respect.  It is the hardest road of Christian chivalry.  And it is the only way of  really “getting something done.”

This is the road we find ourselves on this Ash Wednesday, and the hellish hosts from Babylon will not part and let us pass unmolested.  The fight is on, but it begins, continues and ends first within our hearts.  Yet, it is always to be fought in the midst of the world that must be conquered for Christ.

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.

Continue reading

The Knight and His Supreme Model

Dawn Eden has written an essay for Headline Bistro about Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J.(1888-1955) and his witness to the value of suffering—a valuable contribution, especially in the light of all the horrific suffering in Haiti.

From Dawn I have learned about a wonderful little book written by Father Lord,  Christ Jesus our King:  A Eucharistic Prayer Book, a kind of handbook for “The Knights and handmaids of the Blessed Sacrament.” This Eucharistic association was founded by Father Edmund Lester, S.J. in 1914  to encourage young men receive communion at least weekly in order to lead a life modeled on Christ according to the highest ideals of chivalry.  In 1917 the association was extended to women.

The little book of Father Lord deserves much attention and will get it here in time.  (I already have an unfulfilled blogging commitment.)  For now I reproduce part of a chapter entitled “Jesus Christ the Perfect Knight”:

Knighthood is not something won on the battelfield and awarded the accolade of the broadsword’s dubbing the armored shoulder.  It is not a matter of gold spurs and splendid trapping.

A knight may wear coveralls and ride an ancient coupe.  Knighthood may be as modern as the evening’s newspaper, as prosaic as a paycheck handed to a wife by her husband, as far from battle as the teller’s window in an uptown bank, as unknown to history or poetry as a single rose placed at the bedside of a new mother.

Every Knight, whatever his age occupation, or costume, has certain easily distinguishable characteristics:

A knight is dedicated to the slaying of the dragon of evil.

A knight is an individualist fighting, not in the serried ranks of a disciplined army, but alone.

A knight hates injustice and battles the unjust, loves innocence and protects human needs.

A knight may be harsh with the strong; he is gentle with the weak.

A knight knows that he is on a level with those who are better armed and with those who need the arms he carries.

A knight’s honor is high; he would rather lose a battle than win it by trickery, dishonesty or lies.

Above all a knight respects and honors women for their virginity, their motherhood, their meaning to the human race, their purpose for life today and in the future.

A knight has high courage that never admits that a cause is lost.

A knight’s ideal is to do all thing well.

Christ the Supreme Knight

Never in His life did Jesus wear armor.

Never did He wield a sword.  He did not break the bruised reed or extinguish the smoking flax.

He spoke the endless call to peace—through he knew that in the end He would bring for His followers, not peace, but the sword.

Yet His whole life conformed to our standards of truest knighthood.

Alone and far in advance of all others, Jesus is the true knight without fear or reproach,  His own knightly practice was the standard for His followers.  He challenged them to be perfect as His heavenly Father was perfect, to match His simple formula, which He lived out—to do the things that pleased His Father.

Theology of the Body in Context

The brothers at AirMaria were able to obtain an interview with Dawn Eden during Christmas week, when she was in the area.  We are privileged to bring Dawn’s first interview on the Christopher West controversy to the public.  Dawn is working on a masters degree and is focusing comparisons and contrasts between the popular catechesis of the Church before the Second Vatican Council and after the Council.

See also her article from Headline Bistro written along similar lines.