Don't get me wrong. I admire the zeal of Christopher West. I believe he sincerely loves the Church and wants to promote John Paul II's Theology of the Body accurately. But somehow, he's gotten off track and that's a problem. If you're going to Philadelphia and the train is on the track heading to Harrisburg, no matter how sincere the engineer is, you won't end up at your destination.
A number of people have criticized West's approach and I'm going to summarize the opinion of one. David L. Schindler is Provost/Dean and Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at Catholic University. He knows both John Paul's theology and Christopher West's presentation of it. In his article, Christopher West's Theology of the Body, he points out some serious problems:
West’s work has involved suggesting that a man and woman bless their genitals before making love; blessing the ovaries of women in his classes; advising young men in college and the seminary to look at their naked bodies in the mirror daily in order to overcome shame; using phallic symbolism to describe the Easter candle; criticizing “flat-chested” images of Mary in art while encouraging Catholics to “rediscover Mary’s ... abundant breasts” (Crisis, March 2002); referring to the “bloodied membrane” of the placenta as a "tabernacle" (Colorado Catholic Herald, 12/22/06); stating that, while “there are some important health and aesthetic considerations that can’t be overlooked,” “there's nothing inherently wrong with anal penetration as foreplay to normal intercourse," (Good News About Sex and Marriage, 1st ed., emphasis in original), though qualifying this in the revised edition and stressing the subjective dangers of lust in such activity; and, on Nightline, praising Hugh Hefner for helping rescue sex from prudish Victorian attitudes, saying that there are “very profound historical connections between Hefner and John Paul II,” while emphasizing that John Paul II took the sexual revolution further and in the right direction.
I offer these examples not merely because they are vulgar and in bad taste, not to mention sometimes bordering on the just plain silly, but because they indicate a disordered approach to human sexuality. An objective distortion in approaching sexuality does not cease to be such simply because it is theologized. West to be sure will point toward the “orthodox” intentions and context of the examples, but my criticism bears on the substance of his preoccupation as reflected in the examples. (As a Thomist friend of mine used to say: pay attention to a man's subjects, not his predicates.)
Specific criticisms include:
1. West ignores the reality and validity of concupiscence as though it can be overcome by intentions toward holiness
2. His analogy between God's love and sex is too simplistic and puts a "disproportianate emphasis" on sex.
3. His treatment of shame and reverence is "too male," i.e., "not only too much maleness but distorted maleness." In other words he doesn't recognize a modesty that is not mere prudishness. Schindler attributes this to his work not being well-formed in "Mary’s archetypal feminine-human sensibility." Mary, of course, is the model of modesty and prudence, the woman who "ponders all things in her heart."
4. West's teaching style which becomes part of his theology treats disagreement as resistance to the Holy Spirit. Schindler says, "Well-balanced persons have spoken of how West makes them feel a sense of guilt, of resistance to the Holy Spirit, if they experience uneasiness about what he is saying."
Schindler summarizes by saying:
West presents a problem for the Church, not because he lacks orthodox intentions, but because his unquestionably orthodox intentions render his theology, a priori, all the more credible. His work often deflects people from the beauty and depth of what is the authentic meaning of John Paul II's anthropology of love, and thus of what was wrought in and through the Second Vatican Council. It is scarcely the first time in the history of the Church that abundant good will did not suffice to make one's theology and vision of reality altogether true.
Pray for Christopher West. He has the capacity to do great good for the Church. He also has the capacity to create much confusion.