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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Christopher West and Theology of the Body

If you saw the Nightline interview with Christopher West speaking on Theology of the Body, you may have been surprised to see him compare Pope John Paul II with Hugh Hefner. Not only was I surprised (shocked might be more accurate), but I was thoroughly disgusted. Watching another video elaborating on what he meant didn't help. West read from Hefner's biography that blamed his parents, particularly his mom, because she didn't hug him enough when he was a child. (She probably did a bad job toilet training as well.)

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.


Anonymous said...

I never heard of this person, but wonder if he is married. I would never attend such a talk. Thanks for posting this. If he ever comes to my area, He will be met with protests. anyone who speaks that way , about the BVM is extremely offensive. God is not mocked.

John C. Hathaway said...

Several of the parts of Schindler's article are misrepresentations of what West has said, sa discussed in the thread on this subject on Inside Catholic.

For example, the thing about the BVM's breasts was a letter to the editor in _Crisis_ where he merely criticized the de-genderization of Our Lady. If what West said is wrong, then we might as well get rid of the La Leche League and St. Bernard of Clairvox (since St. Bernard had a mystical experience where he nursed from the BVM).

Much of the rest can be found in many NFP books, and moral textbooks besides West.

I haven't listened to the Nightline interview, but I *have* listened to the video on his website you refer to, and I get the entire opposite thing about it.

Showing the *reasons* behind Hugh Hefner's sin is not the same thing as justifying the sin.

This is no different than when people compare and contrast Leo XIII with Marx or comprae and contrast JPII with Reagan. Two pepole responding to the same problem but with very different methodologies.

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

John, can you provide the link to the Inside Catholic article?

Fr. José Granados, a theologian who co-authored “Called to Love” has also criticized West's approach, particularly his statements that TOB completed the sexual revolution Fr. says that is “highly inadequate and open to serious misunderstanding." He goes on to say, "Moreover, one of the results of the sexual revolution is precisely the pansexualism that surrounds our society. We cannot respond with a different kind of pansexualism, with a sort of ‘Catholic sexual revolution,’ which in the end promotes a similar obsession with sex, even if ‘holy’.”

My general observation of those promoting TOB is that much of what they say is fine, but they are immodest and imprudent not infrequently. We live in an immodest age, but you do not solve that problem by joining in.

Dan said...

If what is said about West's presentation is true, it is likely due to the fact that he is trying to make it seem "hip" "cool" (or whatever word used by teens these days)... to young people.

Anonymous said...

A friend gave me some of West's tapes to listen to. I came away from the experience with a bad taste in my mouth.

Anonymous said...

I find any one who talks this way to be vulgar and just disgusting.No coincidence he is getting invitations to talk in the most liberal places. I am going to call their office and compain as soon as possible.