Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Novena, Day 8, Dec 23

Christmas Novena, Day 8

Today we finish the 7 "O" antiphons. The final one is Emmanuel, God with us!

Here's an interesting tidbit about the O antiphons. If you take the first letter of each antiphon in Latin and put them in reverse order, you get ERO CRAS. In Latin, it means "tomorrow I will be." (ero = I will be; cras = tomorrow, from which we get the word procrastinate)

E Emmanuel
R Rex (king)
O Orient (radiant dawn)

C Key of David (clavis)
R Root of Jesse (radix)
A Lord (adonai)
S Wisdom (sapientia)

Come, Lord, do not delay!


The Pope did NOT say child porn is normal

At times it seems like the media indeed goes out of its way to distort the pope's words.

A news article from the Belfast Times quoted him out of context, suggesting that he thinks child porn is normal and no big deal.

Quite the contrary. The article left out the significant fact that the pope was actually condemning this view. He was trying to explain why some people justified it (and still do, for example, NAMBLA). When the Pope says, "Nothing is good or bad in itself. Everything depends on the circumstances and on the end in view. Anything can be good or also bad, depending upon purposes and circumstances," you know he is simply stating a false view that he will go on to correct. It's like the objections St. Thomas puts in the Summa; you know he's going to refute those positions.

And refute them Benedict did. Read the whole thing for yourself. He quotes a very somber vision of Hildegard of Bingen regarding evil infiltrating the church.

Here's a larger excert from the Pope's address:

We were all the more dismayed, then, when in this year of all years and to a degree we could not have imagined, we came to know of abuse of minors committed by priests who twist the sacrament into its antithesis, and under the mantle of the sacred profoundly wound human persons in their childhood, damaging them for a whole lifetime….

We are well aware of the particular gravity of this sin committed by priests and of our corresponding responsibility. But neither can we remain silent regarding the context of these times in which these events have come to light. There is a market in child pornography that seems in some way to be considered more and more normal by society. The psychological destruction of children, in which human persons are reduced to articles of merchandise, is a terrifying sign of the times….

In order to resist these forces, we must turn our attention to their ideological foundations. In the 1970s, paedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children. This, however, was part of a fundamental perversion of the concept of ethos. It was maintained – even within the realm of Catholic theology – that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a “better than” and a “worse than”. Nothing is good or bad in itself. Everything depends on the circumstances and on the end in view. Anything can be good or also bad, depending upon purposes and circumstances. Morality is replaced by a calculus of consequences, and in the process it ceases to exist. The effects of such theories are evident today. Against them, Pope John Paul II, in his 1993 Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, indicated with prophetic force in the great rational tradition of Christian ethos the essential and permanent foundations of moral action. Today, attention must be focused anew on this text as a path in the formation of conscience. It is our responsibility to make these criteria audible and intelligible once more for people today as paths of true humanity, in the context of our paramount concern for mankind.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Novena, Day 7, Dec. 22

Christmas Novena, Day 7

Today we ask Christ, our King, to come and lead all nations to peace.

Why Christmas is important to society

While each year Christmas seems to be getting turned into a generic "holiday," this essay is a profound reflection on what Christmas has contributed to Western civilization.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Novena, Day 6, Dec 21

Christmas Novena, Day 6

Today's O Antiphon is:

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice,
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and
in the shadow of death.

With the winter solstice, the days will be getting longer now, even if only by a minute.
This is a fitting symbol for the coming of Christ, the Light of the World.

"The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light" (Is 9:2)

"For Wisdom is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness" (Wis 7:26)

Graces for Christmas

The real "gift" at Christmas is Jesus himself. All of us can receive this gift -- if we want it!
Blessed James Alberione, the founder of the Daughters of St Paul and the whole Pauline Family, wrote this about asking for the real grace of Christmas:

In spirit, let us enter the grotto of Bethlehem where Jesus taught his first lessons–lessons of radical poverty and love. What prompted the Son of God to come to earth, clothe himself in human flesh and dwell among us? Love…. And what does Jesus want? Two things: the glory of God, that is to say, the glory of the Father, and then holiness–the salvation of all people of good will…. Let us ask ourselves if we have the firm will to become holy and to carry out the mission God has given us. Is this our predominant thought? When a person’s ideal is to become holy, when she wants to place everything in Jesus Christ and live in him, when she wants to imitate him, enter his school and serve him, then her good will is blessed by the Lord. If we ask for many things but fail to ask for this good will, then we are not asking for the graces proper to the manger.

Monday, December 20, 2010

St. Malachy's Church in NY The Actor's Chapel

This story on Catholic News Service caught my eye. It's about the role the Catholic Church helped play in renewing some of the area in Manhattan's Theater District that had fallen into decay in the 1970's.

St. Malachy's Church is called the Actor's Chapel because it serves the people of the theater district. Many of those who work in and around the theater industry are Catholic. Before I entered the convent, I worked for about a year in an office on 7th Avenue and 53rd St., and sometimes I would go to St Malachy's for an afternoon Mass. That was during the time the area around the church was run down. The article notes that with the rejuvenation of the area, younger families are moving into some of the newer apartment buildings, and coming to St Malachy's for their weddings and the baptism of their children.

Christmas Novena, Day 5 December 20

Christmas Novena, Day 5

The Golden Mass December 20

Today's Mass was historically called the "golden Mass" and celebrated with special solemnity, because it focuses on the role of Mary in the Incarnation.
The first reading is the famous prophecy from Isaiah about the virgin who will conceive and bear a son. The Gospel is the Annunciation account.

Mary is a special Advent figure. The expectant mother is a sign to us of what our Advent waiting is all about: the coming of Christ, our Savior.

Today's first reading from Isaiah is the same one we had yesterday (for the Fourth Sunday of Advent). Ahaz, the king, had entered into political alliances in an attempt to save Israel from her enemies. But the prophet Isaiah was telling him not to trust in politics, but in God. Only God could deliver Israel. In refusing to ask for a sign, Ahaz was not being humble, but tricky. He was keeping his options open, so to speak, by refusing to trust the Lord.

Mary, instead, was completely committed to doing God's will. By her "yes" to the angel Gabriel, Mary totally surrendered to what God was asking of her. She didn't know exactly what would happen. It was very risky--in those days a woman in an irregular pregnancy could suffer severe penalties. What would Joseph think?

Mary turned all those worries over to God. And God made it all work out. Whatever problems we face, God will help us also to work them out, if we turn to him in trust.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Novena, Day 4, Dec 19

Christmas Novena, Day 4

Christmas Novena, Day 3, December 18

Christmas Novena, Day 3

Christmas Novena, Day 2, December 17

Novena, Day 2

Today we begin singing the famous "O antiphons."

Today's antiphon:
O Wisdom eternal
proceeding from the mouth of the Most High,
who reaches from end to end and orders
all things mightily and sweetly:
come now to direct us
in the way of holy prudence.

Jesus, eternal Wisdom, enlighten us!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas novena starts tomorrow

When I entered the convent, one of the treasures I found out about is the liturgical Christmas novena. This particular novena originated in northern Italy, and has very beautiful hymns and chants, including the O Antiphons. We use it for our morning prayer during this last part of Advent.

Last year Sr Anne Joan recorded and put it on youtube (sung by herself and another sister or two with good voices--not me!) I hope to link to it each day of the novena. It's a great way to spend a few minutes praying and thinking about the real purpose of Advent.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Verbum Domini Now available

The Word of the Lord Verbum Domini is now available in printed booklet form from Pauline Books & Media.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Immaculate Conception of Mary

Today's feast of the Immaculate Conception means that Mary was conceived free of original sin, and filled with grace from the very first moment of her conception by her mother, St Anne.

Mary was given this grace in view of her future mission to become the Mother of God, when she conceived Jesus virginally by the grace of the Holy Spirit. So the Immaculate Conception is not to be confused with the virgin birth; they're two separate things.

We, on the other hand, are very much subject to sin. Yet this does not put up a barrier between us and Mary, like a concrete highway divider no one can cross. No, the grace given to Mary makes her more human, not less. And she doesn't look down on us. She is a tender Mother who loves all her children, no matter how wayward and caught up in sin they may be.

While we came into the world with the taint of sin, we can go out without it. That's the point of our Christian life. This might be a bit fanciful, but sometimes I like to think about the parable of the Good Samaritan in that light. The man he helped, the one who was beaten up and left for dead, is like a symbol of ourselves in sin. We can become a sorry mess, all spattered with mud and blood and left for dead. We don't hear much about him, but the implication is that after being checked into the inn by the Good Samaritan, the man recovered. He left the inn all cleaned up, and could walk out on his own power.

Mary is like the Good Samaritan. She checks us into the inn of God's grace, where Jesus cleans us up and heals our wounds. He forgives our sins so that we can walk away from sin.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary reminds us that sin doesn't have the final word. Grace does. And grace can triumph over any sin.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Janet Smith and Pope's remarks

Dr Janet Smith has a good article here on Zenit putting the Pope's remarks into a wider context of people's attitudes toward sexuality. Some very good insights!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Where your treasure is....

This video shows a crowd of people in a store in Buffalo pushing and shoving each other to get in when the doors opened at 4 AM last Friday.

They wanted to get a good deal on buying some consumer item.

If people really understood what graces we receive from the sacraments, they would be fighting like this to get into the churches. Instead, in most dioceses in the USA today only about 20% of Catholics go to Mass regularly.

"Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be."

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Pope did not approve condoms

This article by George Weigel is a good explanation of what he actually said about it in his new book.

And this article is also helpful. Janet Smith explains more about what the Pope really said.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI's Verbum Domini summary continued Part One Verbum Dei

The document has three parts, and part one is titled Verbum Dei, the Word of God.

It has three main sections:

The God Who Speaks

Our Response to the God Who Speaks

The Interpretation of Sacred Scripture in the Church

Section one The God Who Speaks

Here Pope Benedict summarizes Catholic teaching about divine revelation. God reveals himself in many ways, and revelation comes to a high point in Christ. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, this revelation comes to us through the Church. The proper relationship of Scripture and Tradition is a key element. Here are the various parts under this first section. This will be a brief summary. I hope later to expand on some of these very beautiful points.

God in dialogue

God wants to speak to us. This dialogue comes to a high point in the Incarnation, when the Word became flesh. The Prologue of St. John's Gospel presents us with this beautiful gift of God's love.

The analogy of the word of God

The expression "word of God" has different meanings, since God reveals himself in different ways. Its high point refers to Jesus himself, the Word made flesh.
God also reveals himself through creation, the book of nature.
The history of salvation details the many ways God has spoken to us.
The preaching of the apostles and of the Church through the centuries is another facet.
Benedict makes the important point that "the Christian faith is not a 'religion of the book,'" as is sometimes said. Instead, "Christianity is the 'religion of the word of God,' not of 'a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word.'" That is why receiving the Word within Tradition is so important. It comes to life especially when we hear it within the Church, in the liturgy in particular.

As an aside, sometimes it has happened to me that hearing a familiar Scripture text, one that I know very well, read in the liturgy puts it in a completely different light. Sometimes it's almost been as if I was hearing it for the first time. Those can be powerful moments when God calls us to a closer following of the Lord. Has that happened to you too?

I will add to this post later as there are more points to cover.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI Verbum Domini Summary : Introduction

In October 2008 there was a Synod of the world's bishops on the theme of the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church. Pope Benedict has released a very beautiful document summing up the fruits of the synod. In this post I will give a summary of what he says in the introduction of the document.

First he gives the background about the Synod. Here he reminds us that "we find ourselves before the mystery of God, who has made himself known through the gift of his word." The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. This is the good news of our salvation.

In speaking about the joy experienced at the synod in sharing the word of God, Benedict wants to encourage all the members of the Church to renew our living relationship with Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Sharing in God's life is "complete joy." And it falls to us to communicate that joy and truth with the people of our own time.

The Bible in Catholic life
The Pope then traces some history of how the Church has grown in its appreciation for the Word of God. He points out that the Church has always "found strength in the word of God." And he goes on to speak of some important developments in the last century or so.
First, Pope Leo XIII wrote an important encyclical on Scripture, Providentissimus Deus. Later Benedict will say more about that and speak of other documents as well. For now he points out that this biblical movement culminated in the important document of Vatican II: Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. This document is short yet holds a wealth of important teaching about Scripture in the context of divine revelation. Dei Verbum spurred an important movement in the Church toward a deeper appreciation of Scripture.

The experience of the Synod
In speaking about this, the Pope says,

Together we listened to and celebrated the word of the Lord. We recounted to one another all that the Lord is doing in the midst of the People of God, and we shared our hopes and concerns. All this made us realize that we can deepen our relationship with the word of God only within the “we” of the Church, in mutual listening and acceptance.

He'll develop that theme more later. He also points out that the synod took place during the year of St. Paul, the great Apostle to the nations. More than anyone, Paul's zeal for the spread of God's word is a model for the Church of today and always.

St. John's Prologue
Benedict says that throughout the document he will often refer to the Prologue of St. John's Gospel, "the Word became flesh." He sees in this profound Scripture a synthesis of the entire faith. The Pope also hopes that the synod will have a real effect in the life of the Church, on our personal relationship with the Scriptures, to liturgy, catechesis, and scholarly research.

That brings us to the end of the introduction.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Verbum Domini -- Some themes from theology of the body in Pope Benedict's new document

In reading the first part of Verbum Domini I couldn't help but notice some themes that relate to TOB. For example:

As his [Jesus'] mission draws to an end, according to the account of Saint John, Jesus himself clearly relates the giving of his life to the sending of the Spirit upon those who belong to him (cf. Jn 16:7). The Risen Jesus, bearing in his flesh the signs of the passion, then pours out the Spirit (cf. Jn 20:22), making his disciples sharers in his own mission (cf. Jn 20:21)....
The word of God is thus expressed in human words thanks to the working of the Holy Spirit. The missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit are inseparable and constitute a single economy of salvation. The same Spirit who acts in the incarnation of the Word in the womb of the Virgin Mary is the Spirit who guides Jesus throughout his mission and is promised to the disciples. The same Spirit who spoke through the prophets sustains and inspires the Church in her task of proclaiming the word of God and in the preaching of the Apostles; finally, it is this Spirit who inspires the authors of Sacred Scripture.

The first sentence above relating the giving of Jesus' life to the sending of the Spirit reminds me of the themes discussed in the previous post about the Easter candle. There I tried to show that the symbolism of the candle and the baptismal water represents Christ sending the Spirit on the Church. It's interesting that in this document, Pope Benedict draws a parallel between the Spirit overshadowing Mary to bring forth the Incarnate Word, and the Spirit overshadowing the Church in proclaiming the Word.

Pope Benedict goes further with this parallel when he speaks of biblical inspiration:

A key concept for understanding the sacred text as the word of God in human words is certainly that of inspiration. Here too we can suggest an analogy: as the word of God became flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so Sacred Scripture is born from the womb of the Church by the power of the same Spirit. Sacred Scripture is “the word of God set down in writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” In this way one recognizes the full importance of the human author who wrote the inspired texts and, at the same time, God himself as the true author.

This beautiful comparison also brings out the Marian dimension involved.

The Pope also speaks specifically about the nuptial mystery:

what we call the Old and New Covenant is not a contract between two equal parties, but a pure gift of God. By this gift of his love God bridges every distance and truly makes us his “partners,” in order to bring about the nuptial mystery of the love between Christ and the Church. In this vision every man and woman appears as someone to whom the word speaks, challenges and calls to enter this dialogue of love through a free response.

The theme of "gift" is a major theme of TOB. Pope Benedict is reminding us here that God is the source of all gift; before we can make a gift of self, we receive the gift of our own being from God as our Creator.

There's much more in this document. It's a real goldmine of Catholic teaching about the Sacred Scriptures.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Verbum Domini The Pope's new document on the Word of God

Pope Benedict has just come out with his Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, on the Word of God.
Pauline Books & Media will be publishing it in a booklet form as with other church documents.

In the meantime it's available at the Vatican website.

It looks like a great read. Pope Benedict is a marvelous teacher.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A pause for thanks

The themes around the Easter candle are so rich I'd like to look into them a little more. Last night after doing the previous post, I checked what Pope Benedict said in his book Jesus of Nazareth and was pleasantly surprised to see that he mentions Epiphany in connection with Jesus' baptism. I had forgotten that since I read it a while ago. He draws on themes from the Eastern liturgies in that part of the chapter.

But right now, since I've finished my critique of Dawn Eden's thesis, I'd like to thank a few commenters in particular, those who have been most active in commenting here, whom I've got to know at least a little bit through their comments.


Lauretta brings a wonderful voice of experience to this discussion. She has given her own testimony as to the way learning about TOB has enriched her marriage, for both her and her husband. It is a beautiful testimony, and one that is very powerful because of its lived experience. Lauretta has been married over 40 years, so she certainly has a lot of experience in this area. Thank you, Lauretta, for your calm serenity during the sometimes heated discussions. You have shown such a great balance, learning from everyone and being ready to reconsider ideas in light of new information. And your experience has been a great source of light for others. You remind me of something St. Thomas says concerning the virtue of prudence: "In matters of prudence a person stands in the greatest need of being taught by others, especially by his elders who have acquired fair insight into the outcome of human actions. Accordingly Aristotle observes that the unproved assertions and opinions of experienced, older, and wise people deserve as much attention as those they support by proofs, for experience gives them an eye for principles." (II-II, q. 49, a. 3) Yes, Lauretta, your wisdom has given you great insight!

Wade has been a wonderful voice of reason in this discussion. From the beginning he has shown balance and fairness in considering the various aspects of this debate. In his own thesis, found on his blog, he has developed ideas regarding TOB that are interesting and useful. Wade has a special fondness for logic and has sometimes caught me in a fallacy or two. I hate committing fallacies, having taught a logic class in the past, so I should know better, but I fall into them just like anyone else. So I do appreciate him pointing them out.
I think Wade especially exemplifies the aspect of prudence that St. Thomas calls reasoned judgment: "According to the Ethics, to furnish good advice is an office of prudence. Now being advised implies a sort of casting about from point to point: this is done by reasoning. Consequently the prudent man should be a good reasoner. And because the qualities necessary for complete prudence are called its integral parts or components, well-reasoned judgment should be placed among them." (II-II, q. 49, a. 5) He could have been describing Wade.

Kevin brings a voice of ardent enthusiasm to the debate, the voice of a young man on fire for his faith. He also has his own blog and is a good writer who can develop intelligent arguments. It is great to see people like Kevin in the younger generation of Catholics, who are not only well-informed but love the faith and want to pass it on to others. In debating certain points, I don't want to lose sight of the most important thing we have in common, our Catholic faith. Kevin, I have to apologize for the times I did get a little exasperated and was either a bit curt in my responses to you or deleted your comments (but I only deleted a few)! Yet I have to admire the way you didn't get bothered by that, and instead you came back with another good argument! Thanks for all your contributions here.
You remind me of what St. Thomas says about acumen, or shrewdness in debate: "Acumen is taken for shrewdness, of which it is part. For shrewdness is quickness of wit in any matter, whereas acumen, according to the Posterior Analytics, is a ready and rapid lighting on the middle term. [he's applying it here to formal logic debates] All the same, that philosopher who makes acumen part of prudence takes it generally as equivalent to all shrewdness, and so he says that it is the flair for finding the right course in sudden encounters." (II-II, q. 49, a. 4)

Christina also has her own blog and is a mother of seven children. So she brings a very unique perspective, that of a young mother with a growing family. For her, TOB is not just an academic theory, but is so woven into her life and family that it forms part of her whole way of thinking. She has been persistent in debating the ideas that are dear to her, yet ready to see how other people think about them even if she may not agree. Thank you too, Christina, for your contributions to this discussion.
St. Thomas speaks of domestic management as a special type of prudence, and that's exactly what you have: "The household comes midway between the individual person and the state or realm, for just as the individual is part of the family, so the family is part of the political community. Accordingly, as ordinary prudence, which rules the life of the individual, is distinct from political prudence, so should domestic prudence be distinguished from others." (II-II, q. 50, a. 3) As a mother of 7 children you certainly know a lot about this kind of prudence!

Thanks also to everyone else who has commented. The debate isn't over, of course, but I hope to blog a little more about the more positive aspects of TOB, less than the polemical ones. I pray for all those who visit this blog, whether they comment or not.

I'm also indebted to the online articles of Dr Janet Smith, both the one on Eden's thesis, and the one in response to Alice von Hildebrand. I've drawn some thoughts from them that were very useful.

It would also be appropriate to thank both Dawn Eden and Christopher West, since this discussion / debate about TOB has helped me and many others to think about things more carefully, go back to the sources and learn more, and thinking about TOB always enriches my life.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The meaning of the Easter Candle

In his book Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, Fr Hugo Rahner explains the meaning of the Paschal candle in a very beautiful way. (This is the book Dawn Eden cites in her thesis in discussing the paschal candle.) The symbolism has to do with the cross, the baptismal water, and the Church.

Here are some of the quotations he cites.
“What is water without the cross of Christ?” Ambrose asks his newly baptized, and answers, “an ordinary element.”
A post-Augustinian sermon: “Through the sign of the cross you are conceived in the womb of your holy mother, the Church.” Rahner says, “It is only by the procreative power of the cross that the church is fructified.”
He explains that ultimately the symbolism is based on Romans, with its relation of baptism to the cross. “Baptism is “the mystery of the wood in the water.’” (P. Lundberg)

“Jesus Christ was born and was baptized, so that he might sanctify the water by his passion.” (Ignatius of Antioch)

Rahner says:
“This cross symbolizes the fact that the baptismal water has through the death of Christ been made a bestower of life—it is the tree of life." Then he talks about a wooden cross that was put up in the Jordan river—in many Eastern liturgies the baptismal font is actually called “Jordan”, and a wooden cross is dipped in the water at the consecration [of baptism].

Rahner explains that the Paschal candle is a symbol of the cross of Christ.
But a new element is that the wooden cross is now a giver of light.
The same fire bursts forth from it that was associated with Jesus’ baptism.

The lighted candle is a symbol of the cross of Christ, the light of the world.

Rahner continues:

The cross is also a bringer of light, and when men seek to express this mystery in explicit liturgical form, they do so by lowering a burning candle into the baptismal font as a sign that, by the power of the cross, the water is a source of the lux perpetua, the everlasting life of light. In a word the cross is both the tree of life and the light bringer and both symbols represent Christ himself who “by his Passion sanctified the water” by giving to it the doxa, the glory which he had won upon the cross, the power of the Holy Ghost.

In thinking about how the mystery of Jesus' baptism relates to that of the cross, I was reminded of the beautiful antiphon from the feast of Epiphany:

“Three mysteries mark this holy day:
Today, the star leads the magi to the infant Christ;
Today, water is changed into wine for the wedding feast,
Today, Christ wills to be baptized by John in the Jordan River
To bring us salvation.”

And in another form:
“Today, the Bridegroom claims his Bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters, the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding, and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine. Alleluia!”

On Epiphany, the liturgy links the mystery of Christ's baptism with that of the revelation of Christ to the nations (represented by the Magi) and the miracle at Cana. I've been trying to think of how those two mysteries are also related in some way to the cross. I think it could be a fruitful area of reflection. But that will be a post for another day.

Jesus, the Divine Master

This Sunday is the feast of the Divine Master, a special feast celebrated in the congregations founded by Blessed James Alberione. He said:

Devotion to Jesus Master sums up and completes all devotions.
In fact, it presents:
Jesus Truth, in whom to believe;
Jesus Way, who is to be followed;
Jesus Life, in whom we should participate.
Speaking of Jesus Master, we must keep in mind a much broader sense:
He not only communicates knowledge, but he also transfuses his life into the disciples,
making them similar to himself.
He develops the divine life in them
and guides them to eternal life.

Jesus Master, our Way, our Truth, and our Life, have mercy on us!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

One more thing about Dawn Eden's thesis

In fairness to Dawn Eden, I would like to add that I thought the part of her thesis on the paschal candle was well done. She did some good research there and shows that to attribute any supposed phallic symbolism of the candle is not what the Church intends to do.

I first came across that idea was when I was in high school. I read about it in a column in our diocesan paper. It struck me as a little odd, if not even shocking to my young mind, and so I dismissed it. The problem, though, is that once you hear the idea, it's easy for it to come to mind at the Easter Vigil. Wade mentioned that in his thesis, and it's true. But I think that anyone who's reading this has already heard of the idea, so I hope I'm not ruining their Easter Vigil by this.

Tertullian and marriage

Tertullian was a Christian writer of the early third century. He wrote two letters to his wife that have come down to us. Below is an excerpt from one of them.
He speaks of a wonderful union of husband and wife.

How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice.
They are as brother and sister, both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in Spirit. They are in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit.
They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another.
Side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another, they never shun each other's company; they never bring sorrow to each other's hearts… Psalms and hymns they sing to one another.
Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present, and where He is, there evil is not.

Unfortunately, Tertullian later fell into the heresy of Montanism, and his views became somewhat rigorous. He opposed a second marriage after the death of a spouse, and he even eventually didn't favor marriage at all.

But in his earlier Catholic writing, as seen above, he penned some beautiful words for Christian spouses.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

St. Ignatius of Antioch on Marriage

The discussion that's been going on about marriage and TOB has made me want to learn more about the sacrament of marriage. So I started reading the book What God Has Joined: The Sacramentality of Marriage, by Fr Peter Elliott. At the time it was published (1990, Alba House, NY), he was a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family. The book focuses specifically on marriage as a sacrament. Fr Elliott received his doctorate in Rome from the John Paul Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family.

Chapter 3, "The Quest for the Sign," traces the development of Catholic thought about marriage through the centuries. (In a previous chapter he treated St. Paul's thought on marriage in Ephesians.)

He says that the earliest non-Scriptural reference to marriage comes from St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his Letter to Polycarp St Ignatius wrote his famous letters while on his way to martyrdom in Rome, where he looked forward to giving his life for the Lord: "I am God's wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ." (Letter to the Romans)

His letters were short, but here is what he said about marriage:

"But it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust. Let all things be done to the honor of God."

Before this, he had praised continence and virginity: "If any one can continue in a state of purity, to the honor of Him who is Lord of the flesh, let him so remain without boasting. If he begins to boast, he is undone; and if he reckon himself greater than the bishop, he is ruined." He was writing around 110 A.D., so we can see that esteem for celibacy goes back to the very early church.

Fr Elliott says that though the text is brief, we can see in it some of the seeds of the differences in how marriage was celebrated in the East and the West. In the East, Christians developed marriage rites and rituals, and the blessing of the bishop or priest was seen as essential to it. In the West, instead, people were following the Roman practices of marriage, which saw civil consent as the essential part of the ritual.

This difference is found even today, as the Catholic Catechism notes in no. 1623. In the Latin church, the spouses themselves minister the sacrament to each other (though this should be done in the presence of a priest as witness); while in the Eastern church, the priest or bishop is the minister of the sacrament.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Marcel LeJeune's new book on TOB

I just got a copy of Marcel LeJeune's new book on TOB:Set Free to Love: Lives Changed by the Theology of the Body. It's a great collection of stories of real people whose lives have been changed for the better by TOB. The stories come from people in all walks of life. The book shows in the concrete what TOB can actually do for people.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Part 2 of my critique of Dawn Eden's thesis

This is a revision of the second part of my critique of Dawn Eden's thesis.
I have now added the analysis of her argument about continence.

Continue reading...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Janet Smith responds to Alice von Hildebrand

Dr Smith's essay is here. It is an excellent response to von Hildebrand. The tone is wonderfully respectful, and Smith offers much good explanation and background concerning the various issues in von Hildebrand's essay on Christopher West. Don't miss it!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Continence and Temperance

St. Thomas on Continence and Temperance

The previous post below on continence noted the two different ways that St. Thomas uses the term. As he explains, the continent person still experiences unruly passions, “the crooked lusts that shake us.”
Thomas then goes on to consider the difference between the virtue of continence and the virtue of temperance. He asks whether continence is better than temperance. His answer is clear: No. It’s just the opposite. Temperance is better. (II-II, q. 155, a. 4).

As noted in my previous post, Thomas distinguishes two meanings of continence. Here he is speaking of its second meaning as “the resistance to strongly running wrongful lusts.” He says “…temperance is much fuller than continence, for the value of a virtue is admirable because it is charged with intelligence. Now intelligence burgeons more in the temperate than in the continent, because by temperance the sensory appetite itself is subordinated and as it were wholly possessed by mind, whereas with continence its low desires remain rebellious. To sum up, continence is to temperance as the unripe to the fully mature.” (emphasis added)

This point is very crucial in any discussion of mature purity. Thomas is explaining that the person who is continent is virtuous, but not in the fullest sense. That’s because the unruly passions still rise up in an uncontrolled way. The continent person does not yet have well-ordered passions. The person has a good will and wants to avoid sin, but has to face a fierce struggle.

The virtue of temperance is better than continence because it controls the unruly passions. It orders them according to reason (“wholly possessed by mind”). It might be compared to taming a wild animal.

Thomas is saying that the virtue of temperance enables us to reach the point of having well-regulated passions. That doesn’t mean we’ll be free of concupiscence, because we will always have concupiscence throughout our whole life on earth. But it does mean that it is possible to overcome the dominance of the sensory appetite even in this life. In other words, we can reach the point where we can control it, and it doesn’t control us. We can’t do this on our own; it requires grace. But God is always ready to give that grace to those who pray for it and strive to control their appetites.

To apply this to chastity, those continent persons who struggle through with “white-knuckle chastity” (ie., the “unripe”) are acting virtuously, but those who have grown beyond that to ease and joy in chastity are at a higher stage of virtue in practicing temperance (ie., the “fully mature.”).

Another critique of Eden's thesis

This critique is very good; it appears here. It's by Sean Murphy, a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and a former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He brings a unique perspective to it!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Wade St. Onge responds to Dr Janet Smith

The blogger Wade St. Onge has just posted his response to Janet Smith's essay on the Eden thesis.
As always, it's refreshing to read Wade's essay because he brings a very fair-minded approach to this matter. We have had some disagreements on various points, even as he notes in his essay, but he is a great example of someone thinking through the issues in a balanced way.

St. Thomas Aquinas on Continence

What is continence according to St. Thomas Aquinas?

It would be very helpful in this discussion about continence to clarify what St. Thomas Aquinas teaches about it. Some of the differences of opinion might stem from a bit of confusion around the meaning of the term.
Aquinas distinguishes two meanings of continence. He mentions this in a few different places. One is the part that Eden refers to in her thesis based on a reference from West in TOB Explained, where Thomas explains that a continent person still has unruly passions. Since the passions are not well-ordered by reason, continence is something less than a full virtue. (I-II-, q. 58, a. 3, ad 2).

But Thomas explains it more in the part of the Summa where he treats the virtues, and he asks the question, “Is continence a virtue?” (II-II, q. 155, a. 1).

First meaning of continence
He explains it has two meanings. The first meaning is that of “abstinence from all sex pleasures,” and in this sense it is a virtue. He says “virginity is the principal, and chaste widowhood the secondary form of perfect continence. Accordingly the same reasoning holds for continence as for virginity, which we have already shown to be a virtue.” When John Paul speaks of continence in marriage in discussing Humanae Vitae, he speaks of continence in the sense of a temporary abstention from sexual relations and this is also a form of the virtue of continence.

Second meaning of continence
Continence is also “resistance to the crooked lusts that shake us” (this is the Blackfriars translation; I really like it here). Thomas refers to Aristotle’s Ethics and then says, “In this sense continence has some of the quality of virtue, in that the reason remains steadfast against the passions which would lead us astray. Nevertheless it does not achieve the full stature of a moral virtue, which so composes even the sensory appetite according to reason that powerful rebellious passions do not rear up. Thus Aristotle speaks of continence as being, not unalloyed virtue, but a sort of mixture which has some of the ingredients of virtue while yet in part falling short of virtue.”

So in this second sense, continence is not a virtue but something less than a virtue. These two meanings account for some of the possible confusion in discussing continence. To potentially confuse us even more, Thomas adds at the end of the article, “Nevertheless, broadly speaking and taking virtue to mean any ability to perform commendable deeds, we can allow that continence is a virtue.”

The background of the distinction

Thomas distinguishes the two senses based on what Aristotle wrote in the Ethics. He wrote about the progression from vice to incontinence, then to continence, and then to virtue. Continence and incontinence are intermediate states between vice and virtue. The continent person is still shaken by “crooked lusts,” as Thomas puts it. But in the full state of virtue, temperance in this context, the sense appetite itself is well-ordered through the virtue. (All of this is very important to the discussion about mature purity, when that topic will come up.)

So in the discussion of TOB, it will be important to take care to determine in what sense John Paul uses the word “continence.”

Monday, October 04, 2010

Part 2 of my critique of Dawn Eden's thesis

The first part of my critique of Eden’s thesis went only as far as the ten themes. While I don’t have time to go through the whole thing point by point, I would still like to look at a major point of Eden’s criticism of West, which concerns the virtue of continence in relation to marriage.

Part One: Eden’s Argument

Her purpose

Eden’s purpose is to present a correct understanding of the virtue of chastity and the possibility to grow in the virtue of continence as a result of the grace of the sacrament of marriage.

The conclusion she presents, which she wants her readers to accept, is that West gives a false account of continence, because
1. he thinks that engaged couples should not marry until they attain a complete victory over lust, saying that perfect marital chastity is a prerequisite for marriage;
2. he forgets that only the sacrament of matrimony can enable a couple to move from the imperfect virtue of continence into the perfect virtue of marital chastity’ and
3. as a result, he unwittingly promotes “a semi-Pelagian ideal of human-powered self-control.” Eden believes West is saying that engaged couples have to progress from unvirtuous continence to virtue before marriage.

That’s my brief summary of her argument. I believe this summary is accurate based on Eden’s speech at the defense of her thesis:

“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.”

More evidence that this is a central argument of Eden’s thesis

Two of the CNA articles about Eden’s thesis also presented this as a major point. While these are not Eden’s own words, Eden seems to accept the CNA summary of her work as accurate; at least she has never objected to it as far as I know:

From the article of August 10:
“Eden’s thesis also noted that West, in telling engaged couples that they should not marry until they attain a complete victory over lust, forgets that only the sacrament of matrimony can enable a couple to move from the imperfect virtue of continence into the perfect virtue of marital chastity. As a result, Eden claimed, he unwittingly promotes ‘a semi-Pelagian ideal of human-powered self-control’.”

From the article of Sept. 8:
“Eden said in a September 8 e-mail to CNA that one of her main criticisms is West's account of the development of the virtue of chastity. The danger of West's approach, she explained, is that it denies the power of the Sacrament of Marriage to turn the imperfect virtue of continence into the perfect virtue of marital chastity. Instead, West claims that perfect marital chastity is a prerequisite for marriage, which, says Eden, is not what the Church believes.”

Part Two: Analysis of Her Argument

In a previous post I reviewed what St. Thomas teaches about continence and temperance. Now we can now proceed to examine Eden’s argument. She claims that West gives a false account of continence, because she thinks he is saying 1) it is moral to seek out occasions of sin 2] that engaged couples should not marry until they attain a complete victory over lust, and 3) that perfect marital chastity is a prerequisite for marriage.

The example of the engaged couple

Eden focuses on this passage where West states:

Since the freedom to which Christ calls us is so rarely proclaimed, we may think it impossible. Take a sincere engaged couple who honestly wants to save sexual intimacy for marriage. They will often think that in order to stay “chaste,” they should never spend any extended time alone together. They fear, of course, that if they were alone, they could not refrain from sex. This may be the case, but this is not a mature experience of the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Attaining Christian freedom is obviously a process. A couple who choose not to be alone together in order to avoid sexual temptation should be commended. They should also be aware that they are called by Christ to a much deeper freedom.
Think about it: if the only thing that kept a couple from having sex before marriage was the lack of opportunity, what does that say about the desire of their hearts? [a footnote here refers to CCC 1768, 1770, 1968, 1972] Are they free to choose the good? Are they free to love? To use an image, if a man and woman need to chain themselves to two different trees in order to avoid sin, they are not free; they are in chains. As stated previously, if we chain our freedom to sin, with the same stroke we chain the freedom necessary to love. All the more dangerous in such an approach is the implicit attitude that marriage will somehow “justify” the couple’s lack of freedom. The wedding night then becomes the moment when the couple are supposedly “allowed” to cut the chains loose, disregarding their previous need for constraints. Yet if this couple were not free to choose the good the day before they got married, standing at the altar will not suddenly make them free.
As John Paul has already made abundantly clear, marriage does not justify lust, and we lust precisely in the measure that we lack the freedom of the gift. (pg. 274-275)

Eden says: “The logic behind West’s insistence that such a couple is chaining its freedom to love is difficult to comprehend. After all, the restriction he describes was not imposed from outside; the hypothetical pair freely chose to avoid what they believed might be occasions of sin. Moreover, if freedom to love is dependent upon one’s refusing to chain one’s freedom to sin, what then of religious who choose the cloister, practicing the evangelical counsels behind monastery walls? Is their practice of charity impeded by such self-imposed ‘chains’? Last, what of the saints in heaven, who, by their free choice, no longer are capable of sin? Are they not free to love?”

West speaks of a engaged couple who find that the only thing that can keep them from having sex before marriage is to chain themselves to separate trees. He claims that this couple is not free to love because they are too much enslaved to their passions and need a set of chains to prevent them from giving in to their passions. West’s point is that the chains not only prevent them from sinning; they prevent them from loving. What does that mean? He is counseling them to realize that chaining themselves to trees to avoid sin is ultimately not the best solution to avoiding sin; they have a great disorder in their heart that prevents them from having the self-mastery needed for love. They need to educate themselves about the spousal meaning of the body and learn to treat each other as gifts rather than objects--and also to seek the graces that would enable them to do so. If they feel such lust for each other that they need to chain themselves to trees they are surely treating each other as objects. By depending upon chains to prevent them from sinning, they are not learning to love. If they cannot avoid serious sin by being together they are in deep trouble. Marriage in itself will not give them self control. In fact, they would have some reason to fear whether they are capable of fidelity within marriage since they have not learned to control their desires when in the presence of powerful sexual attraction – and there is no guarantee that they will not feel equally powerful attractions for others..

Eden reads West’s story to mean that couples should “[embrace] potential occasions of sin as opportunities to grow in grace.” (ET, 41) Those words cannot be found in the text of West. Rather he regularly states that occasions of sin should be avoided, but that avoiding the occasions of sin is not sufficient to acquiring virtue. Moreover, there are different kinds of occasions of sin; for the unmarried to sleep in the same bed is a powerful and foolish occasion of sin – that is an occasion of sin for even the most virtuous. For the unmarried to be alone together should not be such a powerful occasion for those who have respect for each other. They should not need to resort to chaining themselves to trees. Nowhere does he say that only those who have achieved virtue can marry. He is saying that they cannot count on marriage to automatically bestow virtue upon them and that not having achieved virtue, either outside of marriage or inside of marriage, limits their ability to love.

West is certainly not saying that once the engaged couple free themselves from the chains that they are safe in being alone together. What he is saying is that they need to grow in virtue so that they can be alone together without fear of committing serious sin. It is not enough just to avoid sin; they must grow in virtue. A few pages before this discussion, he speaks about having personally undergone a “purgation” of five years before he was able to experience freedom from lust (and even then it was a not a permanent fix).

West is speaking not only to those who are sexually out of control but also to those who are afraid of their own sexual responses. Later, following the above passage, he speaks about the need to “step out of the boat” and trust Christ in order to be in relationship. Consider the example of someone who refuses to date because he or she is afraid of succumbing to sexual temptation. This person is avoiding the occasion of sin but also the occasion of building a loving relationship. This person needs to receive the sacraments, pray, form his or her conscience about the true meaning of sexuality and have confidence that God will protect him or her from serious sin.

Now I would like to look at the wider context in which West presents this argument.

Purity and freedom

The story of the couple in chains appears in a section on purity of heart, which is presented in relation to freedom, especially the freedom of the gift. Beginning on pg. 261 of TOB Exp., West discusses “The freedom for which Christ has set us free.” His key point concerns the relation between freedom and purity. Quoting Gal 5:13 where Paul says we are called to freedom but must not use it as an excuse to indulge the flesh, West says “we often seek to eradicate sin by eradicating our freedom to commit it. We must not remove the freedom we have to sin. For in the same stroke we eradicate the freedom necessary to love. To squelch freedom in order to avoid sin is not living the Gospel ethos of freedom at all. This approach knows not the freedom for which Christ has set us free. If we must chain ourselves in order not to commit sin, then we are just that—in chains. A person in this state remains bound in some way to his desire to sin and has yet to tap into the mature ethos of redemption. He has yet to experience in a sustained way life according to the Holy Spirit. For ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (2 Cor 3:17).”

This is the first point that West is trying to make with the example of the engaged couple. He’s presenting an ideal, knowing full well that many couples are not living up to that ideal. But he wants to encourage them to do so. If they are so bound by their desire to sin that the only way they could avoid it is by some sort of physical separation or obstacle (like chains), then they’re not truly free.

He’s making a point about freedom, not trying to determine criteria for admitting couples to the sacrament of marriage. West has a good bit of experience in preparing couples for marriage. He surely knows that many couples who ask for the sacrament of marriage are living together already, and so are not living a mature purity. He would undoubtedly be very happy if those couples made a commitment to stop living together before marriage, even if they’re not fully free in so doing. Eden suggests that with this example West is saying that engaged couples should not marry until they attain a complete victory over lust. In her speech at the defense of her thesis, she criticized what she said is West’s “implication that continence is an insufficient preparation for marriage.” Or as it was put in the CNA article of Sept. 8: “West claims that perfect marital chastity is a prerequisite for marriage, which, says Eden, is not what the Church believes.” But that is to misread his point. He’s presenting the ideal. He’s not saying that these couples should be barred from the sacrament until they reach a perfect level of chastity. He lives in the real world and knows that would be unrealistic. Eden is not distinguishing between the ideal of holiness the Church presents, and the actual requirements for marriage according to canon law. They’re two very different things.

As to the point about chains and freedom, it is true as Eden notes that in the example, the couple are chaining themselves by their own decision, so they have some good will and a certain amount of freedom. But the fact that they have to chain themselves at all shows they have not reached a mature level of freedom. Eden’s comparison to religious in a cloister might seem to have some surface similarity to West’s engaged couple, but it’s really quite different. Being in religious life myself and having heard many sisters tell their vocation stories, I have yet to hear someone say she chose religious life because she thought it was the only way she could avoid sin. The motives given are usually a desire to love and serve God more deeply, and to work more fully in the Church’s mission. Religious consecration is a consecration precisely for mission, whether in the contemplative or active form. It’s true in years past there was sometimes the thought of “flight from the world,” but at its core, religious life is choosing something positive. That’s actually brought out in the quote Eden uses from Aquinas in a footnote: “Even as one’s liberty is not lessened by being unable to sin, so, too, the necessity resulting from a will firmly fixed to good does not lessen the liberty, as instanced in God and the blessed” (II-II, 88.4., ad 1). In religious life, the will is (or should be) firmly fixed to good. In the story of the engaged couple, instead, their will was bound to the desire to sin, and they were seeking an external means to prevent them from doing so. And of course, the blessed in heaven are in a completely different situation than the engaged couple. The blessed have already firmly chosen the good and are confirmed in it.

Marriage does not justify lust
The other point West intends to make with the example of the engaged couple is that “marriage does not justify lust.” That is exactly the point that Pope John Paul had made in saying that “A man can commit such adultery ‘in the heart’ even with his own wife, if he treats her only as an object for the satisfaction of instinct.” (TOB 43:3)
West treats this point in more detail on pg. 225 of TOB Exp., concerning marriage as a “remedy for concupiscence.” He points out this does not mean that marriage is a legitimate outlet for indulging concupiscent desire. He says the term “remedy” is to be preferred to “relief” in translating the Latin term remedium concupiscentiae, because “‘remedy’ implies that the grace of marriage offers a healing of concupiscent desire.” This healing of concupiscent desire means growth in virtue, a growth that West obviously understands is taking place in marriage His discussion here shows that West does not hold the position Eden attributes to him, namely, “that the sacrament of marriage in no way affects the development of virtue.”

The key point about continence

This comment of West particularly troubles Eden:

At the 2009 lecture, continuing his example of the hypothetical engaged couple, West went on to explain that the continent pair could not 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.

Eden comments on this paragraph and his story of the two bishops to claim that West “takes a grain of truth and places it within a line of thinking that leads to the very opposite of John Paul II’s teachings.” But West actually means exactly what John Paul II means about marriage in itself not transforming lust into legitimate desire.

Eden continues:
“But can it be true that nothing happens at the altar to transform sexual behavior? Is it impossible for an engaged couple’s mere continence—self-control that has not reached the level of perfect chastity—to become graced through the sacrament of matrimony, so that it might henceforth be turned towards the couple’s mutual perfection? West writes elsewhere about the graces of the sacrament of marriage. On this issue, however, in his haste to counter the kind of puritanism under which he suffered in the Mother of God Community, he seems to forget it entirely, taking up—unwittingly, perhaps—a semi-Pelagian ideal of human-powered self-control.”

Again, Eden’s conclusion doesn’t follow because she is taking West out of context. While the quote she used is no longer available online, it is similar to what West says in TOB Exp. about the engaged couple.

His point is not to deny the grace of marriage, which he writes about in other places as Eden notes. His point is that marriage doesn’t justify lust. That’s quite a different point, and one that Eden fails to consider. So she is setting up another straw man.

The point that West makes is a basic one that concerns not just marriage but all the sacraments. The sacraments have their own power and are efficacious due to the grace of Christ. But their effect also depends on our dispositions. As the Catechism puts it: “…the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all….. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.” (no. 1128).

Certainly if people receive the sacrament of marriage with good dispositions, its grace does heal and strengthen them. West knows that and does not deny it. But if someone receives the sacrament without the proper interior dispositions, it doesn’t act as if by magic to change them against their will. That’s really all that West is saying, a point that St. Paul noted in regard to the Eucharist: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:29).

Further discussion of continence
Then Eden proceeds to discuss continence more. I find her treatment of this matter a bit convoluted, but will do my best to unravel what kind of charge she is making against West and to compare that against what both he and John Paul II really say.

Thomistic sense of continence
Eden refers to West’s understanding of the Thomistic sense of continence—that it is not a virtue in the full sense—and references the Summa (I-II, q. 58, a. 3, ad 2, where Thomas says it falls short of virtue). (ET, 43) Eden adds that West says the engaged couple who are continent out of fear of temptation lack the right desire.(Prof. Janet Smith has shown here how West uses the term in many different ways.

More analysis of continence and virtue

Eden says West begins accurately (ET 44), since St. Thomas does say that continence is an incomplete virtue. John Paul also notes that continence always acts in connection with other virtues. She quotes from the Pope, using a quotation that West also uses on p. 565 of TOB Exp. Eden continues with her key point: “There, however, the accord ends--while West emphasizes that a couple must advance beyond mere continence prior to marriage, John Paul’s language makes it clear that such advancement naturally takes place within marriage.” This is a very important point for Eden. She believes that West proposes a different view of continence than John Paul does.

The problem with Eden’s view here is that West does believe what John Paul says that such advancement in virtues takes place within marriage, as the rest of this evaluation of her argument will show. As noted above, West’s recommendation to engaged couples to seek mature purity doesn’t mean he’s denying they can grow in such purity within marriage. He is simply saying it would be good if they advanced more in purity prior to marriage.

An excursus on continence
In an excursus Eden deals with an objection West might raise to her interpretation of John Paul on continence: West could counter that when John Paul describes continence as a virtue, he is defining it as something other than Thomas’ definition, who said it is “something less than a virtue.” (ET, 58) (This refers to West’s argument in TOB Explained, p. 564f.)

On page 58 Eden says West “‘chastitizes’ [a word Eden coins but doesn't define, so I can't explain what she means by it.] John Paul’s instruction on growth in continence. The Pope, by this account, is no longer speaking to beginners in virtue; rather, he is addressing those who are already pure, advising them to become more pure. Since John Paul’s instruction in this area is addressed to married couples, such an interpretation enables West to claim that engaged couples must progress through ‘unvirtuous’ continence to ‘virtue’—that is, chastity—before marriage.”

I fing this to be a rather strange argument. I think she means that according to West, the Pope’s talks to married people presuppose they are already pure (because they are married) and he is only telling them how to be more pure. This allows West to maintain that since the married are expected to be already pure, the engaged couple should reach this before marriage. (That is, according to Eden’s interpretation. I don’t believe West is really saying that.)

To defend her interpretation Eden refers to West’s argument on pp. 564-565 of TOB Exp. That section of the book deals with continence in relation to the teaching of Humanae Vitae. He’s talking about married couples, since that’s whom the pope is addressing in regard to Humanae Vitae. On pp. 566-567 West begins a section where he talks about how married couples can advance in virtue through self-mastery. West does not say anywhere here that it’s a question of simply telling those who are already pure how to become more pure. West talks about how married couples can grow in self-mastery, and even compares it to strength training. He quotes John Paul: “conjugal chastity (and chastity in general) manifests itself at first as the ability to resist the concupiscence of the flesh.” That’s continence. That entire section shows that West does indeed understand and maintain the very point that Eden says he denies: that continence can develop into a virtue – and not only for those who already are pure -- within a sacramental marriage.

Later Eden says: “There is, then, no ground for claiming John Paul is departing from continuity and inventing a vocabulary on this topic, nor is there ground for West’s inference that the pope expects couples to possess habitual temperance prior to receiving the graces of the sacrament of matrimony.”
But who is claiming that John Paul is inventing a vocabulary? Not West, as Eden is saying he does. Her assertion doesn’t follow at all. It’s a complete non sequitur. Yet Eden uses this assertion as one of the reasons for making her further claim that West is breaking the hermeneutic of continuity.

At this point, my own suggestion would be this: To bring greater clarity to this discussion, I think it would be better for West to contrast the virtue of continence with the virtue of temperance, instead of contrasting continence with virtue. His point would still be made, since Thomas shows that continence is inferior to temperance. West would just have to explain the difference between the two virtues. Hopefully, it would satisfy his critics who see in his language grounds for criticism, unfounded as that may be.

Gradualness of virtue

Eden then presents some quotations from John Paul where he stresses the gradualness of the development of virtue and a progressive growth in self-control, and that this takes place within marriage. West would completely agree with that point. In a previous post I have already dealt with this concern.

Another excursus

Eden says West “fails to acknowledge the extent to which John Paul II follows the theological categories and terminology of the Paul VI encyclical. As a result, the true depth of John Paul’s catechesis becomes obscured; he becomes a ‘revolutionary’ who thinks as the Church, but not with the Church. This lacuna in West’s presentation is clear, as we have seen, in his assumption that John Paul is using a different definition of continence than that of St. Thomas. We see it also in his failure to recognize that John Paul’s catechesis on continence are meant to add depth and context specifically to Humanae Vitae’s description of ‘self-mastery.’”

Her claim about West misunderstanding Humanae Vitae’s categories and terminology is an odd one. She offers no evidence to support it at all. It’s countered by the in-depth explanation of the encyclical that West offers in TOB Exp.

That claim in turn is the basis for her next one, that West is turning John Paul into a revolutionary. Again, this claim has no support and just doesn’t follow from anything that Eden has said. I’ve already noted how her claim that this follows from the discussion on continence is a non sequitur.

The point of Eden’s excursus, however, seems to be to reinforce that “Humanae Vitae stresses that the virtuous fruits of self-mastery—that is, the virtue that results from habitual temperance—are acquired within marriage.”

Again, as the quotations from West above indicate, he agrees with this assessment, despite Eden’s unfounded claim that this is “the point he seems to miss.” I’ll just add one more quote from West: “John Paul says that if the key element of the spirituality of spouses is love, this love is by its nature linked with the chastity that is manifested as self-mastery. Such self-mastery is also known as continence.” (TOB Exp. p. 564). West continues to deepen this subject in the section entitled “Continence Purifies and Deepens Marital Union “ (pp. 569-571).

Eden then returns to the story of the engaged couple, but I have dealt with that above. She concludes this section with a final quote from John Paul:

By contrast, John Paul—following Humanae Vitae and, through that encyclical, the historical teachings of the Church—affirms that it is precisely the graces received at the altar that render the couple capable of the "spiritual blessings" of marriage (Humanae Vitae 21), through which is "gradually [revealed in them] the singular capacity to perceive, love and practice those meanings of the language of the body which remain altogether unknown to concupiscence itself."

West also uses this quote on page 567 of TOB Exp. (Did Eden perhaps not notice that?) After quoting John Paul, West goes on to unpack that quote and bring out its implications.


It’s taken me almost 10 pages to present and evaluate Eden’s central argument—also presented in about 10 pages-- that West misunderstands the virtue of continence and presents a false understanding of the requirements of marriage. This again underlines how unsustainable is Eden’s claim to have done a “comprehensive overview” of West’s work. To do justice to his work would require a much more intensive analysis than the superficial one that she presents.

I have no doubt that Eden is convinced she is doing some service to the Church in trying to point out and correct what she considers to be West’s errors. But after examining and evaluating the central claim of her thesis that West misunderstands continence, I have to conclude as follows:

1. Eden’s analysis is uninformed because she fails to consider significant parts of West’s work that would affect her claim, as I have shown above (for example, in ignoring his many statements where he affirms the grace of marriage to help people grow in virtue, and ignoring the extended treatment of continence as a virtue found in TOB Explained).

2. Eden’s analysis is misinformed because she asserts what is not the case, basing her claims on a faulty analysis of his writings, as I have also shown above (for example, her claim that West is inventing a vocabulary for John Paul and this means West is breaking the hermeneutic of continuity).

Eden’s analysis is also unfair in that she regularly interprets West’s words in an implausible fashion and she attributes to him positions that are clearly not his.

3. Eden’s analysis is illogical at least in certain points, as I have shown above in her arguments that are actually non sequiturs. At least twice, Eden even uses quotations from Pope John Paul to prove her point, apparently not realizing that West also uses those same quotations in his discussion of the subject, showing he understands exactly what John Paul means. This is certainly not a very convincing way to support her ideas, and suggests that she didn’t read the sources very carefully. Her argument about West’s understanding of continence is essentially a straw man. As Eden has said, this point is one of her main arguments and concerns about West that she considers in her thesis. Yet it doesn’t stand up to examination. As a result, her thesis collapses. At this point I am not going to critique any more of her thesis, for the problems already noted with it show that her conclusions cannot be sustained.

I wish Dawn Eden well as she continues her further studies. As her work on chastity has shown along with her book The Thrill of the Chaste, she has a lot of talent and can be an incredible asset to the Church’s evangelizing mission.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Putting Christopher West in Context: A Critique of Dawn Eden's Thesis

This rather long post is also available in a PDF file here or here on Google docs if anyone wants to share it or here on docstoc)

In today’s media culture, people often find themselves afloat on a sea of information, carried here and there by currents they can’t control. All this makes it difficult to find the time and resources to investigate things they hear. For some time now criticisms of Christopher West and his presentation of Pope John Paul’s theology of the body (TOB) have been swirling among Catholic blogs, websites, and news outlets.

The latest waves started rolling in this last summer, when Dawn Eden released her master’s thesis critiquing West’s work: Towards a “Climate of Chastity:” Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity. Believing that West’s presentation is skewed, Eden attempts to point out what she considers his errors, and to offer positive suggestions to catechists so that they may give a fuller and more accurate account of the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage and sex.

Christopher West has been a pioneer in presenting TOB to audiences of ordinary, average Catholics, most of whom have never heard of John Paul II’s talks on the subject. The Pope spoke on the topic for about five years, using language that even theologians found difficult to understand. He brought to this work his long years of study in philosophy. John Paul drew on modern philosophical categories and used concepts drawn from personalistic ways of thinking. He wanted to use these ideas in support of Catholic teaching, to find a new language to talk to people of today. To take those ideas and present them to average Catholics, who often have no formal training in philosophy or theology, is quite a task. West deserves tremendous credit for being a pioneer in this field. Any pioneer will blaze some trails that may veer off course a bit. As his associates will testify, West has always been willing to consider a course correction or new route when this was indicated.

But not all advice is sound advice. It has to be weighed, considered, and sometimes even rejected. Sound advice comes from a solid knowledge of the territory, one that knows the obstacles as well as the opportunities the explorer faces. West has been forging ahead in this territory for over fifteen years. His work has comprised several books, many recorded presentations, and countless lectures, classes, courses, columns, and talks. In her thesis, Dawn Eden took on a large project in giving what she calls “a comprehensive overview of West’s presentation of TOB.” To fairly evaluate it would require her to follow the development of all his teaching as it has unfolded over the past decade. That’s quite a project. Does any fair-minded observer really think it’s possible to accomplish this project in a master's thesis of under 100 pages? Actually, she even says she carries out the comprehensive overview of his work in chapter one, a mere fifteen pages. To be fair to West, she would need to also contextualize his teachings so as to present them objectively without any distortion. Moreover, she cites his major work, Theology of the Body Explained rarely; surely that text should have been the primary text of her assessment.

The thesis gives little sense of how West’s work has developed. For example, as Michael Waldstein has attested, West changed some aspects of his presentation in view of the new translation of the Pope’s talks. Waldstein’s translation involved certain changes in structure and vocabulary that had an impact on the correct presentation of TOB. West spent much time communicating with Waldstein and tailored his presentation to reflect new insights gained. Yet Eden mentions nothing of this major development. A casual reader, not knowing this background, could easily come away with the impression that West has been doing the same thing for fifteen years. Instead, the constant feedback he gets, especially from his live audiences, has helped him tailor his presentation to better meet their needs.

Eden’s Overview of West’s Work

But on to Eden’s overview. First, she gives some background data and biographical info about West. Eden thinks that West excessively emphasizes that a certain repressive approach to sexual issues has troubled the Catholic Church for a long time, and still does. She says, “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.’” So Eden discusses the time that West’s family spent in the Mother of God community. Evidently this community was very strict, especially about sexual matters. In her thesis, Eden speculates about how this experience has affected West’s presentation of TOB. Essentially, she thinks that it gave him the idea that too many Catholics are affected by sexual repression and prudishness.

Even though West himself may have mentioned details of his experiences in that community, she doesn’t quote any statement where he himself states what impact these experiences had on him and how that may have affected his presentation of TOB. By venturing into this area, Eden goes outside the academic arena and tries to psychoanalyze West. This is shaky ground indeed. And by using this argument, Eden can’t object if attentive readers start to wonder if her critique of West has been shaped by her own life experiences. As she herself narrates in her book The Thrill of the Chaste, Eden was raised in a Jewish family, in an atmosphere free of any supposed Catholic prudishness. She fell into the unchaste lifestyle so common today, although she later embraced chastity when she converted to Christianity (and to Catholicism in 2006). Could it be that these experiences, so vastly different from West’s, have prevented her from realizing the extent to which Catholics have indeed been affected by a certain type of Jansenistic spirit and repressiveness? Even if this is not a universal problem, it does exist, and West speaks to it. Nonetheless, to spend so much time on West’s personal history and so little time on his major work is a strange focus for an academic work.

The Ten Major Themes

In her thesis, Eden lists ten themes that she says are the major themes in Christopher West's work. She also listed them in the talk she gave at her defense.

Her listing of these themes raises the question: how did she determine that these themes are in fact the major ones of West's work? She doesn't explain her criteria for selecting them. Do these ten themes actually represent the distillation of West's work? If West himself were to summarize his work in ten themes, would he choose these or something else? Do these themes really capture the essence of his work? Are there others that could have been included? West is basing his themes on John Paul, and several other important themes could be noted, such as the communion of persons, spousal meaning of the body, shame, receptivity, celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, the new evangelization and the culture of death, and most importantly, the theme of self-gift. It is also quite surprising that the subject of contraception is not included, since John Paul himself said one of his main purposes in presenting his TOB was to give a better support and defense of the teaching of Humanae Vitae. West has been a notable defender of this Church teaching.

If Eden wants to critique all of West's work, she needs to be absolutely sure that she is presenting his work accurately. Her synthesis is certainly open to debate. She seems to have selected themes that better suit her criticisms of West, while omitting others that are more fundamental but not so open to criticism. This leaves Eden's thesis vulnerable, since her critique assumes her reading of West corresponds to what he is actually saying, but it may not. Again, this relates to the difficulty already mentioned, that Eden has taken on such a broad project that she can't do it justice.

Eden treats each theme quite briefly. Just to reiterate, this is surprising in light of her claim that she is presenting a comprehensive overview. She simply states the themes without saying much else about them. Rather, she presents the themes in such a way that the reader tends to get a negative impression of West’s work. This is partly due to the use of selective quotes, many of which seem to have been picked for sounding somewhat provocative. This impression is reinforced by the use of quotes around many short words and phrases, and sometimes even just one word. This method of quoting raises some red flags that West is being taken out of context. In many cases, closer examination of these quotes shows that indeed he is.
Nor does Eden compare West’s treatment of these themes to what John Paul says in TOB, in order to assess if West’s presentation accords with John Paul’s.

The First Theme

Eden’s first theme is: “The TOB is an all-encompassing theology that requires theologians and religious educators to recontextualize ‘everything’ about Christian faith and life.” She adds: “It ‘isn’t just about sex and marriage”; it is a ‘revolution’ that ‘will lead to a dramatic development of thinking about the Creed.’”

First let me note that as Eden says in a footnote, “recontextualize” is her term, not West’s. She should have also noted that he never implied or said that theologians and religious educators should do anything concerning “everything about Christian faith and life.” At least Eden cites no passages to indicate that West thought that. She tells us we can find the “everything” quote in an essay by West entitled, “What is the Theology of the Body and Why is it Changing So Many Lives?” But the word “everything” does not appear in that column.

Here in fact is what he does say (which seems to be the source of her claim):

In short, through an in-depth reflection on the Scriptures, John Paul seeks to answer two of the most important, universal questions: (1) “What does it mean to be human?” and (2) “How do I live my life in a way that brings true happiness and fulfillment?” The Pope’s teaching, therefore, isn’t just about sex and marriage. Since our creation as male and female is the “fundamental fact of human existence” (Feb 13, 1980), the theology of the body affords “the rediscovery of the meaning of the whole of existence, the meaning of life” (Oct 29, 80).

The last part of that sentence is from Pope John Paul. The Pope does indeed indicate that TOB affects our whole existence-- but neither he nor West say that theologians and educators need to “recontextualize” (or do anything in regard to) “everything” about “faith and life.” What John Paul says and West follows is that TOB allows us to “rediscover” truths we have lost sight of. This view is truly in the context of a hermeneutic of continuity. There is no break. The very passage that Eden says shows that West wants to change “everything,” in fact says the opposite. Our understanding of TOB will change how we view reality, but there is no suggestion of a change in Church teaching. This mistake seriously vitiates her claim that West’s views violate a hermeneutic of continuity. The two questions that West raises in relation to this show that the “everything” TOB affects should be understood to primarily concern the way we live our own lives.

We’re barely into the first sentence of Eden’s first major theme, and already the way she quotes West takes him out of context and gives the reader a false impression of what he is really saying.

The point about TOB affecting the Creed is from a passage by George Weigel in Witness to Hope, discussing how TOB will shape theology in many areas. Surely it will. Does Eden doubt that? Neither Weigel nor West suggest there will be any changes in the Creed; rather it is clear they are referring to a deepening of our understanding of the Creed. Again, Eden just cites the claim almost as if it were ridiculous on the face of it; she does not tell us what Weigel means by this or how West uses Weigel’s statement or why it is objectionable.

Imago Dei

Eden then brings up the idea of locating the imago Dei not only in the individual person, but as John Paul said, “through the communion … which man and woman form right from the beginning” as a dramatic development. This important idea– and top scholars such as Cardinal Angelo Scola believe it is a new idea (“The Nuptial Mystery: A Perspective for Systematic Theology” Communio 30 (Spring 2003). -- says that we image God not just because we are rational, but through the communion of persons.

Eden says that “In West’s view, this [the imago Dei as communion] means that the male human body and the female human body, understood within the call to marital union, contain within themselves the entire content of the mysteries of the Christian faith.” That’s her interpretation of West. Notice she says that West places this content in the body itself. To illustrate this she quotes from West:

“This is to say that everything God wants to tell us on earth about who he is, the meaning of life, the reason he created us, how we are to live, as well as our ultimate destiny, is contained somehow in the meaning of the human body and the call of male and female to become ‘one body’ in marriage.”

Two points here. First, West says all this is contained in the meaning of the human body, not simply the body. This is an important distinction, but Eden is simply equating the two things.

Second, what West is actually referring to in this paragraph (“this is to say”) is not the imago Dei. Instead, he is referring to the call to nuptial love inscribed in our bodies. Eden doesn’t quote what he says immediately before the above paragraph, which places this quote in its proper context. Here it is:

“As John Paul shows us, the question of sexuality and marriage is not a peripheral issue. In fact, he says the call to "nuptial love" inscribed in our bodies is "the fundamental element of human existence in the world" (General Audience 1/16/80). In light of Ephesians 5, he even says that the ultimate truth about the "great mystery" of marriage "is in a certain sense the central theme of the whole of revelation, its central reality" (General Audience 9/8/82).”
"This is to say...." (as above).

So this is another example of how Eden does not always accurately represent West’s thought. By quoting him out of context, she’s suggesting that his ideas about the nuptial mystery actually refers to the imago Dei. And in an academic thesis, that's sloppy.
But there’s one more thing. What does Pope John Paul say about this issue? Referring to the spousal analogy in Ephesians 5, he says: “Given its importance, this mystery is great indeed: as God’s salvific plan for humanity, that mystery is in some sense the central theme of the whole of revelation, its central reality. It is what God as Creator and Father wishes above all to transmit to mankind in his Word” (TOB 93:2)

The claim to the centrality of this mystery (the spousal analogy) is actually coming from John Paul.

The Second Theme

Eden states the second theme as: “The ‘sexual revolution’ was a ‘happy fault.’”

Eden doesn’t explain why she considers this a major theme, although West does mention it at times. The index to Theology of the Body Explained has six entries for the sexual revolution, although not all of them speak of it as a happy fault (an obvious reference to the Easter liturgy speaking of original sin as a happy fault). It seems odd to consider this a major theme when other much more important ones are omitted. The index entry under contraception, for example, has 14 subheads, many with several references.

But the revolution theme does fit Eden’s critique of West in reference to the hermeneutic of discontinuity. In this is she carefully reading an author to determine what that author actually means, or is she reading him in order to find support for her own pre-determined view of his work? Is it possible that contraception is omitted from the ten major themes because West clearly supports Church teaching and tradition on this subject, thus countering Eden’s idea that West is so revolutionary that he is actually rupturing Catholic tradition?

The Third Theme

The third theme is “‘Dumpster’ vs. ‘banquet’—two contrasting means of satisfying ‘hunger.’”

West does refer to this theme often; whether often enough for it to constitute one of his ten major themes isn’t clear. But surely West’s critics will agree that he is right in consigning pornography to the dumpster—exactly where it belongs.

The Fourth Theme

The fourth theme is: “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.”

She continues, quoting West, “With this image in mind, God’s action upon the human person should be understood as ‘impregnation,’ with the Virgin Mary as model: “[T]he spousal imagery throughout all of Scripture [teaches us] that God wants to ‘marry’ us. Furthermore, through this mystical marriage, the divine Bridegroom wants to fill us, ‘impregnate’ us with divine life. In the Virgin Mary, this becomes a living reality.’ This is true for men and women. ‘The key to authentic masculinity’ is seeing oneself as a bride of Christ. ‘Don’t worry, guys—it doesn’t mean we have to wear a wedding dress or anything. It means, essentially, that we, as creatures, have to learn how to open and ‘receive’ the love of the Creator.”

(I will use the word "spousal" instead of "nuptial," since Dr. Michael Waldstein indicates this is the better translation of the term John Paul uses.) Is West really saying that “‘spousal’ is to be envisioned in sexual terms”? On the basis of these brief quotes, it might seem so. But what happens when you look at the fuller context of the quotes from West?
He says: “The Song of Songs teaches us – as does the spousal imagery throughout all of Scripture – that God wants to "marry" us. Furthermore, through this mystical marriage, the divine Bridegroom wants to fill us, "impregnate" us with divine life. In the Virgin Mary, this becomes a living reality. And this, as the Catechism says, is why "Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church’s mystery as ‘the bride without spot or wrinkle’" (CCC 773).”
Right before this paragraph he indicates he’s taking his basic idea from a passage in True Devotion to Mary by St. Louis de Montfort. The word “impregnate” might seem to give it a more sexual nuance. But if you look up that word on, you’ll find five meanings, only the first of which is directly related to procreation. The meaning West intends is from the third definition, “to cause to be infused or permeated throughout, as with a substance; saturate: to impregnate a handkerchief with cheap perfume.” West is stressing that God fills us with divine life. He uses the example of Mary in this particular article (with its relation to pregnancy) because he’s writing at Christmastime about the Incarnation. Context is important.

Men and receptivity

What about the second quote concerning men and receptivity? It might seem provocative because of the wedding dress. But here’s the whole passage:

“‘Spousal prayer’ means, very simply, to open oneself wholly and completely to Christ, surrendering to him in a union of love like a bride surrenders to the loving embrace of her bridegroom. And, yes, as uncomfortable as this might seem for men at first, this includes us too. As John Paul II wrote in Mulieris Dignitatem, "According to [the spousal analogy], all human beings - both women and men - are called through the Church, to be the 'Bride' of Christ, the Redeemer of the world. In this way 'being the bride,' and thus the 'feminine' element, becomes a symbol of all that is 'human" (MD 25). (Don't worry, guys - it doesn't mean we have to wear a wedding dress or anything. It means, essentially, that we, as creatures, have to learn how to open and "receive" the love of the Creator. This is not a threat to our masculinity, but the key to authentic masculinity.)”

Why did Eden leave out the quote West uses from John Paul, who is the real source of the idea? Omitting it gives the impression West is a bit more provocative than he really is. In fact, in that same paragraph of MD, the Pope adds: “In the Church every human being—male and female—is the ‘Bride,’ in that he or she accepts the gift of the love of Christ the Redeemer, and seeks to respond to it with the gift of his or her own person.”

In all of this, West's basic point is actually drawn from John Paul--something that Eden doesn't make clear. West is presenting John Paul's thought in a popular way. It may not appeal to everyone, and that’s fine. But many people have found it useful in better understanding what TOB is all about.

Further, in his Theology of the Body Explained, West carefully considers the proper understanding of the spousal analogy (pp. 28-30). He quotes Cardinal Angelo Scola, writing in The Nuptial Mystery:
[An excessive or ‘maximalist’ interpretation] “ultimately tends toward an anthropomorphic deformation of our understanding of God, and even into introducing sexuality into God himself… Its underlying logic, whether its proponents intend it to or not, ultimately makes the claim that spousal categories are…the only categories fit to illuminate Christian dogma. To move in this direction is to engage in bad theology.” West continues, “For all the value of the spousal analogy, it is critical (lest we end in heresy!) to recognize its limits.” He continues for another two pages to consider both excessive and minimalistic interpretations of this analogy.

Since Eden’s criticism of West centers on this very idea, it is hard to understand why she omits citing this important discussion. Even if she thinks West has tended toward the maximalist side, in fairness to him she needs to alert readers to this passage in order to indicate his true thinking on the matter.

The Fifth Theme

The fifth theme is: “ ‘[T]he whole reality of the Church’s prayer and sacramental-liturgical life is modeled on the union of spouses.’”

This theme gets into the question of how we are to understand certain liturgical symbols and gestures in light of the spousal mystery. Eden thinks West goes too far in this direction, especially in citing his reference to the Easter candle as a phallic symbol. Later in the thesis, Eden offers some useful information on this topic and makes a good case that it should not be understood in this manner. Liturgists may disagree on this question, yet the liturgy certainly has spousal references in speaking of the baptismal font as the womb of the Church bringing forth new children. Again, it is hard to understand why Eden thinks this is a “theme” in West; he rarely speaks of the Easter Candle and speaks of liturgy in proportion to the way that John Paul II speaks of it.

The Sixth Theme

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

West does make some comparisons in this area, but it doesn’t qualify as a major theme of his work. Perhaps Eden chose it since it fits into her later criticism that West oversexualizes Church teaching.

West does discuss at greater length, however, the way that marriage and conjugal union foreshadows heavenly union. “Earthly marriage serves as the indispensable precursor to heavenly marriage. Of course, in order for marriage to prepare people for heaven, the earthly model must accurately image the divine prototype. John Paul describes marriage as ‘a sacrament of the human “beginning.”’ As man’s origin, marital intercourse enables man to have a future not merely in the historical dimensions but also in the eschatological. Thus John Paul observes that every man brings into the world his vocation to share in the future resurrection because his origin lies in the marriage (more specifically, the marital embrace) of his parents. In this way marriage fulfills an ‘irreplaceable service’ with regard to man’s ultimate destiny.” (TOB Explained, p. 448.)

The Seventh Theme

The seventh theme is: “‘God created sexual desire as the power to love as he loves.’”

Eden uses only a few quotations here. They could have been supplemented by an explanation of what West actually means by sexual desire: “…sexual desire as God intended it to be [is] the desire to make a free and sincere gift of self according to the true meaning of love and the spousal meaning of the body.” (TOB Explained, p. 566). It’s important to note that West does not see authentic sexual desire as selfish or oriented to lust in any way, but toward true love and self-sacrifice. Nor does West mean that “sexual desire” itself leads us to love as God loves – it is the understanding of “sexual love as it was meant to be” (my emphasis) that leads to God’s love. West says precisely this not only in the passage from TOB just cited but in a passage from Heaven’s Song that Eden cites later in her thesis (33). She routinely fails to acknowledge the precise meaning of West’s claims.

The Eighth Theme

The eighth theme is: “‘Mature purity’ enables ‘liberation from concupiscence.’”

This is indeed a major theme of West’s work, and probably the flashpoint that draws the most criticism—and the most misunderstanding. A thorough discussion would require a book-length thesis. Let me just say here that West is basing himself on John Paul’s explanation of Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount as the new ethos of the Gospel. This new ethos calls us to overcome lust in our hearts at a very deep level.
While we can never completely overcome concupiscence in this life, through grace we can achieve a significant victory over it. It doesn’t come easy; we have to struggle. Yet this very struggle is a way of holiness.

Aquinas and the virtues

A good explanation of this point comes from St. Thomas Aquinas, in an article where he explains why the virtue of temperance (a cardinal virtue) is superior to that of continence: In article 4 of question 155 of the Summa Theologiae (II-II), Thomas very clearly says that temperance is higher than continence (he states two meanings of continence and is speaking of its second meaning as “the resistance to strongly running wrongful lusts.” He says “…temperance is much fuller than continence, for the value of a virtue is admirable because it is charged with intelligence. Now intelligence burgeons more in the temperate than in the continent, because by temperance the sensory appetite itself is subordinated and as it were wholly possessed by mind, whereas with continence its low desires remain rebellious. To sum up, continence is to temperance as the unripe to the fully mature.” (emphasis added; Blackfriars edition)

That’s exactly what West intends to convey. Virtue reaches even to the well-ordering of our passions. St. Thomas did hold that it is possible to overcome the dominance of the sensory appetite even in this life—we call that ability the virtue of temperance. That doesn’t mean that we’re totally free of concupiscence, because that’s not possible this side of heaven. But with the help of grace we can certainly achieve a significant victory.

Also relevant to this question is the way Thomas views the relation of virtues to the passions (I-II, q. 59). He says, “the more perfect a virtue is, the more it causes passion” (a. 5). He means passions that are under the control of reason. One passion is joy, and the more perfect the virtue, the more it causes joy. A person who acts virtuously with joy is at a higher level than one who is still struggling in the purgative stage, finding it hard to give up sin. Those who struggle through with “white-knuckle chastity” (ie. The “unripe”) are acting virtuously (although they do not yet possess the fullness of virtue), but those who have grown beyond that to ease and joy in chastity truly possess virtue (ie, the “fully mature.”). It seems that St. Thomas was speaking of “mature purity” long before West ever did.

The Ninth Theme

The ninth theme is: “‘The Song of Songs is of great importance to a proper understanding of Christianity.’”

John Paul certainly devoted a great deal of attention to this book in his audiences, and West is following him in that. Many mystics and saints found this book to perfectly express their longing for deep union with God.

The great Scripture exegete Origen said in his commentary on this book:
“The Scripture before us, therefore, speaks of this love with which the blessed soul is kindled and inflamed toward the Word of God; it sings by the Spirit the song of the marriage whereby the Church is joined and allied to Christ the heavenly Bridegroom, desiring to be united to him through the Word, so that she may conceive by him and be saved through this chaste begetting of children, when they—conceived as they are indeed of the seed of the Word of God, and born and brought forth by the spotless Church, or by the soul that seeks nothing bodily, nothing material, but is aflame with the single love of the Word of God—shall have persevered in faith and holiness with sobriety. These are the considerations that have occurred to us thus far regarding the love or charity that is set forth in this marriage-hymn that is the Song of Songs.” (Song of Songs: Commentary, Prologue, 3).

The Tenth Theme

Finally, the last theme is: “The meaning of marriage is encapsulated in ‘intercourse.’”

Eden disposes of this important subject in three sentences.

I think it would be more accurate to say that West maintains that the sign of marriage is encapsulated in intercourse. He has an extended discussion of this topic on pages 463-467 of TOB Explained. He treats of the importance of conjugal union as the sacramental sign of marriage, but goes to great lengths to explain it is not limited to that:
“So, does the liturgical exchange of vows make up the sign? Do the man and woman themselves make up the sign? Does conjugal intercourse make up the sign? Does the whole of married life make up the sign? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. The entire reality of the gift of man and woman to each other ‘until death’ is the unrepeatable sign of marriage. And, as John Paul says, this is a “sign with …manifold contents” (TOB 105:6).

Just another example of how Eden’s incomplete treatment of West’s thought serves to distort it and to leave the wrong impression in the mind of the reader. A thorough treatment of just a few of these topics would have required lengthy discussions. As it is, we do not learn much about West; we learn more about how West can be misunderstood when he is not read carefully.

This brings us to the end of the ten themes, and I am going to stop here. In the final analysis, Eden fails to make a convincing case against West because she often takes him out of context, fails to thoroughly consider his complete position on various issues, and does not fully take into account his major work. The debate about TOB will surely continue. As it unfolds, may it do so in a spirit of charity and truth, for in the end “faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). And ultimately, isn’t that what TOB is all about?