Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In Spiritu et Veritate: Thomas Aquinas and the Summa Theologiae: Week Two

In Spiritu et Veritate: Thomas Aquinas and the Summa Theologiae: Week Two

Fr Gerald Mendoza, OP, is just beginning a "tour of the Summa" that will examine the more significant parts of St. Thomas' great work.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The surfing nun

The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary will be hosting a surfing competition to raise funds needed for maintenance and repair of their buildings.

You go girl!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Janet Smith on conscience

A recent guest editorial in the National Catholic Register by Dr Janet Smith is worth reading. She addresses the problem posed by Catholics who are confused about conscience and Church teaching.

The spousal analogy and the cross

The first time I ever heard about the spousal analogy was in a talk by Bishop Sheen. I was only a teenager at the time, and Bishop Sheen was speaking about Christ's union with the Church. He said that it was on the marriage bed of the cross that Christ consummated his union with the Church. I specifically remember he used the words "marriage bed" and "consummated" because it shocked my pious young ears. Yet as Bishop Sheen went on to explain his point, it became clear to me what he was talking about. He was basing himself on Ephesians 5, where St Paul speaks about Christ giving himself up for the Church. And he did this on the cross--giving up his life for the sake of his bride, the Church.

The connection between the spousal analogy and the cross is an important point. Christopher West brings this out in his Theology of the Body Explained, page 390: "The cross of Christ is planted in the ground under the feet of this spousal analogy. Here we witness the totality of Christ's spousal love for the Church." Then he quotes John Paul, "That gift of self to the Father through obedience to the point of death (see Phil 2:8) is at the same time, according to Ephesians, an act of 'giving himself for the Church."

West also brings this out in an article on the basic theology of marriage:

"If men and women are to experience marriage as God intended it “in the beginning,” they must consciously renounce all that is contrary to God’s plan and continually surrender themselves to the grace of redemption. The cross of Christ, therefore, lies at the center of the Church’s theology of marriage.
Since it was man and woman’s turning away from God that distorted their relationship in the first place, it makes sense that restoring marriage requires a radical return to God. Thus, an authentic theology of marriage is not only informational but, above all, transformational. It calls couples to a life of ongoing personal conversion. Only as spouses renounce themselves and take up their crosses to follow Christ can they experience the true joys of marriage that God ardently wishes to shower upon them."

I would like to draw attention to the words, "The cross of Christ, therefore, lies at the center of the Church’s theology of marriage." That's an important statement. I am bringing it out here because in the current controversy over West's presentation of TOB, I believe some of his critics are overlooking statements such as this in order to accuse him of a pan-sexualism.

Friday, August 27, 2010

TOB and the spousal analogy

The spousal analogy is a key point in TOB, and in her thesis on Christopher West’s work, Dawn Eden includes it as one of the ten major points. She summarizes West’s understanding of it as follows:
“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.”

[note: 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 dictionary.com, 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.

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.)”

I wonder why Dawn left 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 Dawn doesn't make clear. West is presenting John Paul's thought in a popular way. If West's approach doesn't appeal to you, that's fine. Don’t read him. Use whatever other way you prefer. As I saw firsthand at the TOB Congress, more and more people are developing a wide variety of approaches to breaking open John Paul's thought, and that's all to the good.

Friday, August 06, 2010

TOB Congress

Last week I attended the TOB Congress near Philadelphia, and it was wonderful.
The most powerful thing for me was to meet people coming from the grassroots whose lives have been affected by TOB in a very positive way. For example, I met one woman (from a diocese known to be quite liberal ever since Vatican II) who spoke about how she found out about TOB on her own. It revitalized her marriage and family life, and in her enthusiasm she went to her parish priest and got other people involved, and they held a TOB event at the diocesan level with the bishop's approval. It's a movement that's growing from the grassroots up. It's not a top-down movement. People were asking how they could get their priests interested and involved. It's quite a phenomenon.

Anyway, I'm going to be on vacation starting this afternoon. I'm bringing with me Waldstein's translation to go over some of the talks again. They're like a rich mine that never stops producing gold.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Teaching TOB with delicacy

People have left some great comments, and I'd like to highlight one left by Barbara, who can always be counted on to add some very insightful points to a conversation:

"Success has encouraged Chris to push more and more into developing an always more populist approach to the Theology of the Body. I find the results of the straining after populism in some TOB speakers to be lacking in reverence, and even crass. As St. Paul said, 'Some things should never be mentioned among you.' I also like Emily Dickinson here: 'They speak of hallowed things aloud, and embarrass my dog.'"

Sr Helena also said something about this too:

"Christopher used to be explicit/graphic when he spoke in the beginning, but he has since retired this style (as have other TOB speakers). I am adamant about that. That's the beauty of TOB, we talk about sex/the body in a theological context that respects modesty, a mixed group, various ages, etc. If a man is talking about TOB in a men's prison or something, it might be fitting to be more explicit/graphic. But TOB is not sex education, biology, anatomy, etc. It's theology. I also agree that we have to be careful about sexualizing everything."

I was speaking about this point to another person, who observed that it seems to be male TOB speakers who tend to push the envelope on this point. She said that this could relate to the TOB idea that the male "initiates the gift," but if it's a situation where it's not appropriate, it comes across almost as a violation.
Your thoughts on that?

TOB Award

During the first National Theology of the Body Congress, the Theology
of the Body Institute honored Pauline Books & Media with an inaugural award for their work on John Paul II’s groundbreaking catechesis on the human person. The award was inscribed with the following: “In recognition for your pioneering work and outstanding achievements in educating others about and promoting Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body Daughters of St. Paul.”

Pauline Books & Media (PBM) has a long and distinguished history with John Paul II’s work, beginning in 1981 when the publishing house compiled JPII’s general audiences on his perspective of the human person into the book Original Unity of Man & Woman. PBM followed up that bestselling title with another volume of the Pope’s talks in 1983 titled Blessed Are the Pure of Heart: Sermon on the Mount, leading to Reflections on Humanae Vitae: Conjugal Morality & Spirituality (1984) and Theology of Marriage & Celibacy (1986). Most recently Pauline Books has published Michael Waldstein's outstanding translation of the Pope's Catecheses, delivered in Italian during his general audiences.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Eden and West, an example

One commenter said: “You insinuate that there is reason to believe that Dawn's assessment of West is inaccurate and yet you don't even begin to suggest why that might be the case.”

He evidently didn't read what I already wrote. But I will give more examples, taking one point at a time for discussion.

Under theme 1, which is that TOB is an all-encompassing theology, Dawn 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.” This important idea says that we image God not just because we are rational, but through the communion of persons.

Dawn 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 Dawn 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. Dawn 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 an example of what I mean by saying that Dawn does not always accurately represent West’s thought. By quoting him out of context, she’s suggesting that his thought 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 West article can be found here.

The scandal of the body

I'm continuing to reflect on some issues raised by Dawn Eden's thesis about C. West.
Let me stress again that I have the utmost respect for both Dawn and Christopher. They're both evangelizing the world in their own way and that's a great thing. This is strictly about ideas, not persons. Some commenters asked for more specifics, so here is one point.

Dawn raises the point that in her view, C. West's approach fosters a lack of respect for the past:
"Christopher West asserts that the theology of the body is "revolutionary" because "previous generations of Christians" grew up under the burden of a "repressive approach" to sexual issues. His intention is to counter a popular myth—the idea that the Church is, as he puts it, "down on sex." However, in countering the one myth, he inadvertently fuels another—the idea that, in the wake of Vatican II, we are "building a new Church," a Church that is fundamentally different from that which preceded it. His praise on Pope John Paul II is predicated on the repeated assumption, sometimes explicit, that the preconciliar Church was stodgy and prudish. While he no doubt intends to promote charity and unity, his approach effectively encourages division and disdain for our past."

Is it really true that West fosters disdain for our Catholic past? I went back to see what he says about it in Theology of the Body Explained where he treats this issue [of disdain for the body] in the prologue. On page 12, he quotes John Paul in the Letter to Families as tracing this problem to Cartesian dualism: "Unfortunately, Western thought, with the development of modern rationalism, has been gradually moving away from [the teaching about God and man which was brought to fulfillment by Christ.] The philosopher who formulated the principle... 'I think,therefore I am' [Descartes], also gave the modern concept of man its distinctive dualistic character. It is typical of rationalism to make a radical contrast in man between spirit and body, between body and spirit. But man is a person in the unity of his body and his spirit..." (n. 19, John Paul).

West then goes back even further to the ancient heresy of Manichaeism. That's where the problem of disdain for the body is also rooted. And that heresy has been around a long time in the Church. We can't deny that; it's a fact. It has affected Christians and Catholics through the ages. Paradoxically, Manichaeism leads to both prudishness on the one hand and libertinism on the other. By noting these things, West is not making a radical division between the Church today and in the past. That's where I think Dawn's claim is not accurate.

In his book, while noting the problem, West says, "Through the centuries the Church has defended the goodness of the physical world and the sacredness of the human body against many heresies..... Suspicion toward the body, sexuality, and the material world is not only alien to authentic Christian belief, but is its very antithesis. (pg. 22, 23).

I think that Dawn's claim of discontinuity doesn't hold up when you examine what West has really said. That's really the point that I wish to make here.

We can't pretend that heresies have never affected the Church for the worse. To note those things is just honest. It doesn't mean that we look at the past with disdain.

Dawn Eden vs. Christopher West Part 2

In her thesis, Dawn 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 (near the bottom of that page).

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.
This leads to the further question: do these ten themes in fact 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.

If Dawn 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. My personal opinion is that she's selecting themes that better suit her criticisms of West, and omitting others that are more fundamental but not so open to criticism. This leaves Dawn'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 I mentioned in my first post, that Dawn has taken on a project that's so broad she can't do it justice.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Dawn Eden vs. Christopher West

Dawn Eden has written her master's thesis critiquing the work of Christopher West. She was kind enough to send me a free copy and I read through it carefully. I admire Dawn and thank God for the grace of her conversion to the Catholic faith and the wonderful work she has been doing to promote chastity. She is the author of The Thrill of the Chaste and has had the courage to speak out for chastity even in a debate at a bar in NY.

I sent her some lengthy feedback that was more critical than favorable. Since discussion of this is going on in the Catholic blogosphere, I'd like to say something about it without revealing details of her thesis. (It can be obtained from her as she indicates: "In response to requests, I am making a revised edition of my master's thesis available as an eBook, as a gift to those who donate to support my doctoral studies. At the same time, it is available for free to priests, deacons, seminarians, and lay catechists who work in an official capacity for the Church (e.g. for a parish, diocese, or religious order)." Here's some intro:

My background in this area is as follows: For the past 16 years, I've been working in our apostolate as a developmental editor. I edited Christopher West's book Theology of the Body Explained (Pauline Books & Media). I also collaborated with Dr Michael Waldstein when we published his translation of the Pope's TOB talks. It was a privilege for me to have carried out this work. Both West and Waldstein are outstanding, dedicated Catholics who are working tirelessly to promote Catholic teaching.

My general impression of Dawn's thesis is that she took on a large project in giving “a comprehensive overview of West’s presentation of TOB.” Since much of West’s work has been in his speaking presentations, to fairly evaluate it would require her to follow the development of his teaching as it has unfolded over the past decade. That’s quite a project. It's so broad that I don't think it's even possible to do it in a master's thesis. To be fair to West, she would need to also contextualize his teachings so as to present them objectively without any distortion. In my opinion, the thesis does not accomplish this objective.

Since West is actively engaged in developing his work continually, her thesis may become dated quite quickly. This point also touches on the question of how West has responded to criticisms. I believe that he has made changes to his presentations in response to various types of feedback. In my personal work with him on his book, he was very open to constructive suggestions and willing to make edits when needed. I mention this because Dawn does not document how West has in fact made changes to his presentations after getting constructive criticism. If her goal is to give a comprehensive overview of West's presentations of TOB, that's a necessary part of the picture.

More to follow

Monday, August 02, 2010

What is your principal virtue?

When I was in the novitiate, we were told about trying to find out what our "principal defect" was, that particular sin that caused us the most difficulty. The idea was to then work out ways to combat that defect and grow in virtue. It's certainly a valid approach especially for those just beginning in the spiritual life.

I recently read something from St Catherine of Siena where she talks about finding our "principal virtue." It's part of her Dialogue, where God is speaking to her. I like this idea of the principal virtue, because it's a good corrective to a perhaps overly negative approach of only looking at defects. One's principal virtue is the main one that God gives to the soul, and in practicing it, the other virtues grow too. It would be worthwhile to reflect on your special virtue and how you practice it.
Here's St Catherine:

"But among the many [virtues], there will be one that is like the head of the others. In other words, to one person I will give principally charity, and to another justice, and to another humility, to another lively faith, to others prudence, temperance, or patience, and to others fortitude. These virtues, and many others, I have put in my creature in different degrees. And so, that particular virtue which is placed in a soul can be identified as its principal virtue, and the soul makes it the center of everything, through it all other virtues are attained."

St Catherine of Siena on perseverance

"I desire to see you constant and persevering in virtue,; for it is not the one who begins who is crowned, but only the one who perseveres."