Wednesday, August 04, 2010

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.


gsk said...

Thank you, Sister. That's good to hear, because it reflects the wisdom of the ancient Church that I was drawn to join 25 years ago. The confusion seems to be exacerbated by people (Mr West and others, usually ex-catholics) who like to say that the Church they grew up in was the "The Church of 'no," or as Mr West says, "All I heard was, 'don't do it.'"

When I came into the fold in the mid-1980's, it was nearly impossible to find what I learned in history books about the Church to be taught anywhere -- on paper or from the pulpit. My head swam. But as the message of John Paul became more widely known, I didn't think, "Ah, revolutionary thought!" but "Finally, the Church I thought I was joining makes herself known."

Now obviously, I was/am no theologian, so I'm still learning a great deal, but I would not say that the horribly deficient catechesis offered to me in my Inquiry Class (pre-RCIA) represented the Church. That's the way it comes across sometimes with Mr West -- that the Church of his childhood (limited example) was sorely deficient and needed to be revolutionised, which isn't correct.

Sr. Lorraine said...

Thanks, GSK, for your thoughts on this. You have a lot of insight in recognizing that the deficient catechesis you received does not represent the Church.
I think another part of the difficulty here is that people's attitudes were not just formed by the Church but by the culture. And before the sexual revolution blew the lid off, there was a certain amount of reticence in speaking about sexual matters. So it was often difficult to distinguish the two things.
I might also add that in the past I've heard Fr Benedict Groeschel speak about this issue, and he frankly said that there was a lot of repression going on, and it was dangerous. In fact, he linked it to the explosion that happened in the 60s.

gsk said...

Yes, that's another important element. The US has always been a Protestant country, so the wider culture has never been a vehicle for authentic Catholic thought, not even to Catholics in most cases.

Kevin said...

I think the charge against West can be very easily substantiated.

Let's take a popular example from Theology of the Body Explained.

When doing an exegesis of 1st Corinthians, Christopher West states:

"Various distortions were prevalent in the Corinthian community that dishonored the temple of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul writes "fully aware of the weakness and sinfulness to which [they were] subjected, preicsely by reason of the concupiscence of the flesh." (TOB, 297) It even seems he is willing to concede to some weakness for the sake of avoiding a greater dishonor to the body. For instance, he says that couples should "come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self control." And then he adds: "I say this by way of concession" (v. 6) And also: "But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion." (v. 9)

John Paul asks if Paul, based on these words, might not view marriage as an ethical outlet for concupiscence. To this legitimate question, the Pope, in my opinion, fails to give an altogether satisfying answer. [bold and underlined my emphasis, kmt] Do we not find here the basis of that traditional understanding that one of the ends of marriage was "relief of concupiscence" in the sense of indulging lustful desire? (see para 34) [another interlude, it is ironic he references this, since he points out that the Church never taught this in para 34, but rather that it was a misunderstanding of the Latin!] Again it may seem difficult to reconcile Joh Paul's teaching with St. Paul's. The holy Father has insisted throughout his entire catechesis that there is "real power" in Jesus Christ's death and resurrection to set men free from the dominion of concupiscence.

This, it seems, is why John Paul reminds us that we must look to the teaching of Christ himself for ultimate resolutions to these difficult questions. He also rightly cautions against making judgments about what the Apostle was thinking or teaching about marriage solely based on his statements in 1 Corinthians 7. For example, we can recognize that indulging concupiscence at the expense of one's wife would blatantly contradict Paul's call for husbands to love their wives "as Christ loved the Church" in Ephesians 5. Recall John paul's pre-papal statement quoted previously: "If it is true that marriage may also be a remedium concupiscentiae (see St. Paul: It is better to marry than to burn' 1 Cor 7:9) then this must be understood in the integral sense given it by the Christian Scriptures, which also teach of the "redemption of the body" and point to the sacrament of matrimony as a way of realizing this redemption."

In short, he is acting as if St. Paul had no real understanding of "the gift." He runs right into a wall here, recognizing that St. Paul isn't teaching what West wants him to teach. He then notes that JP II, who defends St. Paul's teaching, gives an "unsatisfying" answer.

The answer is only "Unsatisfying" for one who really has no understanding of the Scriptures or the Fathers. (I could give an orthodox explanation, entirely consistent with TOB, the Scriptures, and the Fathers, but I fear I have posted too much already here!

Sr. Lorraine said...

Kevin, in the quotation you use from West's commentary on TOB, West is doing exactly what commentators are supposed to do: analyze the thought of someone and point out issues for discussion. West does so respectfully and specifically says it is his opinion about the matter.

The general audiences were not an instance of the Pope infallibly defining dogmas. If others disagree with West's opinion about this particular issue, that's fine. It's a matter open to discussion. But to cast suspicion on him in a way that suggests he is not faithful to Catholic teaching is another matter. Theology in the Church makes progress through such discussions. Pope John Paul himself indicated in various places in the TOB talks that there are many areas concerning it that are open for further development.

Kevin said...


First, thank you for responding to my comments. :)

I am well aware that West is not rejecting any Church teaching here. Yet I think if one is going to state "St. Paul does not understand the gift" or the power of the Cross, one better do so darn carefully.

Yet the main reason I cited this was it gives another example I feel of West's modus operandi of treating modern Church teaching on sexuality as a break from the past, when it clearly isn't.

I also think it's a clear case of where he sees the evidence stacked against him, and is looking for "an out." St. Paul doesn't teach it. John Paul II doesn't teach it. The Father's don't teach it. In other words, a hermeneutic of discontinuity. And a completely unnecessary one. When read within tradition and with the mind of John Paul II, the passage takes on new beauty.

Nobody is denying him the right to do as he wishes (since very few verses are infallibly defined, and even only then you cannot contradict the defined meaning.) Yet do that, and you are going to get some criticism, and some deservedly strong criticism in my opinion. :)

Sr. Lorraine said...

Kevin, thank you for your comments. But I don't think it's accurate to say that West is saying that St. Paul doesn't understand the gift.

West discusses this issue at length, and near the beginning of it specifically states, "Paul presents the truth proclaimed by Christ in all its authenticity." On page 356 he quotes a statement of John Paul about the action of grace, and West concludes: "This statement seems to indicate that John Paul believes there is no incongruity in what he has been teaching and in what Paul says to the Corinthians. In the final analysis, there may not be. Unfortunately...John Paul does not take us to that stage of the discussion."

But suppose for the sake of argument that you are right and West in this case is taking a different position than John Paul on this issue. This is one issue in a book of over 600 pages, throughout which West continually supports and is in agreement with what the Pope is saying. You can't build a case for a "hermeneutic of discontinuity" on the basis of just one point, or even a few. It's a big overgeneralization.

You also speak of "West's modus operandi of treating modern Church teaching on sexuality as a break from the past, when it clearly isn't." Again, this is a huge overgeneralization and a claim that cannot be sustained.
What is West really saying anyway? Where does he say that Church teaching on sexuality is a break from the past? West fully supports authentic Catholic teaching regarding sexuality. For example, take the issue of contraception, which is so controversial today. West fully supports it.

At the time of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII reportedly said that Church teaching is one thing, and the way it's expressed is another.
Pope John Paul used a new language, that of a personalistic type of philosophy together with Thomism, to explain Church teachings in a way suited to the people of today.
There is a key difference between the teaching itself and the language used to explain it. This is where the Church adapts and changes its manner of expression according to the needs of people today, just like it's always done (for example, when Aquinas drew from Aristotle's thought to better explain Catholic doctrine.)

The soon-to-be-beatified Cardinal Newman wrote about the development of doctrine in the Church. Are you so sure that what you claim is discontinuity is really not a development of Church teaching? How do you distinguish the two?

While giving the utmost respect to the Fathers of the Church, what they said wasn't the last word, nor did they themselves ever claim that they were the last word. St Augustine even wrote a book of Retractions correcting some of his previous writings.

Kevin said...


I'd like to say more, but I comboxes are sorta limited. Perhaps I could email a better explained list, otherwise, forgive me for its brevity. :)

I would only remark that when West states:

"Again it may seem difficult to reconcile Joh Paul's teaching with St. Paul's. The holy Father has insisted throughout his entire catechesis that there is "real power" in Jesus Christ's death and resurrection to set men free from the dominion of concupiscence."

And then states "the answer John Paul gives is not satisfying", what is that other than stating that Paul seems to be denying what is outlined here?

I didn't mean to "build my case" just upon one example. Yet I felt I was limited in the comboxes. Another example, I think West completely misses the point with Sirach "turn not your eyes towards a shapely woman." There are some key cultural, contextual concepts that are missed. When one takes these into consideration, they gel quite nicely with the Theology of the Body overall I would wager. As West is fond of saying, John Paul quoted Scripture over a thousand times in his TOB addresses. There's real power in the Scriptures, I think everyone would agree. Yet I think at times West interprets several of these things wrong.

I would agree that the Church Fathers aren't the final word. Yet I do not think they should be dismissed or paid little attention to. Especially given the fact they waged constant battle against those who proclaimed the evil of matter and human flesh.

Again, I'd really like to give some extra examples, and if you wish I can in a mail to ya. Otherwise, I'd like to save your readers from incessant comment spam.

Be assured of my prayers for you and all holy sisters in Christ!


Kevin said...

Just as a clarifying remark/nitpick :)

Augustine did not write a "retractions." When he wrote Retractations, the point was more visiting things he had touched upon int he past. Some of it indeed was retracted, other points he came out even stronger, and others he provided different views to let the reader get a better viewpoint (such as his interpretation on Matthew 16)