In the article on CNA about Christopher West ending his sabbatical, the following item appears in relation to the controversy around him:
“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.”
Does West really claim that perfect marital chastity is required before marriage, and does he really deny the power of the sacrament of marriage to help a couple grow in virtue?
Here are some things he has said about it; you decide. (All quotes are taken from TOB Explained unless otherwise noted; emphasis added except in quotes from John Paul).
Here is what West says about the grace of marriage in the context of spousal and redemptive love according to Ephesians:
“They [spouses] must be aware of the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out in Christ’s death and resurrection. They must allow the life and love of Christ to vivify their entire body-soul personalities. To the extent that men and women are not vivified in this way, the distortions of concupiscence will continue to obscure the ‘great mystery’ inscribed in their bodies. But to the degree that spouses allow their lusts to be ‘crucified with Christ’ (see Gal 5:24), the grace poured out in and through the sacraments (including, if not especially, the sacrament of Marriage) can free spouses (and men and women in general) from the blinding effects of concupiscence. The more we cooperate with this grace, the more the scales fall off our eyes.” (pg. 449)
In a discussion on the best translation of the term remedium concupiscentiae, West says he prefers “remedy for concupiscence” rather than “relief”: “While ‘relief’ implies mere indulgence of concupiscent desire, ‘remedy’ implies that the grace of marriage offers a healing of concupiscent desire.” (pg 225). And healing of concupiscent desire means growth in virtue, a growth that West obviously understands is taking place in marriage.
In the discussion of continence in the context of Humanae Vitae, West says: “John Paul observes that ‘conjugal chastity (and chastity in general) manifests itself at first as the ability to resist the concupiscence of the flesh.’ Then, the more such mastery is acquired, the more chastity ‘gradually reveals itself as a singular ability to perceive, love, and realize those meanings of the ‘language of the body’ that remain completely unknown to concupiscence itself’ (TOB 128:2).” West then continues, quoting the Catholic Catechism “’Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life.’ (no. 2342). If men and women are to acquire self-mastery, they must commit themselves to a progressive education in self-control of their will, their sentiments, and their emotions. And this must develop, according to John Paul, by beginning with the simplest gestures in which it is relatively easy to put the inner decision into practice.” (pg 567). Remember that in the context here he is speaking about Humanae Vitae, which obviously means he is speaking about married couples.
In a section entitled “Continence Purified and Deepens Spousal Union,” West speaks about how the virtue of continence matures in a married couple. In this entire section he is speaking of spouses; again the wider context is the discussion of Humanae Vitae. To the objection that it is too hard to practice periodic continence and this can lead to tension and conflict in a marriage, West says, “If self-control leads to the latter [tension and conflict], the solution is not to abandon self-control. This would only justify the unrestrained indulgence of concupiscence, leading to far worse conflict. The solution is to open to the conversion of heart that leads to authentic virtue.” In the next paragraph he says, “As the virtue matures…” It’s obvious that he believes that imperfect virtue can mature in a marriage with the help of grace. (pg 569-570).
The following is from an article on his website:
"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." "Ongoing personal conversion" doesn't sound to me as if he thinks couples have to be perfect in virtue before their marriage.