Friday, September 10, 2010

Christopher West and the grace of marriage

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.



Wade St. Onge said...

Sr. Marianne, the problem is that (a) it was an email that none of us have seen in context, and (b) it was paraphrased, not quoted directly. It is possible that your quotations argue against a straw man. said...

Keep communicating truth, beauty & goodness!

Kevin said...

I'm going to go ahead and agree with Wade. I think your leaving out a few important points:

1.) This was mainly centered around West's view that if one has not reached a "mature purity" before marriage, nothing changes in you between before and after one makes their marriage vows.

That's mainly false. While that might be true if people were marrying refusing the graces of the sacrament, at the moment of those I do's and kiss the bride, a change occurs in the souls of husband and wife. They are now able to truly reach "mature purity" in their vocation as husband and wife, in a way that was not available to them as single individuals. Just as someone receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders, something changes when the hands of the Bishop are placed upon them.

Part of this also comes from the fact that West constantly says "If I had known the truth about sexuality I wouldn't have done this." This intellecutalizes our faith too much. There's more to purity than knowledge. There's a real struggle against the will in conquering our twisted desires. It's not enough to simply lay it at the feet of Christ.

We must put on the new person and all this entails that divine grace affords us.

A simple statement here or there about the sacraments, I guess I think a little more is needed.

Will put in another comment a statement I gave to Miss Eden about this part of her thesis.

Kevin said...

West’s understanding that the person must reach a mature purity before marriage in every aspect also I think borders on semi-pelegianism, as you said. It would be akin to saying that one must
have a robust understanding of the doctrine of transubstantiation before receiving the Eucharist. Yet
such would be impossible. Even the concept of transubstantiation itself cannot explain the fullness of the grace that comes from the Eucharist, it only defines how we can understand the Eucharist to be

In addition to purifying our souls, the sacraments purify our mind and body. For as St. Thomas
said in Tantum Ergo “Praestet fides supplementum Sensuum defectui.” (Faith for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail.) It is only once we receive the sacraments can we begin to see the plan God has. Likewise, only once couples partake of the sacrament of matrimony will they begin to see what God’s plan for marriage is, and how they are to respond to that plan. The grace of that sacrament truly makes living in a pure communion with another possible.

I think a perfect example of this understanding comes from Blessed Karl of Austria. When he
married his wife, he told her “now we must help each other get to heaven!” I don’t see this kind of
thought very prevalent in West’s teaching. He talks much about how marriage is a sign of the end when
we are unified with God in communion in heaven, but very little about how the married life prepares us for that state. At the risk of sounding rash and impious, he tends to treat marriage as one big sexual romp. There is little talk of how marriage is ultimately meant to elevate the soul. It is well documented that “a man is a boy until marriage, no matter how mature he thinks he is” and vice versa. This comes through the sacrament. I find it particularly regrettable that West leaves out the most powerful of messages in living the pure life, and that is the absolute power of the sacraments, especially matrimony,
to help those who are called to that vocation.

(Kevin Tierney, letter/dialogue with Dawn Eden, 8/6/10)

Sr. Lorraine said...

Thank you everyone for your comments. It is true as Wade points out that the CNA article is a summary of an email. I should explain that with this post I am just laying the groundwork for future posts in which I hope to look more closely at the argument Dawn offers in her thesis concerning the hypothetical engaged couple. It does seem to me that the summary in CNA does state her position pretty well. But if it's not accurate, I suppose Dawn will ask them to correct it.

Kevin raises some good points too, which I hope to elaborate on in a future post. Thanks for your input!
For now I'll just say that my purpose here in this post is to show from his own writings that Mr West does believe in the power of the graces of the sacrament of marriage. So any interpretation of the story about the engaged couples that says otherwise has to be a flawed interpretation. I think the main point he was trying to make is that marriage doesn't justify lust, which was John Paul said (and it raised a firestorm in the media!) Thanks everyone for this conversation and God bless you all! You are all in my prayers.

Dawn Eden said...

Sister Lorraine, what I think when I see the quotes you offer to counter my points is, "Will the real Christopher West please stand up?"

In my thesis, I have quotes from writings and talks throughout Christopher West's career--not just his earliest work--to back up all my major points, including the one you attempt to counter here. It is true that West has made points in some places that counter some of the points of his that I critique in my thesis. So which quotes reflect his true views? And, since the quotes I reference are in writings, videos, and talks that are generally available, when will he officially disavow the points he made that were theologically inaccurate, inappropriate, or misleading? When will he recall and revise those works of his that contain such inaccuracies?

I stand by every point I made in my thesis. The question is, if West has contradicted himself--and it is evident in some cases that he has--then why is he still standing by all his publicly available works?

Anonymous said...

Sister, you are always so charitable in your responses, I need to learn from that. All I see is an unwillingness on the part of the Skellians to see that they could be and are most probably wrong and Christopher could and most probably is not the villan they are all trying to say that he is.

I agree that he is human and therefore needs to always be looking closely at his work and refining it however it seems that most everyone who responds favorably for Dawn Eden, will not consider the fact that she may be incorrect or has misrepresented West and his teachings.

This most probably is due to the fact that she has never attended any of his courses taught at the Institute. How do I know this? Because I have attended them all and she has never been there (unless she was in disquise). As for the other TOB 1 courses, I researched the past courses taught and her name is not on any of the lists. She needs to attend a course and have a first hand source to derive her "research" from.

Wade St. Onge said...

Anonymous, first of all, what is a "Skellian" and do you think I am one?

Now, for two important questions I have for you: (1) What do you think of Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame and Hans Kung? (2) Have you ever attended a course taught by either of them?

I will answer these for myself. (1) I think the teachings of both of them are problematic and even at times heretical. (2) I have not attended a singe course given by either one of them.

I usually do not reply to Anonymous posts - especially when the "Anonymous" name-calls - but I will make an exception in this case.

Kevin said...

I second Wade, apparently I'm a "Skellian" now. Might be news to Mr. Kellmeyer, as I think we have exchanged but one email. :)

I used to be a pretty avid computer gamer. Whenever someone made a claim that we thought could not be justified, we would say "Screenshot or it never happened."

I for one am perfectly willing to admit my understanding of Mr. West could be flawed. Yet I don't see the screenshot.

I heard Christina King make the exact same argument (she doesn't know because she hasn't attended the courses!) and I found that argument wanting. It almost sounds cultic. You can't judge something empirically, you have to "be there." I highly doubt Mr. West would make that line of argumentation. She very well could be misrepresenting. It is incumbent upon those making that claim to demonstrate it.

Sister, thank you for the nice plug. :) There's a slight bit of disagreement however I'm going to have. I do not wish to speak for Wade, Miss Eden, or others, I will only speak for myself and my limited knowledge. Reading Miss Eden's thesis, I see her goal was not to bury Christopher West. Her goal was to point out areas she felt he was lacking in, not being consistent in, etc.

Therefore, for you to say anything that ignores these statements is a false interpretation, not exactly. It simply shows that, in my opinion, Mr. West really hasn't thought through a lot of these things. He found something he thought made great sense and he ran with it. We all do that from time to time. Sometimes in our zeal, we aren't consistent. That's where fraternal correction comes in, and I believe that is the stated goal of those like Miss Eden, Fr. Angelo, etc. Me, I'm just spouting off in my own kingdom, I really gain or lose anything when it comes to Christopher West.

Sr. Lorraine said...

Thanks for all this input! I think that the point Anonymous made about the classes is relevant because Dawn states in the beginning of her thesis, "In the following chapter, I will give a comprehensive overview of West’s presentation of the TOB," and she also connects West's work with the TOB Institute. While it might be possible to know something about it without having actually attended the classes (a point that Dawn curiously leaves unanswered in the third edition of her thesis), it lessens the credibility of her claim to a comprehensive overview if she hasn't actually attended them. While it's true as Wade points out that we don't need firsthand knowledge of everything, such knowledge can broaden our understanding of a subject. If a theologian has been censured by the Church, I don't have to go to his class to know the teaching is not Catholic. But if I am going to do a comprehensive analysis of his work, I do need to go to his class in order to do that.

Sr. Lorraine said...

Thank you, Dawn, for adding your comments to the mix. It's good to hear directly from you!

Your comments are interesting because they point to a problem that I raised in the initial feedback I had sent to you. That is, it's extremely difficult if not impossible to do a comprehensive overview of anyone's work, especially when that person is still alive and working. The analysis has to show how a person's work may have changed over time. That's something that I don't find in your paper. If I've overlooked it and you think it's there, let me know. Reading the thesis left me with the impression that West's work has been rather static over time.
If a speaker or writer appears to say different things at different times, the person analyzing that work has to be able to trace the line of development. If there appears to be a contradiction, that needs to be noted specifically.

But is it really the case that West is actually contradicting himself? To limit that just to the question about the grace of marriage, I don't believe that he has. I believe that your interpretation of the story about the hypothetical engaged couple is a misinterpretation, a point that I hope to look at more closely as I have time to do that. Let me know if I'm misreading you, but it seems that your conclusion that he denies the power of the grace of marriage rests on the interpretation of that story.

As to making any corrections in his work, I don't know if he has or not. Someone did tell me that West has withdrawn some of his earlier videos from Youtube, but that's only hearsay so I can't put that forth as being certainly true.
Anyway thanks for your feedback on this.

Wade St. Onge said...

Sorry about those deletions, Sister - blogger is being finnicky.

I'll try again...

Sr. Lorraine, you make a good point, re: Dawn's claim of giving a "systematic overview" but not attending the courses.

She should have chosen her words more carefully, and she should have answered the question. And if her answer was "No, I have not attended", then she should have given a defense for why she could still give the critique that she did in her thesis.

However, I will say four things.

(1) His video and audio recordings and writings no doubt give a pretty accurate picture of his presentations and even his thought. What you see and hear is often pretty much recordings of the material he uses in his courses.

(2) The implication from "Anonymous" is that "no one" can critique West's work if he/she has not actually attended his courses. This is a fallacy. Yes, Kung was condemned, but McBrien was not. And without the condemnation I would still find Kung problematic and heretical.

Wade St. Onge said...

(3) (a) To post a comment anonymously and refer to other posters as "Skellians" is insulting to us posters who land on the "critical" side rather than the "supporting" side of this issue. (b) To apply this label to all critics is to paint with a brush far too broad. (c) If someone wants to name-call, he/she should have the courage and decency to attach his/her name and not hide behind "anonymous". (d) My father is the mayor of my hometown - he refuses to even read anonymous letters he is sent, and I should make it a habit to ignore such posts as well.

(4). Supporters of West often use "name-calling" and other forms of ad hominem attacks in their posts. These are designed as short-cuts to winning an argument. Once a person is labeled "a Skellian" or "a prude", etc., everything he/she says can be disregarded. This is something that, unfortunately, West's supporters have learned from him. As I pointed out in my blog, when he meets with resistance, instead of tackling the issue, he just labels people (or implies that they are) "prudes" (ie. "you should pray about why you are uncomfortable with this"; implication? "you are prudish"). I honestly believe West does this because, although others may be capable, he personally is not able to counter those objections.

Sr. Lorraine said...

Thanks, Wade, for your additional comments. I don't know why the comment function sometimes acts strangely but it has happened before.

I'm not inclined to press the issue of going to the classes. It doesn't invalidate a critique but I do think it would make it more credible, if nothing else it gives the person a chance to interact more with the presenter and perhaps clarify things.

I agree with you about name-calling, etc., and I try to avoid that myself. I never heard the term "Skellian" but as the term might suggest, I suppose it is in reference to a certain blogger who is not exactly known for charity and tactfulness!

Wade St. Onge said...

Yes, I think that is what that term means. But to call us as "Skellians" is to say that we too lack tact and charity - and that is unfair and is itself "uncharitable".

Kevin said...

awww, I think it's cute personally. If I'm dating someone, I'll have her start refering to me as her favorite "Skellian"

I think the whole "class" thing is just a really bad distraction. The person who originated the claim tried to pass it off in an article on Catholic Exchange, that they refused to publish, since it was peppered with nothing but character assasination and weak arguments.

What's interesting is I can think of about 4 or 5 different ways Miss Eden's thesis "comes up short" and would be legitimate points of inquiry. I've shared them with her, she's known for them, but since I'm on the side of the "Skellians" I certainly can't do their homework for them!

(Sorry, I am having way too much fun with this, as I truly do believe humor is the best way to respond to such charges, to never take them too seriously)

Wade St. Onge said...

Well, you might be her favourite "Skellian", but I am a greater "Skellian" than you! But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?

I hope you will share these four or five ways Ms. Eden "comes up short". I think this blog is going to become the hotspot for this discussion/debate. I hope you continue to contribute, Kevin. And I hope Dawn will as well.

Tomorrow is the Lord's Day - I will not be blogging. Blessed Sunday, everybody! We'll resume soon ...

Sr. Lorraine said...

Kevin, you have me intrigued. I too would be interested in those points you mention.