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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.
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 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.
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?