Saturday, October 30, 2010

A pause for thanks

The themes around the Easter candle are so rich I'd like to look into them a little more. Last night after doing the previous post, I checked what Pope Benedict said in his book Jesus of Nazareth and was pleasantly surprised to see that he mentions Epiphany in connection with Jesus' baptism. I had forgotten that since I read it a while ago. He draws on themes from the Eastern liturgies in that part of the chapter.

But right now, since I've finished my critique of Dawn Eden's thesis, I'd like to thank a few commenters in particular, those who have been most active in commenting here, whom I've got to know at least a little bit through their comments.


Lauretta brings a wonderful voice of experience to this discussion. She has given her own testimony as to the way learning about TOB has enriched her marriage, for both her and her husband. It is a beautiful testimony, and one that is very powerful because of its lived experience. Lauretta has been married over 40 years, so she certainly has a lot of experience in this area. Thank you, Lauretta, for your calm serenity during the sometimes heated discussions. You have shown such a great balance, learning from everyone and being ready to reconsider ideas in light of new information. And your experience has been a great source of light for others. You remind me of something St. Thomas says concerning the virtue of prudence: "In matters of prudence a person stands in the greatest need of being taught by others, especially by his elders who have acquired fair insight into the outcome of human actions. Accordingly Aristotle observes that the unproved assertions and opinions of experienced, older, and wise people deserve as much attention as those they support by proofs, for experience gives them an eye for principles." (II-II, q. 49, a. 3) Yes, Lauretta, your wisdom has given you great insight!

Wade has been a wonderful voice of reason in this discussion. From the beginning he has shown balance and fairness in considering the various aspects of this debate. In his own thesis, found on his blog, he has developed ideas regarding TOB that are interesting and useful. Wade has a special fondness for logic and has sometimes caught me in a fallacy or two. I hate committing fallacies, having taught a logic class in the past, so I should know better, but I fall into them just like anyone else. So I do appreciate him pointing them out.
I think Wade especially exemplifies the aspect of prudence that St. Thomas calls reasoned judgment: "According to the Ethics, to furnish good advice is an office of prudence. Now being advised implies a sort of casting about from point to point: this is done by reasoning. Consequently the prudent man should be a good reasoner. And because the qualities necessary for complete prudence are called its integral parts or components, well-reasoned judgment should be placed among them." (II-II, q. 49, a. 5) He could have been describing Wade.

Kevin brings a voice of ardent enthusiasm to the debate, the voice of a young man on fire for his faith. He also has his own blog and is a good writer who can develop intelligent arguments. It is great to see people like Kevin in the younger generation of Catholics, who are not only well-informed but love the faith and want to pass it on to others. In debating certain points, I don't want to lose sight of the most important thing we have in common, our Catholic faith. Kevin, I have to apologize for the times I did get a little exasperated and was either a bit curt in my responses to you or deleted your comments (but I only deleted a few)! Yet I have to admire the way you didn't get bothered by that, and instead you came back with another good argument! Thanks for all your contributions here.
You remind me of what St. Thomas says about acumen, or shrewdness in debate: "Acumen is taken for shrewdness, of which it is part. For shrewdness is quickness of wit in any matter, whereas acumen, according to the Posterior Analytics, is a ready and rapid lighting on the middle term. [he's applying it here to formal logic debates] All the same, that philosopher who makes acumen part of prudence takes it generally as equivalent to all shrewdness, and so he says that it is the flair for finding the right course in sudden encounters." (II-II, q. 49, a. 4)

Christina also has her own blog and is a mother of seven children. So she brings a very unique perspective, that of a young mother with a growing family. For her, TOB is not just an academic theory, but is so woven into her life and family that it forms part of her whole way of thinking. She has been persistent in debating the ideas that are dear to her, yet ready to see how other people think about them even if she may not agree. Thank you too, Christina, for your contributions to this discussion.
St. Thomas speaks of domestic management as a special type of prudence, and that's exactly what you have: "The household comes midway between the individual person and the state or realm, for just as the individual is part of the family, so the family is part of the political community. Accordingly, as ordinary prudence, which rules the life of the individual, is distinct from political prudence, so should domestic prudence be distinguished from others." (II-II, q. 50, a. 3) As a mother of 7 children you certainly know a lot about this kind of prudence!

Thanks also to everyone else who has commented. The debate isn't over, of course, but I hope to blog a little more about the more positive aspects of TOB, less than the polemical ones. I pray for all those who visit this blog, whether they comment or not.

I'm also indebted to the online articles of Dr Janet Smith, both the one on Eden's thesis, and the one in response to Alice von Hildebrand. I've drawn some thoughts from them that were very useful.

It would also be appropriate to thank both Dawn Eden and Christopher West, since this discussion / debate about TOB has helped me and many others to think about things more carefully, go back to the sources and learn more, and thinking about TOB always enriches my life.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The meaning of the Easter Candle

In his book Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, Fr Hugo Rahner explains the meaning of the Paschal candle in a very beautiful way. (This is the book Dawn Eden cites in her thesis in discussing the paschal candle.) The symbolism has to do with the cross, the baptismal water, and the Church.

Here are some of the quotations he cites.
“What is water without the cross of Christ?” Ambrose asks his newly baptized, and answers, “an ordinary element.”
A post-Augustinian sermon: “Through the sign of the cross you are conceived in the womb of your holy mother, the Church.” Rahner says, “It is only by the procreative power of the cross that the church is fructified.”
He explains that ultimately the symbolism is based on Romans, with its relation of baptism to the cross. “Baptism is “the mystery of the wood in the water.’” (P. Lundberg)

“Jesus Christ was born and was baptized, so that he might sanctify the water by his passion.” (Ignatius of Antioch)

Rahner says:
“This cross symbolizes the fact that the baptismal water has through the death of Christ been made a bestower of life—it is the tree of life." Then he talks about a wooden cross that was put up in the Jordan river—in many Eastern liturgies the baptismal font is actually called “Jordan”, and a wooden cross is dipped in the water at the consecration [of baptism].

Rahner explains that the Paschal candle is a symbol of the cross of Christ.
But a new element is that the wooden cross is now a giver of light.
The same fire bursts forth from it that was associated with Jesus’ baptism.

The lighted candle is a symbol of the cross of Christ, the light of the world.

Rahner continues:

The cross is also a bringer of light, and when men seek to express this mystery in explicit liturgical form, they do so by lowering a burning candle into the baptismal font as a sign that, by the power of the cross, the water is a source of the lux perpetua, the everlasting life of light. In a word the cross is both the tree of life and the light bringer and both symbols represent Christ himself who “by his Passion sanctified the water” by giving to it the doxa, the glory which he had won upon the cross, the power of the Holy Ghost.

In thinking about how the mystery of Jesus' baptism relates to that of the cross, I was reminded of the beautiful antiphon from the feast of Epiphany:

“Three mysteries mark this holy day:
Today, the star leads the magi to the infant Christ;
Today, water is changed into wine for the wedding feast,
Today, Christ wills to be baptized by John in the Jordan River
To bring us salvation.”

And in another form:
“Today, the Bridegroom claims his Bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters, the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding, and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine. Alleluia!”

On Epiphany, the liturgy links the mystery of Christ's baptism with that of the revelation of Christ to the nations (represented by the Magi) and the miracle at Cana. I've been trying to think of how those two mysteries are also related in some way to the cross. I think it could be a fruitful area of reflection. But that will be a post for another day.

Jesus, the Divine Master

This Sunday is the feast of the Divine Master, a special feast celebrated in the congregations founded by Blessed James Alberione. He said:

Devotion to Jesus Master sums up and completes all devotions.
In fact, it presents:
Jesus Truth, in whom to believe;
Jesus Way, who is to be followed;
Jesus Life, in whom we should participate.
Speaking of Jesus Master, we must keep in mind a much broader sense:
He not only communicates knowledge, but he also transfuses his life into the disciples,
making them similar to himself.
He develops the divine life in them
and guides them to eternal life.

Jesus Master, our Way, our Truth, and our Life, have mercy on us!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

One more thing about Dawn Eden's thesis

In fairness to Dawn Eden, I would like to add that I thought the part of her thesis on the paschal candle was well done. She did some good research there and shows that to attribute any supposed phallic symbolism of the candle is not what the Church intends to do.

I first came across that idea was when I was in high school. I read about it in a column in our diocesan paper. It struck me as a little odd, if not even shocking to my young mind, and so I dismissed it. The problem, though, is that once you hear the idea, it's easy for it to come to mind at the Easter Vigil. Wade mentioned that in his thesis, and it's true. But I think that anyone who's reading this has already heard of the idea, so I hope I'm not ruining their Easter Vigil by this.

Tertullian and marriage

Tertullian was a Christian writer of the early third century. He wrote two letters to his wife that have come down to us. Below is an excerpt from one of them.
He speaks of a wonderful union of husband and wife.

How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice.
They are as brother and sister, both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in Spirit. They are in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit.
They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another.
Side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another, they never shun each other's company; they never bring sorrow to each other's hearts… Psalms and hymns they sing to one another.
Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present, and where He is, there evil is not.

Unfortunately, Tertullian later fell into the heresy of Montanism, and his views became somewhat rigorous. He opposed a second marriage after the death of a spouse, and he even eventually didn't favor marriage at all.

But in his earlier Catholic writing, as seen above, he penned some beautiful words for Christian spouses.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

St. Ignatius of Antioch on Marriage

The discussion that's been going on about marriage and TOB has made me want to learn more about the sacrament of marriage. So I started reading the book What God Has Joined: The Sacramentality of Marriage, by Fr Peter Elliott. At the time it was published (1990, Alba House, NY), he was a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family. The book focuses specifically on marriage as a sacrament. Fr Elliott received his doctorate in Rome from the John Paul Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family.

Chapter 3, "The Quest for the Sign," traces the development of Catholic thought about marriage through the centuries. (In a previous chapter he treated St. Paul's thought on marriage in Ephesians.)

He says that the earliest non-Scriptural reference to marriage comes from St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his Letter to Polycarp St Ignatius wrote his famous letters while on his way to martyrdom in Rome, where he looked forward to giving his life for the Lord: "I am God's wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ." (Letter to the Romans)

His letters were short, but here is what he said about marriage:

"But it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust. Let all things be done to the honor of God."

Before this, he had praised continence and virginity: "If any one can continue in a state of purity, to the honor of Him who is Lord of the flesh, let him so remain without boasting. If he begins to boast, he is undone; and if he reckon himself greater than the bishop, he is ruined." He was writing around 110 A.D., so we can see that esteem for celibacy goes back to the very early church.

Fr Elliott says that though the text is brief, we can see in it some of the seeds of the differences in how marriage was celebrated in the East and the West. In the East, Christians developed marriage rites and rituals, and the blessing of the bishop or priest was seen as essential to it. In the West, instead, people were following the Roman practices of marriage, which saw civil consent as the essential part of the ritual.

This difference is found even today, as the Catholic Catechism notes in no. 1623. In the Latin church, the spouses themselves minister the sacrament to each other (though this should be done in the presence of a priest as witness); while in the Eastern church, the priest or bishop is the minister of the sacrament.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Marcel LeJeune's new book on TOB

I just got a copy of Marcel LeJeune's new book on TOB:Set Free to Love: Lives Changed by the Theology of the Body. It's a great collection of stories of real people whose lives have been changed for the better by TOB. The stories come from people in all walks of life. The book shows in the concrete what TOB can actually do for people.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Part 2 of my critique of Dawn Eden's thesis

This is a revision of the second part of my critique of Dawn Eden's thesis.
I have now added the analysis of her argument about continence.

Continue reading...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Janet Smith responds to Alice von Hildebrand

Dr Smith's essay is here. It is an excellent response to von Hildebrand. The tone is wonderfully respectful, and Smith offers much good explanation and background concerning the various issues in von Hildebrand's essay on Christopher West. Don't miss it!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Continence and Temperance

St. Thomas on Continence and Temperance

The previous post below on continence noted the two different ways that St. Thomas uses the term. As he explains, the continent person still experiences unruly passions, “the crooked lusts that shake us.”
Thomas then goes on to consider the difference between the virtue of continence and the virtue of temperance. He asks whether continence is better than temperance. His answer is clear: No. It’s just the opposite. Temperance is better. (II-II, q. 155, a. 4).

As noted in my previous post, Thomas distinguishes two meanings of continence. Here he 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)

This point is very crucial in any discussion of mature purity. Thomas is explaining that the person who is continent is virtuous, but not in the fullest sense. That’s because the unruly passions still rise up in an uncontrolled way. The continent person does not yet have well-ordered passions. The person has a good will and wants to avoid sin, but has to face a fierce struggle.

The virtue of temperance is better than continence because it controls the unruly passions. It orders them according to reason (“wholly possessed by mind”). It might be compared to taming a wild animal.

Thomas is saying that the virtue of temperance enables us to reach the point of having well-regulated passions. That doesn’t mean we’ll be free of concupiscence, because we will always have concupiscence throughout our whole life on earth. But it does mean that it is possible to overcome the dominance of the sensory appetite even in this life. In other words, we can reach the point where we can control it, and it doesn’t control us. We can’t do this on our own; it requires grace. But God is always ready to give that grace to those who pray for it and strive to control their appetites.

To apply this to chastity, those continent persons who struggle through with “white-knuckle chastity” (ie., the “unripe”) are acting virtuously, but those who have grown beyond that to ease and joy in chastity are at a higher stage of virtue in practicing temperance (ie., the “fully mature.”).

Another critique of Eden's thesis

This critique is very good; it appears here. It's by Sean Murphy, a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and a former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He brings a unique perspective to it!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Wade St. Onge responds to Dr Janet Smith

The blogger Wade St. Onge has just posted his response to Janet Smith's essay on the Eden thesis.
As always, it's refreshing to read Wade's essay because he brings a very fair-minded approach to this matter. We have had some disagreements on various points, even as he notes in his essay, but he is a great example of someone thinking through the issues in a balanced way.

St. Thomas Aquinas on Continence

What is continence according to St. Thomas Aquinas?

It would be very helpful in this discussion about continence to clarify what St. Thomas Aquinas teaches about it. Some of the differences of opinion might stem from a bit of confusion around the meaning of the term.
Aquinas distinguishes two meanings of continence. He mentions this in a few different places. One is the part that Eden refers to in her thesis based on a reference from West in TOB Explained, where Thomas explains that a continent person still has unruly passions. Since the passions are not well-ordered by reason, continence is something less than a full virtue. (I-II-, q. 58, a. 3, ad 2).

But Thomas explains it more in the part of the Summa where he treats the virtues, and he asks the question, “Is continence a virtue?” (II-II, q. 155, a. 1).

First meaning of continence
He explains it has two meanings. The first meaning is that of “abstinence from all sex pleasures,” and in this sense it is a virtue. He says “virginity is the principal, and chaste widowhood the secondary form of perfect continence. Accordingly the same reasoning holds for continence as for virginity, which we have already shown to be a virtue.” When John Paul speaks of continence in marriage in discussing Humanae Vitae, he speaks of continence in the sense of a temporary abstention from sexual relations and this is also a form of the virtue of continence.

Second meaning of continence
Continence is also “resistance to the crooked lusts that shake us” (this is the Blackfriars translation; I really like it here). Thomas refers to Aristotle’s Ethics and then says, “In this sense continence has some of the quality of virtue, in that the reason remains steadfast against the passions which would lead us astray. Nevertheless it does not achieve the full stature of a moral virtue, which so composes even the sensory appetite according to reason that powerful rebellious passions do not rear up. Thus Aristotle speaks of continence as being, not unalloyed virtue, but a sort of mixture which has some of the ingredients of virtue while yet in part falling short of virtue.”

So in this second sense, continence is not a virtue but something less than a virtue. These two meanings account for some of the possible confusion in discussing continence. To potentially confuse us even more, Thomas adds at the end of the article, “Nevertheless, broadly speaking and taking virtue to mean any ability to perform commendable deeds, we can allow that continence is a virtue.”

The background of the distinction

Thomas distinguishes the two senses based on what Aristotle wrote in the Ethics. He wrote about the progression from vice to incontinence, then to continence, and then to virtue. Continence and incontinence are intermediate states between vice and virtue. The continent person is still shaken by “crooked lusts,” as Thomas puts it. But in the full state of virtue, temperance in this context, the sense appetite itself is well-ordered through the virtue. (All of this is very important to the discussion about mature purity, when that topic will come up.)

So in the discussion of TOB, it will be important to take care to determine in what sense John Paul uses the word “continence.”

Monday, October 04, 2010

Part 2 of my critique of Dawn Eden's thesis

The first part of my critique of Eden’s thesis went only as far as the ten themes. While I don’t have time to go through the whole thing point by point, I would still like to look at a major point of Eden’s criticism of West, which concerns the virtue of continence in relation to marriage.

Part One: Eden’s Argument

Her purpose

Eden’s purpose is to present a correct understanding of the virtue of chastity and the possibility to grow in the virtue of continence as a result of the grace of the sacrament of marriage.

The conclusion she presents, which she wants her readers to accept, is that West gives a false account of continence, because
1. he thinks that engaged couples should not marry until they attain a complete victory over lust, saying that perfect marital chastity is a prerequisite for marriage;
2. he forgets that only the sacrament of matrimony can enable a couple to move from the imperfect virtue of continence into the perfect virtue of marital chastity’ and
3. as a result, he unwittingly promotes “a semi-Pelagian ideal of human-powered self-control.” Eden believes West is saying that engaged couples have to progress from unvirtuous continence to virtue before marriage.

That’s my brief summary of her argument. I believe this summary is accurate based on Eden’s speech at the defense of her thesis:

“What is wrong with this picture? As I explain in my thesis, what is wrong is, (A) the implication that continence is an insufficient preparation for marriage, and (B) the claim that the sacrament of marriage in no way affects the development of virtue. In fact, the Church does not expect perfect chastity of couples before marriage, precisely because she recognizes that the grace of marriage is what enables couples to transform their imperfect virtue of continence to the perfect virtue of chastity. All that is required of an engaged couple is that they control themselves "in holiness and honor," as St. Paul writes in First Thessalonians.

By raising the bar so high, to the point where any feeling of lust is proof that one is not ready for marriage, West is effectively promoting the very angelism that he decries.”

More evidence that this is a central argument of Eden’s thesis

Two of the CNA articles about Eden’s thesis also presented this as a major point. While these are not Eden’s own words, Eden seems to accept the CNA summary of her work as accurate; at least she has never objected to it as far as I know:

From the article of August 10:
“Eden’s thesis also noted that West, in telling engaged couples that they should not marry until they attain a complete victory over lust, forgets that only the sacrament of matrimony can enable a couple to move from the imperfect virtue of continence into the perfect virtue of marital chastity. As a result, Eden claimed, he unwittingly promotes ‘a semi-Pelagian ideal of human-powered self-control’.”

From the article of Sept. 8:
“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.”

Part Two: Analysis of Her Argument

In a previous post I reviewed what St. Thomas teaches about continence and temperance. Now we can now proceed to examine Eden’s argument. She claims that West gives a false account of continence, because she thinks he is saying 1) it is moral to seek out occasions of sin 2] that engaged couples should not marry until they attain a complete victory over lust, and 3) that perfect marital chastity is a prerequisite for marriage.

The example of the engaged couple

Eden focuses on this passage where West states:

Since the freedom to which Christ calls us is so rarely proclaimed, we may think it impossible. Take a sincere engaged couple who honestly wants to save sexual intimacy for marriage. They will often think that in order to stay “chaste,” they should never spend any extended time alone together. They fear, of course, that if they were alone, they could not refrain from sex. This may be the case, but this is not a mature experience of the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Attaining Christian freedom is obviously a process. A couple who choose not to be alone together in order to avoid sexual temptation should be commended. They should also be aware that they are called by Christ to a much deeper freedom.
Think about it: if the only thing that kept a couple from having sex before marriage was the lack of opportunity, what does that say about the desire of their hearts? [a footnote here refers to CCC 1768, 1770, 1968, 1972] Are they free to choose the good? Are they free to love? To use an image, if a man and woman need to chain themselves to two different trees in order to avoid sin, they are not free; they are in chains. As stated previously, if we chain our freedom to sin, with the same stroke we chain the freedom necessary to love. All the more dangerous in such an approach is the implicit attitude that marriage will somehow “justify” the couple’s lack of freedom. The wedding night then becomes the moment when the couple are supposedly “allowed” to cut the chains loose, disregarding their previous need for constraints. Yet if this couple were not free to choose the good the day before they got married, standing at the altar will not suddenly make them free.
As John Paul has already made abundantly clear, marriage does not justify lust, and we lust precisely in the measure that we lack the freedom of the gift. (pg. 274-275)

Eden says: “The logic behind West’s insistence that such a couple is chaining its freedom to love is difficult to comprehend. After all, the restriction he describes was not imposed from outside; the hypothetical pair freely chose to avoid what they believed might be occasions of sin. Moreover, if freedom to love is dependent upon one’s refusing to chain one’s freedom to sin, what then of religious who choose the cloister, practicing the evangelical counsels behind monastery walls? Is their practice of charity impeded by such self-imposed ‘chains’? Last, what of the saints in heaven, who, by their free choice, no longer are capable of sin? Are they not free to love?”

West speaks of a engaged couple who find that the only thing that can keep them from having sex before marriage is to chain themselves to separate trees. He claims that this couple is not free to love because they are too much enslaved to their passions and need a set of chains to prevent them from giving in to their passions. West’s point is that the chains not only prevent them from sinning; they prevent them from loving. What does that mean? He is counseling them to realize that chaining themselves to trees to avoid sin is ultimately not the best solution to avoiding sin; they have a great disorder in their heart that prevents them from having the self-mastery needed for love. They need to educate themselves about the spousal meaning of the body and learn to treat each other as gifts rather than objects--and also to seek the graces that would enable them to do so. If they feel such lust for each other that they need to chain themselves to trees they are surely treating each other as objects. By depending upon chains to prevent them from sinning, they are not learning to love. If they cannot avoid serious sin by being together they are in deep trouble. Marriage in itself will not give them self control. In fact, they would have some reason to fear whether they are capable of fidelity within marriage since they have not learned to control their desires when in the presence of powerful sexual attraction – and there is no guarantee that they will not feel equally powerful attractions for others..

Eden reads West’s story to mean that couples should “[embrace] potential occasions of sin as opportunities to grow in grace.” (ET, 41) Those words cannot be found in the text of West. Rather he regularly states that occasions of sin should be avoided, but that avoiding the occasions of sin is not sufficient to acquiring virtue. Moreover, there are different kinds of occasions of sin; for the unmarried to sleep in the same bed is a powerful and foolish occasion of sin – that is an occasion of sin for even the most virtuous. For the unmarried to be alone together should not be such a powerful occasion for those who have respect for each other. They should not need to resort to chaining themselves to trees. Nowhere does he say that only those who have achieved virtue can marry. He is saying that they cannot count on marriage to automatically bestow virtue upon them and that not having achieved virtue, either outside of marriage or inside of marriage, limits their ability to love.

West is certainly not saying that once the engaged couple free themselves from the chains that they are safe in being alone together. What he is saying is that they need to grow in virtue so that they can be alone together without fear of committing serious sin. It is not enough just to avoid sin; they must grow in virtue. A few pages before this discussion, he speaks about having personally undergone a “purgation” of five years before he was able to experience freedom from lust (and even then it was a not a permanent fix).

West is speaking not only to those who are sexually out of control but also to those who are afraid of their own sexual responses. Later, following the above passage, he speaks about the need to “step out of the boat” and trust Christ in order to be in relationship. Consider the example of someone who refuses to date because he or she is afraid of succumbing to sexual temptation. This person is avoiding the occasion of sin but also the occasion of building a loving relationship. This person needs to receive the sacraments, pray, form his or her conscience about the true meaning of sexuality and have confidence that God will protect him or her from serious sin.

Now I would like to look at the wider context in which West presents this argument.

Purity and freedom

The story of the couple in chains appears in a section on purity of heart, which is presented in relation to freedom, especially the freedom of the gift. Beginning on pg. 261 of TOB Exp., West discusses “The freedom for which Christ has set us free.” His key point concerns the relation between freedom and purity. Quoting Gal 5:13 where Paul says we are called to freedom but must not use it as an excuse to indulge the flesh, West says “we often seek to eradicate sin by eradicating our freedom to commit it. We must not remove the freedom we have to sin. For in the same stroke we eradicate the freedom necessary to love. To squelch freedom in order to avoid sin is not living the Gospel ethos of freedom at all. This approach knows not the freedom for which Christ has set us free. If we must chain ourselves in order not to commit sin, then we are just that—in chains. A person in this state remains bound in some way to his desire to sin and has yet to tap into the mature ethos of redemption. He has yet to experience in a sustained way life according to the Holy Spirit. For ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (2 Cor 3:17).”

This is the first point that West is trying to make with the example of the engaged couple. He’s presenting an ideal, knowing full well that many couples are not living up to that ideal. But he wants to encourage them to do so. If they are so bound by their desire to sin that the only way they could avoid it is by some sort of physical separation or obstacle (like chains), then they’re not truly free.

He’s making a point about freedom, not trying to determine criteria for admitting couples to the sacrament of marriage. West has a good bit of experience in preparing couples for marriage. He surely knows that many couples who ask for the sacrament of marriage are living together already, and so are not living a mature purity. He would undoubtedly be very happy if those couples made a commitment to stop living together before marriage, even if they’re not fully free in so doing. Eden suggests that with this example West is saying that engaged couples should not marry until they attain a complete victory over lust. In her speech at the defense of her thesis, she criticized what she said is West’s “implication that continence is an insufficient preparation for marriage.” Or as it was put in the CNA article of Sept. 8: “West claims that perfect marital chastity is a prerequisite for marriage, which, says Eden, is not what the Church believes.” But that is to misread his point. He’s presenting the ideal. He’s not saying that these couples should be barred from the sacrament until they reach a perfect level of chastity. He lives in the real world and knows that would be unrealistic. Eden is not distinguishing between the ideal of holiness the Church presents, and the actual requirements for marriage according to canon law. They’re two very different things.

As to the point about chains and freedom, it is true as Eden notes that in the example, the couple are chaining themselves by their own decision, so they have some good will and a certain amount of freedom. But the fact that they have to chain themselves at all shows they have not reached a mature level of freedom. Eden’s comparison to religious in a cloister might seem to have some surface similarity to West’s engaged couple, but it’s really quite different. Being in religious life myself and having heard many sisters tell their vocation stories, I have yet to hear someone say she chose religious life because she thought it was the only way she could avoid sin. The motives given are usually a desire to love and serve God more deeply, and to work more fully in the Church’s mission. Religious consecration is a consecration precisely for mission, whether in the contemplative or active form. It’s true in years past there was sometimes the thought of “flight from the world,” but at its core, religious life is choosing something positive. That’s actually brought out in the quote Eden uses from Aquinas in a footnote: “Even as one’s liberty is not lessened by being unable to sin, so, too, the necessity resulting from a will firmly fixed to good does not lessen the liberty, as instanced in God and the blessed” (II-II, 88.4., ad 1). In religious life, the will is (or should be) firmly fixed to good. In the story of the engaged couple, instead, their will was bound to the desire to sin, and they were seeking an external means to prevent them from doing so. And of course, the blessed in heaven are in a completely different situation than the engaged couple. The blessed have already firmly chosen the good and are confirmed in it.

Marriage does not justify lust
The other point West intends to make with the example of the engaged couple is that “marriage does not justify lust.” That is exactly the point that Pope John Paul had made in saying that “A man can commit such adultery ‘in the heart’ even with his own wife, if he treats her only as an object for the satisfaction of instinct.” (TOB 43:3)
West treats this point in more detail on pg. 225 of TOB Exp., concerning marriage as a “remedy for concupiscence.” He points out this does not mean that marriage is a legitimate outlet for indulging concupiscent desire. He says the term “remedy” is to be preferred to “relief” in translating the Latin term remedium concupiscentiae, because “‘remedy’ implies that the grace of marriage offers a healing of concupiscent desire.” This healing of concupiscent desire means growth in virtue, a growth that West obviously understands is taking place in marriage His discussion here shows that West does not hold the position Eden attributes to him, namely, “that the sacrament of marriage in no way affects the development of virtue.”

The key point about continence

This comment of West particularly troubles Eden:

At the 2009 lecture, continuing his example of the hypothetical engaged couple, West went on to explain that the continent pair could not be called virtuous because “[t]here is no magic trick on the wedding day that suddenly makes what you do that night an act of love. If you could not be alone together the day before you got married and not sin, there is no magic trick, there is no waving at the wand at the altar, that suddenly makes your sexual behavior beautiful, true, good, lovely, and pure.

Eden comments on this paragraph and his story of the two bishops to claim that West “takes a grain of truth and places it within a line of thinking that leads to the very opposite of John Paul II’s teachings.” But West actually means exactly what John Paul II means about marriage in itself not transforming lust into legitimate desire.

Eden continues:
“But can it be true that nothing happens at the altar to transform sexual behavior? Is it impossible for an engaged couple’s mere continence—self-control that has not reached the level of perfect chastity—to become graced through the sacrament of matrimony, so that it might henceforth be turned towards the couple’s mutual perfection? West writes elsewhere about the graces of the sacrament of marriage. On this issue, however, in his haste to counter the kind of puritanism under which he suffered in the Mother of God Community, he seems to forget it entirely, taking up—unwittingly, perhaps—a semi-Pelagian ideal of human-powered self-control.”

Again, Eden’s conclusion doesn’t follow because she is taking West out of context. While the quote she used is no longer available online, it is similar to what West says in TOB Exp. about the engaged couple.

His point is not to deny the grace of marriage, which he writes about in other places as Eden notes. His point is that marriage doesn’t justify lust. That’s quite a different point, and one that Eden fails to consider. So she is setting up another straw man.

The point that West makes is a basic one that concerns not just marriage but all the sacraments. The sacraments have their own power and are efficacious due to the grace of Christ. But their effect also depends on our dispositions. As the Catechism puts it: “…the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all….. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.” (no. 1128).

Certainly if people receive the sacrament of marriage with good dispositions, its grace does heal and strengthen them. West knows that and does not deny it. But if someone receives the sacrament without the proper interior dispositions, it doesn’t act as if by magic to change them against their will. That’s really all that West is saying, a point that St. Paul noted in regard to the Eucharist: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:29).

Further discussion of continence
Then Eden proceeds to discuss continence more. I find her treatment of this matter a bit convoluted, but will do my best to unravel what kind of charge she is making against West and to compare that against what both he and John Paul II really say.

Thomistic sense of continence
Eden refers to West’s understanding of the Thomistic sense of continence—that it is not a virtue in the full sense—and references the Summa (I-II, q. 58, a. 3, ad 2, where Thomas says it falls short of virtue). (ET, 43) Eden adds that West says the engaged couple who are continent out of fear of temptation lack the right desire.(Prof. Janet Smith has shown here how West uses the term in many different ways.

More analysis of continence and virtue

Eden says West begins accurately (ET 44), since St. Thomas does say that continence is an incomplete virtue. John Paul also notes that continence always acts in connection with other virtues. She quotes from the Pope, using a quotation that West also uses on p. 565 of TOB Exp. Eden continues with her key point: “There, however, the accord ends--while West emphasizes that a couple must advance beyond mere continence prior to marriage, John Paul’s language makes it clear that such advancement naturally takes place within marriage.” This is a very important point for Eden. She believes that West proposes a different view of continence than John Paul does.

The problem with Eden’s view here is that West does believe what John Paul says that such advancement in virtues takes place within marriage, as the rest of this evaluation of her argument will show. As noted above, West’s recommendation to engaged couples to seek mature purity doesn’t mean he’s denying they can grow in such purity within marriage. He is simply saying it would be good if they advanced more in purity prior to marriage.

An excursus on continence
In an excursus Eden deals with an objection West might raise to her interpretation of John Paul on continence: West could counter that when John Paul describes continence as a virtue, he is defining it as something other than Thomas’ definition, who said it is “something less than a virtue.” (ET, 58) (This refers to West’s argument in TOB Explained, p. 564f.)

On page 58 Eden says West “‘chastitizes’ [a word Eden coins but doesn't define, so I can't explain what she means by it.] John Paul’s instruction on growth in continence. The Pope, by this account, is no longer speaking to beginners in virtue; rather, he is addressing those who are already pure, advising them to become more pure. Since John Paul’s instruction in this area is addressed to married couples, such an interpretation enables West to claim that engaged couples must progress through ‘unvirtuous’ continence to ‘virtue’—that is, chastity—before marriage.”

I fing this to be a rather strange argument. I think she means that according to West, the Pope’s talks to married people presuppose they are already pure (because they are married) and he is only telling them how to be more pure. This allows West to maintain that since the married are expected to be already pure, the engaged couple should reach this before marriage. (That is, according to Eden’s interpretation. I don’t believe West is really saying that.)

To defend her interpretation Eden refers to West’s argument on pp. 564-565 of TOB Exp. That section of the book deals with continence in relation to the teaching of Humanae Vitae. He’s talking about married couples, since that’s whom the pope is addressing in regard to Humanae Vitae. On pp. 566-567 West begins a section where he talks about how married couples can advance in virtue through self-mastery. West does not say anywhere here that it’s a question of simply telling those who are already pure how to become more pure. West talks about how married couples can grow in self-mastery, and even compares it to strength training. He quotes John Paul: “conjugal chastity (and chastity in general) manifests itself at first as the ability to resist the concupiscence of the flesh.” That’s continence. That entire section shows that West does indeed understand and maintain the very point that Eden says he denies: that continence can develop into a virtue – and not only for those who already are pure -- within a sacramental marriage.

Later Eden says: “There is, then, no ground for claiming John Paul is departing from continuity and inventing a vocabulary on this topic, nor is there ground for West’s inference that the pope expects couples to possess habitual temperance prior to receiving the graces of the sacrament of matrimony.”
But who is claiming that John Paul is inventing a vocabulary? Not West, as Eden is saying he does. Her assertion doesn’t follow at all. It’s a complete non sequitur. Yet Eden uses this assertion as one of the reasons for making her further claim that West is breaking the hermeneutic of continuity.

At this point, my own suggestion would be this: To bring greater clarity to this discussion, I think it would be better for West to contrast the virtue of continence with the virtue of temperance, instead of contrasting continence with virtue. His point would still be made, since Thomas shows that continence is inferior to temperance. West would just have to explain the difference between the two virtues. Hopefully, it would satisfy his critics who see in his language grounds for criticism, unfounded as that may be.

Gradualness of virtue

Eden then presents some quotations from John Paul where he stresses the gradualness of the development of virtue and a progressive growth in self-control, and that this takes place within marriage. West would completely agree with that point. In a previous post I have already dealt with this concern.

Another excursus

Eden says West “fails to acknowledge the extent to which John Paul II follows the theological categories and terminology of the Paul VI encyclical. As a result, the true depth of John Paul’s catechesis becomes obscured; he becomes a ‘revolutionary’ who thinks as the Church, but not with the Church. This lacuna in West’s presentation is clear, as we have seen, in his assumption that John Paul is using a different definition of continence than that of St. Thomas. We see it also in his failure to recognize that John Paul’s catechesis on continence are meant to add depth and context specifically to Humanae Vitae’s description of ‘self-mastery.’”

Her claim about West misunderstanding Humanae Vitae’s categories and terminology is an odd one. She offers no evidence to support it at all. It’s countered by the in-depth explanation of the encyclical that West offers in TOB Exp.

That claim in turn is the basis for her next one, that West is turning John Paul into a revolutionary. Again, this claim has no support and just doesn’t follow from anything that Eden has said. I’ve already noted how her claim that this follows from the discussion on continence is a non sequitur.

The point of Eden’s excursus, however, seems to be to reinforce that “Humanae Vitae stresses that the virtuous fruits of self-mastery—that is, the virtue that results from habitual temperance—are acquired within marriage.”

Again, as the quotations from West above indicate, he agrees with this assessment, despite Eden’s unfounded claim that this is “the point he seems to miss.” I’ll just add one more quote from West: “John Paul says that if the key element of the spirituality of spouses is love, this love is by its nature linked with the chastity that is manifested as self-mastery. Such self-mastery is also known as continence.” (TOB Exp. p. 564). West continues to deepen this subject in the section entitled “Continence Purifies and Deepens Marital Union “ (pp. 569-571).

Eden then returns to the story of the engaged couple, but I have dealt with that above. She concludes this section with a final quote from John Paul:

By contrast, John Paul—following Humanae Vitae and, through that encyclical, the historical teachings of the Church—affirms that it is precisely the graces received at the altar that render the couple capable of the "spiritual blessings" of marriage (Humanae Vitae 21), through which is "gradually [revealed in them] the singular capacity to perceive, love and practice those meanings of the language of the body which remain altogether unknown to concupiscence itself."

West also uses this quote on page 567 of TOB Exp. (Did Eden perhaps not notice that?) After quoting John Paul, West goes on to unpack that quote and bring out its implications.


It’s taken me almost 10 pages to present and evaluate Eden’s central argument—also presented in about 10 pages-- that West misunderstands the virtue of continence and presents a false understanding of the requirements of marriage. This again underlines how unsustainable is Eden’s claim to have done a “comprehensive overview” of West’s work. To do justice to his work would require a much more intensive analysis than the superficial one that she presents.

I have no doubt that Eden is convinced she is doing some service to the Church in trying to point out and correct what she considers to be West’s errors. But after examining and evaluating the central claim of her thesis that West misunderstands continence, I have to conclude as follows:

1. Eden’s analysis is uninformed because she fails to consider significant parts of West’s work that would affect her claim, as I have shown above (for example, in ignoring his many statements where he affirms the grace of marriage to help people grow in virtue, and ignoring the extended treatment of continence as a virtue found in TOB Explained).

2. Eden’s analysis is misinformed because she asserts what is not the case, basing her claims on a faulty analysis of his writings, as I have also shown above (for example, her claim that West is inventing a vocabulary for John Paul and this means West is breaking the hermeneutic of continuity).

Eden’s analysis is also unfair in that she regularly interprets West’s words in an implausible fashion and she attributes to him positions that are clearly not his.

3. Eden’s analysis is illogical at least in certain points, as I have shown above in her arguments that are actually non sequiturs. At least twice, Eden even uses quotations from Pope John Paul to prove her point, apparently not realizing that West also uses those same quotations in his discussion of the subject, showing he understands exactly what John Paul means. This is certainly not a very convincing way to support her ideas, and suggests that she didn’t read the sources very carefully. Her argument about West’s understanding of continence is essentially a straw man. As Eden has said, this point is one of her main arguments and concerns about West that she considers in her thesis. Yet it doesn’t stand up to examination. As a result, her thesis collapses. At this point I am not going to critique any more of her thesis, for the problems already noted with it show that her conclusions cannot be sustained.

I wish Dawn Eden well as she continues her further studies. As her work on chastity has shown along with her book The Thrill of the Chaste, she has a lot of talent and can be an incredible asset to the Church’s evangelizing mission.