Part One: Eden’s Argument
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.
“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.
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.