Skip to comments.Theologian Calls Christopher West's Work Completely Sound
Posted on 06/14/2009 6:17:19 PM PDT by Salvation
Christopher Wests interview on ABCs Nightline has sparked some terrific discussion on the Internet. An impressive amount of the interaction is intelligent and illuminating, even some of that which is seriously wrong. One of the better responses is that by Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers and the follow-up comments to his blog.
Here, I want to offer a brief, partial, response to Prof. David Schindlers assessment of Wests work. The fact that Nightline got a lot wrong about Wests work is not surprising. In fact, it is surprising how much it got right. Those of us who work with the media know that potential martyrdom awaits us at the hands of an editor. West has likely been suffering a kind of crucifixion over the past week. What is puzzling is that an influential scholar chose this moment to issue a sweeping, negative critique of West in such a public forum. I have great respect for the work and thought of Schindler and realize that it must be difficult to be on the receiving end of criticisms of the work of one of their most high profile graduates. I wish, however, he had found another occasion to express his reservations about Wests work.
I think we should be very careful in our evaluation of the work of someone who is on the front lines and who is doing pioneer work. Virtually every pioneering author and presenter has had severe detractors in his own time. Some of them have been disciplined by the Church and eventually exonerated. I would like to give examples and mention names, but I dont want to ignite a firestorm of "how can you compare Christopher West to X, Y or Z?"! I want to add my voice to those who are enthusiastic about the West/Theology of the Body phenomenon. I think it is important to keep in mind, as Akin does, who Wests audience is. It is largely the sexually wounded and confused who have been shaped by our promiscuous and licentious culture. People need to think long and hard about the appropriate pedagogy for that group. Yet, as West himself knows, his approach is not for everyone. An analogy that pushes the envelope may be "offensive" to one person and may be just the hook that draws another person in. West has adopted a style that appeals to a large segment of that population and even to some who are pure and innocent. It is not hard to find hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals who will testify that they have come to love Christ and his Church, and better understand and live the Churchs teaching about sex because of the work of Christopher West. Cohabiters separate, contracepters stop contracepting, and men cease looking at pornography and that is the short list. Countless young people are now taking up the study of the Theology of the Body because of Wests work. By their fruits ye shall know them.
Schindler objects to the language used in a list of comments made by West and dismisses them as "vulgar," "in bad taste," and "silly." Was Schindler careful to verify those comments and take into account the context in which they were made? Let me defend two matters mentioned by Schindler, praying over genitals and anal sex, that might seem peculiar if not properly understood. I hesitate to draw further attention to these subjects because I do not want to give the impression that Wests work focuses on tangential and sensational issues of sexuality. It does not. West focuses on making John Paul IIs vision of our creation as male and female accessible to the common person in the pew. But people deserve answers to their honest questions, and West is charitable in his willingness to meet people where they are.
A friend of mine who was sexually abused often finds it difficult to engage in the marital embrace (trying not to offend!). A very orthodox Catholic therapist recommended that her husband pray over her reproductive organs (being delicate here). Since he has been doing that, she has experienced some healing, and her enjoyment of the marital embrace has improved considerably. One has to ask why praying over throats is fine while praying over other parts of the body wrong or silly? It would be Manichean to suggest that some parts of the body are good (e.g., the throat) while others (e.g., the reproductive organs) are not.
I never like to talk about anal sex (sorry, I dont know a good euphemism). As one of my friends has observed about my sensitivities regarding sexual matters, "You would censor Shakespeare!" (I would.) But the fact remains that Catholic couples in todays world have questions about such issues. Many cannot understand why anal sex could possibly be appealing to anyone (include me and, indeed, West in that group), while others seem to find the act attractive. Certainly there isnt any Church teaching about this action at a magisterial level, but few seem to know that there is a tradition of approval of such behavior as foreplay to intercourse (not to be confused with the biblical condemnation of sodomy which replaces intercourse) by orthodox Catholic ethicists. The principle generally invoked is that consensual actions that culminate in intercourse are morally permissible. People are free to challenge the "tradition" on this point, but it should be acknowledged that West is not a maverick concerning this issue. Indeed, his position is perhaps more "conservative" than that of the "tradition." In his book Good News About Sex and Marriage, West clearly discourages the practice. Perhaps it is time for ethicists to work on the question, but what Schindler failed to mention is that Wests position is precisely (or even stricter than) what priests have been trained to teach married couples for a very long time.
In the second portion of his article, Schindler provides a list of his objections to Wests theology without citing one text to substantiate his charges. I would be very interested in seeing a more sustained presentation of Schindlers critique. As it stands, I do not find that his concerns correspond with what I have read in Wests work or heard in his lectures. I believe a thorough discussion of the issues Schindler raises would enrich our understanding of the Theology of the Body. But for those whose lives are not spent in the academic world, a world in which minutiae can take on epic proportions, let me note that disagreements of the sort that Schindler has with West are an everyday occurrence in the world of academia. That is, we scholars disagree not only with our archenemies but also with our closest and dearest allies. And not just about small matters; Thomists disagree with other Thomists about serious issues of interpretation of Thomistic texts; Thomists and phenomenologists who both are entirely faithful to the Magisterium can have fierce disputes on all sorts of issues. Prof. William May and I once debated on the best way to defend Humanae Vitae.
My point is this: The fact that the dean of the John Paul II Institute in Washington D.C. has issues with Wests approach should not discourage anyone from reading Wests work or attending his lectures. Schindler has serious disagreements with other reputable, orthodox theologians, including professors on staff at the John Paul II Institute. Wests extensive commentary on the Theology of the Body, Theology of the Body Explained, was reviewed for the imprimatur for the Archdiocese of Boston by Prof. May, a longtime colleague of Schindler at the John Paul II Institute, who gave it a glowing endorsement. (I also reviewed and strongly endorsed it.) Several times in his piece Schindler refers to Wests intention to be orthodox which could imply that he has not necessarily achieved orthodoxy. We should be clear that Wests works have been given an imprimatur, an ecclesiastical judgment that a work is completely theologically sound.
Again, I would be very interested in reading a sustained critique of Wests work by Schindler because of his own tremendous knowledge of the Theology of the Body. Yet, until he substantiates them and we have a response from West and his supporters, we will not be able to evaluate the validity of Schindlers evaluation. West has been giving his presentations for over a decade now; he has shown spectacular docility and humility in reworking them in response to criticisms. I suspect that as a result of this recent dust-up West may want to adjust some of his approach (or he may not!), but I also am confident that onlookers will find that many of the criticisms against West are without foundation. Some are erroneous because the critics are not sufficiently acquainted with Wests work. Others are not sufficiently acquainted with John Paul IIs work. Sometimes differences are not about substance but about emphasis or semantics. When dealing with a subject as fraught with distortions and sensitivities as sexuality there are surely going to be differences between people of good will.
Scholars and graduate students will be studying and arguing over the proper interpretation of Pope John Paul IIs Theology of the Body for centuries to come. I think West has already made a very worthy contribution to that discussion. Others are free to differ with him, but I am sure that, in the end, Wests influence will not be found to be a pernicious one. Rather, I expect we will all have an immense debt of gratitude to him.
**** Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., professor of moral theology, holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader . With Christopher Kaczor, she authored Life Issue, Medical Choices, Questions and Answers for Catholics . Dr. Smith has a new book Right to Privacy . She has also published many articles on ethical and bioethical issues. Over a million copies of her talk, "Contraception: Why Not" have been distributed.
Books, tapes, CDs, DVDs, etc.
From book by the same name by Pope John Paul II.
Fatima and the Theology of the Body: Part I
Christopher Wests ideas on sexuality ignore tremendous dangers, Alice von Hildebrand says
New Theology of the Body Translation released
Teaching the Theology of the Body
Twins, Communion, Civil and Sacramental Marriage and the Theology of the Body
Theology of the Body Ping please.
**West focuses on making John Paul IIs vision of our creation as male and female accessible to the common person in the pew.**
So many people misunderstand the sexuality of true married life.
I agree. Read "Love and Responsibility," too. However, different methods of presentation work for different people, and it would be unhelpful to limit the dissemination of Pope John Paul's teaching to those with the time, inclination, and academic formation to engage his dense and philosophical prose.
Thanks for the links.
We are RCers we can handle it...
Have you ever taught religious education? A lot of us seem to have difficulty understanding simple Bible stories. Pope John Paul is heavy going, even for someone accustomed to reading state revenue codes. And of course, he’s dead, so if you’ve got questions about the text, you’ll have to ask someone else.
I like to get to the source on things, and bought the “Theology of the Body” book (JP’s original) as soon as it was printed, but most people are never going to read it. However, they might listen to a lively talk by Christopher West or another speaker on the subject.
Some folks just get squeamish when talking, or hearing about, sex. When we were going through a Marriage Prep class, folks were encouraged to ask, and answer questions within the group. There was one couple that got physically upset when the topic of sex was brought up. My hubby talked to the Episcopalian priest who was leading the group (don’t know why we were in that group, which was mostly Protestant, come to think of it, since we’re both Catholic, maybe it was an available class that worked with our schedules), and told him that he wasn’t interested in remaining in the group with these folks who would make horrified noises, roll their eyes, etc at any mention of sex. The priest told my husband that the couple had dropped out after the last meeting, so we kept on going. We just thought it was strange that a couple getting married would be so negative on the whole idea of sex as a married couple. Or maybe they just wanted private meetings instead of group ones, who knows?
It certainly doesn't make those folks who would prefer the subject treated in a more contemporary manner any less Catholic. The fact that they WANT to know Church teaching on the subject, so they can follow it, is a good thing.
All options are good and one should apply all of them and always use church teaching and scholarship to verify what one has been exposed to.
Well, I do not find JP II’s writings heavy. It most certainly takes time to read his writings. But I always crave more and am comforted by his words. Same goes for Benedict.
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I use NewAdvent all the time, especially when I’m teaching middle school. I’ve heard “Catholicism for Dummies” is excellent; the authors are highly-regarded teachers.
I love Pope John Paul’s writing - I’ve re-read a couple of encyclicals just since I’ve had the baby. They’re a good one-hand size! Unfortunately, the Catechism is not, because I enjoy that, too.