Three 20-something women trying to figure out what it means to be lay, Catholic, and modern all at once.

May 26, 2009

Christopher West Goes South

I'm sure by now those in the Catholic blogging world are familiar with Christopher West's Nightline interview with ABC in which he explained how both John Paul II and Hugh Hefner "rescued human sexuality from prudish Victorian morality." While many of us do not doubt West's good intentions in his work and his love of the Church, I have always had some problems with his apostolate, and it seems that I'm not the only one. David L. Schindler, Provost of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family, wrote a thorough and thoughtful response to West's interview about his need for "renewed theological reflection." The full response can be found here. It's worth the read.

Let me stress that I agree with those who vigorously defend West’s
intention of fidelity to the Church. Certainly he has had positive results in
drawing many Catholics into a deeper understanding of their faith. As for
myself, I do not initiate anything about West in my classes, but only respond
when asked a question. Then I begin by emphasizing West’s intention of
orthodoxy. As I have often put it, "he would throw himself in front of a bus for
the Church." It is important to understand, however, that good will is not
synonymous with sound thought; and I must say, not without reluctance, that
West’s work seems to me to misrepresent in significant ways the thought of John
Paul II.

The following examples have been verified by persons directly involved
or by things written by West himself (and I regret the necessary adoption of
West’s own language).

West’s work has involved suggesting that a man and
woman bless their genitals before making love; blessing the ovaries of women in
his classes; advising young men in college and the seminary to look at their
naked bodies in the mirror daily in order to overcome shame; using phallic
symbolism to describe the Easter candle; criticizing “flat-chested” images of
Mary in art while encouraging Catholics to “rediscover Mary’s ... abundant
breasts” (Crisis, March 2002); referring to the “bloodied membrane” of the
placenta as a "tabernacle" (Colorado Catholic Herald, 12/22/06); stating that,
while “there are some important health and aesthetic considerations that can’t
be overlooked,” “there's nothing inherently wrong with anal penetration as
foreplay to normal intercourse," (Good News About Sex and Marriage, 1st ed.,
emphasis in original), though qualifying this in the revised edition and
stressing the subjective dangers of lust in such activity; and, on Nightline,
praising Hugh Hefner for helping rescue sex from prudish Victorian attitudes,
saying that there are “very profound historical connections between Hefner and
John Paul II,” while emphasizing that John Paul II took the sexual revolution
further and in the right direction.

I offer these examples not merely because they are vulgar and in bad
taste, not to mention sometimes bordering on the just plain silly, but because
they indicate a disordered approach to human sexuality. An objective distortion
in approaching sexuality does not cease to be such simply because it is
theologized. West to be sure will point toward the “orthodox” intentions and
context of the examples, but my criticism bears on the substance of his
preoccupation as reflected in the examples.

Schindler continues with a delineation of some serioues theological problems in West's writing and thought. For my part, West's reading of the Theology of the Body and my own reading have never really matched up. I studied the T.O.B. along with Karol Wojtyla's The Acting Person, which is his philosophical antropology about the human person "in act." The T.O.B. says as much about our bodies' experience of another person's body in other actions besides sex as it does discuss sexual intercourse (as well as discussing the spiritual body that we will have in heaven).

Though it is truly admirable of West to want to preach about Catholicism's understanding of human sexuality as good, true, and beautiful, it seems to me to be slippery slope into hyper-sexualizing human sexuality in the Catholic tradition in order to reach the culture.

The final point from Schindler:

But sex is not even the most important part of human love, let alone the key
to the Christian mysteries–the Eucharist, for example. Missing in West’s
work is an adequate idea of the radical discontinuity (maior dissimilitudo )
between the divine love revealed by God–and indeed the (supernatural) love
to which we are called–and sexual love or intercourse. To be sure, the
spousal love between man and woman is central in man’s imaging of God, and
the gendered body and sexual relations are an integral sign and expression of spousal love, which also includes what John Paul II calls all the other manifestations of affection. However, as Joseph Ratzinger says, it is only because man has a capacity for God that he also has a capacity for another human being. The former indicates the “content,” the latter the “consequence,” of man’s likeness to God.

It seems to me, then that we, as Catholics, must still live our lives as if sex is not everything, because it's not. I feel especially priviliged to be single and to witness to this truth!

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