June 4, 2012

THEOLOGY OF THE BODY: IN DEFENSE OF CHRISTOPHER WEST


In the face of the continuing criticism of Christopher West and the way he understands and teaches Theology of the Body, I am writing this little defense.

I'D LIKE TO MAKE A DISTINCTION BETWEEN CW'S "CRITIQUERS" WHO SERIOUSLY HAVE PROBLEMS WITH CERTAIN POINTS OF HIS TEACHING (THOSE WHO HAVE GOOD WILL TOWARD CW, CW'S WORK, TOB AND OUR HURTING WORLD) AND CW'S "DETRACTORS" (THOSE WHO DO NOT HAVE GOOD WILL TOWARD CW, CW'S WORK, TOB AND OUR HURTING WORLD). I DON'T CLAIM TO KNOW EXACTLY WHO'S WHO, BUT I ASSURE YOU, THERE ARE BOTH TYPES.


IMHO, I WOULD SAY CW GETS IT 95% RIGHT. THAT'S NOT BAD. AND HE IS COMMITTED (AS I AM AND MOST STUDENTS OF TOB ARE) TO GETTING IT 100% RIGHT. I HAVE DISABLED COMMENTS ON THIS POST BECAUSE IT WAS GETTING UNWIELDY AND I FEEL SOME COMMENTS WERE OBFUSCATING THE ISSUES.


"Remind people of these things
and charge them before God to stop disputing about words.
This serves no useful purpose since it harms those who listen." --2 Timothy 2:14



First of all, I have done two weeks with Christopher at the Theology of the Body Institute in PA, have read some of his books and watched some of his DVD series and YouTubes. Part of the reason I first went to see him is because I was hearing so many criticisms of him and I wanted to see/hear for myself. Not only did I NOT hear anything unorthodox, I was totally blown away by the content of everything he said, and had no problem with the way he said it. In fact, I LOVED the way he said it.



One personal criticism I have of CW would be this: He may be overstating for effect, but I think he has a LITTLE too much sympathy for Hugh Hefner (just because your mother didn't hug you when you were little doesn't give you license to found a worldwide soft-porn empire). :]

Here are some of the criticisms of Christopher West:

“HE’S TOO GRAPHIC.”
I understand that in the beginning, CW WAS too graphic/explicit. He was mostly talking this way on college campuses (and many of the young people loved it). He has since ceased this kind of talk and has suppressed his early recordings. If/when he gets some finer points of his teachings incorrect, he allows himself to be corrected by priests and others.

I tell my male TOB speaker friends to be careful of explicit language in mixed groups. I tell them, if it’s all guys—use your locker room vocabulary, say whatever you need to to get your point across (TOB always respects women and sex, of course), but not in front of women. Why not? Even though our culture is super-crude and treats women like “one of the guys” (I hear young men and women using the “F” word continuously to each other in conversation like it’s nothing and AS IF THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE SEXES)—TOB women are not down with that. If—according to TOB--men “initiate the gift of love and women receive it and give it back in love,” then sex talk coming from a man can feel like an unwanted initiation. It sounds aggressive, assaulting and even violating to women (or it should). Why is there such a thing as “phone sex”? I rest my case.

“HE’S ARROGANT.”
I’d say maybe a little “cocky.” But not in an obnoxious way. He has a kind of rockstar/artistic personality (he writes/plays/sings music VERY well). He’s a showman, and this showmanship is what makes him such a great speaker/presenter. God can use any kind of personality. CW is also tenacious, which keeps him at what he’s doing in the FACE of all the criticism. He also will never give a talk without prayer teams backing him up and soaking the talk/event in prayer.

“HE’S NOT QUALIFIED.”
CW has a B.A. in Anthropology and got his graduate degree from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Washington, D.C. He taught theology for the Archdiocese of Denver under Archbishop Chaput, teaches at the Institute of Priestly Formation in Omaha, and at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia. His flagship book: “Good News About Sex and Marriage” (St. Anthony Messenger Press) has been in print since at least 2000 (and revised at least once). He authored an entire commentary of John Paul II’s text: “Male and Female He Created Them—A Theology of the Body” (Pauline Books & Media—Daughters of St. Paul) and “Theology of the Body for Beginners,” (Ascension Press) among others.



“HE PRESENTS JOHN PAUL II’S THOUGHT AS HIS OWN THOUGHT.”
Christopher is very clear about what is his and what is John Paul II’s. He quotes TOB verbatim extensively in his talks and in his books.

“HE PRESENTS HIS OWN THOUGHTS AS JOHN PAUL II’S THOUGHT.”
If CW has crafted some principles of TOB in his own language, it’s a tool to understanding John Paul II’s words. Also, what CW says faithfully reflects the Church’s perennial teaching on human sexuality. Kudos to him on whatever IS original!

"HE'S SEXUALIZING GOD AND HEAVEN, AND SACRALIZING SEX."
No. He's saying that sex is from God, reveals God and is meant to lead us back to God. The marital embrace is a very particular participation of the married couple in God's love and life. The Bible itself tells us that heaven is a Wedding Feast (the Marriage of the Lamb, the Bridegroom, to His bride, the Church). The Bible uses marriage as the primordial image of God's love for us. The Bible begins and ends with marriage.

Sex IS sacred. (That's why sex outside marriage is a sacrilegious-type sin.) Christopher is not sexualizing God, he's God-izing sex. As it is and should be.

“SOME VERY SMART, PROMINENT CATHOLICS DISAGREE WITH HIS PRESENTATION.”
Some very smart, prominent Catholics AGREE with his presentation. After CW appeared on “Nightline” (and Nightline twisted some of his words, but actually got it about 90% right)—all hell broke loose, and his “behind closed doors” critiquers came out in the open and the "battle of the PhDs" began.


Some of the people who DISAGREE with CW’s understanding and presentation of TOB are:

--Some of his past professors at JP2 Institute for Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.

--Dr. Alice von Hildebrand

--Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger, Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, who runs the website www.MaryVictrix.com.

--Fr. Gregory Gresko (whose article was recently published online by Catholic News Agency)

--Both Catholic News Agency and the magazine "Inside the Vatican" consistently give a platform to CW's detractors

--Dr. Dawn Eden Goldstein (author and convert from secular Judaism to Evangelical to Catholic). She published her thesis publicly online criticizing CW’s approach. She wrote the fine, fine book “The Thrill of the Chaste” and “My Peace I Give You—Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.” I question if, as a new convert, she may have come under the sway of CW detractors who may have even used her for their own ends.

After the Nightline flap, some who came out in DEFENSE of CW:

Dr. Michael Waldstein & Assorted Nuns
--Dr. Michael Waldstein (teaches at Ave Maria University, FL)--found the original Polish text of JP2’s TOB, and wrote the lengthy introduction to it.

--Dr. Janet Smith (teaches at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit)

--CW’s bishop at the time: Bishop Rhoades of Harrisburg, PA, and Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia

--CW also continues to be invited by dioceses around the world to speak/teach.

Unfortunately, if you look at the criticisms (I have not mentioned all of them, of course), you will see that some of these criticisms actually are of John Paul II and his Theology of the Body itself, rather than CW. Others feel Christopher is not giving a complete enough foundation/overview of Catholic theology or TOB itself. Other criticisms take issue with specific points.


Sometimes CW is a smoke screen for a deeper rejection of TOB. Such as:

“SEX IS DANGEROUS.”
It is? John Paul II certainly doesn't say that. God gave us something dangerous with which to hurt ourselves and others with? I would say it’s “powerful.” A powerful gift. This attitude belies a deep fear and suspicion of the body, the body as lesser/tainted/not-quite-good—precisely the attitude John Paul II was trying to correct with his TOB.

“SEX SHOULD NEVER BE SPOKEN OF IN A PUBLIC FORUM OR IN THE MEDIA.”

It shouldn’t? Alfred Kinsey, Sigmund Freud, Helen Gurley Brown, Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, Howard Stern, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Katie Perry, “Family Guy,” Planned Parenthood and internet porn have all been telling their story of sex. Who will tell God’s story of sex? The beautiful thing about Theology of the Body is that it’s THEOLOGY, not anatomy, biology or sex ed. So it speaks of sex in an indirect, symbolic, almost metaphorical way (BTW, our brains do not apprehend ANYTHING directly, but always work metaphorically)—but in a way that’s very clear what we’re talking about. TOB--when done right--can be done in a mixed group, even of varying ages, and no one needs feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.

The Church’s silence and parents’ SILENCE about sex has HARMED young people beyond belief. ALL young people hear is the false, twisted story of sex that leads to emptiness and sadness, damage and destruction, alienation from self, God and others.

“CW DOESN’T TALK ENOUGH ABOUT GUILT AND SHAME AS A GOOD THING THAT WARNS US THAT SOMETHING IS WRONG.”
Yes, he does.

“CW ACTS LIKE WE CAN OVERCOME LUST IN THIS LIFE.”
CW says that we should be making progress in chastity and purity as we continually fight lust. He says that, with the grace of God, a sacramental life, understanding, believing, seeing, living correctly, we SHOULD be making progress in this area. He says that God didn’t die on a Cross so that we could do “sin management,” “lust management” in our lives and remain stuck in the same sinful place for our entire life, never overcoming. CW says that if we say that certain sinful behavior, like victory over lust, are impossible, we empty the Cross of its power.

“CW SAYS THAT WE SHOULD GET TO POINT WHERE MEN CAN LOOK AT PORN AND NOT LUST.”
No, he doesn’t. And neither does Fr. Thomas Loya (Byzantine Catholic priest & TOB speaker) who is also accused of that. They both say instead that porn is always wrong—in all its forms--and should never be looked at. It is using human beings as things for selfish gratification (never OK). Porn’s very intent and construction is to titillate and cause us to lust and sin. Oh yeah, and it’s addictive.

“OVEREMPHASIS ON THE SEXUAL ACT CAN ECLIPSE HUMANITY'S RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD, WHICH IS FIRST AND FOREMOST THAT OF FATHER AND CHILD.”
Hmmmm. I know this cautionary objection is well-intentioned, but I think there are few believers on the face of the Earth who don’t have some sense that we’re all “children of God” because God is our Source and our loving Father. BUT the whole point of John Paul II emphasizing our SPOUSAL RELATIONSHIP to God is because that is what has been lost and therefore the HORIZONTAL-ONLY, HUMAN SEXUAL RELATIONSHIP has come to replace it as the be-all end-all.

Our post-Christian world has jettisoned a lot of Christian values, but it has not given up on body-sex-love-relationships-beauty (even though it often makes a mess of them because it doesn’t know what they truly are). BJP2G says: We’re all about these things, too! And we can start there and get to the transcendent, to God from there because the physical reveals the spiritual and divine.

To state that the Father/child relationship is “foremost” is to take into account our relationship with only one Person of the Trinity. What of our (spousal=Church as Bride of Christ, Marian) relationship with the Son? What about our relationship with the Holy Spirit? What about our being in the “image of God” likeness of the Trinity in the communion of persons that marriage/family is? THIS is what has been MISSING! These are the “signs of the times” that need to be emphasized! While we always remain Father/child, we must also reach maturity, “full stature” (Ephesians 4:13), which would also imply adult faith/behavior/relationships.

“IN ORDER TO PROPERLY INTERPRET THE ‘THEOLOGY OF THE BODY,’ THE MAGISTERIUM SHOULD ENSURE THAT ST. JOHN PAUL II'S TEACHINGS ARE ‘NEVER USED TO CONDONE SEARCHING FOR SEXUAL SATISFACTION’ BY WAYS THAT ARE ESSENTIALLY ‘NOT CONJUGAL’ OR THAT OBJECTIFY THE OTHER SPOUSE.” (Said in critiquing CW.)

Good grief! This is EXACTLY what CW is trying to do.

PARTING THOUGHTS:

Could CW go astray? Start being explicit again? Apostasize? Get confused? Make a mistake? Yes, to all of the above. He’s only human. But—how many marriages have his critiquers (the ones who don't support his work in general) prepared couples for, enhanced, saved? How many priests and religious (myself one of them) have his critiquers given a whole new perspective to and helped to deepen dimensions of their living of their vocation? (Did that last sentence even work grammatically?)

Unfortunately, many Catholics are uneducated in important aspects of their Faith (and prefer to remain that way), and as soon as doubt is cast on someone/something, their first reaction is to go with the critiquers/detractors: “just in case,” “just to be safe,” or to “err on the side of caution.” This is a very sad way to live one’s life, and leaves one open to Jansenism, gloom-and-doom thinking, cloaking of one's own sins, lack of hope, lack of trust in God and His grace, retreating into darkness/silence, letting others do one’s thinking, and simply an unjustifiable ignorance.


Eve and Mary

If one has taken the time to listen to critiquers/detractors, why not read what JP2G wrote? Why not read what CW wrote? Why just immediately go with CW’s critiquers/
detractors and not his defenders? It may NOT make you a better Catholic to be suspicious.


It may make you a worse one, and the devil may be laughing up his sleeve because he has neutralized you in a murky cloud of doubt. And--in these crazy times we're living in--we and our families cannot afford to be neutralized in a murky cloud of doubt! Christopher West preaches not the repression OR indulgence of sex, but its redemption (as does JP2G)—all according to the teaching of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church.

                    And you can quote me on that.




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