Theology of the Body: A Vigorous Discussion
McLean Cummings FAITH Magazine May-June 2010
Fr Cummings overviews a recent prominent controversy in US moral theology. It has implications for the harmonising of Catholic tradition with the Theology of the Body. Fr Cummings is an associate pastor in Ellicott City, in the diocese of Baltimore, Maryland. He is also involved with formation at Mount Saint Mary's seminary in Emmitsburg.
Christopher West is a truly American theologian. He doesn't just present Catholic teaching articulately and intelligently. Rather, he markets it. West is a showman, a salesman, a man with a flair for populism. Thanks to his contagious enthusiasm and entrepreneurial talent, he is forming a veritable movement out of John Paul II's insights into human sexuality and the conjugal life. Among many young and faithful Catholics West has now attained pop star status. Moreover, he enjoys the support of respected members of the hierarchy, who sit on the board of his Theology of the Body Institute and recommend his books. Recently, even the secular media began to take notice of Christopher West's accomplishments. An interview with ABC's Nightline back in May of last year seemed likely to raise another milestone on West's upward trajectory. Such, however, was not the case.
Immediately following the airing of the interview, West posted a note of caution on his website warning that ABC had edited and presented the interview in a sensationalist manner. In particular, comments made by West about Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, had been turned into a major theme. It was the perfect "angle" to attract viewers' attention: a Catholic theologian who spoke sympathetically of the man who, perhaps more than any other individual, had opened the door of mainstream culture to pornography. Despite West's renown and his attempt to head off criticism, reproaches soon followed. The most notable of the early criticisms came from Alice von Hildebrand, widow of the great ethical thinker, Dietrich von Hildebrand. A professor and lecturer in her own right, Alice von Hildebrand has built upon her husband's work, especially in conjugal and gender issues. With the stature of grande dame in this area, her vigorous criticism of West was bound to draw notice. Despite the unstructured form of an interview, several points were made beyond the issue of Hefner, "the mere mention" of whom was deemed "an abomination." Dr von Hildebrand accused West of a lack of reverence - of vulgarity, even, of a dangerous naiveté regarding the reality of concupiscence, and of failing to discuss adequately the ascetic and spiritual work needed to attain holiness.
Other thinkers expressed reservations about the Nightline piece, including Mary Shivanandan and Fr Jose Granados, both noted Catholic theologians and authors. Nonetheless, it seemed that the feathers ruffled by West's interview might soon be smoothed back into place and the bad impression chalked up to poor word choice and unfavourable editing. However, at just that moment David Schindler poured oil over the embers. As the Provost/Dean of the Pontifical
Institute of Marriage and Family in Washington, DC, Schindler's position gives him the highest pulpit from which to address these matters. Moreover, drawing upon his familiarity with West from the time he taught him in class, Schindler did not object to the Nightline interview alone but took it as an occasion to comment on West generally. Finally, he presented a structured, if brief, essay with substantive criticisms under four headings. Now it was clear that a full blown controversy had emerged, and other prominent thinkers joined the fray.
David Schindler Weighs In
Before summarising Schindler's remarks, it should be noted, as Schindler himself does, that West's critics do not reject the vast bulk of his excellent work. They openly admit his ardent desire to present faithfully and integrally the teaching of the Church. Moreover, they admire and wish to protect the abundant good fruit that his work has borne. Thanks to West, many people are coming to conversion, healing and the pursuit of genuine conjugal chastity. Still, good intentions and good results cannot ensure that the message and method are problem free. Precisely because Christopher West is so influential, it is essential that problems - even if relatively small ones - do not get overlooked.
"Small", perhaps, relative to the heterodox opinions of revisionist theologians, but still big enough to cause real concern for David Schindler. "West's work seems to me to misrepresent in significant ways the thought of John Paul II," writes the professor of his former student. After listing a number of examples drawn from a variety of sources, he says that they "indicate a disordered approach to human sexuality". These are serious charges indeed. Schindler's first of four points reprises Hildebrand's main complaint: a misunderstanding of the nature and depth of concupiscence. Insisting on Christ's power to transform us, West downplays, in Schindler's view, the objective wound that remains in our fallen yet redeemed human nature. Another of West's critics, James Likoudis, proffered a quotation from the noted French theologian and Christian humanist Jean Mouroux, which seems to encapsulate the point: "Even for [married couples aided by sanctifying grace], it must be said that the body is redeemed in hope alone, that is to say, it remains unsubmissive, a trial, a temptation, and under one of its aspects the wound of a rebellious concupiscence inflicted by original sin is always open."
The second criticism of West made by Professor Schindler concerns an inadequate notion of analogy. Failing to grasp adequately "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," West tends, according to Schindler, to reduce all love and even the Christian mysteries to sex. Fr Granados, a colleague of Schindler, seems to be alluding to the same problem in his short statement on the Nightline interview. There he remarks that "the Pope's proposal is not just about sexuality," and warns that the tendency to view all through the lens of sexuality will lead to "a different kind of pansexualism, ... which in the end promotes a similar obsession with sex, even if 'holy'."
Schindler's third objection again echoes the reaction of Hildebrand: a lack of reverence for the sensitive nature of the topic. Schindler sees West as approaching modesty from a perspective of "maleness," by which it appears as a necessity only for those not fully transformed by grace. "If we could just get over our prudishness and sin-induced guilt, [West] seems to think, we would be ready simply to dispense with clothes and look at others in their nakedness." Schindler claims that the interior dimension of modesty and a Marian approach to the subject is ignored.
Finally, in his fourth point, Schindler warns that West's forceful and confident "style" of speaking may indicate something also about the content. Schindler wonders whether his younger counterpart is sufficiently open to self-questioning. Rather, convinced of his "charism," West tends, according to Schindler, to instil in some members of his audience "a sense of guilt, of resistance to the Holy Spirit, if they experience uneasiness about what he is saying."
Janet Smith Responds
Not surprisingly, such a barrage from the redoubtable Schindler caused West to hunker down. He did not make a public reply for five months, awaiting a word of support from his local bishops, Cardinal Justin Rigali and Bishop Kevin Rhoades. In the meantime, two well-known professors, Janet Smith and Michael Waldstein, rallied round. Dr Smith, a professor of ethics at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, is also a popular speaker and writer on issues relating to sex and marriage. Her first response to Schindler is largely concerned with chiding him for issuing a critique of West at the time and in the manner that he did. She is concerned that the use of an internet blog (that of the Knights of Columbus) to discuss a high-level academic controversy could easily cause harm to West's good name and fruitful work. For those not familiar with academic debates, the impression could be given that West's work contains serious errors, when, in fact, his books have received imprimaturs and the endorsement of trusted figures. Furthermore, she argues that a brief posting on a blog does not provide the space needed for fairness to West. Schindler's posting does not include context for the examples of West's allegedly dubious tendencies, nor does Schindler make a sustained argument to prove his points. Finally, she closes her defence of West with what amounts to a straightforward denial of Schindler's fourth point, saying, "[West] has shown spectacular docility and humility in reworking [his presentations] in response to criticisms."
Michael Waldstein's response to Schindler raised the tension of the discussion a few degrees. Waldstein, a professor at Ave Maria University, recently published a new translation of Pope John Paul II's famous Wednesday audiences with the help of Christopher West. Like Smith, Waldstein faults Schindler for failing to provide sufficient evidence and context for his "sweeping, massive accusations." Unlike Smith, Waldstein alleges that Schindler is basing his remarks on the spin of the Nightline piece, not on West's published works, which he calls "an act of injustice." This point will be easily refuted by Schindler who hardly mentioned the Nightline interview. Most of Professor Waldstein's short contribution, however, seeks to defend West's understanding of concupiscence, which has now emerged as the key issue.
The following week, David Schindler responded to the criticisms of Smith and Waldstein in one article posted on the same Knights of Columbus blog, Headline Bistro. Without further escalating the temperature of the argument, Schindler defended himself ably in regard to the methodological considerations. In any case, the prudence or propriety of his approach is not of primary interest compared with the validity of his claims. To bolster these, he develops somewhat the argumentation behind his three main criticisms: the notion of concupiscence, the inadequate use of analogy, and the lack of a Marian dimension. Most notable is his treatment of concupiscence in which he points out that the difficulty in assessing West's position is that the perceived problem is not one of definitions but of emphasis. "Understanding [Waldstein's fine summary of teaching on concupiscence] in an appropriately Catholic way depends entirely on qualifying properly the sense in which true growth in virtue - under the transforming power of grace - does overcome the tendency to sin, relative to 'objective concupiscence and the consequent danger to sin'." Still, Schindler does mention three specific aspects of the question that he believes West needs to address. Acknowledging that the discussion is getting technical, Schindler closes by inviting all to patient reflection and Christopher West to write an article in Communio, the academic journal edited by Schindler.
Replies from Smith and Waldstein to Schindler's second posting left the truce called for by Schindler in place. Only one point calls for a fuller discussion. Schindler concluded his section on concupiscence with the observation: "Needless to say, ambiguity on the three points noted here can quickly slide one toward a dangerous imprudence in matters of sexuality." A prime example of what Schindler would consider dangerous imprudence seems to be the refusal by West to rule out as immoral the initiation of unnatural acts provided that they are intended as preparatory for normal intercourse. Like Hildebrand, Schindler eschews discussion of this matter because "some things just ought not to be talked about in a public setting, on the grounds not of prudishness but of simple human decorum and respect for others."
While endeavouring to respect this reserve, we can perhaps draw an instructive element from Janet Smith's attempt to defend West on the point. She returns to the Manualist tradition, as does Dr Michael Healy of Steubenville University in his defence of West's permission of the same practice. Claiming that "the writers of moral manuals used to train seminarians for about 150 years have defended [the practice]," Smith gives the impression of a unanimous approval by pre-Conciliar moral theology. In fact, what is presented as common acceptance would better be described as a general failure to condemn. The Manualist tradition was burdened by two related problems: the residue of probabilism, which resisted proscribing a behaviour as long as some authority allowed it, and legalism, which sought to increase freedom by allowing anything not falling strictly under the definition of a sin. The renewal of moral theology now under way, thanks to an emphasis on virtue and a personalist perspective, has been attempting to overcome the mentality of moral minimalism that had developed over the last several centuries. Both Smith and West know this and explicitly reject moral minimalism. The question, then, remains: why does Dr Smith have to go back to these dusty tomes to find support for West? A practice that is so clearly contrary to the virtue of chastity, personalism and the language of the body should be emphatically rejected by West (as it is by Smith herself), not tentatively discouraged. At the very least, ambivalence on the point should be clearly distinguished from the teaching of John Paul II.
Beyond Christopher West
Before turning to Christopher West's own long-awaited comments on these matters, we should highlight one point of great significance made by Schindler in his first essay. Here Schindler asserts that this controversy is, in fact, not so much about West at all; it is about an interpretation of the late Pontiff's thought found in many exponents of theology of the body. Writes Schindler: "In sum, West's work provides a paradigm of what is most often criticised today in connection with John Paul II's theology of the body - and rightly criticised, insofar as that theology is identified with West's interpretation: namely, that it is too much about sex and too romantic." This comment shows how secondary are the quibbles about the context of West's apparently strange remarks and the prudence of Schindler arguing on blogs. The real question is much greater: is there a tendency in some proponents of the great Pope's theology to take it as an invitation to focus on sexuality and especially on its romantic and pleasurable aspects to an inordinate degree? This would certainly mean that the enthusiastic reception of what can go under the rubric of "theology of the body" would need to be carefully evaluated.
"Take, for example, the book, Holy Sex, by Gregory Popcak. This book is endorsed not only by West and Smith but by a variety of reliable Catholic authors. Nonetheless, constructive criticism, which seeks not to crush the efforts of this well-intentioned and generally correct author, is certainly due. Consider the following statement made by Popcak in the book: "Rather than suggesting that pleasure is bad, official church teaching insists that both husband and wife have a right to expect the heights of pleasure from their sexual relationship." A "right"? The "heights"? Contrast this with the genuine church teaching of Pius XII: "This anti-Christian hedonism ... promotes the desire to render always more intense the pleasure in the preparation and actualisation of the conjugal union, as if in matrimonial relations the whole moral law could be reduced to the regular accomplishment of the act itself, and as if all the rest, in whatever manner done, remains justified by the effusion of mutual affection, sanctified by the sacrament of marriage..." In fact, it would be hard to distinguish Popcak's "One Rule for Infallible Lovers" from the kind of reduction described by the Pope. Popcak writes: "Practically speaking, ... a couple may do whatever they wish as long as both feel loved and respected and the marital act ends with the man climaxing inside the woman. That's it. That's the only rule, the One Rule. Everything else is left to the couple's prudential judgment." It seems that efforts to simplify and popularise the view of the Church can easily slide into moral minimalism.
Many commentators have noted that the front line proponents of theology of the body deserve a break. Indeed, it is difficult to simplify without reducing, and to popularise without vulgarising. Moreover, the pervasive degradation of morals and sensibilities may call for a new method of evangelisation that many dislike. Schindler's contrary opinion, however, bears serious consideration: "My own view is that the habit of communication of the dominant culture, which knows no discreet activities that ought not to be fully exposed, and no mysteries that ought not to be fully unveiled, is precisely what needs to be called into question, by both the form and the content of an authentically Christian-human response."
What Sort of Liberation?
It is fitting to conclude our resume of this controversy with Christopher West's own statement. Few comments have come out after it, indicating that a welcome period of patient reflection has indeed arrived.
The bulk of West's response, which does not mention Schindler by name, speaks to his main criticism: that West underestimates the real power of concupiscence. West chooses to reply to this point because he considers the issue of concupiscence "pivotal" and calls it, in fact, the "pearl" of John Paul ll's teaching. Christopher West finds the most attractive part of the great Pope's message to be a call to liberation from the disordered life that he and so many people who have grown up in our sex-saturated culture have entered into. He describes the Pope's bold affirmation of the power of grace over sin as an echo of Isaiah the prophet: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives..." Without doubt, the Pope's strong reiteration of the Gospel, as it refers to this aspect of human life, is liberating. His encouragement to throw off the chains of sin and lust is most needed for our time. The question appears to be, however: how are we to interpret the Pope's expressions, "liberation from concupiscence - or, more precisely, from the domination of concupiscence"? West acknowledges that full redemption will not come in this life, but he maintains that he is only proclaiming the sort of freedom that is within the reach of homo viator.
West does acknowledge that such liberation as is possible in this life comes only with progress in the spiritual life. "Virtue, however, in the full Christian sense of the term, is only possible as we journey through the 'purgative' way of the interior life and into what the mystical tradition calls the 'illuminative' and 'unitive' ways. It is here, in these further stages of the journey, that we discover 'mature purity'." Now, with this, I dare say, Schindler, von Hildebrand, and the rest of West's critics would readily concur: significant liberation from concupiscence can come with high levels of sanctity. The problem, however, is that few people actually do progress beyond the purgative stage. Certainly all of the wounded young people at West's conferences still asking the sort of question that one hesitates to print must be supposed to be far from this "mature purity". West's rapid passage from the call to freedom from the domination of concupiscence to the dispensing with a traditionally cautious approach to sexual matters is one that certainly needs review. He has acknowledged that in his early talks he should have spoken about concupiscence more.
Christopher West naturally alludes to Isaiah because he himself has a truly prophetic heart. He wants so very much to call all men to genuine sexual freedom. The difficulties that he has encountered since his Nightline interview seem to stem from his ardent desire to accomplish this feat. Yet, hasn't the Church been preaching the gospel of freedom from lust for many centuries? Alas, she will always be crying out in the wilderness, even if the peace and joy of conjugal chastity has been known and lived by millions. There is a great novelty in John Paul ll's thought, to be sure: he has provided a great impetus, profound insights and updated language. Still, his thought must be read within a hermeneutic of continuity, not discontinuity. Eager for progress, West seems to emphasise the discontinuity. He repeats the fact that his audience claims to have never heard his message before. Smith calls him "a pioneer" in both her essays. West contrasts John Paul ll's teaching to the traditional approach, which he sees as puritanical (moments of laxism in the manuals notwithstanding). One wonders: has West sufficiently distinguished a puritanical spirit from the traditionally cautious Catholic tradition that the Pope is developing, not discarding? Certainly, West's rhetoric seems to have led to a confusion of reverence with prudishness and of liberation by grace with the sexual revolution. Here it seems we find the fuse to the powder keg touched off by the Nightline interview. When West perceived Hefner's innovation as somehow related to John Paul ll's, no one thought that he was supporting Playboy magazine. Still, he certainly was criticising the status quo that Hefner upset, and claiming John Paul ll's authority to do so. West's assertion, shown on Nightline, is truly disturbing: "Christians must not retreat from what the sexual revolution began; Christians must complete what the sexual revolution began". Ironically, in the foreword to West's own commentary on the papal teachings, George Weigel gives a more sober commentary: "A sex-saturated culture imagines that the sexual revolution has been liberating. The opposite is the truth."
Now, on the blogosphere, silence regarding these matters has at last ensued. Still, the controversy has surely not gone away. For our part, Schindler seems to have provided the key to advancement when he argued that the problem with West's treatment of concupiscence was one of emphasis. Emphasis is needed for balance, and balance is needed to avoid nasty falls.
[Ed: We discussed appropriate developments in this area in our March 2006 editorial, "Confusion over the Meanings of Marriage", and attempted them in our March 2009 editorial "The Assault upon the Sexes"]
 For a useful summary of the back and forth see http://www.headlinebistro.com/hb/en/news/jp2_theologyofbody.html
 For Smith, see: http://www.headlinebistro.corn/en/news/smith_schindler.html,
and for Waldstein: http://www.headlinebistro.com/hb/en/news/waldstein_schindler.html
Popcak, Gregory K., Holy Sex (Crossroad: New York, 2008), 102. Emphasis in the original.
Pius XII, Oct. 29,1951, AAS 43: 852.
Popcak, Holy Sex, 191.
George Weigel writing in Christopher West, Theology of the Body Explained:
a Commentary on John Paul IFs 'Gospel of the Body' (Pauline: Boston, 2003), xvi.