Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Response To Dawn Eden's Criticism of Christopher West

The Catholic News Agency has an article about Dawn Eden's Master's thesis, which critically focuses on Christopher West's explanation of the Theology of the Body. Eden has offered, to the public, access to the document as well as her defense of it.

In reading her defense, the first draft of her thesis she sent to me, and the comments in the interview, I feel compelled to comment.

I will focus my remarks on her defense, because the thesis is not freely given to the public. So, all comments below are based on her public comments. One can purchase it or if you work for the Church and request a free copy, as I have, and Eden will send you one. We have corresponded about this and any comments I have about her thesis, in particular, will be done in private via email.

My intent is not to prove Eden wrong nor is it to provide an uncritical defense of Christopher West. Rather, I view it as a corrective as someone who is somewhere in between.

To give full disclosure - I am an acquaintance of Dawn Eden's, in that we have had a few email exchanges the past few years. I appreciate her blogging and her book about the over-sexualized culture we live in. I think she speaks to women immersed in our culture in a unique way.

Also, I have been studying the Theology of the Body, for years. I did so first under the guidance of Dr. Mark Lowery (one of West's original critics and a mentor to me) and other professors in grad school. I then dove head-first into the original texts for years before ever encountering West's materials. I have also attended West's classes at the Theology of the Body Institute, but not in an uncritical manner. In fact, I have challenged him quite a number of times on his approach and content. Yet, I consider him a friend (not a close friend, but a friend nonetheless). I have found him to be a humble man who takes criticism fairly and sincerely. I have a book coming out in September on the Theology of the Body and take a much different approach than West does to the topic.

I do not have a dog in this fight. Rather, I would like to see such interaction stay focussed on the content and be directed toward the good of the Church. One of my main criticisms of Eden's approach, I feel, is she gets off task in this regard.

I find Eden to be fair as well and hope the two sides can discuss issues in charity, without having to tear the other down to make their point.

I pray that all sides humbly seek God's will to the glory of His name and not our own in this discussion.

WARNING - This will be very long. My remarks are in red below.

Following is the speech that I delivered when defending my master's thesis at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2010:

Good evening. I am here tonight to defend my master's thesis, which is a critique of Christopher West's presentation of Pope John Paul II's theology of the body. By "Christopher West's presentation," I mean not only his own personal presentation, but also, more generally, the presentation that he promotes through his Theology of the Body Institute, which trains priests and lay catechists to teach his particular interpretation of John Paul II.





Has she been to his classes at the institute? She does not say. This is very important, because if she has no first hand experience in what he teaches during the classes, she is only using secondary resources and her criticism might be off-base. As someone who has been, it is clear to me she misinterprets him frequently or is using others who do not understand his teaching. This could be a pedagogial mistake on West's part - others not being able to clearly identify what he is teaching. But it is not as much an issue with the objective content of his teaching if this is the case. UPDATE: I also have to address the purpose of the Institute. It isn't to give just West's interpretation. There are a multitude of other teachers, including some who have been studying this topic much longer than West (e.g., Janet Smith & Michael Waldstein). I think you would be hard-pressed to say they merely teach what West sees in TOB. Furthermore, while West has had the largest influence on the Institute, it is much bigger than Christopher West.

I chose this topic, first, because the issues it encompasses—the promotion of the Catholic vision of marriage and family—are close to my heart, and second, because it is highly topical, given that West's presentation has recently been the subject of public debate among theologians.

In fact, after I completed my thesis, the subject became even more topical with West's unexpected announcement at the end of March that he was taking a six-month sabbatical, effective immediately. The Theology of the Body Institute, which is the nonprofit created to promote his presentation of the theology of the body, stated that West was taking this leave "to attend to family needs, and to reflect more deeply on fraternal and spiritual guidance he has received in order to continue developing his methodology and praxis as it relates to the promulgation of the Theology of the Body."

This is noteworthy because it marks the first time West has ever publicly affirmed a willingness to reflect upon his presentation, something that his critics have asked of him for nearly ten years. She assumes he hasn't reflected upon his critic's remarks. This isn't true, because he has changed several approaches to his interpretation due to other's criticism. I know this first-hand, because he has changed details of his approach from conversations I have had with him, when discussing problems I have had with his approach. Thus
Eden casts west as a person who won't listen to reason or others who have differences with him. This isn't the case and is un-factual.

My thesis is titled, "Towards a 'Climate of Chastity': Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity."

The first half of the title, "Towards a 'Climate of Chastity,'" is a reference to 
Humanae Vitae. In that encyclical, Pope Paul VI called attention to "the need to create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of chastity so that true liberty may prevail over license and the norms of the moral law may be fully safeguarded." That passage was a key text for John Paul II in his Wednesday catecheses on the theology of the body.

The second half of the title, "Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity," refers to a central point of my thesis. Christopher West asserts that the theology of the body is "revolutionary" because "previous generations of Christians" grew up under the burden of a "repressive approach" to sexual issues. His intention is to counter a popular myth—the idea that the Church is, as he puts it, "down on sex." However, in countering the one myth, he inadvertently fuels another—the idea that, in the wake of Vatican II, we are "building a new Church," a Church that is fundamentally different from that which preceded it. His praise on Pope John Paul II is predicated on the repeated assumption, sometimes explicit, that the preconciliar Church was stodgy and prudish. While he no doubt intends to promote charity and unity, his approach effectively encourages division and disdain for our past.

That is why I argue that his presentation on theology of the body needs to be reconciled with the "hermeneutic of continuity." That expression is drawn from the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, which stressed that the Second Vatican Council "must be understood in continuity with the great tradition of the church, and at the same time we must receive light from the Council's own doctrine for today's Church and the men of our time. The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils."




If this is the crux of her thesis, then I believe she will have a difficult time proving it. While west talks about the problems of the pre-conciliar church, he is generally speaking about the culture within the church surrounding sexuality in addition to the lack of a good pedagogy for parents to teach their children about the positive aspects of sex. He is not focusing on the doctrines of the church. This is quite different and a distinction that Eden fails to see.

Having said that, the very use of the words "hermeneutic of continuity" in my thesis title reflects a paradox inherent in applying theological analysis to popular catechesis and apologetics. West himself almost never resorts to language as obscure to non-theologians as "hermeneutic of continuity." He directs his words to the ordinary people in the pews. The one who dares to critique him on an academic level risks pretentiousness or even self-parody--like the Times of London music critic who praised a song from the Beatles' first album for its "Aeolian cadence." 
Eden must not know that such theological details and phrases are very much a part of west's approach within the classes at the institute. If she did, her academic critique would be much more appropriate and accurate. Furthermore, west has never claimed to be an academic. Thus, she is correct that an academic criticism will be limited by nature.

Nonetheless, I am willing to take that risk, because Christopher West does not present himself as a mere apologist, seeding the ground for faith via rational arguments. Nor does he present himself as merely engaging in catechesis, which, as the Holy See has stated, consists of "transmitting the Gospel, as the Christian community has received it, understands it, celebrates it, lives it and communicates it in many ways." Rather, Christopher West presents himself as the definitive interpreter of teachings of John Paul II—teachings which, as I will explain shortly, he claims "will lead to a dramatic development of thinking about the Creed." He is essaying apologetics and catechesis and theology itself. As such, his approach merits serious critical analysis by theologians—especially in light of its overwhelming popularity. 
I agree that he is not above scrutiny, but he has never said he is "the definitive interpreter". In fact, he has remarked several times, to me personally as well as publicly, that his hope is to have a multitude of catechists, writers, theologians, etc. spreading TOB. furthermore, Eden is uncharitable in portraying West with a role that he has never taken on himself. Is he the most popular speaker on TOB today? Certainly. But, that does not result in him portraying himself as "the definitive interpreter on John Paul's teachings". Eden steps outside of an "academic" critique when she makes such frivolous charges.

Along with West's undeniable talent as an author and speaker, there is an element of marketing genius at work. As I noted, he presents himself as the definitive interpreter of Pope John Paul II's theology of the body. Until last year, when his then-ordinary Bishop Kevin Rhoades and Cardinal Rigali issued a public endorsement of his work, the main evidence that he offered for his teaching authority was that he was fulfilling an imperative laid out by George Weigel in his 1999 biography of John Paul II, 
Witness to Hope.

Weigel wrote that the theology of the body was a "theological time-bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences ... perhaps in the twenty-first century." He added, "John Paul's portrait of sexual love as an icon of the interior life of God has barely begun to shape the Church's theology, preaching, and religious education. When it does it will compel a dramatic development of thinking about virtually every major theme in the Creed."

From the start of his public career, Christopher West has marketed himself as carrying out this mandate. One sees this most recently in the promotional material for the upcoming TOB Congress sponsored by the Theology of the Body Institute, which was formed to promote West's presentation. The promotional material states that the conference is "building on the words of papal biographer George Weigel—that this teaching 'will affect every major theme of the Creed.'" The congress's workshops are structured around that same premise; the one on catechesis is actually titled, "Catechesis and the Creed in Light of the Theology of the Body." The overriding implication in that title—and with West's entire presentation—is that that the Creed is something to be viewed in light of the theology of the body, rather than vice versa. To say that the congress was formed to promote west is unsound! West isn't presenting, but experts from around the world (some who have strong differences with west) are presenting on a wide-range of topics. It seems
Eden is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Weigel's statement has little to do with West or the congress, as a whole, but rather is being used as a starting point to further discussion on the scope of TOB.

Having explained why Christopher West's presentation of the theology of the body merits a theological critique, I will now summarize my thesis.

Chapter One begins with some biographical background on West. As mentioned, a foundational point of his presentation of the theology of the body is that John Paul II's teachings are "revolutionary" because "previous generations of Christians" grew up under the burden of a "repressive approach" to sexual issues. Because he uses his own experiences to support this point, it is relevant here to explore those aspects of his upbringing that informed his understanding of the attitudes he believes are ingrained in "most Christians." 
Eden will now step outside of a theological critique and into modern psychoanalysis.

West's understanding of what constitutes a normative Catholic upbringing may be shaped from his experiences during his late teens and early 20s living with his family in the Mother of God Community, a Catholic community in Gaithersburg, Maryland. At that time, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the community's leaders exercised puritanical control over members' lives—including their dating. Eventually, in 1995, James Cardinal Hickey, the Archbishop of Washington, would order reforms to the community to correct its abuses of power. But those changes came too late for West, who, during his time in the community, was subject to its strict rules.
Christopher West told the Washington Post that, after spending years living in the community and submitting to its leaders' control of his social contacts, his work, and his studies, he realized, "It's a cult. I've been living in a cult."

Now, one certainly doesn't have to grow up in a cult to appreciate the dangers of a puritanical approach to sexuality. However, I have found in my research that West's experiences in the Mother of God Community appear to come into play in his interpretation of John Paul II's teachings on continence. I will return to this point when I describe the particulars of West's presentation.
  They may appear that way, but is this really consonant with an academic theological approach to the topic at hand? I would answer no. we all have baggage in our backgrounds that form us for good or bad. What is open to critique is the material we presently are dealing with. Her own experiences have formed her as well, which she details in her book.

The rest of Chapter One is taken up with a list I compiled, comprising ten major themes of West's presentation of the theology of the body. In Chapter Two, I examine the criticisms that his presentation has engendered, as well as his responses to those criticisms, and add my own critique. I conclude my critique in Chapter Three, identifying the aspects of West's presentation that I believe are in most serious need of modification, and recommending specific positive correctives.

I will now briefly list the ten major themes of West's presentation that I identify in Chapter One:

1. The TOB is an all-encompassing theology that requires theologians and religious educators to recontextualize "everything" about Christian faith and life.West says, "Indeed, a 'holy fascination' with our bodies as male and female is precisely the key that opens the holy door to the divine bridal chamber, allowing us to experience what the mystics call 'nuptial union' with God." He also says, "Sex plunges us headfirst into the Christian mystery." Sex isn't just the act of sex, but sexuality (being created male and female). I cannot comment more on this without getting into the thesis, which I will not do for the public. Suffice it to say that in parts, West does skate on the edge with his approach to liturgy and mysticism.

2. The "sexual revolution" was a "happy fault." West praises the sexual revolution because, as a reaction against generations of repression and prudery, it "got us talking about our hunger." What Pope John Paul II did was redirect the discussion in the right direction. So, West says, "The Church looks at the sin of Adam and proclaims, 'Oh happy fault that won for us so great a redeemer.' We can look at the error of the sexual revolution and say 'Oh happy fault that has won for us so great a theology of the body.'" West "praises the sexual revolution"? No. He tries to draw the good out of the bad. This is a Catholic approach. I do agree that he emphasizes the sexual revolution too much.

3. "Dumpster" vs. "banquet." West likens using pornography to eating out of a "Dumpster," whereas the joys of sex according to the theology of the body is the "banquet." West says, "Why was [Playboy magazine founder] Hugh Hefner a successful 'evangelist'?" West asks. "Because eating fast food is a lot better than starving to death." Whereas Hefner was "just going to the wrong menu to feed the hungry," the TOB offers "the banquet of love that truly satisfies." West doesn't admire Hefner. He loves him enough to want to see him come to Christ.

4. The nuptial analogy is the primary means by which the faithful should understand their relationship to God—and "nuptial" is to be envisioned in sexual terms. This leads to— Remember that sexual is more than the act of sex. This is being left behind in the criticism.

5. "[T]he whole reality of the Church's prayer and sacramental-liturgical life is modeled on the union of spouses." In participating in the liturgy, "we are called to deep, intimate, ecstatic joys with Christ the bridegroom." The faithful who "have eyes to see" are called to be "inebriated," getting "drunk in the Spirit" on the "new wine" of the "wedding feast of the Lamb." "In this 'blessed death' of holy intoxication, sexual desire passes-over [sic] from lust to an immeasurable love."

In this regard, West says that the Paschal Candle is intended to be a phallic symbol. I write, later in my thesis, that I was unable to find any source for this in Tradition. Since completing my thesis, I have found evidence that this interpretation is of secular origin and was condemned by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council. 
[N.B. The revised edition of my thesis that I have madeavailable contains background on the Council's condemnation of the Paschal Candle "phallacy."] I agree the candle analogy is off-track. But, it is over-emphasized in the critique. West does go too far in his liturgical analogies. I agree with this. But, there is also good to be mined from it. We shouldn't toss it all out because of a few errors. He also does not include such details, presently, in talks outside of the week-long classes due to a lack of context required to make his point. I am not sold on his conclusion, but it isn't a focus.

6. "The joy of sex—in all its orgasmic grandeur—is meant to be a foretaste in some way of the joys of heaven."
 A number of mystics and saints describe it in such a manner.

7. "God created sexual desire as the power to love as he loves."
 In part, not in full and when directed properly.

8. "Mature purity" enables "liberation from concupiscence." I will have more to say about this assertion shortly.

9. "The Song of Songs is of great importance to a proper understanding of Christianity." It shows "[h]ow we come to see the sexual embrace, the deep intimate erotic love of husband and wife, as a passageway into deep transforming intimate union with God."
 I think West overstates the importance of the Song of Songs, but it is one way of seeing the relationship with God. It is in The Bible for a reason.

10. The meaning of marriage is encapsulated in "intercourse." It can be said to be just so.

These themes, taken in their entirety, imply that God's spousal love for His Church should be envisioned by the faithful in an explicitly sexual manner.

Now, there are certain elements of truth in these interpretations that cannot be ignored. To use a favorite phrase of John Paul II—"in a certain sense"—the liturgy is spousal. Likewise, in a certain sense, the sexual union of spouses may be said to image Trinitarian love. If West's theology stopped there, one could enter into discussion with him over the extent to which, in this day and age, it benefits the faithful to have explicitly sexual imagery introduced into their prayer life. One could also discuss how, in comparing the sexual union of spouses to the beatific vision, one might avoid the risk of either overselling sexual pleasure, or underselling heaven.

The problem, as I see it, is that West doesn't stop there. He believes that the true message of John Paul II's theology of the body is that sexual desire necessarily mediates desire for God.
 I disagree. I believe that Eden is drawing this conclusion for West, nor from West. This is eisegesis on Eden's part.

The key word here is "necessarily." I am not denying that sexual desire can mediate desire for God. For West, however, there is no other way. This is why University of Dallas Professor Mark Lowery, back in November 2001, wrote in the National Catholic Register that, while West's intention clearly was to convey the truths of the faith, "his overarching lens or perspective" led to "the lurking danger of conveying that Christianity really is all about sex." In other words, as Lowery put it, instead of Christianizing sexuality, West risked "sexualizing Christianity."
 As a student of Lowery, I know his critique was one of charity. I also believe that West has overemphasized the act of sex in some ways. But, in recent years, he has tempered his approach. This critique was 9 years ago when West was first becoming popular and West was a bit too brash and stepped over the bounds too much. I have not asked Dr. Lowery, but I wonder if he is quite as critical as before? UPDATE: Another former student wrote to tell me she talked to Lowery just last week about this issue. He told her that he uses West's work in his courses frequently. Also, West made immediate changes to his use of analogies after getting feedback from Lowery.



The implication that sexual desire necessarily mediates desire for God is an undercurrent throughout West's oeuvre. One sees it particularly in his repeated insistence that every opportunity to sublimate sexual desire is an opportunity for holiness. I cover this in detail in my thesis. The Church has traditionally stated that chastity education should include instruction on avoiding occasions of sin. West states, by contrast, that mature purity is found only in those who are willing to "risk" concupiscence so that they might reap the benefits of "union with Christ and his Church." By "risking," he means specifically that men who struggle with lust should practice looking at beautiful women so that they might learn to raise their thoughts and feelings from lust, to joy at encountering the image of God in female beauty. I have never heard West say this. Rather, I have heard him say that if you must turn away to avoid lust, then do so. But, the goal is to not have to look away (thus, not lusting). This is a twisting of West's pedagogy. Here I quote from West's most popular book, G
ood News About Sex and Marriage (page 78)





"Certainly, if a couple knows they'd do something wrong if they were alone, then they shouldn't be alone. (In traditional catholic language, it's called "avoiding the near occasion of sin.") Those who make the sacrifices necessary to avoid temptations are to be commended. But if the only thing that kept a couple from having sex before they got married was the fact that they didn't have the opportunity, what does that say about the desire of their hearts? Do they truly desire the good? Are they truly free? 

Freedom is essential to authentic marital love. If an engaged couple isn't capable of expressing their affection in ways that are genuine, true, and free (in a word, chaste) things wont' automatically change when they get married. Without this freedom - which can only be achieved by experiencing the ever-deepening redemption of our sexuality in Christ - sexual activity will remain, at some level, exploitative, even if the couple doing it is married."
JPII echoes these sentiments in Love and Responsibility when he says it is possible to make love into something which is the opposite. From page 215:




The principle of monogamy and the indissolubility of marriage make necessary the integration of love. Without integration marriage is an enormous risk. A man and a woman whose love has not begun to mature, has not established itself as a genuine union of persons, should not marry, for they are not ready to undergo the test to which married life will subject them."
Now, borrowing a page from West himself—who is known for quoting classic rock songs in his talks—I would call this the Harry Nilsson approach to overcoming lust. Nilsson wrote and sang the hit song "Coconut," in which a woman puts the lime in the coconut, drinks them both up, and then calls the doctor to complain of a bellyache. The doctor's prescription is to put the lime in the coconut and drink them both up. The cause is the cure. So it is with Christopher West's prescription for men who lust after beautiful women: Look at beautiful women.  As I have just shown, this isn't the case.



West's implication that sexual desire necessarily mediates desire for God also appears clearly Heaven's Song, his 2007 book that is directed primarily toward aiding the reader's "sexual healing and integration." There, West insists "sexual love is the earthly key that enables us to enter into heaven's song." He elaborates, "[T] he road to holiness passes by way of sexual healing and integration. The way we understand our bodies and the union of man and woman has a direct bearing with the way we understand Christ's body and his union with the Church. Hence, if we are to enter in to proper union with Christ and his Church, the diseased images and ideas we have about our own bodies and sexual union must be healed. It can be a long and painful journey—and there is no detour." I agree that West overemphasizes that desire necessarily equals a sexual desire. JPII focuses on desire for interpersonal communion and the dynamic of the personalistic norm, which includes, but isn't limited to, sex.

What concerns me is West's insistence that the "long and painful journey" of sexual healing and integration has to precede holiness. As Mark Lowery noted back in 2001, sexual healing comes from grace—not the other way around. I agree, but this is a timetable error.

Moreover, in a point also made by Lowery, grace does not always heal us of everything from which we would like to be healed. It is not a zero-sum game. Self-control is possible with the gift of the Holy Spirit, but, as Paul learned, God does not remove every thorn in the flesh.

A major concern of my thesis is the divergence between West's presentation and John Paul II's teachings with regard to continence. I mentioned earlier that West says mature purity is found only in those who are willing to "risk" concupiscence so that they might reap the benefits of "union with Christ and his Church." To underscore the importance of taking this "risk," he attacks the notion that an engaged couple wishing to stay chaste should "never spend any extended time alone together." 
Continence alone is not chastity and JPII argues in Love and Responsibility that  chastity is necessary for authentic love. Chastity purifies love and makes helps it rise above sentimentality, and utilitarian use of the other. In the midst of the struggle for chastity, one must first aim for continence, but it should never be the final goal. For more see quote above...

Now, the concern that engaged couples may be too chaste seems anachronistic in the wake of the sexual revolution. But remember that West spent his late teens and early 20s living in a community where engaged couples were in fact barred from spending time alone together. So this is a very real concern for him, and he is understandably eager to point out that Catholic teaching permits individuals a certain amount of latitude to responsibly exercise their freedom.


See quote above...

Unfortunately, in his desire to counter puritanical attitudes, West ends up promoting an ideal that has the net effect of promoting puritanism. I discuss this in detail in my thesis, and explain how it is based upon a misinterpretation of both John Paul II and St. Thomas, whose theology is the basis for John Paul's discussion of the virtue of continence. Essentially, West says that not only must an engaged couple be continent, they must possess the virtue of perfect chastity prior to marriage. That is, they should have no fear of being alone together, because they should have no lust for one another. West said in a talk just last year that an engaged couple who are merely continent cannot 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."
believe his point is valid, yet misinterpreted. In my interpretation, West is saying that you are not chaste if you lust after someone while dating and then you become chaste suddenly after you marry. Chastity is interior to the person, not caused by the circumstances that surround a person. Thus, it is possible to lust after your spouse. John Paul II shocked the world when he said the same thing in Love and Responsibility. Many thought lust was impossible within the marriage.

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. That is the basic approach, but is that the final goal? West is calling couples to something better.

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. In an age when Catholics—along with singles in general—are marrying later and later, such a misinterpretation of Church teaching has real pastoral implications. I see them when speaking on chastity to young adults. Twice when I have spoken in Manhattan, someone in the audience has asked me, "Why are Catholics in New York City so afraid of dating?" Is the bar really so high? Is West saying not to get married? No. Thus, this criticism falls flat. Christ said we are all called to perfection "be ye perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect." (Matt 5:48) Does Christ call us to what is impossible?

I was last asked that when I spoke at Columbia University in March. The questioner added, "Catholics here in the city think that they can't date before marriage—they can only be friends. And these are Catholics who know the theology of the body."

Young Catholics who are told that they are not ready to marry until they have not only continence, but perfect chastity, are simply avoiding the rituals of courtship. I have since discussed this problem with others, including a priest who is a vocations director, and am confirmed that it is a genuine pastoral issue.
 I work with college students (for 8 years) and can speak to this - if it happens, it is very rare and not because of West, but because of a false interpretation. We have had over 500 students study the TOB for semester-long courses and I have not seen a single case of what Eden is charging West with.

Towards the conclusion of my thesis, in suggesting positive correctives to West's presentation of the theology of the body, I emphasize the need for catechists to incorporate into the theology of the body the Church's teachings on suffering. Pope John Paul II himself said, in his final Wednesday address on the theology of the body, that catechesis on the topic would not be complete without addressing "the problem of suffering and death." If catechists do not account for this—if they present a vision of married life that is all about couples' sharing in Trinitarian communion, without articulating how they also share in Christ's sufferings on the Cross—then their words will be like those in the parable of the sower, that fall on rocky ground. As Our Lord said, "Those on rocky ground are the ones who, when they hear, receive the word with joy, but they have no root; they believe only for a time and fall away in time of trial." This is a good emphasis.

I think it is significant that in 1984, the same year he would complete his catechesis on the theology of the body, John Paul produced his great Apostolic Letter 
Salvifici Doloris, "On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering." In that encyclical, he wrote, "The eloquence of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and of the whole Gospel, is especially this: every individual must feel as if called personally to bear witness to love in suffering." It is the task of the catechist to seek out the connection between that witness to love mandated by Salvifici Doloris and the witness to love mandated by the theology of the body.
Note: I hope that Eden will prayerful reflect on my comments, as I am sure she is hopeful that West will do the same with her own.

A reminder to those who wish to comment. Make sure you follow the comment rules.

23 comments:

Baron Korf said...

All caps is hard to read.

Joe said...

Not only that, Baron, but it comes across as angry talk and makes my ears hurt. I don't think that was Marcel's intention.

Marcel said...

Sorry about the formatting. It would be too much work to change at this point though. I did not intend for it to sound like I was YELLING. Rather, it makes it stand out to distinguish the two different voices.

Sister Lynn said...

Formatting aside, your comments are excellent. Thank you for providing some balance and clarity!

Can't wait to read your book!

Blessings, friend.

Sister Lynn

John said...

Agreed, formatting aside, an excellent balance to the differing parties. With this response, I look forward to reading said forthcoming book!

Anne said...

Although I don't know either you or Dawn Eden, I linked to your post through Mark Shea's blog, because I am currently reading The Theology of the Body. Quite frankly I was disturbed by the tone.

The purpose of a thesis is to engage argument, that is, to attract an antithesis. Within the discussion, the thesis is qualified and refined. A Master's thesis, in particular, is the opening of the discussion, not the final word.

Criticizing the introduction to a thesis in such detail, especially for readers who have not had the opportunity to read the thesis itself, does not add to the discussion. You give your readers no reason to read Ms. Eden's work and engage it themselves. The subtext of the post seems to be an advertisement for your own book.

Marcel said...

Anne - Dawn posted this publicly and knows that in doing so she invites others to enter into a discussion with her publicly.

I will be engaging her in private (via email), because she hasn't released the thesis publicly in a more detailed manner.

Dawn knew about this before I posted this response and thanked me for letting her know.

When there is disagreement it might come across as harsh, but that is neither my intent, nor do I believe it is Eden's intent when disagreeing with West.

Marcel said...

BTW - I am not trying to sell my book by taking this discussion on. Rather, I think the discussion is a healthy way to continue to make progress in reaching others with TOB.

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

Thank you for this, Marcel. I don't have a strong opinion on this issue, but you've given me lots of good food for thought.

Also, per the comments about all caps being hard to read, a cool tip: if you're on a PC, just copy and paste the text into Word (or an Outlook email), and hit Shift+F3. Voila! Your text is translated into normal caps/lower-case format.

Christina said...

Thanks for this review. I've been following this debate and appreciate the balanced response. I had a question/confusion though:

"'[T]he road to holiness passes by way of sexual healing and integration...' What concerns me is West's insistence that the "long and painful journey" of sexual healing and integration has to precede holiness. As Mark Lowery noted back in 2001, sexual healing comes from grace—not the other way around. I AGREE, BUT THIS IS A TIMETABLE ERROR."

When I read these two paragraphs I had the odd feeling that comes when you agree with both sides of an argument, so I'm not sure I understand.

When I read West's quote I interpreted it as "in order to grow in holiness you need to increase in healing." which I've found to be true. When I read Eden's I see "In order to start healing you need Grace." which is also true.

In my life it started with God's grace prompting me to heal and grow in holiness. I accepted and began healing. The more I've allowed God to heal me the more I've been able to accept His Grace to further healing (an upward spiral). Am I misunderstanding the stance of one side?

PS. The nerd in me keeps thinking "I can write a perl script to change the format real quick!"

Christina said...

RE: Jeniffer's Word suggetion

Yes, there is always the option to NOT reinvent the wheel, but where would the fun in that be?

Marcel said...

Jen - thanks for the suggestion. I will try to work on that. It worked when I tested it!

Marcel said...

I worked on the format, I hope it helps make it more readable.

Christina - I think the point that Eden was making, which I agree with, is that God gives grace first. I don't think West would disagree - in fact, I know he wouldn't because I have heard him say the exact same thing. But, it needs to be emphasized nonetheless if it is unclear.

Steve P said...

Marcel,

Thank you for your input on Dawn's work. I look forward to reading it for myself.

Most importantly, I feel very strongly that the styles and methods of presentation, as well as TOB itself, definitely ought to be critiqued and discussed. TOB itself is a way of presenting and understanding some of the Church's core beliefs. In a paper I wrote for a TOB course, I made the following observation: that the Holy Father was inviting conversation about TOB and its subject matter, not submission to everything he had to say. For support I cited his own words in the concluding audience. "One must immediately observe, in fact, that the term “theology of the body” goes far beyond the content of the reflections presented here….
The reflections carried out consist in facing the questions raised about Humanae Vitae. The reaction the encyclical stirred up confirms the importance and difficulty of these questions. They are reaffirmed also by the further statements of Paul VI, where he emphasized the possibility of deepening the explanation of the Christian truth in this area…. [Note the “explanation”, not the veracity.]
To take up the questions raised by the encyclical means to formulate them and at the same time to seek an answer to them. The teaching contained in Familiaris Consortio asks that both the formulation of the questions and the search for an appropriate answer concentrate on the biblical and personalistic aspects. This teaching also indicates the course of the development of the theology of the body, and thus also the direction of its progressive completion and deepening. (Man and Woman [Waldstein's translation], pp. 660-661)

While not denying that the Holy Father’s words are to be taken seriously, he himself admits that there is much work to be done in better understanding and sharing the beauty of Christian Truth as it pertains to human beings and their redemption.

So in short, that is why I value West's work, Eden's critique, as well as your feedback. There is so much here to be made available and accessible to the Church and the world.

Patrick said...

Howdy Marcel,
I read your critique of Dawn Eden's thesis summary and I found several points to be unfair to her. For the sake of brevity, I only comment on the parts that I find particularly interesting. I quote her last paragraph and your response before giving my opinion. I know we differ greatly in our understanding of West. I have discussed these issues with you before and I know that you won't take any of my criticism of your criticism personally.

God bless,
Patrick Williams

"This is noteworthy because it marks the first time West has ever publicly affirmed a willingness to reflect upon his presentation, something that his critics have asked of him for nearly ten years. SHE ASSUMES HE HASN'T REFLECTED UPON HIS CRITIC'S REMARKS. THIS ISN'T TRUE, BECAUSE HE HAS CHANGED SEVERAL APPROACHES TO HIS INTERPRETATION DUE TO OTHER'S CRITICISM. I KNOW THIS FIRST-HAND, BECAUSE HE HAS CHANGED DETAILS OF HIS APPROACH FROM CONVERSATIONS I HAVE HAD WITH HIM, WHEN DISCUSSING PROBLEMS I HAVE HAD WITH HIS APPROACH. THUS EDEN CASTS WEST AS A PERSON WHO WON'T LISTEN TO REASON OR OTHERS WHO HAVE DIFFERENCES WITH HIM. THIS ISN'T THE CASE AND IS UN-FACTUAL."
I think she is drawing a distinction between changing small parts of his presentation and reflecting on the whole of it. There are errors in his approach that have existed throughout his career and as recently as his last visit to College Station, he has not corrected them in any significant way. Often these issues were even more exaggerated in recent times. I have heard the argument that he changes his presentation, but I've seen no actual evidence of this. The only changes I've seen are justifications for what he had previously said. The core concepts that have been criticized for the last decade remain intact.

"That is why I argue that his presentation on theology of the body needs to be reconciled with the "hermeneutic of continuity." That expression is drawn from the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, which stressed that the Second Vatican Council "must be understood in continuity with the great tradition of the church, and at the same time we must receive light from the Council's own doctrine for today's Church and the men of our time. The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils."
IF THIS IS THE CRUX OF HER THESIS, THEN I BELIEVE SHE WILL HAVE A DIFFICULT TIME PROVING IT. WHILE WEST TALKS ABOUT THE PROBLEMS OF THE PRE-CONCILIAR CHURCH, HE IS GENERALLY SPEAKING ABOUT THE CULTURE WITHIN THE CHURCH SURROUNDING SEXUALITY IN ADDITION TO THE LACK OF A GOOD PEDAGOGY FOR PARENTS TO TEACH THEIR CHILDREN ABOUT THE POSITIVE ASPECTS OF SEX. HE IS NOT FOCUSING ON THE DOCTRINES OF THE CHURCH. THIS IS QUITE DIFFERENT AND A DISTINCTION THAT EDEN FAILS TO SEE."
I have heard West on several occasions talk about how this is a completely new configuration of Catholic theology that touches every aspect of the creed and that some day JPII could be considered a Church Father. Whether or not he sees this as discontinuity from the Church's traditional teachings, he has set himself up to contradict the Tradition.

Patrick said...

"Nonetheless, I am willing to take that risk, because Christopher West does not present himself as a mere apologist, seeding the ground for faith via rational arguments. Nor does he present himself as merely engaging in catechesis, which, as the Holy See has stated, consists of "transmitting the Gospel, as the Christian community has received it, understands it, celebrates it, lives it and communicates it in many ways." Rather, Christopher West presents himself as the definitive interpreter of teachings of John Paul II—teachings which, as I will explain shortly, he claims "will lead to a dramatic development of thinking about the Creed." He is essaying apologetics and catechesis and theology itself. As such, his approach merits serious critical analysis by theologians—especially in light of its overwhelming popularity. I AGREE THAT HE IS NOT ABOVE SCRUTINY, BUT HE HAS NEVER SAID HE IS "THE DEFINITIVE INTERPRETER". IN FACT, HE HAS REMARKED SEVERAL TIMES, TO ME PERSONALLY AS WELL AS PUBLICLY, THAT HIS HOPE IS TO HAVE A MULTITUDE OF CATECHISTS, WRITERS, THEOLOGIANS, ETC. SPREADING TOB. FURTHERMORE, EDEN IS UNCHARITABLE IN PORTRAYING WEST WITH A ROLE THAT HE HAS NEVER TAKEN ON HIMSELF. IS HE THE MOST POPULAR SPEAKER ON TOB TODAY? CERTAINLY. BUT, THAT DOES NOT RESULT IN HIM PORTRAYING HIMSELF AS "THE DEFINITIVE INTERPRETER ON JOHN PAUL'S TEACHINGS". EDEN STEPS OUTSIDE OF AN "ACADEMIC" CRITIQUE WHEN SHE MAKES SUCH FRIVOLOUS CHARGES."
West does not have to make an explicit claim to be "the definitive interpreter" of JPII's work. We spoke about this before and as I recall, you ceded the point that he has set himself up to be the definitive interpreter if only by twice publishing his book alongside JPII's with a matching cover. The two obviously belong together. I would say that asking for more people to teach ToB is no argument for saying that West is not the definitive interpreter considering that JPII himself is the original author and often wrote in the original work that others should expand his work after him. Further evidence of this is the fact that many students at St. Mary's have told me that they "read the theology of the body" only to mean that they read West's introductory book. These people certainly considered him the definitive interpreter.

Patrick said...

"Now, one certainly doesn't have to grow up in a cult to appreciate the dangers of a puritanical approach to sexuality. However, I have found in my research that West's experiences in the Mother of God Community appear to come into play in his interpretation of John Paul II's teachings on continence. I will return to this point when I describe the particulars of West's presentation. THEY MAY APPEAR THAT WAY, BUT IS THIS REALLY CONSONANT WITH AN ACADEMIC THEOLOGICAL APPROACH TO THE TOPIC AT HAND? I WOULD ANSWER NO. WE ALL HAVE BAGGAGE IN OUR BACKGROUNDS THAT FORM US FOR GOOD OR BAD. WHAT IS OPEN TO CRITIQUE IS THE MATERIAL WE PRESENTLY ARE DEALING WITH. HER OWN EXPERIENCES HAVE FORMED HER AS WELL, WHICH SHE DETAILS IN HER BOOK."
Actually, this is consonant with an academic theological approach. Consider St. Paul and St. Augustine. St. Paul always writes against the background of his past persecutions of Christians. You can't understand why St. Augustine makes some of he claims that he does without understand his background in Manichaeism. If we see that he used a form of NFP as a contraceptive, we can see why he would be opposed to NFP completely after his conversion. I do find it very interesting that West is very forthcoming about his past when it comes to having sex with his girlfriend, but he has, to my knowledge, made no public reference to growing up in a cult since he has become a known speaker. I have heard him say on many occasions that he was brought up in a sexually repressive home and each time he made this seem like this was the norm in our society. I am often lead to believe that he is speaking more against sexual repression than sexual deviance. This is the opposite of JPII, who often states why a particular act is wrong, but then briefly mentions that his logic isn't repressive.

"1. The TOB is an all-encompassing theology that requires theologians and religious educators to recontextualize "everything" about Christian faith and life.West says, "Indeed, a 'holy fascination' with our bodies as male and female is precisely the key that opens the holy door to the divine bridal chamber, allowing us to experience what the mystics call 'nuptial union' with God." He also says, "Sex plunges us headfirst into the Christian mystery." SEX ISN'T JUST THE ACT OF SEX, BUT SEXUALITY (BEING CREATED MALE AND FEMALE). I CANNOT COMMENT MORE ON THIS WITHOUT GETTING INTO THE THESIS, WHICH I WILL NOT DO FOR THE PUBLIC. SUFFICE IT TO SAY THAT IN PARTS, WEST DOES SKATE ON THE EDGE WITH HIS APPROACH TO LITURGY AND MYSTICISM."
I noticed the same thing in that she equated sexuality with intercourse. This is the same error that West commonly makes or at least he never nuances a distinction, which leads his audience to believe that he does not make a distinction. If JPII makes any comment about sex in terms of man being male and female, West often jumps on it to make it sound like JPII is talking about the sexual act. This is most obvious in his book "The Love that Satisfies." In this book about Deus Caritas Est, when Pope Benedict uses the word "eros", West immediately takes this to be a statement about sexuality in both senses. I came away from the book thinking that the main thesis of the book was that the encyclical was about sexuality, when the point of the encyclical seemed to me (and the many theologians that I have read on the subject) the opposite. Eros could be in God because it is something that is not inherently sexual.

"10. The meaning of marriage is encapsulated in "intercourse." IT CAN BE SAID TO BE JUST SO."
In intensive studying of the theology of marriage and family in the scriptures, church fathers, church councils, and in her theologians (this includes ToB), I have only found this sort of a claim in West's work. I'd love an example.

Christina said...

Thanks Marcel, that makes sense.

Larry King said...

I strongly agree with Dawn's points.

But I also have to give a major compliment to Marcel: Your post was extremely balanced and fair. Proof: I have not read Dawn's thesis or her talk yet (although I have been intending to, and am familiar with the topic), so the excerpts you provided above were the first time I read her argument. And from these excerpts, I ended up agreeing with her and disagreeing with your critique.

An excellent and charitable discussion of an important question!

Georgette said...

Marcel, you say: Is the bar really so high? Is West saying not to get married? No. Thus, this criticism falls flat. Christ said we are all called to perfection "be ye perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect." (Matt 5:48) Does Christ call us to what is impossible?

This is true, we are ALL called to perfection, which includes perfect chastity. HOWEVER the problem with what C. West says, as Dawn Eden is pointing out, is that West claims the couples are not ready for marriage until they have reached this perfection. THAT is a grave error, not a teaching of the Church or of Christ. As Ms Eden points out, already people are marrying later and later, which is not a good thing. Christ Himself said, ...but instead of burning with lust, "it is better for them to marry than to burn with lust". 1 Corin 7:9

And that is not to say that lust dissolves magically right after marriage. But marriage is the remedy Our Lord Himself recommends in the pursuit of holiness and mastering oneself, particularly to those who "burn with lust".

Marcel said...

G - I have never heard or read any such thing from him. Can you show me where he says this? Because I have quoted from him showing the exact opposite.

Sr Anne said...

Personally, I think all positive investigation into Theology of the Body is a gain for the Church and society, which is dying for this wonderful and accessible lens into the Scriptures. We are much too early in this game to divide into parties or schools. The message is so urgent, it deserves to be investigated under all possible approaches.
To respond to a small point made by Patrick Williams that West "set himself up" as "the definitive interpreter" of JP2's thought on TOB by publishing his book with a matching cover to the text of the Holy Father's talks, Mr. West would not have had much influence on the graphic design of the book. That is the publisher's domain. From a publisher's perspective, it is only common sense to make sure that a commentary has some visual, intuitive relationship to the original, so Mr. West cannot be accused of making any claims simply on the basis of a book cover.

Sr. Lorraine said...

As the editor of C. West's book with Pauline Books, I have to second what Sr Anne says above. The book design was not his; it was PBM's. The intent was not to say C. West is the definitive interpreter, but to show how the two books connect, since his book is a commentary on the Pope's talks. It's also good marketing.