Thursday, May 14, 2009

Christopher West's blind spot
TOB has to be seen through Church's historical teachings
A guest post by FR. ANGELO GEIGER F.I.

I would like to thank Dawn Eden for the opportunity to guest post. It's a real privilege.

These blog critiques of popular ideas almost inevitably get derailed by the irritation caused on both sides. I see that Mark Shea has seen it necessary to end the courtroom proceedings being conducted on his blog. It is likely to turn into something like a Harry Potter debate: the Chris West Haters vs. the Chris West Groupies. Eventually we won't even remember the real issues at hand.

I can't speak for everyone, but I have never questioned the orthodoxy or the intellectual honesty of Christopher West or any of the popularizers of the theology of the body (TOB), but since when does a person's uprightness and good intentions put their ideas beyond critique? He is a well known writer and speaker, whose subject matter is sensitive, and as one who speaks to the masses, he is looking for the easiest and most effective way to communicate difficult and sensitive ideas. Some of the things he says about sex, regardless of what he actually means, are inherently controversial.

The problem is that sometimes the combox is too easy a place to lock and load, fire and reload. But the sword cuts both ways: I am not out to sentence and execute Chris West, so don't suggest that a critique of his thought, even if you disagree with that critique, is an effort to, in Shea's words, "bayonet our own troops."

When I read the Nightline interview online and saw West making a comparison between the pope and the playboy, it just confirmed for me the existence of a problem I had addressed in several other posts on my own blog not long before. In summary the problem consists in West's interpretation of the past and the future and the way in which the present age of TOB is the hermeneutical key for both.

West agrees explicitly with the diagnosis of Hugh Hefner as to the disease that afflicts us with respect to sexuality, namely "our puritan heritage." He disagrees with Hefner's proposed cure, namely, pornography and lust. He proposes, with George Weigel, TOB as a "theological time bomb" that addresses both the disease and the false cure. But this implies that before TOB the Church's position was puritanical. I know West's position is actually more nuanced than this, and that his method is apologetical, aimed at those who have never heard the Church's teaching, but the fact is that puritanism is not the real disease afflicting our sexuality. The real disease is original sin. Both puritanism and pornographic lust are a function of fallen nature.

West is easily interpreted as suggesting that without TOB Catholics have never had any clear vision of what God's intention for human sexuality was from the beginning. Otherwise, would he not make a greater effort to teach chastity with a hermeneutic of continuity instead of concentrating almost exclusively on a very narrow part of magisterial teaching on human sexuality? It seems he is suggesting that our past has been clouded by puritanism because we did not have TOB, and our future will be the age of the love banquet because we do.

Is my interpretation of West a bit facile? But this is the problem with trying to popularize a work of deep theology and philosophy. It is not even clear to me whether West is engaged in apologetics or catechesis. The two are not the same thing. Apologetics is a kind of preamble to catechesis that elicits the assent of faith in respect to difficult truths by way of arguments that are easily understood and appealing to someone who has no basic understanding of revelation. Catechesis is sacramental preparation or ongoing education, based on faith already elicited.

Granted, the two overlap: Catechumens will often have to come to terms with issues they have a hard time with before their initial catechesis is completed, but apologetical explanations are not sufficient to complete a catechesis. If a new vision of human sexuality gets them in the door, only the tradition of the ages will get them to the sanctuary. In either case, TOB is not easily distilled to those who are relatively uninitiated.

The fact is the fundamental problem with human sexuality, even in the Victorian age and that of the sexual revolution is original sin. West acknowledges the fact of original sin when he says:

Of course, on this side of heaven, we will always be able to recognize a battle in our hearts between love and lust. Only in eternity will the battle cease, as will marriage as we know it.
But he says this only in passing. His real point is the following:
There will be no renewal of the Church and the world without a renewal of marriage and the family. And there will be no renewal of marriage and the family without a return to the full truth of the Christian sexual ethic. This will not happen, however, unless we can find a compelling way to demonstrate to the modern world that the biblical vision of sexuality is not the prudish list of prohibitions it is so often assumed to be, but rather it is the banquet of love for which we so desperately yearn.
West is right that many do assume that the Church's "vision of sexuality" is a "prudish list of prohibitions," but the vast majority of people today assume that the prohibition of fornication, contraception and soft-core pornography is prudish. Is Hefner really a pornographer because of prudery, or is perhaps the "Playboy Philosophy" just a obsessive rationalization for lust? I am not saying that prudery was not a factor in Hefner's life, but it simply does not account for the extent of his monumentally prurient behavior. So is prudery the real problem? I think our real work is not to show how TOB rescued the biblical vision of sexuality, but to show how the teaching of the Church in general has been misinterpreted.

I said that my problem with West's presentation is his interpretation of the past and the future and the way in which the present age of TOB is the hermeneutical key for both. What I mean is that his fundamental interpretation of the past is prudery and his fundamental interpretation of the future is something akin to original innocence. Original sin gets lost in the shuffle. The message is that we've got to be positive. "Think good thoughts via TOB," we are told, "and everything will settle down."

It's not going to happen. It's not.

West often uses a story that illustrates his point in an excellent manner. It also illustrates mine. It is the story of the two bishops and the prostitute. The bishops both see a scantily clad prostitute who is displaying her wares for all to see. One bishop mortifies his eyes, the other, West says, "looks at her intently." When the first rebukes the second, the offending bishop replies: "How tragic that such beauty is being sold to the lusts of men." West says that both bishops behaved appropriately. The first turned away, because he was at a level of spiritual development where concupiscence still had a hold on him. The other looked at the half naked seductress and rejoiced in her beauty because he had moved beyond concupiscence. It's a two-step procedure, you see.

West is careful to qualify his meaning:
I am not suggesting that the average man should look for opportunities to test his purity by gazing upon scantily clad women. Indeed the large majority of men must heed the Old Testament admonition to "turn away your eyes."
Even so, West clearly suggests that those who are more advanced will find a kind of state of original innocence, and one based on knowledge of TOB. But as West knows shame is not fundamentally a function of prudery, but of the effect of original sin. And prudery is not primarily a function of theoretical Manicheanism, but of internal conflicts borne of original sin. Very few Catholics, in my experience, who have an excessive morbid focus on sexual sin believe that either the body or sex are evil. The problem is not fundamentally theoretical or related, as Hefner claims, to the fact that people don't get hugged often enough. The problem is complex and related to a fallen nature, a nature that, though redeemed, will never achieve original innocence without an extraordinary grace.

These problems are not going to be cured by some presumed new vision revealed or restored by a single pope. "Mature Christian purity" does not look like the example of the second bishop and not that of the first. Dr. Alice von Hildebrand is right when she says that West's line of thinking is dangerous and he is dealing with something more difficult than he seems to realize.

In the end, perhaps Christopher West is propounding apologetics more than catechesis and theology. He is a brilliant apologist and his work to get sex-saturated men of the world through the door is impressive, but one should not discount von Hildebrand's horror with the edgy talk. This method has its liabilities.

Does the average man really benefit by more talk about sex? He probably thinks he does. "Yes, more of it. How could it ever be enough when it is so holy?"

Come on. Do we really need to think about all the alleged sexual imagery in the liturgy, like the phallic symbolism of the paschal candle that West touts? Is this really the level on which the transformation is going to take place? Apologetics is not enough. A singular focus on one narrow corpus of magisterial teaching is not going to do the trick, as TOB expert and author Father José Granados notes:
"Moreover, one of the results of the sexual revolution is precisely the pansexualism that surrounds our society. We cannot respond with a different kind of pansexualism, with a sort of 'Catholic sexual revolution,' which in the end promotes a similar obsession with sex, even if 'holy.'"
I don't expect Christopher West and his most fervent disciples to agree with me on this, but I certainly hope they recognize that the liabilities of their approach are real and need to be dealt with, not simply by refutationof the position represented here, but by means of greater care in their presentation. There should be less sex talk and broader catechetical, sacramental and spiritual formation. All of this should be done with a hermeneutic of continuity, not with a hermeneutic of TOB.

Father Angelo Geiger, a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, blogs at

RELATED: Jimmy Akin adds his two cents.