On June 3, the Personalist Project hosted a talk by Franciscan University of Steubenville Prof. Michael J. Healy called "Dietrich von Hildebrand on Human Sexuality," with a response by Christopher West. The talk was highly anticipated because West, the leading popular speaker and author on Pope John Paul II's theology of the body (TOB), had recently come under criticism sparked by his recent appearance on ABC News' "Nightline." (For an even-handed selection of articles by West's critics and defenders, see Headline Bistro's "Following the Discussion on JPII's Theology of the Body." For West's clarification of his "Nightline" appearance, which he says was presented with "editorial comments which may appear misleading," see his Web site.)
The Personalist Project's Web site now features audio from the June 3 discussion and the question-and-answer session that followed. One section of the Q&A particularly struck me for what it revealed about West's response to those who question his using graphic sexual language in his talks at churches and in front of minors.
I have transcribed the question and West's answer to the best of my ability, and offer them here with my comments. Your thoughts are welcomed. Audio of the entire Q&A segment may be found here. The question below appears about two-thirds of the way into the recording:
Q: Just as a follow-up, if I could, one of the things I also wanted to address was something along the lines of what isn't prudish. For example, one of the things, if I could bring that example to you, Christopher -- it' s not to attack you in any way -- but when you had given a talk at our church, uh, in Lancaster three years ago, you read openly from [the future Pope John Paul II's 1957 book] Love and Responsibility --
West: "About mutual climax."
Q: "And there were even teenagers that were there. I don't believe mine were there, thanks be to God, but I found that very uncomfortable. And then when I expressed that to certain people, I was again called prudish and puritanical. Is that -- would you consider that prudish or puritanical, that me or anyone else who was there, in that, in that setting, would consider that, um --"
West: "I could understand why some might feel uncomfortable with that. But I would just encourage you to take to the Lord your heart. Say -- and, and -- just say, 'Lord, why did I find that uncomfortable?'
"Not that you -- He might say, 'Because that's your particular sensibility, and, and you should have no problem with that. Be totally fine there.'
"But we need to crack open what goes on in our hearts and let the light of the Lord in there. And my experience has been, and it's not gonna be everybody's experience, but that that quote which I share and don't hesitate to share often and repeatedly, including on ABC News, gives people a 'Wow, the Catholic Church isn't what I thought it to be, and the Pope is, here he is, back in the 1950s, he wasn't ashamed to talk about it. He wasn't ashamed to, to share this. We -- people need to know that. And this might be the only opportunity for people to know that John Paul II wasn't afraid to talk about these things.
"So, uh, I understand the sensitivity, and I'm not here to condemn you for it in the least. I would encourage you, like I encourage everyone, just take that, whatever it is, a discomfort, a pain, a fear, whatever it might be, I don't know -- say, 'Lord, shine your light upon it and show me what this is and why I feel this way.' And I think he will."
I am often favorably impressed with West's interpretation of the TOB and believe that in the above instance, as always, he is acting as a faithful Catholic who believes he is speaking the truth in love. However, the exchange strikes me as an example of what Dr. David Schindler calls a theological problem in West's style of preaching. In essence, West seems to present himself as a go-to source for Holy Spirit guidance. In the exchange above, he even presumes to know what the Lord might say in reply to the questioner's prayer.
In Schindler's words, "West often tends to treat resistance to the content of his lectures, for example during the question periods, as matters of resistance to the Holy Spirit (to the Spirit now speaking in and through West's 'charism'), urging questioners to pray to overcome the fear induced in them by their bad theological-spiritual formation. Well-balanced persons have spoken of how West makes them feel a sense of guilt, of resistance to the Holy Spirit, if they experience uneasiness about what he is saying."