Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Striptease on the altar
Christopher West's YouTube oeuvre

Christopher West, the popular author who speaks on Pope John Paul II's theology of the body, has yet to make his promised public statement following criticisms from his former mentor Dr. David Schindler, but defenders such as Profs. Janet Smith and Michael Waldstein have. They and others who unconditionally support West's approach assert that his critics have judged him based on his ABC "Nightline" interview, which was heavily edited, and are ignoring his larger body of work. (West's statement on the "Nightline" interview is here; an index to recent articles by his supporters and critics is here.)

West is often credited with helping bring many people into the Church, and, as I have often said, I am one of them. It was his Good News About Sex and Marriage, given me by a Catholic seminarian, that showed me for the first time how the Church's teachings answered the longings of my heart. So, on the one hand, I cannot help but agree with those who say his work has borne much good fruit.

At the same time, as I have acquired more knowledge of the Faith, I have become increasingly concerned that, in trying to popularize the late Holy Father's teachings, West is unwittingly elucidating a theology that is more Christopher than John Paul.

West's supporters are right in that his approach cannot be judged adequately unless one has read it and witnessed it. So I would advise those who are following the current discussion to read his books, particularly the most popular one, Good News About Sex and Marriage, and to watch and listen to his talks. It is easy to get a feel for his speaking style without leaving home, as his fans have posted dozens of videos of him on YouTube.

I have watched nearly all the videos and found many that reminded me of why I was attracted to West's writings in the first place. For example, in this short clip titled "Sexual Healing: From Marvin Gaye to John Paul II," West makes important and, I think, perfectly orthodox points about what the word "sexuality" meant to the late Holy Father—and does so with humor.

However, there are other clips on YouTube that I find problematic, such as the following one, posted in January of this year. The first line, which is cut off at the beginning, is, "Look at Paul's body."

In West's defense, he had no idea that the man he called up to be ogled in front of the altar would take off his blazer like a male stripper. But he is responsible for his own actions as he urges the audience to look at the man's body and, with an air of gentle mockery, calls them to account for their discomfort.

This episode is identical to one described last year by a letter-writer to The Remnant that the newspaper's editor, Michael J. Matt, included in an April 2008 article on West:

Right there in front of the Blessed Sacrament, Christopher West had a young man stand up, and he said: “Look at Jim’s body.” When the audience (men and women, married and single) started to giggle and get uncomfortable, he said that this was the wrong response. Mr. West felt that we should be perfectly comfortable with the idea of looking at someone’s body. I disagreed wholeheartedly because I felt this was our natural modesty calling on us to protect ourselves and the person standing before us. The guy who was standing there was actually blushing! Mr. West said that if someone says “look at Jim”, no one would laugh, and so we were basically being prudish (in the bad Jansenist/Manichean sense) when we laugh at his suggestion to look at the body.

There is no question that audiences by and large love West, especially youths. I believe the reactions of the teenagers in the following video are typical.

Yet, I cannot help but be disconcerted by certain comments the youths make during the clip, particularly one by the girl who speaks at 2:31.

The teen says, "Absolutely amazing. I was just really struck by how prayerful he was, like, especially at the beginning, blessing us all."

She demonstrates by making the Sign of the Cross as a priest does.

According to Catholic Answers, only a person who is in spiritual authority may bestow a blessing. Parents, then, may bless their children, as they did in biblical times, because they are the heads of the domestic church. Beyond parents, however, it appears—and please, canon law experts, correct me if I am wrong—that the only people the Church authorizes to give blessings are deacons and priests.

So, assuming the girl is recounting his actions accurately, West, in blessing the crowd, is imputing to himself a spiritual authority that the Church teaches does not belong to him. This takes me back to my concern, which Schindler has also expressed, that West claims to possess a special gift of the Holy Spirit.

I do not doubt that the Holy Spirit has enabled West to bear good fruit for the Church. But, as it says in the Gospels, it can happen that the wheat gets mixed with the tares. Great accomplishments and great intentions do not equal infallibility.

Your thoughts welcomed.