Friday, May 29, 2009

Schindler's list
Sparks fly as JP2 Institute dean raps Christopher West for errors

A guest post by FR. ANGELO MARY GEIGER F.I.

In the last couple of days, Professor David L Schindler’s critique of Christopher West as come under attack by some heavy guns, namely, Professor Janet Smith and Professor Michael Waldstein. I would like to comment only relative to the main point I made here on The Dawn Patrol last week. That point is that the very effective popularization of the theology of the body (TOB) by West has a severe liability insofar as it promises too much: it is supposed to be the bombshell that will delivered us from the death-grip of that nasty Catholic Puritanism.

I am not a scholar; while my argument with West is theological, it is not academic. West is a popularizer. He is targeting the sex-saturated masses with arguments that are largely apologetical in style and substance. It seems to me that Schindler, dean of the John Paul II Institute, is addressing West on an academic level, and he does so fairly and accurately.

That being said, it is not true, as both Smith and Waldstein claim, that Schindler does not offer sources for his arguments. He gives precise instances of remarks made by West, which he documents, and then he summarizes the problem as follows (emphasis mine}:

I offer these examples not merely because they are vulgar and in bad taste, not to mention sometimes bordering on the just plain silly, but because they indicate a disordered approach to human sexuality. An objective distortion in approaching sexuality does not cease to be such simply because it is theologized. West to be sure will point toward the “orthodox” intentions and context of the examples, but my criticism bears on the substance of his preoccupation as reflected in the examples.
It seems that Schindler is arguing that to do things like advising young men to look at their naked bodies in a mirror in order to overcome shame is an example of a “disordered approach to sexuality.” Taken together with the other examples of West's teachings, Schindler indicates a “preoccupation” West holds which, from the many blog comments I have read over the last week, seems to be a common complaint about his approach. West justifies all he says on the basis of his knowledge of the corpus of John Paul II’s TOB, including the above advice. Schindler does not seem to be impressed by this extrapolation of the pope’s teaching--this theologizing that really has nothing to do with the John Paul’s corpus of writing.

Professor Schindler then goes on to make four points about West’s theology that are problematic: 1) the distorted notion of concupiscence; 2) the inadequate notion of analogy; 3) the overly-masculine vision of shame and reverence; 4) the way in which West’s preaching style inherently and adversely affects the substance of his presentation.

With theological acumen, Schindler summarizes the concerns that have been brought up to West for years by those who have listened to his presentations or read his books. It seems to me that where there is that much smoke, there is fire. It’s not a matter of condemnation, but of critique, and the critique is sufficiently well documented to be taken seriously.

In “An Open Letter to a Concerned Listener,” dated September 2001, which was inserted into his tape set “Naked without Shame: Sex and the Christian Mystery,” West admitted, “Listening to the tapes myself, I would even admit that some of my statements could have been better nuanced in order to avoid some potential confusion.” However, he qualifies that by saying: “Though my own style and personality is evident, the essence of the message in those tapes is not my own.” But I believe it is not the essence of West’s message—that of John Paul II—that Schindler has an argument with, but with the particulars that belong to West alone, the complaints against which West has been aware of for a long time.

This brings me to a delicate topic, which in view of the highly sensitized Catholic blogosphere on this matter, I will be sticking my neck out by highlighting it. It is the question of presentation (Schindler’s fourth point), because really, it seems to me this is what the debate is all about. What do we say to sex-saturated men and women who are either barely hanging on to their faith or who have completely bought the modern prejudice against a chaste life? All along my whole point has been that West’s approach has strengths and it has liabilities. Schindler just thought it was time to be frank about it. Smith and Waldstein have called foul.

Here is the sensitive part. Schindler writes the following:
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.
If what Schindler says is true, and so far, neither Smith or Waldstein have denied it, then that, my friends, is manipulation. It may be honest and sincere. I am sure it is done with the purest intention, but it is manipulation pure and simple. I want to emphasize that it is in no way my intention to judge Christopher West, but this method of dealing with the doubt of good people just does not wash.

I have seen this kind of nonsense before and it is no good. West and his supporter just do not know how the Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of his hearers—no way, no how—unless of course we are implicitly assuming some kind of charismatic grace here, which so far I have not heard asserted. There are many secular organizations that use this kind of technique. None of them would I recommend to anyone.

I do not want to overplay the significance of this. However, since we are really focusing on a popular presentation and the means by which this is being carried out, I must point out that recourse to age-old groupthink tactics is an example of how this whole presentation promises too much and cannot deliver.

Just a couple of other particulars in regard to the critiques of Schindler by Smith and Waldstein to illustrate my point about the focus of the argument being on presentation: Smith defends West’s admonition to bless genitals:
A friend of mine who was sexually abused often finds it difficult to engage in the marital embrace (trying not to offend!). A very orthodox Catholic therapist recommended that her husband pray over her reproductive organs (being delicate here). Since he has been doing that, she has experienced some healing, and her enjoyment of the marital embrace has improved considerably.
But what the professor is talking about is private counsel directed at an individual known well by the therapist. This is not the same as general advice to be proliferated to the masses. The whole thing, again, is a matter of the “preoccupation” of the “presentation,” which is very effective, in one sense, as a way of dealing with our wounded society, but which has real liabilities that need to be acknowledged and dealt with.

The second particular I want to mention has to do with the exaggerations of prudery such as the very extreme examples offered by Waldstein and the reaction against any attempt to question the way transformation in grace is being presented.

We are told: Ignorance of the principles of TOB along with the heresy of Jansenism have led to a deep-seated Manichaeism among Catholics. Waldstein writes that early 20th-century Jesuits hid their genitals with ashes when they were bathing, while trads want women to wear black cardboard boxes. The implied solution is to bless genitals and stand naked in front of a mirror—of course, while studying TOB and praying. Is this a caricature? I certainly am not arguing for the other extreme, but I know there are some confused people out in the blogosphere.

There is no sense whatsoever, contrary to what Waldstein suggests, in which Schindler minimizes the power of transforming grace. Yes, as St. Augustine says: "Love, and then do what you want!" But transforming grace has to do with the life of perfect charity, and while the perfection of virtue leads to spontaneity in what is right and just, it is foolish to suggest to a general public that struggling with concupiscence that if they do things right, not only will they be freed from their dirty sex hang ups, but they will, in fact, live “naked without shame.” I do not know where this “holiness trumps temptation” comes from. Perhaps it is time for West and his supporters to cite some sources other than the oblique statements of John Paul II. If it is true, then let’s see the tradition.

Both Puritanism and the culture of pornography are a function of original sin. Only a thorough sacramental catechesis and a developing spiritual life are going to manage these problems. An exalted view of human sexuality is part of the solution, but it is not a panacea. We should not confuse apologetics with catechesis, let alone with theology. As I said in my earlier post, I don’t expect us all to agree on our analysis of Christopher West’s impressive work, but I do think the issues raised should be taken seriously. And even if Professors Smith and Waldstein disagree with Professor Schindler, there is no reason to criticize him for saying publicly what many people have been saying directly to West for a long time.

Just for the record, I would like to say again that I do not question anyone’s integrity or good will. But this needs to be talked about frankly and openly and in a spirit of charity. No one is being crucified and no one’s reputation is being ruined. If it is, I will have none of it, but abusus non tollit usum, the abuse does not vitiate the use. There is no reason we need to be silent about this. God bless all those in the pursuit of truth.

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