UPDATE, 9/28/21: Previously, in this 2010 post, I included a link to read my master's thesis on the CNA website. Since CNA is no longer hosting the thesis, I am making it available to those who request a copy via my PayPal link. Send a donation of any amount (yes, even one penny, although ten dollars would be nice) to me along with a note requesting my thesis and I'll send it to you.
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 he promotes through the Theology of the Body Institute, which trains priests and lay catechists to teach his particular interpretation of John Paul II.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.'"
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."
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—
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. Since making my defense, I've been corrected on this: It was the Consilium, which was charged by the Council Fathers with revising the Easter Vigil liturgy, that effectively anathematized the Jungian phallic interpretation of the candle immersion. The revised edition of my thesis that I have made available contains background on the Consilium's response to the Paschal Candle "phallacy," which was motivated not by prudery, but, rather, by theological considerations.]
6. "The joy of sex—in all its orgasmic grandeur—is meant to be a foretaste in some way of the joys of heaven."
7. "God created sexual desire as the power to love as he loves."
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."
10. The meaning of marriage is encapsulated in "intercourse."
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.
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."
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.
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.
West's implication that sexual desire necessarily mediates desire for God also appears clearly in 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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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?"
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.
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."
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.