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By Brad Miner   
Monday, 30 January 2012

How do we regulate what, in his Theology of the Body, John Paul II called the “disposition of powers”: the flesh and the spirit; the lower and the higher; body and soul? The source of the tension between these apparent poles is original sin, but the late pope would have us remember that it was not always so, and – as Christopher West summarizes in his new book At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization – it is the body that makes the invisible visible. It is the medium of our salvation. “We needn’t flee from the flesh or the natural world,” he writes, “to encounter the spirit.” [Italics in the original.]

Papa Wojtyla gave us his spirituality of sexuality during Wednesday lectures given between 1979 and 1984 – 129 of them – and Mr. West has become the leading American apostle of “TOB.” Critics, such as Alice von Hildebrand, have suggested West’s presentations and promotion of sacramental sexuality have understated the dangers of concupiscence. Others, such as Janet E. Smith, have come to West’s defense. So heated did the controversy become that Mr. West took a sabbatical to rethink things, and At the Heart of the Gospel is the fruit of that reflection.

To what extent attacks on West are actually proxy criticisms of John Paul the Great’s work, I cannot say. I’m reviewing this new book and haven’t carefully studied the pope’s lectures or West’s other books (nor have I heard him speak), and I haven’t pored over all the critical thrust and parry about his interpretation of TOB.

But in an age when few Catholic books undergo vetting via the original peer-review process, At the Heart of the Gospel wears proudly its tattoo of orthodoxy: Nihil Obstat from William E. May, Ph.D.; Imprimatur from Bishop Joseph P. McFadden (Harrisburg). Dr. May is professor emeritus at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at Catholic University. His An Introduction to Moral Theology holds an honored place in my library. So our assumption is that Mr. West’s reading of John Paul’s TOB is sound in its Catholicity.

While affirming the telos of sexuality (openness to conception), Mr. West discusses the question of anal intercourse – a subject of much contention. He cites some orthodox moral theologians who almost condone it as foreplay. He personally condemns it, but finds no specific prohibition of the (heterosexual) practice in the Catechism or other Magisterial documents. The discussion is balanced and sensible. But is it necessary?  

This sort of unorthodox orthodoxy invites scrutiny, as does West’s apparently singular focus on sexuality. Theology inevitably – and properly – concerns itself with the integrated Christian life, and to some it seems West’s focus makes sex disintegrative – outsized, overwrought. When he writes in At the Heart of the Gospel that “we as bodily, sexual beings are the crown of all [God] has made” and, therefore, “our incarnate humanity as male and female reveals the divine mystery more than anything else in the created order,” you can see why eyebrows might be raised. More than anything else? More than being? More than worship? Éros – as one might conclude – more than agápe?

But in context it’s clear Mr. West does seek the integrated vision of the Christian person – vigorously so. It’s just that he sees – as did John Paul II – that Puritanism has tended to stain the, yes, purity of sexuality in married life.

“Sex” is an odd little word. Its most basic meaning is a primal duality: male or female. Its etymology is from the Latin secare, to cut – a Platonic notion that we find in the Symposium. Zeus cut humans in two, “like a sorb-apple,” the comic poet Aristophanes argues in that dialogue, and each half never ceases longing for the other. Given the character who puts forward this view, it is clearly half playful, but maybe half something more serious as well.


          Christopher West

Better, of course, is the biblical instruction in which myth is banished and divine intent is revealed: “God made them male and female.For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife],and the two shall become one flesh.” Mr. West suggests that this Christian understanding of sexuality long ago jumped the rails: TOB, he writes, “isn’t a response to the sexual revolution [of our own time], it’s a response to the Enlightenment . . . and all the disembodied anthropologies infecting the modern world.”

That’s actually a quotation (among many, some three-pages in length) from one of his earlier books – characteristic of the way Mr. West retraces the roots of and confronts the attacks on his orthodoxy. He’s right to do so. Right too in emphasizing that America’s Puritan-hedonist confusion (both embodied in Hugh Hefner!) has led too many to suppose we face a choice between angelism or animalism.

“Where does it truly lead?” Mr. West asks. To this:

Eros, properly lived and properly oriented (that’s the key!), is our sure ticket to the “ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as ‘nuptial union’” [John Paul II]. That’s what we’re created for – the bliss of eternal union with God. And that is the “true appeal of sexuality,” as Pope Benedict wrote.

Christopher West helps Catholics to rediscover the radiance that belongs in a marriage open to life, a part of which is the ecstasy of sexuality, a temporal preview of eternal bliss.

 
 
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, a senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA.
 
 
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Comments (16)Add Comment
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written by Bangwell Putt, January 30, 2012
Surely justifiable horror of disease transmission was the basis for development of sexual prohibitions and taboos. Promiscuity and male with male sexual interaction have the potential to cause terrifying diseases and that is, in fact, exactly what these practices have done "right before our eyes" so to speak. It does seem that a book focusing on the nobility of Pope John Paul's understanding of nuptial love could have dispensed with a reference to practices that are injurious to body and soul.

Alice von Hildebrand did provide a warning. (I have not read the analysis of Janet Smith.) Love as "eros," "properly lived and oriented" is the project of a lifetime. In the meantime, so many wrong paths present themselves as right ways. They provide powerful temptations to justify what one wants in every area of life; every human desire is subject to misuse.

This book may suffer from an excessively male perspective, all the caveats provided notwithstanding.

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written by Louise, January 30, 2012
"This book may suffer from an excessively male perspective" Here! Here!

I thought we had heard the last of C. W. Anyone who can make sex so doggone boring shouldn't be writing about it, IMHO, especially when he can't (or at least couldn't in his earlier book) frame his arguments with coherent, cohesive paragraphs. IMHO.
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written by jsmitty, January 30, 2012
I think the problem with Christopher West is three-fold. First, its really a theology of sex he offers and not a theology of the body. Second, he really cannot square many of his beliefs with the Christian moral tradition--the imprimatur notwithstanding-- esp. Augustine whose outsized influence he criticizes. Indeed, there is an eerie similarity between West's writings and Augustine's final rival Julian of Eclanum the semi-Pelagian. Finally, West bases much of what he says on nothing that JPII says but rather in rather free over-interpretations of things that JPII did, such as in ordering the removal of the loin cloths of some of the figures in the Sistene chapel during their restoration.

I haven't read the latest book, so I'll reserve judgment on that, but overall, like most pop-theologians, his writings need to be taken with a grain of salt. Popularity inevitably comes at the cost of eliding certain truths about sexuality that even young faithful Catholics don't want to hear.
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written by G.K. Thursday, January 30, 2012
West is an orthodox Roman Catholic, that's not really questionable (since he's never made any statements contrary to defined dogma, it's between him and his confessor). BUT, his theological opinions can still be incorrect. Strictly speaking, so might parts of Pope John Paul's writings. However, as a pop-theologian, West Is open to a broader critique than a merely academic theologian. So I think it's good that the Von Hildebrand-Smith debate happened. Is West right or wrong? The answer is probably both. Right here, wrong there, etc.

One of the services West provides is that of the confessor's manual. Among the patristic and medieval clergy, confessor's manuals provided guidance for how to conduct a proper confession and what penances were appropriate for sins confessed by a penitent. Imagine a priest, knowledgable about sex practices only through a class or two in seminary. Reading Pope John Paul II's teaching, as definitely edifying as that will be, is not of much help when a woman asks in the confessional if anal intercourse with her husband is a sin. West's book provides a moral opinion on just such practices based on some theological research, primarily from John Paul II's theology of the body. Yes, it focuses on sex, because that area often has the most asked questions about it in pastoral (including confessional) situations. Beyond that, West's book functions as a "confessee's manual", where that querulous wife can look for a (mostly) orthodox guide to Roman Catholic approaches on sex with her husband.
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written by debby, January 30, 2012
Funny you should be posting this today.....in a few hours I begin a class of middle school boys on TOB. It's a beautiful rendering of the material, age appropriate, and hopefully will equip these future priests, husbands, MEN to be Noble, Dignified and Holy in relating to others through their humanity.
The best book I have ever read on TOB, other than JP2 of course, is Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis' LOVES SACRED ORDER. It is not TOB per se, but the translation into living this work out, is in fact, TOB.
I think that our Church has many colors in Her stained glass windows.....He is the One Light gloriously shining through. C. West, Alice and her wonderful husband, Janet Smith, etc., add so much tone and depth, each vital. I have noticed that often when a person discovers the truth of personal sin and the Mercy freely bestowed, it's hard to see life any other way. I understand Brad's comment about "disintegrative" sexual focus, but knowing C.West's personal conversion story, it's easy to see why everything changed in his life when Christ made Himself known to him. So, his glass is colored this way. Louise (and all the rest of us) add our own specific tints. I am sure it was hard for someone with the innocence of St. John the Beloved to "get" Mary Magdalene or the demoniac set free in today's Gospel; certainly he could not share their contrition from the same place. Everyone who has read my comments before knows my love for the Church, so I am not implying "all opinions are equally valid" - i hope i have contributed something to this conversation.
Please pray for our kids. This world is far from suffering the scourge of Puritanical mores. I think C.West and the work of Ascension Press is sorely needed to help them.
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written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., January 30, 2012
Can we please stop using the word "Puritain" as if it something to do with sexual purity or some Manichaean distrust of the flesh. I'msure we all know that the Pruitans claimed to be pure of was any taint of Romish or extrabiblical bleif or practice still present in the Chruch of England. Talk about taking license! (Couldn't resist that!) How about Victorain instead? It's not perfect but it's a tad closer. Someone get some soap and wahs out West's mind.
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written by Tony Esolen, January 30, 2012
I also wish we'd stop associating "Puritan" with "prude." The real Puritans were pretty earthy sorts. Recall their practice of "bundling." Anyway, what really bedevils America was the prissy superiority of the blue-bloods to the Irish and Italians and their broods of children. That was a nineteenth and early twentieth century phenomenon. Of course that's to be reviled, and it is also related to the coldheartedness of pornography. I can't make any claim to place Mr. West's current work in this context...
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written by Brad Miner, January 30, 2012
A note on "Puritan": It's the word Mr. West uses. And, really, is there no latitude for conventional usage? It's obvious that West's use of the word evoked exactly what he intended; else why the comments about it?
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written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., January 30, 2012
Mr. Esolin and all, my suggestion that Mr. West is in need of the soap treament was based soley on his reportedly daring to address with affected objectivity behavior the acceptance of which has become the gateway to the acceptance by many Christians of that which which is clearly contrary to nature. We needn't be either moral theologians or anatomists to know that some things were not only not designed for certain ends but designed agaisnt those ends. Denying these truths leads to the denial of the disticnition between the natural and unnatural and thereby to the acceptance of everything. Does any of us not know otherwise practicing Catholics who while leading parish ministries also recruit people to support the legal and ecclesiastical recogntion of unholy unions? The istuation might be more dire than our fellow THC readers and EWTN might imagine. We shall in November.
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written by Dave, January 30, 2012
Ugh. Really. I mean, really. If these kinds of relations are illicit between men, what would make them licit between men and women? And do Catholics want to be known as the kind of people who ponder such things? How does such pondering advance the cause of the Gospel?

Allow me to hazard that the answer to the question as to whether this is necessary is a firm, strong No.

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written by Martinkus, January 30, 2012
Is there are a source or sources that identify:
1) the authority that John Paul II's lectures on the Theology of the Body has;
2) what in John Paul II's Theology of the Body is Divine Revelation; and
3) what in Magisterial teaching on sexuality is Divine Revelation?
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written by Brad Miner, January 30, 2012
@Matinkus: 1) John Paul II was pope and that gives all his pronouncements authority, although his Wednesday lectures are not Magisterial; for 2) and 3) you need to check Blessed John Paul's words against Scripture and the Catechism. Reading West will give you a number of insights about this.
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written by Louise, January 30, 2012
Chesterton tells us (thank you, Fr. Schall) that we should think uproariously, by which, I assume, he is referring to having a huge sense of humor and the ability to laugh uproariously at ourselves and at the absurdity of life--especially sex--in general. Maybe that's why I find C. West and the whole theology of the body or of sex or whatever so dreadfully dull. it is all so elevated and aesthetic and dull. I wonder if it ever occurred to him to ask why, if sex is such a sanctifying experience, God, with His great sense of divine humor, used pretty much the same equipment for procreation as He did for plumbing. Or, as someone more clever than I once expressed it, "Only God would put a playground in the middle of a waste disposal area." The Puritans would get a laugh out of that, I think.

I throw my ancient self on your mercy.

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written by G.K. Thursday, January 31, 2012
@Brad Miner ... A quick comment on JPII's Wednesday lectures. Although they aren't officially defined as Magisterial, they may be included in the Magisterium. It simply is not known at this point since a Pope's teaching can be part of doctrinal development in the Church and so can be magisterial prior to its being officcially defined as magisterial. Of course, the majority of a Pope's (any Pope's) writings end up being simply edifying, rather than magisterially doctrinal, but there is a large gray area in these things ...
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written by Christophe, January 31, 2012
What is Theology of the Body? Seriously. Somebody tell me in 25 words or less. There's a lot of high-falutin language involved, but it seems to have no clear definition. And how does it differ from what the Church has taught for 2,000 years? And if it is so different than perennial teaching, is that good?
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written by Aaron, February 02, 2012
Christophe:

The TOB is essentially a series of reflections on the implications of the statement in Genesis: "Let Us create man in Our own Image." It doesn't, essentially, differ from Tradition, but it offers some insights (based on Tradition and that uphold Tradition) that are important to today.

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