The Catholic Thing
Desire and Design Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 14 January 2013

Humans are hardwired for sexual attraction; we are formed, bodily, to satisfy it.

To restate what’s in the Catechism: sex is good, natural, and mostly licit in marriage. Still, we’re still left with impulses, programmed by instinct and reinforced (or perverted) by years and years of exposure to cultural expressions of sexuality.

And as I began reading Christopher West’s new book, Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing, I thought to keep a pad and pencil at hand to count the number of times during the week that I would encounter images of sexuality: in media, on the street, at the gym, even in church. I didn’t do it, but if I had the incidences would be numerous. And you can’t look at sex-obsessed America without conjuring that fine catechetical word: disordered.

West quotes Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete to the effect that “human sexuality is the human heart’s yearning for infinity.” And yet (quoting Mr. West now) the big mistake we make is in thinking “that sexual activity is in itself our ultimate fulfillment.” That may be an overstatement, but sex certainly is a staple.

Indeed, West uses analogies to nourishment to put sex into what he considers a proper context: starvation diet, fast food, and a banquet.

By starvation he means renunciation: “sex is bad.” He cites the singer Madonna’s experience of childhood repression, which led a nice Catholic girl to make a career out of being naughty. She binges, you might say. The irony is that because she was taught that sexual longing is depraved, she became depraved. She tries to sate herself, but she’s always starving.

Then there are the folks fed up, you might say, with starving, who go for the junk food, and there’s plenty of it. This is, I gather, the opposite of Madonna’s problem. Sex to junk junkies is always good, which, according to West, is only half bad.

Victoria’s Secret-style soft-porn ads improperly tap into a proper longing: “although the marketing industry misdirects human desire, it still understands that we are embodied creatures of desire.” [Emphasis in the original.]

The banquet is different. This is a prayerful meal, you might say, a mystic feast: “an ecstasy of [divine] love and union only dimly foreshadowed in the ecstasy of love and union that spouses know here on earth.” (Much of the chapter on “The Banquet,” by the way, is an extended gastronomic meditation on the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast.) And here we get the gist of Mr. West’s work:

We encounter spiritual mysteries not by rejecting the pleasures of the physical world, but by entering into these pleasures in the right way. [Again, emphasis in the original.] . . . As we learn the proper rhythm of fasting and feasting, the joys of the senses become not an occasion of sin, but  . . . of grace.
As Saint Augustine wrote: Christian pleasure is “having everything you want and wanting nothing wrongly.” 

Allegory of Chastity by Hans Memling, 1475

Mr. West has dedicated himself to explicating John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” which simply stated is this: “Human sexual desire as God created it to be is something profoundly dignified and noble.” [As always, West’s emphasis.]

It’s a noble effort – rescuing human sexuality from the Jansenists. Much of Christopher West’s apostolate involves seminars on TOB, as it’s known, and some of his writing clearly derives from oral presentations. This is not always for the better on the printed page. He quotes James (5:7-8) on patience in the spiritual life and explains:

It’s in this waiting that our desires are stre-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-etched. Oh! It’s painful! Our prayer, our waiting, becomes a lifelong groan.

Or again: “If God is speaking to us through the natural world, then it’s clear that one of his favorite subjects is mating and fertility, coupling and life-givingness.” God has favorite subjects? He prefers those Mr. West has listed rather than, say, calculus or geology? Okay, so I’m joking and West is not, but his zeal to assure us of the goodness of sex relies too much on zest in popularizing, which often serves up empty literary and theological calories. In West’s many citations of pop culture, how many, on their own terms, are truly Christian? 

Mr. West is earnest about the way male and female bodies in union represent Creator and creation, Christ and the Church. Sexual intercourse can be a mystical experience. There is a “code” written into our bodies and our desires, and Christian marriage offers a way to unify those desires with God’s desire for our salvation.

I just wish the word renunciation popped up now and then in Fill These Hearts.

But Fill These Hearts is not a marriage manual, and there are no references to specific sexual actions. There is a fair amount of Biblical exegesis, some of it interesting. But I imagine a couple driving home from one of West’s TOB seminars and, after some hours and miles of silence, turning to one another to say simultaneously: “What exactly are we supposed to do?”

One thing really struck me though. Mr. West describes a conversation he and his wife had about why their marriage seems better. He says:

“I think I’ve been realizing  . . . you can’t satisfy me.”

She replies:

“And I’ve been realizing the same thing . . .”

This is Good News manifest: theirs is a marriage that puts Christ at the center.

Still, I have to say that, whereas it’s good to liberate married couples for the fullness of love, there’s the potential here for an undisciplined interpretation of sexuality, which is not what John Paul II intended.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Bangwell Putt, January 14, 2013
The catholic news agency web site posted on July 21, 2010, comments by Alice von Hildebrand, taken from her paper entitled: "Dietrich von Hildebrand, Catholic Philosopher, and Christopher West, Modern Enthusiast: Two Very Different Approaches to Love, Marriage, and Sex".

"The paper contrasts West's 'loose' language with her husband's approach in which he 'carefully chose the words he used when referring to the mysteries of our faith or to things that are intimate and sacred.'

She adds that 'Christopher West has much to offer the Church but only if he can present The Theology of the Body according to the traditions of the Church, and liberate himself from the wayward enthusiasms of our time.'

A google search for "Alice von Hildebrand Christopher West" will bring up a link to the entire paper.

This post reflects similar concerns to those expressed in the von Hildebrand paper, stated "between the lines" so to speak.

written by Brad Miner, January 14, 2013
Mr. Putt's comment is apropos, given today's Notable item at this site.
written by Manfred, January 14, 2013
Thank you for bringing this subject up, Brad. Every marketer knows that "sex sells". That is one reason why we live in a world of soft porn (as well as hard porn). The one subject the marketer never introduces is the subject of:PREGNANCY. That is because the main reason we live in a porn world is that almost everyone, including Catholics(?), contracepts. One of the reasons people have traditionally married was to assist each other with CONCUPISCENCE,("It is better to marry than to burn." St.Paul), the effect of Original Sin which remains with us through our lives and leads us to temptation. This emphasis on sexuality has resulted in 50% of American children being born out of wedlock, and one million plus being aborted each year. True Catholics have referred to human sexuality over the centuries as The Beast and a Jesuit (when they were Catholic) retreat would discuss "disciplining the eyes". I chuckled when you referred to Jansenism, Brad. Those days are long gone. The Blessed Mother said to Lucia of Fatima (remember that Lucia's role was simply a messenger)"Most people are in Hell due to sins of the flesh."
written by Briana, January 14, 2013 of the great mysteries of life: What is the purpose in naming a business Victoria's Secret when their merchandise leaves nothing to the imagination?
written by petebrown, January 14, 2013
Yes, indeed Brad. Christopher West is a popularizer and like all popularizers, in the desire to sell books and generate speaking appearances, he cuts corners intellectually. I haven't read the book you are reviewing but I found the earlier TOB which presented itself as a commentary on JPII's Wednesday audiences to be rather tendentious at times. According to West, we know alot about JPII's theology of sex not based on anything he has said or written but based on the fact that he ordered the loin cloths removed from the Sistine Chapel figures during the recent restoration.

Perhaps without knowing it, West rejects the Augustinian interpretation of original sin while adopting a view himself that is eerily reminiscent of the semi-Pelagian Julian of Eclanum who was Augustine's bete noir.

I give some credit to West. Popularizing the Church's doctrines on sexuality is not easy and he has done far better at it than most--though partly by subtly distorting those same doctrines. Hopefully his work will give rise to better iterations by more subtle thinkers later. And just as Catholic apologists are not good theologians but can at least get rank and file Catholics interested in learning more about the Church, I think the net effect of West is positive.

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