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.
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.