New Sherwood

Christopher West under the microscope

It’s hard to know where to begin critiquing Christopher West and his version of Pope John Paul II’s so-called “theology of the body”.  It takes a great deal of effort to pin down the errors precisely – more effort than I personally have time for. As with most heresies, the lie is always protected by many layers of truth, and these layers serve to intimidate, and perhaps deceive, many outstanding Catholics who are anxious to defend anything that looks like orthodoxy.

A recently televised interview with Christopher West has put the “theology of the body” (henceforth TOB)  in the national spotlight, prompting Dr. Alice von Hildebrand – who with her husband was an intellectual forerunner of TOB – to issue a stinging rebuke to Mr. West for his lack of modesty in presenting the subject. Other, milder crticisms have been posted in the Catholic blogosphere, none of them really getting into the doctrinal, theological, and spiritual  problems associated with TOB itself.

Arturo Vasquez, the author of an eclectic blog titled Reditus, is an exception. In an article titled “Theology of the Body as Realized Eschatology”, he traces the problem directly to the late pontiff, which suggests that it may be unfair to blame Christopher West for the flaws in TOB, real or perceived.

I haven’t read much of JPII’s work on this topic. “Love and Responsibility” is thick reading, and it sits on my bookshelf unfinished, collecting dust. I picked it up a few times and just didn’t feel like I was getting good mileage out of it. There is really no possibility of this kind of work ever becoming mainstream – nothing wrong with that –  so ordinary Catholics must rely upon the distillations offered by Christopher West, Greg Popcak, and other TOB luminaries.

Here’s a little sniff test Catholics can use to determine whether some new teaching might be challenged in the orthodoxy department. If the new teaching makes the apostles, doctors and saints of the Church look like misguided fools, then the new teaching probably ought to be questioned. Therefore, when you read something like this

“According to John Paul II, coming to understand God’s plan for sex – and by that I mean coming to understand God’s plan for creating us as male and female and calling the two to become ‘one flesh’ – is essential if we are to understand who God is and what his eternal plan is for us. In other words, it’s essential if we are to understand what the Gospel is actually all about – what it promises, how it challenges us, and what it leads us to believe in and hope for both in this life and the next.”

… you may conclude that the author, at minimum, is not yet a reliable catechist. The great apostles and evangelists converted millions without the help of TOB – without first explaining “God’s plan for sex” in graphic detail to the multitudes.  Legions of young saints understood “what the Gospel was actually all about” before learning the first thing about sex.

Everyone agrees that the Christian does need to understand human sexuality correctly. But the more you get into Christopher West’s writings, the more you find that understanding, for him, is linked to experience. If  Mr. West acknowledges somewhere that one may fully understand “God’s plan for sex” apart from actually experiencing the marital embrace [update: in fairness, he does acknowledge this], it is lost in the overall impression of his message.

Furthermore, human sexuality is a reflection of divine love, not the other way around. It would be more accurate to say that one cannot possibly understand “God’s plan for sex” until one first understands “what the Gospel is actually about” – until one has experienced the Gospel in his own life.

Marital sexuality is indeed a reflection of divine love, but it is not the only reflection by a long shot. Love has many expressions apart from sexual intimacy – expressions which are, for that matter, much more easily understood. A husband and wife might enjoy the pleasures of the nuptial bed without love, and I’m afraid that many do. But is it possible that St. Francis did not love the lepers he kissed? Is it possible that St. Maximilian Kolbe did not love Franciszek Gajowniczek, for whom he gave his life? Is it possible that St. Maria Goretti did not love her murderer, whom she pardoned and converted by her prayers? No – these are unmistakable as acts of love, perfectly intelligible without any reference whatsoever to “God’s plan for sex”.

So we have, in the popularization of TOB, a gross exaggeration of the sexual dimension of Christian life. Given the times in which we live I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised.

An even larger problem with TOB is that it cuts the ascetical heart out of Catholicism . If the marital embrace is so all-important to understanding the Gospel, then there is little justification for the kind of sexual asceticism practiced by so many saints over the centuries, beginning with the voluntary celibacy of Mary and Joseph, of Saint Peter, of the holy monks and virgins who renounced marriage in imitation of St. Paul, who taught that it was good for a man never to “touch” a woman.  Examples could be multiplied. The logical consequence of TOB is a married priesthood and the abolition of celibate religious life. In other words, Protestantism.

There are other errors constantly spread throughout Catholic TOB-land. The idea that the Catholic Church, for 2000 years, taught that the body was evil and sex was sinful until JPII and TOB came along, is one of the more patently offensive of these errors. TOB also seems to be joined at the hip with other problematic movements in the Church, such as NFP-as-birth-control and Attachment Parenting, both of which mitigate powerfully against Catholics having large families.

Having said all of this, I want to acknowledge that Christopher West and his supporters have done some good and valuable work. I have no reason, at this point, to think he is anything but a sincere (and talented) Catholic attempting to promulgate the truth as he knows it, following the lead of a pope he greatly admires. Many people have said they have been helped by his books and lectures, and I believe them. Perhaps the latest controversy will help Mr. West refine and purify his message.

May 15, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

48 Comments »

  1. Amen and amen, Jeff!

    While I have no vendetta against West, Popcak and Co., I’ve watched and listened, with sadness and increasing frustration, as each of these so-called “luminaries” have espoused their flawed theologies, misleading millions. Well-intentioned or not, there seems to be little apology, until words are flying thick and fast from both sides; and then no apology…only recrimination against those of us who refuse to embrace heresy.

    Here’s an interesting quote from Emil Ludwig’s Dr. Freud:

    …Freud’s scientific label permits the nicest girl to discuss intimate sexual details with any man, the two stimulating each other erotically during the talk while wearing poker faces, and at the same time proving themselves learned and liberated. What a convenience in Puritan America!

    This was written in 1947. Gone is Puritan America! Substitute the words “learned and liberated” with “pious and holy” and I believe we have the same phenomenon with TOB.

    Thanks Jeff…charitably written, as always!

    Comment by Kimberly | May 15, 2009 | Reply

  2. This sentence made things very clear to me…”human sexuality is a reflection of divine love, not the other way around. ”

    I wonder what is wrong with Attachment Parenting though. I’ve raised eight children so far, co-sleeping, on demand nursing, homeschooling etc. It was do-able. The only philosophy I find of theirs that I don’t agree with is their ideas about discipline.

    Comment by R. Long | May 15, 2009 | Reply

  3. I read Love and Responsibility many years ago before I was married and it has been helpful to me.

    But what I undersand West to be talking about is not fundamentaly the theology of Love and Responsibility, but the theology developed by Pope John Paul in a series of Wednesday audiences given in the late 70’s and early 80s. they can be found here:

    http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/audiences/catechesis_genesis/index.htm

    All of the thoughts of John Paul on the issues of marriage and family are of course related, but the “theological revolution” that West speaks of are these speeches. What John Paul essentially does is apply the hermeneutic of 20th century phenomenological thought to the creation accounts in Genesis. It is insightful analysis. It shows that a non-thomistic philosophical analysis of Genesis can be used to reach the same conclusions that Paul VI reached in Humanae Vitae using a more familiar natrual-law analysis.

    TOB, then is a new method that reaches old conclusions. What bothers me most about West is his assertion that TOB is revolutionary. I can’t see this since the conclusions are unchanged from earlier teaching and the propositional content of moral teaching is unchanged. For the layman especially a change in theological method is really irrelevant to how he lives. We are not theologians.

    But even the method is not all that new. I recently read a sermon by St, John Chrysostom on Ephesians 5:22-24 that sounded A LOT like TOB , and it was written in the fourth century. You can read it here:

    http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/230120.htm

    I agree with a lot of your concerns, but like your earlier commenter, we have had good success with attachment parenting–and we just had our 9th last month.

    Comment by ben | May 16, 2009 | Reply

  4. Jeff, I really appreciate what you are saying, and like R. Long, that one sentence does say all that needed to be said. But to say that West’s work supports the Catholic Church giving up celibate priesthood is an awfully big leap of logic. I think perhaps you are making a bit of a mountain out a molehill. Part of what West appears to be doing is to show people that the Catholic teachings on sex and marriage are not all about NO, but about YES! Yes to God and yes to each other. Considering that the culture has taught people to use each other for pleasure instead, I still think he has a place. May I humbly suggest you read the Theology of the Body audiences at the link provided by Ben? I really wonder if you might be chomping at the bit a little too much. I know you are a convert and have been in the trenches much of your life, but you surely realize that everyone does not convert in the same way? I have heard people use your reasoning before, that meeting people at their level is not what we should be doing, and that meeting the level of standards the Church teaches is what brought you to the Church. There are many people who say that. But there are others who will come around through the West door, and that’s a better place than where they were before.
    I guess I am just asking you to keep your judgements sound and logical, and not leap to conclusions that might be unfair. I strongly doubt Mr. West is promoting changes in Church teaching.
    God bless you!

    Comment by Ann Marie | May 16, 2009 | Reply

  5. I don’t know a whole lot about this, but Jeff restrained himself from even mentioning in detail West’s remarks about Hugh Hefner. Perhaps we can all agree that those were over-the-top and misguided?

    Comment by Lydia | May 16, 2009 | Reply

  6. Thank you, everyone, for the comments and suggestions. Briefly…

    R. Long and Ben: Attachment Parenting has some good ideas, and we incorporate some of them ourselves. But the whole package tends to exhaust parents (esp mothers) and lead to overinduldged and undisciplined children. (YOUR well-behaved children, Mrs. Long, are absolutely NOT typical in my experience!) Because of this, parents exhausted by AP have all the justification they need for using NFP to limit the number of children conceived.

    Ann Marie: I do appreciate your comments. Yes, I could be “chomping at the bit too much”, but I’m calling it as I see it. I think the danger that TOB (West’s version) poses to the Faith is very real. I don’t think it is at all a stretch to say that TOB will be used (if it hasn’t been used already) to agitate for dropping the celibacy requirement. Why should priests – teachers of the Faith! – be deprived of an experience which is so ***absolutely central*** to understanding the Gospel? I also think TOB poses a grave threat to Christian marriages. If your marriage isn’t sufficiently focused on the bedroom, well, there must be something wrong with your marriage or your faith! Finally, I think TOB’s emphasis on saying “yes” instead of “no” to sexual desire is a big, big problem. Christian sexual mores require both “yes” and “no”. In fact there cannot be a “yes” without a “no”. And more than ever before, today’s Catholics need to learn the “no” half of that equation. The majority of us have got the “yes” down pretty good. TOB gives the impression, anyway, that marriage is a license for unbridled sexual passion – a notion which obviously has nothing to do with Catholic morality.

    Comment by Blogmaster | May 16, 2009 | Reply

    • I’ve listened to West’s CD’s 10 times if I’ve listened once and read the original audiences by JPII and Love and Responsibility, and like JPII, West gives a full and loving treatment of virginity for the kingdom and no one can use what he writes or says to do away with celibacy. Period.

      Comment by Virginia Fisher Murdoch | May 30, 2009 | Reply

  7. Ben: Congratulations on your 9th!!

    Comment by Blogmaster | May 16, 2009 | Reply

  8. When I said Yes, instead of No, I meant a yes to life, yes to children. Again, I’d say keep reading, but I do get what you are saying. I would not have seen this side of an argument I didn’t know existed if I didn’t read your blog.

    Comment by Ann Marie | May 17, 2009 | Reply

  9. I think I agree with Mr. Culbreath’s statement of the issue. I have not read extensively about the Theology of the Body, but I certainly have heard from others that it is NECESSARY to understand the Faith (which seems like Spirit of Vatican IIism, except it places the beginning of the Church in the ’80s rather than the ’60s). It seems to me that it is beloved by a certain type of conservative Catholic.

    I don’t have much of an intellectual argument here, but I can say this: as a young engaged man my fiancee and I have had to do marriage prep classes, some of which used Mr. West’s taped lectures, and others of which were certainly infused with TOBish ideas. I have wondered the whole time whether there is much there.

    What I mean is that I have a kind of naturally “trad” reaction to it. My great-great-grandparents had twelve children. My great grandparents had seven (they were married late, both aged 30). I think they probably understood the place of sex in their marriages just fine, and yet I can’t imagine that they ever talked about it with people besides their spouse (or a priest in confession if they ever sinned in those areas). I believe that the focus on sex among “TOBists” simultaneously over-eroticizes marriage and de-eroticizes sex. It makes sex seem the central point of marriage, and yet makes sex sound relatively unappetizing.

    Which I guess is a long way of saying “I don’t really get it, but I don’t think I like it.”

    Comment by Daniel A. | May 17, 2009 | Reply

  10. I believe that the focus on sex among “TOBists” simultaneously over-eroticizes marriage and de-eroticizes sex. It makes sex seem the central point of marriage, and yet makes sex sound relatively unappetizing.

    Well said, Daniel. Thanks for the comment.

    Comment by Blogmaster | May 17, 2009 | Reply

  11. I have to second Daniel A.’s comments as well. As one person put it, you can no more have a theology of sex than you can have a theology of eating or a theology of showering. These things are merely what people do, and to theorize upon them too much can cheapen both thought and the action itself.

    I have studied the question, the original text itself, and have been chewing over the issue for a couple of years on and off. I can’t really see the benefits of what John Paul II wrote. I think the text itself is too difuse and vague for one to be able to have the “right interpretation” of it. One should also remember that Christopher West actually wrote a preface to the new translation of Wojtyla’s catecheses. To try to separate his view and the “original” is a bit of a specious argument.

    If the text had been a drawn out, concise, and well-organized work complete with footnotes and cross references, it probably wouldn’t have all of the problems that I see it having. Instead, what you have is a series of repetitive and vague talks over the period of four years which create a terminology that sounds convincing but remains highly undefined (“nuptial meaning of the body”, “self-gift”, etc.). It is not systematic at all, and in the end can cause lots of problems. The good that is in it is not too many steps away from stating the obvious, and the danger of it at the very least begs the question on so many fronts.

    Comment by Arturo Vasquez | May 17, 2009 | Reply

  12. For some reason WordPress isn’t letting me copy a sentence from Arturo’s comment, but I wanted to paste in the one beginning, “If the text had been a drawn out, concise, and well-organized work…”

    I’m laughing wryly, because I am an analytic philosopher, and unfortunately, JPII was what we analytics call a “soft continental.” Not as bad as a “hardcore continental,” but still, not conducive to clearness and concision, unfortunately.

    Comment by Lydia | May 18, 2009 | Reply

  13. I think that Arturo and Daniel make some very good points. TOB does focus far too much on specifically marital issues. However, I don’t think this is necessary. West and other practitioners have neglected to appreciate to scope of John Paul’s method. Certainly the TOB, has ramifications for a theology of labor, eating, prayer and liturgy, but most of this work has not been done. Most of what we do with our bodies on a daily basis has little to nothing to do with marital relations, but all of it has to do with the theological meaning of being an embodied creature. I think the long term usefulness of TOB will depend on whether or not theologians take up the task of working out the implications this method has for the other elements of embodied life.

    On a different topic, I think it is very interesting that so many of those excited about TOB are also excited about NFP. Whereas I can totally see the room for the licety of NFP in the natural law analisis of Paul VI and Pius XI, because their analysis focuses on the integrity of the act, I can’t see the same room for NFP under a TOB analysis. When you start talking about fertility being a part of the total gift of self like John Paul does, then NFP seems to be nearly as problematic as contraception. Because isn’t it the case that while using NFP the spouses say to each other “you can’t have my fertility for the next 2 weeks”? Doesn’t that make the gift of self more conditional?

    Comment by ben | May 18, 2009 | Reply

  14. A few quick thoughts on the subject:

    1) I’d like to echo the others who have used Attachment Parenting (AP) with good success. Our kids have turned out very secure, healthy, disciplined, and well-adjusted. Responding to Jeff’s point in #6: If anything, I found AP to be in conflict with the practice of NFP — for the very practical reason that it’s nearly impossible to chart the wife’s temperature reliably when kids are sleeping in your bed, she’s up with them on demand, and her daily rising times vary so widely. I pointed this out to NFP instructors, who admitted that they had the same experience with AP and charting. But we never found ourselves led to limit our family size because AP was too demanding.

    2) I strongly suggest you get Love and Responsibility off the shelf and read it. The book is tough, but brilliant (and not nearly his toughest — “The Person and Act” is virtually impossible for a non-scholar to penetrate).

    3) I have never read Christopher West, so can’t speak to his treatment of TOB, but did read all of JP II’s magisterial teachings before getting married in 1995. I had a very good grasp on his trinitarian / covenental vision of marital love, and can honestly say that understanding played a major role in my maintaining fidelity through the difficult early years of marriage. Perseverence would have been much more difficult had I not been familiar with these teachings, and instead had held a “contract” vision of marriage. I found his 1994 “Letter to Families” extremely helpful in this regard.

    4) In response to Ben’s question at the end of #13: We would only be saying “you can’t have my fertility” if we used artificial contraception. What my wife and I are actually saying to each other each month is “for the next 3+ weeks, we love each other and our children so much, we will not engage in an act that, while extremely enjoyable and unitive, would almost certainly lead to a pregnancy devistating to maternal health, quite possibly depriving our children of their mother; instead, we will express our love in other ways and wait patiently until we can physically renew our marital covenant.”

    Comment by Chris | May 19, 2009 | Reply

  15. The idea that the Catholic Church, for 2000 years, taught that the body was evil and sex was sinful until JPII and TOB came along, is one of the more patently offensive of these errors.

    I am a convert to the faith and have been a big fan of Alice von Hildebrand (thank you for linking to her statements), and I admit, also have been a fan of Christopher West. I’ve heard his talks and read his books. But the above quote of yours summarizes what my growing discomfort has become with Christopher West.

    I converted to the Church because I was convinced it is the Church that Christ founded, and that has faithfully preserved the Gospel. You are absolutely right that we need to be extremely cautious of any new teaching that radically departs from what the Church has always taught. Especially in doctrine, but in discipline as well.

    All that said, in West’s defense, I know that he does not advocate dropping celibate priesthood. In fact, he compares the “total self-giving, life-giving love” of a priest to the love of husband and wife. But I do default to Alice von Hildebrand who cautions that this topic needs to be approached reverently and delicately. I too am concerned with the vulgarity of his presentations more and more.

    Comment by Michelle | May 19, 2009 | Reply

  16. Oh, dear, Jeff… if you don’t like Christopher West’s work, I shudder to think of your response to my upcoming tome, “Theology of Da Booty: A Synthesis of the Teachings of Pope John Paul II and Sir Mix-A-Lot.”

    Comment by Brendan | May 21, 2009 | Reply

  17. In response to Ben’s question at the end of #13: We would only be saying “you can’t have my fertility” if we used artificial contraception. What my wife and I are actually saying to each other each month is “for the next 3+ weeks, we love each other and our children so much, we will not engage in an act that, while extremely enjoyable and unitive, would almost certainly lead to a pregnancy devistating to maternal health, quite possibly depriving our children of their mother; instead, we will express our love in other ways and wait patiently until we can physically renew our marital covenant.”

    The thing is, Chris, you didn’t need TOB to tell you that abstaining from marital relations for such reasons is perfectly legitimate. The Catholic Church has never taught otherwise.

    Also, I’m not very comfortable with the phrase “physically renew our marital covenant”, or much of what is now called “marital covenant theology“. It implies that marriage needs to be physically “renewed” by sexual intercourse every so often or else … or else what? What happens to things that are not renewed? If a marriage cannot be “renewed” in this way – whether because of distance, disease, disability, sterilization, age, or other impediments – does it then cease to be a marriage? Does it become grounds for an annulment? TOB implicitly asks these questions, but does not answer them. (That is not to say that TOB teachers/advocates give unorthodox answers, but that the answers are imported from pre-TOB doctrine and do not seem to flow from TOB itself.)

    Another difficulty is that we also use “renewal” language in the context of renewing our baptismal vows and marriage vows. The vows are the form of the marriage sacrament, and they are “renewed” without implying that there was any sacramental deficiency in the marriage. But using this language in the context of sexual intercourse places the marital embrace on the level of something that is as indispensable to marriage as the form of the sacrament. So, once again, I find the language places an exaggerated burden on marital sexuality that it was never meant to carry.

    Comment by Blogmaster | May 21, 2009 | Reply

  18. I certainly don’t want to pick on one word in your comment, Jeff (“distance”), but I am of the opinion, and you probably are too, that it’s unwise for a couple to deliberately plan to live apart from one another for long periods of time. Disasters can happen, of course. The husband might be drafted to fight in a war, for example (God forbid). But I think couples need to think long and hard about deliberately setting up a life in which they are going to live apart for, e.g., many months out of the year. Age and debility usually come to all of us sooner or later, but distance marriages usually don’t have to. Unfortunately, it’s becoming too common, especially with two-career couples, for people literally to plan a two-household marriage where they meet only occasionally. I always say it sounds like a friendly divorce, right from day one. Ick. (But I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, here.)

    Comment by Lydia | May 21, 2009 | Reply

  19. Lydia, I absolutely agree with everything you wrote. But distance in marriage can happen for many reasons: job hunting, husband takes job in another state before family can join him, refugee situations (I have known VN refugee families where spouses were separated unwillingly for more than 10 years), war (as you mentioned), family complications (e.g., care for ailing relative out-of-state), separation due to marital strife, etc..

    My point really is that every married couple, being human in a fallen world, should expect distance problems at some point, and should not think for a moment that the impossibility of sexual intimacy diminishes the sacramental reality of the marriage. I know that Chris does not believe that and would never knowingly imply such a thing. But I wonder if TOB’s overwhelming emphasis on the marital embrace causes lots of couples in abnormal circumstances to wonder how married they really are.

    Comment by Blogmaster | May 21, 2009 | Reply

  20. Jeff – You seem to be focusing on one narrow meaning of the word “renew,” the sense of “if I don’t renew my magazine subscription, it will expire.” Neither I nor TOB advocates use the word in this sense, nor do I think the average reader would interpret it in that sense.

    I, and they, mean “renewal” in the sense of: “to make like new, to restore to freshness, vigor, or perfection; to make new spiritually.” It is the same sense in which reciting the pledge of allegiance renews my committment to the nation, or reciting the Nicene Creed at Mass renews my committment to the truths of the faith.

    Strictly speaking, a couple must consummate its marriage one time. A convert must recite the Creed one time. In both cases, I think it’s appropriate to think of each additional repitition of the original act as a “renewal” of that original act of committment — in the sense I described, and not in the sense of the subscription expiring if it doesn’t happen.

    And for those deprived of the opportunity to so “renew” their marital covenant, whether because of distance or infirmity, TOB does not imply their marriage ceases to be a marriage. Rather, TOB acknowledges that those in such a situation are being deprived of a great good that could otherwise help strengthen their relationship — in the same way that a person who (through no fault of his own) is denied Holy Communion for an extended period is being deprived of a great spiritual good.

    Comment by Chris | May 21, 2009 | Reply

  21. So, I’ve been reading Popcak’s Beyond the Birds and the Bees, and I see a heck of a lot of good in there. I guess I’d really take what you say more seriously if you had actually read one book by Popcak and one book by West. It seems like you are getting your info from other people’s opinions, which is how people get their opinions on so many things, without looking into them. People learn about Catholicism and “Catholic voting and opinions” on MSNBC for instance. EEYUCK! I can understand how the ABC interview with West would turn people off, but I also think a bunch of you are already looking for ways to condemn these people, instead of listening to why they are saying what they are saying, and to whom. When they are talking about sexuality, they are not just talking about the sexual act, and both authors make that very, very clear. Please read their books, folks, before you spread around condemnation, causing more division amongst good Catholic people. I wouldn’t keep replying to this thread if I didn’t think it was seriously misleading.

    Comment by annaberri | May 21, 2009 | Reply

    • I am sorry to have upset you, Annaberri. Your comments are always welcome. I’ve been reading Greg Popcak’s website on and off for years. We’ve even had some online exchanges, right here on my blog, so I don’t think I’m misinformed. It’s true that I haven’t read as much of Christopher West, but I’ve read more than a few of his articles and had many conversations with his devotees. He makes specific claims (such as the one in my blog post) which seem to be the heart of the philosophy he’s embraced. These claims are refutable, and they should be refuted. Furthermore, there are plenty of people who are much more informed than I am, who have read JP-II’s work along with Christopher West, who have come to pretty much the same conclusions I have. Arturo Vasquez’s commentary in this space – as well as here, here, and here – are instructive. In fact, I was informed only after I made my criticisms here that a lay-scholar by the name of Randy Engle has already done much of the heavy lifting. You can find some of her work here and here, and if you like, I can send you an excellent audio file.

      Apart from West and Popcak, there is the whole TOB movement within the Church that leaves definite impressions and is impossible to avoid. Priests are trained in TOB and give homilies using TOB lingo and assumptions. All of the pro-life and anti-contraception apostolates use TOB language now, from the Couple-to-Couple League to Human Life International. TOB is all over EWTN and Catholic Radio. Etc. One doesn’t need to have mastered the works of JPII and Christopher West to see how TOB is influencing the Church. I have said repeatedly that TOB teaches much that is true and has apparently helped lots of people. But if some of its language is problematic and demonstrably inconsistent with Catholic tradition, why shouldn’t it be discussed?

      Comment by Blogmaster | May 22, 2009 | Reply

    • Speaking of Popcak’s “Beyond the Birds and the Bees”, I’d like to know what you think about this excerpt from the book:

      “Explain to your sons that as God is giving them the gift of their sexuality, He is asking them to spend the next several years learning how to use that gift properly. Part of that means that if he marries, he will be responsible for working with his wife to determine God’s will for their lives, including when to have children and how many children to have. These are decisions that need to be made every month in collaboration with his wife and with prayer. After he is married, part of his responsibility will be to help his wife do something called charting, which means that he will write down the different signs that tell how healthy his wife is and when they could have a baby. I am aware of some families where the brother may chart his sister’s temperatures for her, or even some cases where the mother shares her own NFP chart (minus the coitus record, of course) with the intent of acquainting the young men and women of the house with NFP. I also know some families who object to this idea on privacy or modesty grounds.”

      There is A LOT wrong with this from a Catholic perspective, in my opinion. The first is the obvious contraceptive mentality (or something not much different) promoted by suggesting that it is every family’s duty to decide for themselves “when to have children and how many children to have” on a MONTHLY basis. This seems to be a clear and sharp departure from an authentic Catholic attitude towards childbearing.

      But the suggestion that brothers chart their sisters’ temperatures, or that mothers share charting with their families, is just beyond repulsive. I suppose that standards of Christian modesty have been so damaged in recent years that most people think nothing of a crazy idea like this. But part of the Catholic agenda is to restore things like Christian modesty, and it would be nice if our highest profile Catholic authors and teachers understood its value.

      What I’d like to know is this: Does TOB lend itself, by its very nature, to immodest discourse? That is certainly Randy Engle’s view. Or is TOB capable of being presented in a way that does not offend against modesty? That’s most likely Alice von Hildebrand’s perspective. I would need to read JPII’s original talks to come to my own conclusions.

      Comment by Blogmaster | May 22, 2009 | Reply

  22. I agree with you that having a brother chart the sister’s cycle is repulsive. Ditto sharing a mother’s chart with the kids. And I’ve heard the same reaction from NFP instructors who are otherwise fans of Popcak. (For the record, my wife and I are not NFP instructors, but we have found Popcak’s other writings to be very helpful in our own marriage).

    That said, note carefully what Popcak says: he and his wife will be working to determine GOD’S will for their lives as regards to the number of children He wants them to have.

    God gave us an intellect so we can know that will and understand the way a woman’s fertility functions over the course of a given cycle. And He gave us a free will so we can follow or not follow what God wants for our family. It is the responsibility of the husband and wife, together, to conform their behavior to what God wants from them. The NFP chart is simply a tool that provides the knowledge to guide their behavior and bring it into accord with God’s will.

    If they determine that, at this time, it would be irresponsible for the wife to be pregnant, the NFP chart tells them which days to abstain from relations. If they determine that God is calling them to attempt a pregnancy, the NFP chart tells them which days provide the best chance for success. Either way, the chart is morally neutral; it simply empowers the couple to act in accord with what God wills.

    Comment by Chris | May 22, 2009 | Reply

  23. What Chris said. Thank you, Chris. Keep in mind that Popcak has mentioned that for his wife to get pregnant is possibly for her to put her life in danger because of medical issues. They still practice NFP, when they could have thrown in the towel and went to chemical contraceptives. It IS a very hard, month to month decision for some families, due to the life circumstances that come their way. I know I’d much rather just forget charting and take what comes, but I also know, medically and mentally, that’s not healthy for us. That’s why the Church has asked us to be prudent as well as open to life. That’s not un-Catholic. God’s will, not our will, if we read our literature and formed our consciences correctly. As for the brother sister thing, the next sentence up there says, “I also know some families who object to this idea on privacy or modesty grounds.” In other words, he’s not advocating it, but that worked in a family, somewhere. I don’t either, but it’s an example, and he’s speaking to a variety of people and parenting methods.
    Here is a link to what C. West’s response was. I am not offended by your comments, I do love a healthy discussion. I just want to make sure you really understand where these people are coming from. Yes, the talk IS immodest. Talking about sex at all is pretty immodest. But not talking about it at all? That is not the way to go. There was NO talk in my house, except “don’t do it”, and that was not even close to helpful when I got to college, started my period, etc. I wish I’d had some of this material back then.
    Here ya go: http://www.tobinstitute.org/page.asp?ContentID=71

    Comment by annaberri | May 22, 2009 | Reply

  24. See Steve Skojec’s blog site for more info on this brewing issue. Read the entire commentary of David Schindler. If accurate, West is off base. Way off base, from a Catholic perspective. Indeed, I’d argue that his perspective is not Catholic at all, nor that it has much relation to John Paul 2s Encyclical, for John Paul 2 would have never used such immodest language, which, to me, is unnecessary. Then again, many “Catholics” see nothing at all wrong w/Obama speaking at, and receiving an honorary law degree from Notre Dame. Nor with rock music during Mass. Nor with co-habitation during “Marraige Prep”… And so on… The more we allow modernism and it’s liberal views into our parishes… the more we will see the dillution and pollution of said parishes.

    Comment by james | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  25. +J.M.J+

    >>>It implies that marriage needs to be physically “renewed” by sexual intercourse every so often or else … or else what? What happens to things that are not renewed? If a marriage cannot be “renewed” in this way – whether because of distance, disease, disability, sterilization, age, or other impediments – does it then cease to be a marriage? Does it become grounds for an annulment?

    If we don’t renew our baptismal vows, does our Baptism expire? I doubt any Catholic ever believed that sort of thing about the Sacrament of Baptism, so why would anyone think that about Matrimony?

    In Jesu et Maria,

    Comment by Rosemarie | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  26. +J.M.J+

    Might as well weigh in on a few other things discussed here while I’m at it:

    1. Re. Chris West: I am very dismayed to hear the stuff he is now teaching alongside JPII’s TOB. In the combox on another blog, I expressed my dismay over his characterization of the Song of Songs as the “centerfold” of the Bible. I sure hope he never again uses that irreverent quip and gets back on track in other areas as well.

    2. Re. Asceticism -vs- TOB: Many years ago I read a speech of JPII in which he stated quite explicitly that consecrated virginity is superior to marriage. I only wish I remembered where I read that so I could produce the quote here. Suffice to say JPII would never have approved of any attempted presentation of his TOB that exalted marriage above celibacy for the Kingdom.

    Also, (I think I made this next point on your former blog a few years ago, Jeff, so forgive me if I’m repeating myself.) Consecrated virginity is superior to the married state because it sacrifices the natural good of marriage for the sake of a higher good – the Kingdom of God. It bears noting that the Church Fathers argued that non-consecrated virginity (like that of the Vestal Virgins) was not more virtuous than Christian marriage. So it is precisely a total consecration to God that exalts virginity above the married state.

    Presented correctly, TOB should help people gain a healthy understanding of the goodness of marriage so that they can then appreciate better the greater good in sacrificing it in the service of God. Whether individual TOB popularizers convey this to their listeners is another question.

    3. Re. TOB as “necessary” to understand the Faith: I don’t think so, but it does help some people, as Jeff pointed out.

    4. Re. brothers’ charting their sisters’ temps: Yuck! No way.

    5. Re. immodest discourse: This should always be avoided, and I don’t think that it is absolutely necessary for presentation of the TOB. Catholics have been using euphemisms in this area for the longest time: the marital act, sins against purity, self-abuse, etc. As we discussed at a talk I once gave about my book, Catholics should develop a “holy vocabulary” to discuss such matters, one that would not be an occasion of sin for ourselves and for others.

    In Jesu et Maria,

    Comment by Rosemarie | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  27. Chris and Rosemarie:

    I take your points (well articulated) about “renewal” language. Perhaps most people do understand this in the right way. The problem, for me, is that sexual intercourse as “renewal of the marriage covenant” has never been part of the Church’s lexicon. The reason is that sexual intercourse has never been considered the defining act of marriage.

    (Also – there are some TOB advocates who disagree with the marriage covenant idea, so maybe it doesn’t originate with TOB.)

    A couple of thoughts.

    Do we really want to say that sexual intercourse is to the sacrament of marriage what holy communion is to the Christian life? Or that sexual intercourse is to the sacrament of marriage what baptismal vows are to the sacrament of baptism? That’s what is happening here. The form of the marriage sacrament consists in the vows, not the sexual act. We can and do “renew” these vows, and the connection to the sacrament is obvious. But the same cannot be said of the conjugal embrace.

    Also, no Christian in his right mind would willingly deprive himself of holy communion for a lifetime. However, many saints – married saints – willingly deprived themselves of sexual intercourse, choosing something higher and better, in imitation of the Holy Family, with the blessing of the Church. Did their marriages suffer because of it? No, because as Pope Pius XII writes in Casti Connubii:

    “By matrimony, therefore, the souls of the contracting parties are joined and knit together more directly and more intimately than are their bodies, and that not by any passing affection of sense of spirit, but by a deliberate and firm act of the will; and from this union of souls by God’s decree, a sacred and inviolable bond arises.”

    Marriage is above all a spiritual union – not a disembodied one, to be sure, but not ontologically dependent upon the acts of the body.

    Comment by Blogmaster | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  28. Well, a little Googling turned up this quote from JPII’s Familiaris Consortio:

    “Virginity or celibacy, by liberating the human heart in a unique way, “so as to make it burn with greater love for God and all humanity,” bears witness that the Kingdom of God and His justice is that pearl of great price which is preferred to every other value no matter how great, and hence must be sought as the only definitive value. It is for this reason that the Church, throughout her history, has always defended the superiority of this charism to that of marriage, by reason of the wholly singular link which it has with the Kingdom of God.” (from Paragraph 16)

    I don’t think this is the exact one I read long ago; it sounds different. But it does show that JPII did believe that consecrated virginity was superior to marriage.

    In Jesu et Maria,

    Comment by Rosemarie | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  29. Rosemarie – If TOB had been popularized in way that is consistent with your comments (#26), I would have no objections and might even be a big fan.

    Comment by Blogmaster | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  30. >>>Also – there are some TOB advocates who disagree with the marriage covenant idea, so maybe it doesn’t originate with TOB.

    In his book _Sex and the Marriage Covenant_, John Kippley states that he developed his “covenant theology of sex” (probably what he now calls “marital covenant theology”) back in the 1960’s, and that the core statement of that theology is that conjugal relations are “intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant” (p.7). So I don’t think that idea originated with TOB at all.

    >>>Or that sexual intercourse is to the sacrament of marriage what baptismal vows are to the sacrament of baptism?

    It isn’t; I just use the example of renewal of ones baptismal vows to show that “renewing” something doesn’t necessarily mean that the thing would otherwise expire.

    In Jesu et Maria,

    Comment by Rosemarie | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  31. “Keep in mind that Popcak has mentioned that for his wife to get pregnant is possibly for her to put her life in danger because of medical issues.”

    And let me emphasize, once again, that the Catholic Church has ALWAYS taught that abstaining for reasons like this is perfectly legitimate. The Popcaks did not need TOB to figure this out. Modern NFP methods may help them accomplish this, but no one here is arguing against the legitimate use of modern NFP methods.

    I really dislike the term Natural Family Planning. What the Popcaks and the Blunts are doing is not “family planning”, but simply avoiding what might be a grave danger to maternal health.

    Now – what could be a recent development (or clarification) in the Church’s thinking is the presentation of marital intercourse with morally certain knowledge that conception cannot be achieved as something positively virtuous in certain contexts. Perhaps this is a contribution of TOB, I don’t know.

    Comment by Blogmaster | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  32. Just as a factual question: I had been under the impression that marriages in the “old days” could be annulled by the Catholic Church on grounds of non-consummation. My impression was that this could happen if two young people had been married and, for example, their older guardians regretted the alliance before the marriage had been consummated. The marriage was not annulled on the grounds that it now would be, that they were “too young to truly commit themselves” or something to that effect but rather bluntly on the physical grounds that it hadn’t been consummated. If that’s right, that would seem to give marital consummation some sort of importance–at least the first time around–to the confirmation and completion of the marriage vows. I’m just curious about this as an historical matter.

    Comment by Lydia | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  33. Lydia –

    Yes, a marriage can still be disolved for non-consumation. That is one of the automatic grounds for annulment. In fact, the Church teaches that the marital bond is not complete until it has been consumated physically. If I’m not mistaken (and I’m not a canon lawyer), I believe the non-consumation cases are fast-tracked for annulment because they are such a slam dunk.

    Which, Jeff, is why I think it is appropriate to speak of “renewing” the covenant each time we perform the sexual act — consummation is as necessary to the sacrament as the vows.

    Comment by Chris | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  34. ” – consummation is as necessary to the sacrament as the vows.”

    I think that’s wrong, Chris. Consummation is necessary for indissolubility, but it is not necessary for the sacrament. An unconsummated marriage is still a sacramental marriage until legally dissolved.

    So, Lydia, the Church distinguishes between legal dissolution and annulment. Non-consummation can (but does not necessarily) affect the former; it has no bearing on the latter. Furthermore, I believe it is the refusal or inability to consummate the marriage which is grounds for dissolution – not the fact of non-consummation itself.

    Comment by Blogmaster | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  35. I don’t mean to pick on Chris, because this was an easy mistake to make. I had to look up the answer myself. But one can’t help wondering, then, how much TOB has influenced Catholics to believe – erroneously – that marital intercourse is a quasi-sacramental act!

    Comment by Blogmaster | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  36. Rosemarie: there is also this:

    In the First Letter to the Corinthians (7:38) Saint Paul proclaims the superiority of virginity over marriage, which is a constant teaching of the Church in accordance with the spirit of Christ’s words recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (19: 10-12); he does so without in any way obscuring the importance of physical and spiritual motherhood.

    Comment by Anonymous | May 24, 2009 | Reply

  37. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_15081988_mulieris-dignitatem_en.html

    In the First Letter to the Corinthians (7:38) Saint Paul proclaims the superiority of virginity over marriage, which is a constant teaching of the Church in accordance with the spirit of Christ’s words recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (19: 10-12); he does so without in any way obscuring the importance of physical and spiritual motherhood.

    Comment by someanonymousguy | May 24, 2009 | Reply

    • +J.M.J+

      Thank you, Anonymous and someanonymousguy (same person?). That might be the actual quote I had in mind, since I did read Mulieris Dignitatem many years ago.

      That’s yet more evidence that JPII did not exalt matrimony above consecrated virginity. Any legitimate presentation of his TOB, therefore, would have to make that point.

      In Jesu et Maria,

      Comment by Rosemarie | May 25, 2009 | Reply

  38. Jeff – You’re right. My bad. I should’ve consulted Canon Law (Can 1141-1142) and been more precise in my previous comment: consummation makes a marriage indissoluvable.

    Consummation is thus very important to solidifying the permanancy of the marriage bond, but is not strictly speaking part of the sacrament itself.

    Comment by Chris | May 25, 2009 | Reply

  39. These reflections on TOB are the best I have come across. I think it is sad how many people are so longing to see the Church’s teachings on marriage and family upheld that they have settled on following Christopher West and are exposed to his distortions and crassness. I am praying that that people start following Christ and not a personality/theology.

    Comment by Mary | May 27, 2009 | Reply

  40. TOB has never touted the idea – a rhetorical straw man – that the Church has taught that the body and sex are evil. Cathars, puritains but not the Magisterium. JPII has couched these teachings in terms of personalism and another philosophy I can’t remember right now. (a senior moment)

    On the other hand, Alice von Hildebrand is no prude. Just modest, albeit in a sophisticated yet humble way.

    Comment by Virginia Fisher Murdoch | May 30, 2009 | Reply

  41. JPII has couched these teachings in terms of personalism and another philosophy I can’t remember right now.

    Are you referring to phenomenology?

    Comment by Eoin Suibhne | May 30, 2009 | Reply

  42. Brendan wrote:

    “Oh, dear, Jeff… if you don’t like Christopher West’s work, I shudder to think of your response to my upcoming tome, ‘Theology of Da Booty: A Synthesis of the Teachings of Pope John Paul II and Sir Mix-A-Lot.’”

    This is for you, sir.

    Comment by Blogmaster | May 31, 2009 | Reply

  43. I know I’m late to this conversation, but wanted to leave my $0.02 anyways :)

    “An even larger problem with TOB is that it cuts the ascetical heart out of Catholicism . . . The logical consequence of TOB is a married priesthood and the abolition of celibate religious life.”

    I remember quite clearly seeing a video of Christopher West explaining that the value of celibacy lay in sacrifice, and that sacrifice meant giving up something good (sex) for something better. This sounds to me like a great explanation of the value of acetism. I felt like CW was a strong supporter of priestly celibacy, and gained an increased respect for celibate vocations (and so much more!) from Christopher West.

    I can see how Christopher West could be seen as over-emphasizing the importance of the marrital act. However, I think context is important here – he seeks to push back the idea that religion has nothing good to say about sex. I think he’s done a lot to accomplish this by now, and the result is that his message is now a little out of step.

    Ultimately, I think he is doing a great deal of good, and it’s hard to tell for sure if he’s doing any harm at all. I’m glad he’s trying to do the right thing and spreading these teachings, even if he doesn’t get them 100%, because the world sure isn’t coming anywhere close in what it teaches about sex, and neither are most catechists (want to know what I learned about sexuality from CCD? No, you don’t; it’ll turn your stomach that this stuff was being taught to teens – and by priests as well as CCD teachers).

    Of course, because CW *isn’t* getting things right 100% (after all, he’s human, and doesn’t seem to be getting his teachings from private revelation – so at least minor errors are to be expected) it is good to have some questioning and criticism.

    Comment by Ethel | June 10, 2009 | Reply

  44. “I remember quite clearly seeing a video of Christopher West explaining that the value of celibacy lay in sacrifice, and that sacrifice meant giving up something good (sex) for something better. This sounds to me like a great explanation of the value of acetism. I felt like CW was a strong supporter of priestly celibacy, and gained an increased respect for celibate vocations (and so much more!) from Christopher West.”

    Yes, I know that CW defends the discipline of celibacy. My point is that priestly and religious celibacy does not flow from the “Theology of the Body”, but runs counter to it. TOBers who defend celibacy import their beliefs about celibacy from somewhere else.

    Comment by Blogmaster | June 10, 2009 | Reply


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