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.