Last week I reported for the National Catholic Register on the controversy fueled by Christopher West's Nightline interview in May.
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Theology of the Body Fight
Scholars Debate Popular Author’s Take
June 21-27, 2009 Issue | Posted 6/12/09 at 8:07 AM
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Criticisms about Christopher West’s work that first surfaced in the Register seven years ago are back. Critics wonder if his brand of discussion of Christianity and sexuality is fatally flawed.
Sam Meier hopes not. He needs West.
A counselor who works with recovering sex addicts, Meier relies on books by the foremost U.S. evangelist of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body.
“Men appreciate West’s genuineness, his realness and the humble way he talks about difficult sexual sins that a lot of people struggle with in silence,” reported Meier. “Men who are looking for freedom connect with West and his material. It’s a life-changing experience.”
Meier spearheads the “freedom from pornography” effort in the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan. His enthusiasm is shared by Church administrators in more than 40 dioceses where West has been invited to speak to Catholic educators, pre-Cana classes and youth groups.
Thousands more have participated in West’s in-depth seminars and purchased tapes and books. Public demand has kept the author’s latest works on the best-seller list of the Catholic Book Publishers Association for more than a decade, according to Matthew Pinto of Ascension Press, West’s publisher.
At the center of the Christopher West phenomenon is the theology of the body — what Pope John Paul II’s biographer, George Weigel, has described as a “theological time bomb.”
With popular titles like The Good News About Sex and Marriage: Answers to Your Honest Questions About Catholic Teaching, West has emerged as a high-octane evangelist with a gift for simplifying and popularizing the late Pope’s often complex teaching.
Like Meier, many applaud West’s ability to guide confused Catholics through the minefields of an increasingly hedonistic, sex-saturated culture.
Thus, when supporters learned ABC’s “Nightline” had scheduled a feature on West, they had every reason to believe the show would help him reach a broader audience of Catholics.
However, when “Nightline” aired its seven-minute segment in May, West got a salutary lesson in the pitfalls of employing secular media to evangelize the culture.
“Nightline” described West as a “sex sermonist” who celebrated John Paul II and Hugh Hefner as personal heroes who challenged a puritanical distaste for the human body and human desire.
“Christopher West is not your average sex therapist,” the program noted. “He’s a devout Catholic who believes one of the most important ways we can get closer to God is through great sex.”
West immediately sought to tamp down the ensuing firestorm, insisting that the segment misrepresented his work as a Catholic educator and took his comments out of context. His Theology of the Body Institute posted a clarification on its website, though West, who is preparing a more extensive response to his critics, declined a request for an interview.
“The point Christopher made — but which wasn’t included in the ‘Nightline’ piece — was that, as Catholics, we agree with Hugh Hefner’s diagnosis of the disease (i.e., a puritanical rejection of the body and sexuality is utterly contrary to Catholic faith), but we radically disagree with his cure,” explained a longer statement posted by the Theology of the Body In--sti-tute. “Christopher told the ‘Nightline’ correspondent that the theology of the body is the true cure for the disease that Hefner diagnosed.”
West’s struggle to stem the confusion reflected a desire to both defend his reputation and to prevent a backlash against the late Pope’s teachings, which have begun to enter the mainstream of Catholic catechetics with the encouragement of Pope Benedict XVI.
To many viewers, the “Nightline” segment gave the impression that Pope John Paul’s writings were designed as a kind of Church-approved therapy for individuals with sexual difficulties, a serious mischaracterization of the Pope’s legacy and thus of West’s own mission.
‘Love, Not Sex’
West’s clarification may suffice for most of his admirers. However, several theology professors at the author’s alma mater, the Washington, D.C.-based Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, issued statements suggesting he should consider further steps to set the record straight.
These critics acknowledged West’s deep love for the Church and accepted his claim that his statements were taken out of context. But they suggested that West’s use of iconic secular symbols like Hugh Hefner was but one symptom of a problematic style of evangelization.
“At the heart of the vision of John Paul II is an anthropology of love, including not only the human body, but everything, from the communion of persons and the family to the cosmos,” said David Schindler, the Edouard Cardinal Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology and the provost/dean of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.
“My concern is that this rich and comprehensive vision can be reduced to sex, when, in fact, love is the meaning of our profession as Christians,” added Schindler in an interview.
In two public statements posted on the Web, Schindler raised concerns about West’s approach to concupiscence, the inclination to sin that remains throughout the fallen state of human existence. The Church teaches that redemption of the body does not remove us from this state, nor does it place us in a paradisiacal or heavenly state. In an interview, Schindler noted that “even saints continue to live in the state we inherit from the sin of Adam and Eve.”
While John Paul II celebrates the human body and sexual desire as great goods designed, in the proper context, as a sign and a means by which the human person can participate in Trinitarian love, the Pontiff warns about the ongoing threat posed by concupiscence, strongly encouraging the adoption and daily practice of Christian virtue, prayer and reception of the sacraments.
Over the years, reported Schindler, students and diocesan educators had shared their “unease” regarding West’s approach. The source of this unease, suggested Schindler in one public statement, is that an ambiguous treatment of concupiscence could “quickly slide one toward a dangerous imprudence in matters of sexuality.”
The substance and style of West’s emotionally gripping pedagogical methods drew critiques from others, including philosopher Alice von Hildebrand and John Paul II Institute professor Father Jose Granados, co-author with Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, of Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
In the weeks since the interview, West also attracted high-profile supporters: Janet Smith, the popular author and speaker on Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) and natural family planning, and Michael Waldstein, the groundbreaking translator of Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Both scholars stepped forward to defend West and respectfully questioned the basis for his critics’ arguments.
“Christopher is going to be a flashpoint because he is taking dense and complicated material about sex and trying to deliver it to the public,” said Smith, a professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. “The ‘Nightline’ segment had a lot of good stuff and will have a long-term benefit.”
Smith defended West’s willingness to address controversial issues that rarely surfaced in academic journals, and publicly demanded that his detractors back up their concerns with hard evidence.
In the past, both Smith and Waldstein have joined up with West at public forums showcasing the Pope’s teaching.
But Smith and Waldstein have responded that their experience provided a unique opportunity to evaluate West’s approach.
“In 2005, I went on a sabbatical to Notre Dame to work on my translation of the theology of the body,” recalled Waldstein in an interview. Notre Dame offered no official forum to engage the Pope’s teaching; “the theology of the body was unknown. But I ran into some undergraduates who had been transformed by their encounter with the theology of the body through West.”
Waldstein didn’t dispute that West may have stumbled during the early days of his ministry, when he “dove into the cold water of the culture” and struggled to find a way to reach his audience. “Christopher says himself that he had to experiment and, to some degree, he is still experimenting with his approach,” said Waldstein.
Still, among West’s supporters and critics alike there remains a firm desire to bring the theology of the body to an ever-wider audience of ordinary Catholics. For now, that common goal is likely to keep West’s public speaking calendar filled for years to come — even as theologians and bishops intensify their scrutiny of his methods.
“It’s exciting that this teaching of Pope John Paul II, given to the Church almost 30 years ago, is just now being digested,” said Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan. Archbishop Naumann acknowledged that “any effort to popularize a teaching” carried risks. Still, “on balance, West’s contribution has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Joan Frawley Desmond, a graduate of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family,
is a board member of Imago Dei, Inc., which promotes the study guide "A New Language: John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.”