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Is Christopher West’s Handling of the Theology of the Body Off the Mark?

I’m taking a quick pause in the 8-week Theology of the Body series to address some controversy surrounding the issue. I seem to be rife with controversy of one sort of another recently, but I certainly didn’t expect this one.

I was surprised (shocked, really) to get an email from a reader when I first started discussing the video series my Bible study worked through on Christopher West’s presentation of Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. One KS community member had mentioned on Facebook that Alice Von Hildenbrand has some opposing viewpoints and another way to look at the Theology of the Body. I put that idea on the back burner as something I might look into but was quite content presenting the amazing insights I was learning in my Bible study.

When the reader emailed, she included a few news articles that not only called into question Christopher West, but seemed to disagree heartily with the Holy Father. I stopped reading. I’ve never seen a Catholic source willing to say that John Paul II was wrong and outside the path the Catholic Church has set for its people.

In many scholars’ estimation, John Paul is quite on his way to being John Paul the Great, and in fact he was beatified today.

I was curious what von Hildebrand, wife of Dietrich von Hildebrand, the late Catholic scholar, had to say about the issue.

I’m going to try to simply share quotes without leaking my opinion too much, because I’m tired of getting worked up about things.

Summarized and with quotes from Catholic News Agency:

[Christopher West’s] approach has become too self-assured. Alice von Hildebrand criticized his presentations as irreverent and insensitive to the “tremendous dangers” of concupiscence.

This is “very troubling” because what she calls the “intimate sphere” is something “very mysterious, very profound, something that has a direct relationship with God.”

“My feeling is that his vocabulary and his way of approaching it totally lacks reverence.”

While one can lead a holy life in marriage, she said to become a saint is “a long and difficult process that calls for a spirit of penance, a readiness to sacrifice.”

Christopher West’s approach makes him forget that sex is “an extreme danger.” Though sex can be sanctified, that sanctification implies “a humility, a spirit of reverence, and totally avoiding the vulgarity that he uses in his language.”

“I’m shocked and horrified by the words that he uses. His mere mention of Hugh Hefner is to my mind an abomination.”

Mary Shivanandan, a theologian who authored the book “Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II’s Anthropology,” was also critical of West’s remarks.

“The sublime teaching of John Paul II’s theology of sexuality is not well served by West’s comparison to Hugh Hefner and his playboy bunnies,” she told CNA in a Monday e-mail. “The late pope had a profound reverence for God’s plan for human love, which such a comparison, no matter how well intentioned, can only diminish and degrade.”

Again from the Catholic News Agency:

West’s interview with ABC misinterpreted and misrepresented – they listed Hefner and John Paul II as his two HEROES, even though he sets them as opposites in the sexual revolution.

From a response from Janet Smith, speaker on NFP, from EWTN:

“Von Hildebrand tells us that her husband’s key word in his books was ‘love,’ not ‘pleasure.’ She thus seems to suggest that the key word in West’s works is ‘pleasure.’ But West stresses that the key to the Theology of the Body is the theme of ‘self-gift.’ Why not take him at his word?”

In her closing remarks, Smith said “I have undertaken this response to von Hildebrand’s essay only with reluctance, since I greatly admire her and I know she seeks only to do good.”

More from Janet Smith on the Catholic Exchange:

One of the benefits of being “on the circuit” is the opportunity to meet some fascinating and remarkable people, whether they are other speakers, organizers, or attendees. It has been my privilege to have met both Alice von Hildebrand and Christopher West. I have a great respect and fondness for both. In ways, they are quite similar; they are intense, and passionate, and dedicated to the Truth and the Church.

Some fail to see that West has made considerable changes in his presentation of the Theology of the Body over the years. Some examples: he rerecorded his DVD/CD series on the Theology of the Body and altered language some have found offensive; he has revised his book Good News about Sex and Marriage to clarify a few matters some found problematic; and he laboriously rewrote his Theology of the Body Explained upon the publication of Michael Waldstein’s Man and Woman He Created Them. Those of us who believe that West does wonderful work want him to continue to forge ahead with his terrifically effective style. In our view, he responds well to feedback (which all speakers need) and we are confident that his presentations will continue to improve.

Indeed, in a 2009 interview, von Hildebrand admitted that she has not read John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. In addition, there is no evidence that that has changed or that she has much firsthand knowledge of West’s work.

There are some other great points in this article, starting with the section “Blaming whom?”

It seems like there’s always controversy about something, doesn’t it? I’ll be glad when Blessed Pope John Paul II is declared a saint, because that will mean every last word he ever wrote was combed through and found to have nothing in opposition with the Catholic Church’s magisterium (on faith and morals, yes?). UPDATE: Apparently I misquoted Catholic tradition. We are free to disagree even with saints and sainthood, but I’m still excited about JPII being beatified and hopefully canonized, simply because I’ve always admired and truly loved the man. He is an icon of holiness from my youth. If the Vatican is speeding up the process, they should not, if only to avoid controversy. To take something as good as the life of JPII and as beautiful as sainthood and embroil it with questions and negativity is just not something I want to participate in. In this ugly world, I need some beauty that I don’t have to question, so I choose not to in this case. Blessed John Paul II, pray for us! At least then I can easily brush off those “catholic” sources who choose to denigrate our former pope and claim that he was departing from Catholicism and writing something totally new and out of line.

As for von Hildebrand, since she hasn’t read the Theology of the Body and seems to be discussing West’s treatment of it via hearsay and news articles instead of experiencing it herself, I am not going to worry my little head about it.

West presents John Paul II’s work in an accessible, modern style that is 110% reverent toward human sexuality, marriage, and celibacy. He is putting his neck on the line on this ever-controversial subject (sex, NFP, marriage, etc.) and does a wonderful, humble job of it. I absolutely cannot WAIT to share the last four sessions with you! They are rich with beauty and inspiration.

May you have a blessed and holy Divine Mercy Sunday – pray your Chaplet today!

If you’d like to follow the events in Rome this week, Lisa Hendey, founder of CatholicMom.com, is attending and will be tweeting HERE and updating at CatholicMom all week long. Check it out!

UPDATE: To make sure I’m presenting a balanced report, here are the links to the articles from my reader. But honestly, anything that attacks my beloved Holy Father, the pope of my entire childhood and young adult years, is not worth my reading.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

18 thoughts on “Is Christopher West’s Handling of the Theology of the Body Off the Mark?”

  1. I think personality has a lot to do with how people handle ToB and sex talk in general. Certainly our discussions, especially in mixed company, should maintain decorum and respect for the body. But some people are more hot-blooded than others, and approach their wedding night with holy hunger rather than holy bashfulness (though, one could definitely have both.)

    ToB teaches the body is a sacrament, even apart from marriage or celibacy for the kingdom. It’s a sign of the reality of what we are. If ToB presentations focus too much on sex, perhaps it is because that is where our culture needs the most healing. The sex-focus isn’t a bad thing. In a few years when ToB starts to take hold at a deeper level, when people start to get disgusted with the weeds of sex growing in our culture, and we return to a more modest mentality sex-wise, perhaps there will be visible hunger and thirst for the rest of it (ToB)

    1. Albert,
      Thank you for this!
      “If ToB presentations focus too much on sex, perhaps it is because that is where our culture needs the most healing.”
      Perfectly said. 🙂 Katie

  2. One point that I have not heard West mention enough is that celibacy for the kingdom (which JP2 hits 1st in TOB, before a discussion of marriage) is a supernatural vocation while marriage is a natural vocation. This doesn’t mean that marriage is inferior because Jesus himself raised it to the level of a sacrament. This is only to say that the primary relationship is man to God, not man to any other man. The relationship of man to man (such as spouses) is a flows out of the primary relationship. Original solitude preceded original unity.

    Further, original unity is not primarily (according to JP2 in TOB) about intercourse. Becoming ‘one flesh’ is much more than sex as conjugal love is much more than sex; sex is, in fact, just one expression of conjugal love. In the sense of proper order, one could say that original solitude (man-God relationship) takes precedence, with original unity (man’s relationship with another) flowing out of it. Marriage is a subset of original unity and sex (intercourse) is an expression of wedded love.

    JP2 had this methodology in mind throughout TOB. You can see it reflected in the way he moves through Genesis to the Sermon on the Mount to Saint Paul (all in general terms applying commonly to man), then celibacy and marriage. If I remember correctly, JP2 refers to intercourse as the conjugal embrace as he means the more correct usage of sex (male and female) when he uses it. And he mentions conjugal embrace very limitedly outside of his discussion on marriage.

    This seems to me to be the proper weight. I commend West for the good work he does, but he seems to only unpacks a piece of TOB, namely how it can be applied to conjugal love and sex. I listened to West’s tape series and read some of his books as I devoured TOB in high school. So much more richness was opened to me though when I read JP2’s TOB (trust me, hard read) and some other good books on the nature of love through college. It brought a broadness, that applies to both my husband and to others.

    On TOB and love, I would recommend:
    – Deus Caritas Est
    – Called to Love: Approaching JP2’s TOB, Carl Anderson & Fr. Jose Granados
    – TOB (Man & Woman or the older version)

    Reflections on Marriage:
    – Jeweler’s Shop, Karol Woityla
    – Three to Get Married, Fulton Sheen

    P.S. on a personal note, maybe it was the family upbringing I had, or because my generation is sex saturated anyway, but I didn’t have this concept getting married that my body was bad or dirty. In fact, friends labeled me more ‘prudish’ in high school when a sex-saturated culture/talk evaded me. In college, among people who introduced me to great writings on love, I became more open, less prudish. I could understand that when love moves a person (which I found happens 1st spiritually), emotional/physical sides to love grow organically out of it. On my wedding day, you could describe it in the words of the Hildebrands ‘holy bashfulness’. There was no dirtiness, only a deep understanding of what it means to be ‘laid open’ for the other in every way possible which is in itself a daring thing, an act of complete trust. We in fact got a book for our marriage called “Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving” by Popcak, endorsed by West as “leading men and women to the love they long for”. After a few chpts in, I was so thoroughly embarrassed by what was read and so thoroughly convinced that Popcak equates sexual pleasure among the highest thrills in marriage (even in 10 months of marriage I could tell you that’s not true), I put it down. This seems to me the biggest paradigm of the today’s Catholic TOB speakers/writers: they often put too much emphasis on sex.

    1. Kim,
      Thank you so much for the great resources! I’m super excited to share West’s session on “celibacy for the kingdom” – that title exactly – because it is rich with wisdom and meaning.

      You’re right, he does place more emphasis, at least in the time he devotes, to marriage, but I do think that’s because his audience is mostly men and women who are married or think they will be someday. He has a lot to combat in our culture, as JPII certainly understood.

      Someday, I’d love to read the actual text of TOB, but I have to admit I’m pretty happy with the informal version right now! 😉

      I hope that even with the CW version of TOB, people can find that “holy bashfulness” on their wedding day – an accurate description to be sure.

      Thanks! 🙂 Katie

    2. Kim,

      Have you read Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset? In many ways it covers these same topics (bashfulness, concupiscience, etc) but within the context of a novel. If you do read it, the newer translation by Tiina Nunnally is superior and more faithful to the text than the older version.

  3. Katie @ Wellness Mama

    Interesting post! I’ve followed some of this debate myself, and am rather surprised by the turns it has taken.
    I must say that personally, I’m not much of a Christopher West fan. I have read and studies JPIIs Theology of the Body and Love and Responsibility, and I don’t think West does them justice. That being said, it seems that he is able to bring JPIIs dense teaching down to a level that many people can understand. As you’ve said, good has come from West’s work, and while I don’t find his work that good, I’m glad that it has been a help to others.

    One thing that has made me frustrated with West’s teaching in general, actually has nothing to do with him. I have family members who have the attitude that since TOB was beneficial to them, it will therefore be beneficial to everyone, and have gone so far as to say that others don’t have the fullness of the faith if they don’t embrace it (they’ve also said this about the charismatic movement/gifts). Important to note that they’ve not read JPIIs works, but have ust learned it through West. This is frustrating because (a) there is no teaching of the Church that mandates either of these things as necessary for salvation or the fullness of the faith and (b) obviously, the Church in her wisdom allows for many types of spirituality (charismatic, contemplative, monastic, etc) that are all good, but are beneficial to different people.

    In the end, I think that JPIIs TOB has a lot of great information, and has been helpful to a lot of people. I don’t think it is necessary for an authentic faith and in my opinion, West loses a lot in his translation.

    Happy Divine Mercy Sunday!

    1. I like this comment because it reminds us that we are all unique and what draws one person to holiness and love more deeply is not necessarily that which will be the tool used in another’s life and the more we can “let go and let God” without judging (not leaving out the standard for Truth) the more we will be free to love with the heart of Christ. Let us all be grateful for the gift of one another and the beauty of what happens in the process of living. Thanks for the conversation – virtual yet real.

  4. Due to the last comment, I just went back and reread your thoughts more carefully.

    “I’ll be glad when Pope John Paul II is declared a saint, because that will mean every last word he ever wrote was combed through and found to have nothing in opposition with the Catholic Church’s magisterium.”

    I’ll be thrilled when he’s declared a saint, too, but it won’t have the consequence that you mention. My friend Leila wrote about infallibility here: http://littlecatholicbubble.blogspot.com/2010/07/answer-to-doctrinal-quiz-show-third.html

  5. When I first heard that A. von Hildebrand was critical of West, I was rather confused and dismayed as well. I have heard both Hildebrand and West speak in person, and also have a great respect for both of them.

    I believe I read Janet Smith’s article summarizing the controversy a while back and I’m inclined to agree with her assessment (another person I’ve also met and greatly respect!).

    I will continue to recommend West’s books and conferences whenever I have the chance. I think he makes TOB very accessible, and if you’ve ever read JPIIs own writings, he is VERY intellectual and philosophical and I’m thankful for people like West that help more of us understand the profound beauty of the Theology Of the Body!

    Blessed JPII – Pray for us!

  6. By the way,Rhiamom, you can find more about the Crusades HERE http://www.catholic.com/radio/event.php?calendar=1&category=&event=6452&date=2010-10-25 (Madden is EXCELLENT) and the Inquisition HERE http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2007/0709tbt.asp

    Hope that helps! It’s quite fascinating!

  7. Pavil, the Uber Noob

    I always thought that Theology of the Body was speculative theology, which a Catholic is free to embrace or discard as a matter of private faith. There was a time when the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity was speculative theology. The Church permits itself to deepen its understanding.

    I have no problem trusting the Magisterium with respect to teaching of faith and morals. Nor do I have a problem with the crusades or the inquisition. Modern perceptions don’t always track with historical evidence.

    Ciao,
    Pavil

    1. Pavil,
      Sure thing! I choose to accept it, and I am frustrated by those who would attack other Catholics who are doing good things. If we can’t even stick together in the Catholic world, how are we going to accomplish anything evangelically? Thanks for stopping by! 🙂 Katie

  8. The main errors regarding the Crusades and Inquisition is the modern day fairy tale of the Church as the big bad guy. Though there were certainly errors along the way, the Inquisition and Crusades are much different than commonly thought.

    In regards to Christopher West, I share your concerns and disappointment. understand that theologians are concerned about him bringing things to too basic of a level, but I’m so impressed with his humility and ability to take a step back to review and consider their criticism. The best explanation of West’s errors are detailed here http://dawneden.blogspot.com/2010/06/papists-pick.html

    Still, you can judge a tree by its fruit, and the fruit produced by West’s explanation of the TOB is astounding and beautiful. Marriages have been saved. Vocations have flourished. The appreciation of and love for the Eucharist has exploded. These are all very good things. It certainly brought me further in my journey and more in love with Jesus Christ and the Church He gave us!

    Thanks for your series! Sorry you had to deal with the drama.

  9. They may indeed comb through everything JP2 wrote and find nothing opposed to Church teachings. I think the man deserves sainthood, but I don’t agree with breaking the long-established rules to get it for him early.

    I have trouble with the whole “the Church as a whole/the Magisterium cannot err” concept. I regard the Crusades and the Inquisition as major errors actively promulgated by the Church. And don’t even suggest that murdering people wasn’t a matter of faith or morals, as it was because of their faith – Jewish or Muslim – that they were murdered. Jesus said to spread the Good News, not to forcibly convert.

    1. Rhiamom,
      I’m very excited for JPII to be canonized, but certainly not outside the norms of the Church. We can wait, but wait with joyful anticipation!

      The Church only claims infallibility on matters of faith and morals, and only when the pope is speaking officially from the Chair of Peter. Certainly popes can make mistakes, and many have. Just because we are a human Church doesn’t mean we should toss aside the Church. 😉
      Katie

  10. Hello from another TOTB loving young Mom! You are correct that JPII was indeed beatified today — he is definitely on the road to sainthood (but let’s keep praying for him!). Happy Divine Mercy Sunday to you, as well!

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