I have followed the “Christopher West debate” from its beginning (Dr. Schindler’s critique) to the present (the most recent being the public release of Dawn Eden’s masters thesis). I would like to “weigh in” myself on this issue, and this for two reasons. (1) First, I wish to identify some additional problems that have not yet been pointed out, either by Ms. Eden in her Thesis or by previous critiques, including that of Dr. Alice von Hildebrand. (2) Second, I wish to attempt to draw up a “middle position” between the “two sides” – because I believe both are correct. To my knowledge, no one has yet attempted to do this.
A. Qualifications and Caveats
I must issue some preliminary remarks before I begin:
1. Keep in mind that I am not a doctor of theology, nor do I have much of an audience (one blog follower and no blog comments). I am, in the eyes of the “who’s who” of the Church and the Catholic blogosphere, a veritable nobody from nowhere with but a lowly masters degree in theology (which is not even good enough to so much as get my foot in the door to teach at even a small and obscure Catholic college). That said, I hope that this piece will be evaluated based on the merits of the argument and not the obscurity of its author.
2. Contrary to the accusations against many who have critiqued West, (a) this article is not personal, and (b) I have listened to and read West for myself.
(a) If it was personal, I would be criticizing Dawn Eden and not Christopher West. About a month or so after the Nightline segment, I sent Mr. West a letter of encouragement (because Mr. West was getting hit pretty hard over it, and I, for the same reasons outlined by Jimmy Akin, thought the Nightline piece was good for the Church). He responded with a nice email, which impressed me because he has a lot on his plate. I also sent letters to a number of other popular chastity speakers around the same time, and I was similarly impressed by the fact that I received nice responses (and even a complementary book) from all of them – except for one: Dawn Eden. I did not draw any conclusions as to why she was the only one not to respond, but I was disappointed and it left a bit of a bad taste, especially considering how busy the others who wrote back were (and are). (Then again, for all I know, it may have never arrived).
(b) I have watched and taken notes on West’s recent video series, “An Introduction to the Theology of the Body”, I have listened to and taken notes on his audio series, “Naked With Shame”, I have read and heavily highlighted Good News About Sex and Marriage, and finally, I have also read many of his online articles (found on his personal website). I have also read John Paul II’s original Theology of the Body. All of this was in preparation for a course on Theology of the Body which I was asked to teach at John Paul II Bible College in Radway, Alberta (www.jpii.net) (which I did from 2006 until it closed in 2009). The work of Mr. West was an important resource in helping me better understand and communicate John Paul II’s work. In fact, I continue to refer to him – but because I am immersed in the hermeneutic of continuity, I can sift truth from error.
3. Let me say before I continue that sex and marriage are good and beautiful and godly and spiritual lest there be any misunderstanding. It is essential this be borne in mind when I begin my treatises on the topics of celibacy vis-a-vis marriage as well as temporary continence.
4. Let me also warn that many of you will read the critique of West and his work itself (Section IV) and hold that I am missing the point: namely, that “West is a popularizer, not a theologian”. I know and I agree with this, and I will get to it in Part VI. However, please stick with the following paradigm: “Is he accurately presenting the Church’s teachings? Is he good for educating mature Catholics on the Faith and about Catholic teaching on sex and marriage? Or is he perhaps more suited to a more secular audience?”
5. This critique is not meant to be exhaustive; rather, it is to be taken as one piece and thus read in conjunction with the other critiques that have been given. These especially include (a) Dr. Schindler’s two critiques (which can be found here: http://www.headlinebistro.com/hb/en/news/west_schindler2.html, and here: http://www.headlinebistro.com/hb/en/news/schindler_response.html); (b) the recent essay from Dr. Alice von Hildebrand entitled “Dietrich von Hildebrand, Catholic Philosopher, and Christopher West, Modern Enthusiast: Two Very Different Approaches to Love, Marriage, and Sex” (which can be found here: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/document.php?n=999); (c) Dawn Eden’s Master’s thesis, entitled “Towards a ‘Climate of Chastity’: Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity” (which can be found here: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/DawnEdenThesis.pdf); and (d) much of what Steven Kellmeyer has said on his blog (with two caveats:  though many of his arguments are good, some are weak or fallacious;  he can be uncharitable and his tone can be offensive – so supporters of West may want to avoid him) (his blog can be found here: http://skellmeyer.blogspot.com/).
II. Areas of Agreement, Support, and In Defence of Mr. West
With that stated, I want to begin by pointing out some areas in which I agree with Christopher West and/or on which I believe he has been criticized too harshly for.
(1) The “prudish” Catholic Church. A number of things have led me to believe the Church has been too fixated on sexual sin and thus sex, but I will just mention one – my experiences with Confession. Many (not all) priests, when giving counsel after the penitent confesses, focus almost exclusively, if not exclusively, on sexual sin, even though many different sins and violations of the other commandments are confessed. Why is that? [this is not a rhetorical question – I want to know]
About six years ago, I went to confession after two very difficult weeks in which I committed sins (some serious) against all of the commandments – except the sixth. However, I did struggle with some impure thoughts (the ninth). After the confession, the priest, which he did habitually, went right to the sexual sin (in this case the impure thoughts). He began by asking if I prayed for help when those thoughts would come. I was agitated, and said, “why is it that the only sins you ever talk about are the sexual sins? I committed some serious sins this last couple weeks, and yet that’s the only thing you want to talk about”. He was rather taken aback, got defensive, apologized, and then went on to talk about some of my other (more serious?) sins. There was another priest I used to go to from time to time, and his post-confession, pre-absolution counsel would usually last for about 10 minutes. Without exception, these were all 10 minute talks about sex. No mention of my neglecting prayer, no mention of thoughts of taking revenge. All sex. My (non-rhetorical) question is, “Why do priests focus so exclusively on sex?” If it is not a prudish spirit, I would appreciate it if someone would tell me what it is instead.
One might argue that “because sex is so important, sexual sin is the most serious”. A number of things could be said in response to this. One thing that comes to mind is this question: “Isn’t that the kind of attitude that might lead to prudishness in the first place?” Or this: “Is that really why priests are so focused on sexual sin – because of its importance? Or could there be other factors?” I will leave the exploration of those other factors for another time (which I will get back to someday). Sufficed to say for now that Christopher West may be correct in saying there is a spirit of prudishness in the Church, and has been for some time.
(2) Analogies. (a) Christopher West has been criticized for referring to heaven, for instance, as “the ultimate orgasm”. (b) Or for saying the plunging of the baptismal candle is akin to penetration, in that just as Christ our Light brings life into the womb of the Church (the font), so too does the man bring life into the woman through sexual intercourse.
(a) Personally, I do not see much of a difference between much of what West says and that which is found in Scripture. We can call heaven “the Heavenly Jerusalem”, but we cannot call it “the ultimate orgasm”. In other words, we can call heaven “the ultimate city”, but we cannot call it “the ultimate orgasm”. Personally, I can see a case made for prudishness in this as well. Go through Scripture and see what else heaven is metaphorically referred to – which include many earthly things. These are all fine, but once the metaphors turn sexual, we have a reaction to it. I do not understand this. We can think of being physically loved by God in a fraternal manner, in a paternal or maternal manner, in a friendly manner, but not in an erotic manner. Why? Considering the book of “Revelation” itself is named after the ancient word for the “unveiling” (apokalypsis) of a “bride” (Rev 19:2) on her wedding night, considering that Christ referred to his Passion and sacrificial death as a “consummation” (John 19:30), and considering we have a whole book which makes sexual love and desire into a metaphor for God’s love (Song of Songs), it seems to be we are being consistent.
(b) To be honest, during the Easter Vigil of 2009, when the priest dipped the candle into the font, my mind made that same connection. There is something analogous there. The world is full of analogies, because all things in some sense are created in God’s image. Once again, look at the Psalms or the other Scriptures (or for those who pray Morning and Evening prayer, pay attention the next few times you do) and you will find all kinds of analogies. Some of them are natural analogies, which compare two earthly or human things. Some of them are also liturgical – comparing liturgical rites to human or natural counterparts (as well as, by extension, divine or supernatural counterparts). And if sexual union, intercourse, and fecundity are all in some way analogous to God’s fruitful love, then we must admit that certain liturgical rites, which symbolize and actually convey God’s love, must necessarily bear some resemblances to the sexual, just as they do to what is natural, just as they do to what is relational. My problem is not with drawing this connection per se - my problem is if one’s mind goes there every year, or if this is emphasized more than it should be (I do not believe it should even be generally taught – the rites of Easter Triduum are so rich that time should not be wasted on such peripheral analogies). I do not know if Mr. West’s mind goes there every year at the vigil – if it does, I would say this is problematic.
When it comes to analogies, I am partial to West because I make so many of them myself. When I watch baseball, the New York Yankees are, in my mind, truly analogous to Lucifer and his minions (admittedly, the fact that I am a long-time Red Sox fan has more than a little to do with this). Then again, they have been known as “the Evil Empire” in baseball circles for some time, so it is not as though I am cutting this out of whole cloth.
(3). Critical Ignorance? However, I must say I also observed many people who seemed to criticize West without seemingly knowing what exactly they were talking about. Here are the points I began a thread with on the Catholic Answers Forum (henceforth referred to as CAF) which dealt with this observation of mine: “West was no different in his presentations before Nightline than he was after. Dr. Schinder's critique. Yet people's attitudes have changed drastically ... Some of the people complaining about him now ... were many of the same people who were talking about how great his teachings were [and recommending them] as little as a year ago (before the Nightline segment). ... It is almost as though when people like Alice von Hildebrand began to chime in on the issue, people got a bad taste in their mouths, and decided that they too disliked West without really knowing why. So I must ask: do most people even know why they do not like Christopher West's presentation, and can they give examples? I bet many cannot, or have to think hard about it or do an internet search on what Schindler said before they can answer.” This, obviously, is not fair. My CAF “friend” “Rachel” gave a good response: “I think that most people who are sitting by the sidelines watching the whole Nightline aftermath play out are just looking for the most credible, trustworthy source to weigh in on the issue. ... People in general have resorted to ‘taking sides’ based on what else they read. So then it’s just down to personal preference. Do you agree with Alice von Hildebrand or Dr. Janet Smith or do you agree with Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Rhoades? etc.” My response was in part: “Practically speaking, I think that is the best we can expect most to do. However ... it is frustrating to see so many rag on West and his presentation with so much confidence and self-assurance on these forums when they really do not know what they are talking about. ” Obviously, this does not apply to everyone, but it does apply to some.
(4). Certain Arguments Made in the Various Critiques. Although I believe their critiques are on the whole excellent, I did not agree with everything written by Ms. Eden or Dr. von Hildebrand, nor did I think every argument was solid. I will cite a few examples from Ms. Eden’s thesis. (a) Her criticism regarding his youtube video in response to Katy Perry’s song/video, “I Kissed A Girl”, where Ms. Eden states: “note that not only is West describing the sex and violence depicted in Perry’s music video, he is actually telling viewers where to find it—“on YouTube.” (p.60) I thought this was a case of Ms. Eden trying too hard, as though she was almost looking for things to criticize West over. The fact is, most of his listeners were no doubt already acquainted with the song, and those that were not know where to find it. (2) Speaking of the beautiful woman that Mr. West said went from being a potential occasion of sinful lust to becoming a symbol of the Church which turned his thoughts and desires to the heavenly, Ms. Eden stated: “He adds that he did not see the woman’s face, so the appellation ‘very beautiful’ apparently applies only to her posterior.” (51) I thought this was somewhat of a potshot. The fact he did not see her face was part of her argument and she did soon afterwards show the relevance of it, but I did not believe it was necessary to word this argument this way. (3) Speaking again of the incident with the beautiful red-headed woman, Eden states: “we are to believe that West’s ‘mature purity,’ attained because he was no longer ‘bound by lust,’ enables him to transform an ‘occasion of sin’ into an occasion of ‘grace.’ To the best of my knowledge and research, this idea that one should actively seek out opportunities to engage in a ‘lively battle’ against lust is completely novel in the Church’s history.” (52) I believe this is a mischaracterization of West’s position. At times West seems to advocate this, but his main point – as it was in this case – is that since it is almost impossible to avoid exposure to immodestly-dressed women, we should “turn the tables” on Satan and use these situations as occasions of grace and growth in chastity. I agree with Eden and disagree with West on this point, but I also believe she set up a bit of strawman here.
III. Weak Responses to Objections Regarding Christopher West
Now I would like to address a few responses by defenders of West which I believe are weak.
(1) The support of Cardinal Rigali. This is a fallacy known as “argument from authority”. It goes without saying that Cardinals can be wrong about such issues. Take for example Cardinal Schonborn and Cardinal Sariava on the subject of Medjugorje - the two are diametrically opposed regarding its authenticity. In fact, look at Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict – they have long been in opposition concerning Fr. Maciel of the Legionaries. Regarding Cardinal Rigali, I will say that as a seminarian studying in his seminary while he was Archbishop of St. Louis, I had certain doubts about his judgment. To this day, and with all due respect to his gifts as a pastor and much of the good that he has done, I do not fully trust his judgment nor do I put great confidence in his ability to discern more difficult matters such as this. When Cardinal Rigali came out in support of Christopher West after the Nightline segment, it did not surprise me; in fact, it is what I would have expected.
(2) The Imprimatur given by Archbishop Chaput.
(a) Once again, an argument from authority. One of the problems today among orthodox Catholics is that we have granted certain bishops a sort of practical infallibility, whereby we give uncritical assent to anything they say, assuming because that bishop said it, it must be correct. Archbishop Chaput is probably first on that list. However, it is possible for even Archbishop Chaput to fail to properly discern certain things, such as the subtle errors and problems found in West’s presentations. Note that it was not the bishops, but the theologians who have pointed these things out. Why? Because, to be frank, bishops are often oblivious to such subtleties. That is not to insult them; rather, it is because it is not really their charism. That is why bishops need theologians and why Vatican II needed theologians to be successful – the bishops did not have the gift to carefully craft such documents (nor have they ever – theologians have always been the masterminds of Council documents and formulations, not bishops). Theologians have the charism of seeing and pointing out the truth before the bishops do – it is the bishops who then go through the arguments and objections made by the various theologians, weigh and discern them, and in the end officially decide what is true. Bishops need theologians just as much as theologians need bishops if either are to do their jobs properly. As Ruth Lasseter stated on Fr. Angelo’s blog, “I wish that our bishops and other leading church leaders had taken more care to determine just where this train was going before they jumped on board”. (http://maryvictrix.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/theology-of-the-body-and-the-mystical-magical-train/#comments) [note: all comments from Fr. Angelo’s blog have been taken from this link). I agree with her.
It has been pointed out that Archbishop Chaput’s name has been removed from the list of Theology of the Body Institute episcopal advisors, and it should be noted that he has been silent during this whole controversy. It would not surprise me (in fact I would submit this is the case) that Schindler’s critique and the ensuing responses and rebuttals opened Archbishop Chaput’s eyes to some things that he did not really see before.
(b) Here is how I responded to one person on CAF: “Imprimatur and Nihil obstat only mean there are no blatant heresies in the book - they do not mean the book is free of theological errors, which can still be found in such books (we must distinguish between ‘dogma’ and ‘theology’ here). These designations also do not mean that the bishop who gives it agrees with everything the author says. The designations also do not mean every point the author makes is correct.” I responded to another commenter on a different website who was responding to a piece posted by Ms. Eden after her thesis came out and commenting that since the imprimatur means that “nothing contrary to faith or morals”, we should not question it. I said the following, “‘nothing contrary to faith or morals’ is simply ‘Church-ese’ for ‘no heresies’. [We critics] acknowledge he is not teaching heresies. What we [critics] are saying is that there are theological errors and teachings that dissonate with the analogy of faith [that “sound a bit ‘off’ to pious Catholic ears and sensibilities”, in other words] (not to mention misrepresentations of the Holy Father’s teachings). It is not heresy to say, for instance, that the Easter Candle is a phallic symbol - there is no dogma on what the Easter Candle does and does not symbolize. Nor, may I add, is it ‘heresy’ to say that the Song of Songs is the ‘centerfold of the Bible’. However, it is a theologically flawed position, and it is one that, if you judge from the ‘analogy of faith’ (everything else the Church has taught ‘dogmatically’), does not hold up. ... You should acquaint yourself with the terms ‘theology’ and ‘dogma’ as the Church understands them - making errors with regards to the first does not result in ‘heresy’ per se, but making mistakes regarding the latter does. Personally, I would give all of West's work an Imprimatur - and that includes the Nightline segment. But that is not saying much – ‘Imprimatur’ is a negative judgment and a basic one at that. It simply says, ‘there are no discernable heresies in this work’. It does not even say, ‘there are no theological errors or historical errors or logical errors’. That is a long ways from an endorsement or even a positive judgment”.
(3) The response from Matt Pinto. As I followed the debate last summer, the most frustrating piece I read came from his publisher, Matt Pinto. At the time I characterized it as one long red herring, which aptly describes it. His argument basically amounted to this: “Christopher West is popular and has transformed lives. Therefore we should disregard what Dr. Schindler says”. Obviously, this is fallacious reasoning, which is why it did nothing to help the debate. In fact it may have hurt Mr. West – anytime issues are avoided and red herrings are used, it is usually a tacit admission that the opponent is correct about the particular issues he raises. Granted, some people are convinced by such red herrings (and some no doubt read it and said, “take that, Dr. Schindler!”), but most following the debate saw it for what it was.
The impression I got was that Mr. Pinto saw his friend (and please forgive me for saying so, but his “cash cow” for lack of a better term – I apologize for saying it this way but I think this is part of it) being attacked and wanted to come to his defence. However, because he did not have the theological background or capacity to really understand or grasp the issues Dr. Schindler raised, he just wrote what was “on his heart” and defended him as best he could from the angle he was most familiar with and competent in. Unfortunately, this was a theological debate that someone who was not a theologian tried to get in on but was not equipped for. It is like when I am discussing the finer points of hockey or curling or Canadian football with fellow Canadians and a lifetime resident of Las Vegas tries to contribute to the discussion – it is like a needless distraction, and the person should just stay out of it (and usually does after everyone turns and looks at him funny).
(4) Citing jealousy as the motivation behind the criticisms of Dawn Eden, Dr. Schindler, and Dr. von Hildebrand. I am not going to deny that, simply because I do not know whether or not it is true. In some cases, it probably no doubt is. But this is yet another red herring – just because someone’s motives for issuing a critique are impure, that does not mean the critique itself is invalid. Usually jealous people point out things that are true in their attempt to tear the other down and so exalt themselves. The fact is that jealous people can still be right about the person they are jealous of. Plus, as I said before, any time one responds to a critique with “they are just jealous”, it is usually because they are unable to respond to the substance of the argument – and I find this just reinforces the impression that the critics are correct.
(5) The criticisms are unwarranted, uncharitable, and misplaced. This is similar to the previous point. It is not necessarily “uncharitable” to critique the work of another, and in a public forum if attempts to do so privately have failed (in that case, we are instructed to “take it to the Church” [Matt 18:15-17]). The reason these criticisms are labelled “uncharitable” is because (a) people assume the motives of those critiquing are impure or nefarious, and (b) people take some things far too personally. The charge of the “uncharitable” nature is fine if that is what it really is. But even if one detects a lack of charity, one should still respond to the arguments that the uncharitable person makes. If not, then it comes across to me as someone who really has no good or valid response to the issues raised and thus resorts to deflecting the issue and turning the tables around through ad hominem attacks. By all means, talk about how uncharitable the critics are being. But then in a second step, get to the issues I raise and address them directly.
(6). “These criticisms should not be made because ‘we are all on the same team’. The real enemies are the liberals who are killing babies – go after them. This is the argument made by Robert Colquhoun at “Love Undefiled” (http://loveundefiled.blogspot.com/2010/07/alice-von-hildebrand-criticizes.html). Regarding the first, which I have also heard described as the equivalent of “shooting a soldier who is fighting on our side”, this is another convenient way to deflect valid criticisms. “Fraternal correction” is a Christian act and can often be a necessary one. It is especially appropriate when private critiques have either gone ignored or have not been acted on – which, in the case of Mr. West and Dr. Schindler, seems to have been the case if we are to believe the latter. I think this is a fallacious argument for about a dozen reasons, but I will just ask this question: when St. Paul “opposed Peter to his face” in front of “all” who were present – the Jews, Gentiles, and Apostles (Galatians 2:11-14), was he “shooting a fellow soldier” or being a “bad teammate”? As for the latter – ie. “go after the real enemies”, this reminds me of the guy who gets caught for speeding and says to the police officer, "why don't you go after the real criminals".
(7) The negative evaluations and reactions come from a spirit of prudishness, stemming from the fact that many Catholics are still tainted by the vestiges of prudery that remain in the Catholic Church. Fr. Angelo pointed this out: “West has been saying all along ... that anyone who objects to this ideology must be spiritually immature and a slave to lust.” Of course, this is a great way to end the discussion – you are labelled a “prude”, and the course marked out for you is clear – pray that God might soften and open and heal your heart, and you too will “see the light”. But it is a terrible way to honestly persuade the other through the power of truth and reason. He uses his position of authority, the “expert” who has been paid to come and “educate” others, to validate his position through an ad hominem attack of sorts – namely, the implication that this objector holds erroneous notions due to his prudery and thus on that count we should discount his objection, rather than directly consider and respond to the point the objector makes. And by doing this, he “proves” to the people that in fact he is right and the objection is not a valid one (and unfortunately, most deflect to his authority without considering the fallacious nature of his response or evaluate the true merit of the objection).