WADE ST. ONGE

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Friday, October 1, 2010

Theology of the Body Debate: Final Appeal

Having withdrawn from participating publicly in the Theology of the Body debate, I did not have the chance to say much with regards to Dr. Janet Smith's critique of Dawn Eden's thesis. I did write Dr. Smith and Sr. Lorraine privately, and once again, our exchanges were fruitful.

Although I believe I have succeeded in helping to bring some members from both sides of this debate a little closer together, I still find there is a great deal of separation as well as "talking past" each other. I do not believe this is necessary, because I believe the two sides are actually very close to each other.

The ongoing war of words - from critique to response to rebuttal before moving on to the next critique at which the cycle begins again - has brought these two sides no closer together than when Dr. Schindler issued his critique in May of 2009.

I still believe my own "thesis" on this issue - which is an attempted "synthesis" between the two sides - provides the proper resolution to this debate. I was recently given a boost when TOB presenter Katrina Zeno stated something similar to my synthesis in the combox of Dr. Smith's critique.

Unfortunately, many people "in the middle" have become very confused about all this. When "experts" argue with "experts" and use such technical language and heady concepts, the "average layperson" simply does not know what to believe anymore. Consider this combox post from Antonio A. Badilla responding to a recent article about the ongoing debate: "Wow! This is really heating up and the problem is that we, as lay people, don't know what to think anymore. Perhaps it is time for the SCF to step in, study West's writings, and tell us what is accurate or non-accurate in West's teachings."

I really think the solution is so elementary that "experts" are not needed to either understand it or even explain it.

At this point, I would like to reprint Part V of my blog piece on this issue in order to take one last crack at ending this debate and bringing about a resolution so we can all get back to the work of building a culture of life in the face of the great evil that threatens to destroy us all. Personally, I sense that this ongoing debate continues to wear us down and tire us out. I know it has me. I am going on a retreat this weekend, and I hope to return refreshed and ready to take on the important work the Lord wills me to do - work that will no longer consist in participating in this debate. Bless you all.



I believe there is complete harmony although the two positions seem at odds. What I am about to do is validate both the critics and supporters of West, and bring their arguments into a synthesis.

Let me re-state my thesis at this point:

West's approach is good for the particular audience he is catering to. However, West's approach is not suited to the “spiritually mature” or those with a firm grasp of Catholic doctrine. These Catholics can get some good things out of it and enjoy it, but they can also be rightly bothered by some of the things he says and see them as problematic.

These Catholics need rather to be "feeding at the banquet", to use West's own analogy. West is feeding people with banquet food, but he is tossing it in a picnic basket and carrying it off to the back alleys, which by the time it gets there is not as “good”, not as “pure”.

West must over-simplify and he must also speak the lingo of the man eating out of the dumpster. But eventually those people should be led to a point in their spiritual journey where they too find that language vulgar and offensive.

This argument was really a non-argument from the start. Both Dr. Schindler and Dr. Smith are right. What they both missed was this: West is excellent for those immersed in our secular culture. West is problematic for those who have attained a spiritual and sexual maturity and a fully Catholic understanding of sex and marriage.

The problem is, the Bishops did not properly discern this, and thus they believed that West was suitable and even perfect for all audiences. ...


1. Evangelism, Catechesis, and Theology

A supporter of West responded to criticism about his theological errors by stating, “West isn’t a theologian, he’s a popularizer”. This is well stated and captures the real charism of Mr. West and many other TOB popularisers and speakers. What Dr. Smith and Dr. Waldstein are saying is that Mr. West’s approach (with his over-simplifications and with the emphasis he places on that which our culture is saturated in – namely, the sexual) is necessary in order to attract, engage, and win over a secular audience. To that I widely agree. That is what makes him an “evangelist”. What Ms. Eden and Dr. Von Hildebrand are saying is that Mr. West has made some serious theological errors and catechetical blunders which has rightly scandalized and upset many of the faithful. To this too I widely agree. That is what makes him a mediocre or even poor “theologian” or “catechist”.

This is essentially the “three-step process” in the conversion process – evangelism, catechesis, and theology. It all begins with “evangelism”, which necessitates, as Vatican II said, an “inculturation” of the Gospel and naturally an “over-simplication”, a “meeting people where they are at”, which of course tends towards theological problems. One does not begin to try to convert heathen nations through “catechesis” or even “theology” – it just will not attract them, they will not understand, nor will they be willing to embrace it. However, once a person experiences metanoia – or makes a decisive “conversion” – then is the time to teach that person the faith he has decided to embrace. Only at that point are they ready for “theology” – faith seeking understanding – whereby they probe ever deeper the mysteries of our Faith and the Person (or Communion of Persons) which our Faith binds us into a relationship with.

So St. Patrick preached to the Irish pagans by finding “types” and “partial fulfillments” in the superstitious practices he found there, just as the Church transformed pagan practices into Christian ones by replacing the pagan practices with Christian meanings. From there, St. Patrick used the three-leaf clover to explain the Trinity and thus help the pagans understand the very difficult concept of the Trinity. As time went on in Ireland and as people were converted more deeply, this rudimentary illustration of the Trinity gave way to a “fuller”, more accurate (and more spiritual) understanding. For those who have grown deeper in the mysteries of the Christian faith, the shamrock is no longer useful, and in fact can be dangerous – it can “stunt” one’s spiritual growth or even cause regression.

The same holds true for Mr. West. He is an “evangelist”, and he is quite effective in engaging the secular audience. However, he is a poor “theologian”, because theologians must keep the often-paradoxical truths of the faith in a delicate tension and also remain faithful (and show how they remain faithful) to the Catholic Tradition. West does neither very well. He is also an irresponsible “catechist”, because catechists must take extreme care to ensure they use the precise formulas found in the Magisterial documents, and to ensure that their teachings do not “stray” into “speculative theology” (especially controversial speculations). Once again, West does neither very well.

2. West Must “Hand Off” After He “Brings In”

Listen to what Ms. Eden herself says in her thesis, as I believe this proves what I am saying here, and also speaks to my thesis: “Christopher West’s gifts as a popular presenter helped get me through the Church’s doors—as they have for numerous other Catholics, and I will always be grateful for God’s using his work in that way. However, as I got deeper into Catholic faith and practice, I began to discover discrepancies between his presentation and the teachings of the Magisterium—discrepancies that, however unintentional, appeared to be impacting the faithful in disturbing ways.” (pg.7)

I would also like to quote what Fr. Angelo says as it too speaks to my thesis: “One of the concerns I have raised for a long time is the way in which this particular interpretation of TOB argues from two mutually exclusive points of departure, depending on what sort of objection is raised. On the one hand, it is argued that such an approach is necessary in order to meet “those hearts who may not be members of the ‘choir,’ but on the other hand, when those who are more serious about practicing chastity are approached with the message, their reticence to countenance such an approach is met with the suggestion that they have not yet experienced the full message of redemption of the body. So which is it?”

I would answer that it is “both”. “Those hearts who may not be members of the choir” I believe need West’s approach. However, “those who are more serious about practicing chastity”, who have thus “matured” and grown “deeper” in the Faith and “immersed” themselves in the Catholic Tradition should not continue to listen to or read West as a primary source – they should have moved past that. The problem here is that mature Catholics who should be seeking catechesis and theology are looking for these things and expecting to find them in an evangelistic presentation. The problem is not that Mr. West was booked as a speaker. The problem is that those who booked him as a speaker assumed he was good for all audiences, including all Catholic audiences, and he is not.

Therefore, although Mr. West should certainly continue to do “evangelism”, he should not be doing “catechesis” or “theology”. And he should make it clear that he is an “evangelist” – and make it equally clear that he is not a “theologian” or a “catechist” and is doing neither theology or catechesis. Unfortunately, he has been hired as a speaker by too many people who were unaware of this distinction.

5 comments:

  1. As I've said before, I think there might be some merit to this thesis, but it is limited.

    Mr. West certainly doesn't believe his message is only for the spiritually immature, those feeding at the dumpster. Rather that his message is for EVERYBODY. The same goes with his defenders. the "he populizes, he isn't a theologian" is true enough. Yet an understanding for the "spiritually mature" is never given. Instead, those you would call "spiritually mature" are viewed by my friends across the way as Manichean or part of the "religious right."

    I honestly think the majority of the hubbub over this debate would go away, if that kind of inflammatory language stopped. In their eyes, we are not "spiritually mature", we are repressive prudes. I think that is the one hole in your thesis. Mr. West and others on his side of the aisle reject your interpretation.

    I don't think they are being deceptive here. They honestly believe those like myself suffer from deep problems of prudery, latent Manichean tendencies, etc. They believe before JPII and TOB, the truth about the matter was "repressed" by the institutional church at large. That is a pretty large chasm to cross, as those like Dawn Eden, Steve Kellmeyer (and far down the totem pole myself!) have to spend the first part of the discussion with them proving we aren't heretics or people who oppose premarital sex because it might lead to dancing.

    That frustrates me that my brethren would offer more charity to Hugh Hefner than someone they share the Eucharist with.

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  2. For what it is worth, I've expanded on the previous column over at my blog:

    http://commonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com/2010/10/tob-debate-where-are-we-now.html

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  3. To respond to your critique of my thesis:

    1. You say: “Wade's thesis ultimately falls short for one simple reason: Mr. West and his defenders (outside of perhaps Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouve) reject this characterization of Mr. West's work.”

    I do not think you can reject my thesis just because they reject my characterization of his work. If I say he is a good “evangelist” but a poor “catechist” or “theologian” and West says “no, I am a good catechist and theologian”, that doesn’t mean I’m not right and it doesn’t mean he is. Just because West “claims” that “TOB Explained” and “TOB Institute” are for “spiritually mature” Christians, the mere claim does not make it so, and his mere claim does not make my thesis wrong.

    If I say “TOB Explained” and “TOB Institute” has certain deficiencies and omissions – which I think they do – then I can still claim it is not for the “spiritually mature” or those well-catechised. If “TOB Explained” faithfully reflects JP2’s teaching (I think for the most part it does), then I would say TOB itself has deficiencies and omissions – which I certainly think it does, and which I explained in my blog article.

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  5. To respond to the other portion of this article:

    They might view us as “prudes” and “manichaean”, but quite frankly, what people say only matters insofar as what they say lines up with the truth. If this is true, then God help us to change and convert our hearts. However, if they are not right, then we must continue to insist they address the issues instead of deflecting them with "ad hominem" attacks.

    Do they believe Dr. Alice von Hildebrand is “prudish”? I certainly think that is a real possibility. However, if they do believe this, they know they cannot really come out and say this, even though some of West’s defenders have said just that on various comboxes.

    As I have said many times before, the main defenses consist of ad hominem attacks, red herrings, and silence. That in itself says more to me than any argument.

    I look forward to both Dr. Smith’s response to von Hildebrand (and von Hildebrand’s rebuttal if she decides to write one) as well as Mr. West’s promised series of articles which will respond to his critics.

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