Tuesday, October 5, 2010

TOB Debate: Summary and Brief History

Stephen Ryan of Ministry Values contacted me again, but this time with regards to Theology of the Body.

He said that he knew very little about TOB, so he asked me to write a short piece which would outline the issues regarding the debate. I proceeded to do so, but after sending it to him, he responded that perhaps instead “we” could take a “different angle” and “push back” against either Eden or West (because he claimed he was neutral – which I would soon find out was not true). He suggested one thing – Eden’s “financial motive”, seizing an opportunity to go public with a hot-selling issue like sex and get rich while riding West’s coattails.

I responded by saying I was beginning to feel used, and that I would not agree to this because I was not his “lackey”. I told him that if Eden had financial motives, so has West all these years. He knew when he began his career that there was a huge and eager audience willing to pay a great deal of money for this “Theology of the Body”, because TOB, at least as West presents it, has a lot to do with “sex”, and sadly, Catholics are more “obsessed” with sex than most people in the secular world. For instance, Franciscan University of Steubenville is a very “devout” place; and yet many have made the astute observation that the campus is “sex-obsessed”. So West knew he would make a great deal of money from this. As I said elsewhere, if the financial consideration did not so much as even cross his mind when he started, we should open the cause for his canonization immediately. It would have crossed my mind, and when I think of books I want to publish, it does cross my mind – money is a practical aspect of life. I do believe, however, West should allow those who own previous editions of his books and recordings to send in the bar codes of those books and recordings and be able to buy a newer edition at cost.

Anyway, since I told Mr. Ryan I did not want him to publish my work, I decided to print it here because I did not want it to go to waste.

I would also like Patrick Madrid to explain to me why again he did not feel as though Stephen Ryan was taking us for a ride. He clearly was. Perhaps Mr. Madrid can give me another "description" if "being taken for a ride" is inaccurate.

I also hope that Our Lady of Medjugorje was not the one who taught him as long as he fulfilled his "five spiritual stones" (did his Friday fast, went to Mass and received Holy Communion, etc.) he could go ahead and feel free to use people like this, be deceptive, and argue fallaciously and unfairly. I have heard it is uncharitable to disclose the contents of private emails, but in this case, people need to be warned against this "Stephen Ryan" of Ministry Values and cautioned to avoid him. Kevin Symonds of Desiderium can tell you all about it as well.

Here is the article:

Over the past 17 months, a great debate has raged in the Church that has pitted cardinal against cardinal, layman against layman, theologian against theologian. It is a debate over the work of a lay evangelist, Christopher West, in his popular presentations of the “Theology of the Body”.

For those who are unfamiliar with the “Theology of the Body”, I will provide a short explanation. Between 1979 and 1984, Pope John Paul II delivered a series of teachings at his Wednesday audiences in which he took the Church’s traditional teachings on marriage and sex and presented it in a fresh way to a modern world which was in need of such a new approach. It was more a work of “anthropology” – who we are as human beings and what our purpose in life is – but taught in light of our “sexuality” (i.e. our “masculinity and femininity [noun], as distinguished from sexual union [verb]).

Although Theology of the Body (sometimes abbreviated “TOB”) was an excellent theological work, it was dense, used complex philosophical categories and terms, and thus was very difficult for most people to understand. As a result, few read it.

However, in the late 1990s, a young theology student named “Christopher West” began to take the Pope’s teachings and “simplify” them so that the “average layperson” could understand them. He disseminated this sort-of “TOB Cliff’s Notes” through various books, CD and DVD recordings, conferences, courses, and presentations, and has been doing so for the past 12 years.

His presentations were very dynamic and he himself was a passionate and charismatic speaker. He had a gift for “meeting people immersed in the secular culture where they were at” and thus “spoke their lingo”.

However, after West was interviewed on the secular news program “Nightline”, his former theology professor, Dr. David L. Schindler, who specializes in John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”, published a critique of West’s work over the internet. He explained that these were issues he has had with West’s work for some time, but after attempts to correct him privately were unsuccessful, he decided to go public.

He outlined four problems with West’s popular presentations: (1) He teaches that we can actually completely conquer “concupiscence” (that disordered tendency we have to selfish gratification) when in fact “concupiscence” dwells objectively in the body and thus always remains a threat to our holiness; (2) He gives inordinate place to sexual union (or “makes it out to be greater than it really is”) and “inverts” analogies by projecting sexual characteristics onto God and supernatural things. The example Schindler gave was West giving the Easter Candle which is “plunged” into the baptismal font at the Easter Vigil a “phallic” interpretation; (3) He tends to view female modesty in dress as being necessary only because males are “lustful”, and that if males could only stop lusting, women could dispense with clothing, and this would be ideal; and (4) He responds to those who disagree with him by implying that their disagreement stems from a certain prudishness and then suggests that they pray that God so He can help them heal them of their prudishness and thus see things more clearly (which means seeing them as West sees them).

There were immediate responses from supporters of West. His friends and colleagues, Dr. Janet Smith and Dr. Michael Waldstein – who also teach Theology of the Body – defended West. Although they did not respond to the substance of Schindler’s critique, they both stated that Schindler was wrong about West, and that West’s alleged “errors” are really nothing other than necessary and successful attempts to translate John Paul’s heady theology into something easier to grasp. Another friend and colleague, his publisher, Matthew Pinto of Ascension Press, defended him on the basis that he has evangelized many people and is popular.

Schindler responded to Smith and Waldstein, Waldstein replied again, and from there, others joined in. Three other Theology of the Body professors who teach alongside Dr. Schindler came out against West. Then, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand – widow of Dr. Deitrich von Hildebrand, from whom John Paul II took many of his ideas when writing his Theology of the Body – came out against West as well. West responded by taking a six-month sabbatical in which he expressed his intention of reflecting upon his approach and upon what his critics had to say.

The debate continued on various blogs, including that of Fr. Angelo Geiger, Sr. Lorraine (editor of Mr. West’s “TOB Explained”), and Steve Kellmeyer (author of TOB book, “Sex and the Sacred City”). Recently, the debate has been rekindled as Dawn Eden, author of “Thrill of the Chaste” (which gives an account of her conversion from being a permiscuous Jewish rock music journalist to becoming a chaste Catholic), publicly released her Master’s thesis, which was a critique of West’s work. This came out roughly the same time as a lengthy essay by Dr. Alice von Hildebrand wherein she too critiqued West. Dr. Smith has since issued a lengthy response, as has Sr. Lorraine.

In the meantime, West has come back from his sabbatical. He has promised that he will publish a series of articles wherein he addresses his critics. Although he has not explicitly stated that there were defects in his approach, he did admit to being humbled. However, he also said that his critics have at times mischaracterized his position.

The debate continues, and unfortunately, it is to the point where most people are really confused and do not know what to believe anymore. There have been calls for a Vatican ruling, but I do not foresee that happening. Time will tell ..


  1. I am hearing more about Veritatis Splendor 103. This is going to be a sticking point.

    Also, it is a slander against the character of Dawn Eden to say she was out for money. Someone better have the proof and not circumstantial evidence, otherwise they've opened themselves up to a lawsuit for character defamation.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I think it is important for those of us who are "critics" to continue to bring up this point you just made.