Friday, October 22, 2010

TOB: Second Response to Dr. Janet Smith

Introduction and Outline

As I said in response to Dr. Smith’s critique of von Hildebrand’s essay, I too noticed a number of errors, poorly-made arguments, and straw men in the essay. Part of this, I believe, is that she relied too heavily on arguments made by others – specifically, others who worked from a bias that led them to make some invalid critiques. Part of this, too, is that von Hildebrand, admittedly, has little familiarity with West and his work, although despite that, I believe that, contrary to Dr. Smith’s statement that “many of us who have heard and read West do not find the West we have come to know in von Hildebrand’s depiction of him”, von Hildebrand does in large part properly understand West.

1. However, although I agree with much of what Dr. Smith says in this essay, there are certain arguments I disagree with. I would like to respond to these briefly.

2. I also said the following in my combox response: “I also noticed some excellent points in von Hildebrand’s essay that I believe remain valid and applicable. These are points you did not address here, which makes sense considering your focus was on that which she had wrong.” As a result, what I would like to do after responding to selected arguments made by Dr. Smith, is highlight (reprint) some points in von Hildebrand’s essay that I believe are strong and that bear repeating and which I also believe demand a response. Those who have followed the debate on my blog or in various comboxes I have contributed to know that one of my main points of contention is that a number of excellent arguments and critiques have not received responses, sometimes repeatedly.

Part I: Response to Selected Points from Dr. Smith

1. Dr. Smith states: “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.

The question is, does he change his problematic views, or does he just stop presenting those views? If the former is true, than this is good and bodes well for West. However, if the latter is more the case, then this is not enough.

2. Dr. Smith: “Because I respect von Hildebrand and others who have criticized West’s work, I have read their critiques carefully. I have tried to see whether my enthusiasm for his work has led me to overlook flaws or truly objectionable elements (as opposed to matters of taste).

I still believe that Dr. Smith continues to overlook some serious flaws in content (not just style or tone). I will get to these later.

3. Dr. Smith: “Furthermore, von Hildebrand’s essay in some sections has the unfortunate tone of some of those whom she thanks as her advisors rather than the scholarly tone one typically associates with the von Hildebrands.

I do not find her tone any more “unfortunate” than her husband’s tone in Trojan Horse in the City of God. Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand had some very strong language in that work. His wife comes across as a pussy cat in this essay compared to her husband in that work.

4. Dr. Smith: “She even seems to suggest that West is akin to Havelock Ellis, that West thinks ‘pleasure’ rather than God should be the ‘King of the Bedroom.’ If she had read West, von Hildebrand would know that he absolutely thinks that God is the King of the Bedroom—and when He is, spouses experience greater pleasure, the greater pleasure that happens when sexual intercourse is an expression of self-gift rather than an act of self-indulgence.

Of course, West believes God is King of the Bedroom. But in West’s presentation it seems as though the “King” wants us to experience “maximal” pleasure. It is almost like the “self-gift”, in West’s conception, is the means to the end that is “maximal pleasure”. Hence why he speaks about St. Teresa looking like she is having an orgasm in paintings which show her in mysical union. What is conveyed is this: “the pleasure that comes from loving is great and what we all desire; but you have to make a self-gift to get it”. In other words, “pleasure” is what we are after. What von Hildebrand is saying is that this is the wrong goal. The proper goal is that we love – not in order to experience “pleasure”, but because God has called and willed us to love. Our goal is to desire what God wants of us, which is to love without any consideration for the reward of “pleasure” or anything else. Of course West believes this; but it does no good for a speaker to believe something if it is not conveyed through his presentations. Of course he stresses “self-gift”, but he almost does so as though it is a means to the end of “the heavenly orgasm”, as he referred to it in Good News About Sex and Marriage.

Also, what von Hildebrand was saying is that “pleasure” is not something we should “seek” to “maximize” but rather “accept” as a “gift”. As long as West is making this clear to his audiences and not leaving the impression that as married couples they should be trying to maximize their sexual pleasure, then I am sure Dr. von Hildebrand would have no cause for disagreement.

Perhaps Dr. von Hildebrand was confused by the subtitle of Popcak’s book Holy Sex!, which is, “Your Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving”. That full book title seems to cry out “maximize your pleasure” to me! The euphemism “toe-curling, mind-blowing” is used by secular maganizes that print articles on how to “maximize orgasmic pleasure”. I will not cite examples here – the reader can look for himself the next time he goes to the checkout counter to pay for his groceries.

5. “She believes that West is implying that anyone who hasn’t read Popcak’s book (such as St. Elizabeth of Hungary) could ever have a happy marriage.

I believe that von Hildebrand’s issue is that Popcak’s book is seen as a sine qua non for any Catholic, because the author has become, along with West, the de facto authority on the Catholic teaching on sex and marriage. The impression left is that in order to have the greatest possible marriage you can have, one must read West, Popcak, or JP2’s TOB, because without one or all of these, the Church before Vatican II just didn’t provide a good enough teaching for married couples. I would challenge anyone who believes such rubbish to look at the marriage of Zelie and Louise Martin and tell me how JP2 could have “improved” their marriage, when it was clear they were already living everything he taught!

6. Dr. Smith: “Von Hildebrand mentions that her husband, instead, would have praised books like St Augustine’s Confessions and St Francis De Sales Introduction to the Devout Life. The implication seems to be that West would prefer Popcak to them. But what is the evidence for this implication?

The evidence for this implication is that I have never heard West cite De Sales. His classic on lay spirituality contains some excellent advice and teaching regarding marriage and sex. But because West probably believes he is tainted with Manichaeism (Sr. Lorraine just spoke about this in her latest blog article: http://thomasfortoday.blogspot.com/2010/10/janet-smith-responds-to-alice-von.html, Comment #27), he is not one of the Saints he quotes when he “cherry-picks” from the Tradition (as I spoke of in my own critique).

7. Dr. Smith: “Talking about sex is always problematic: people have very different comfort levels for what is appropriate speech and action in this area.

That is true. But the fact is, there are also some objective standards and lines that one should not cross irregardless of where some people’s comfort zones might be.

8. Dr. Smith: “I don’t understand what von Hildebrand means when she says that ‘West follows Freudian thought, looking for understanding in the lower rather than the higher.’ To what is she referring? West, following John Paul II, believes that the human body, made as it is in the image and likeness of God, reveals something to us both about God and man.

If St. Francis de Sales can be tainted by Manichaeism, West can be tainted by Freudianism. It is the same logic.

9. Dr. Smith: “Von Hildebrand and others object to West’s reference to the Easter Candle as a phallic symbol—again, an issue that is in no way central to his presentations.

Any time a defender of West in part agrees with a critic of West, the response is often, “it is not central to his teaching”. (1) First of all, West defenders should rather simply admit there are (or may be) some problematic aspects to his presentation without having to qualify or minimize it. (2) As I told Sr. Lorraine, some of the things West says only once impress themselves on the memory and consciousness in such a way that those “peripheral” portions become very “central” in the minds of his listeners, and something they never forget and remain very vivid and in the forefront.

10. Dr. Smith: “Von Hildebrand’s response to West’s likening the birth of his son to the birth of Jesus is curious. She believes it is incorrect to think that Mary may have expelled a bloody placenta. Pregnant wombs have placentas. Did not Mary’s? Would it be wrong to think it might have been bloody? Christ’s body was covered with blood when he died, was it not? Scripture itself makes reference to Mary’s womb and breasts; is the placenta really so objectionable that it could not be mentioned? West has good company in his thinking. St Jerome argued: ‘Add, if you like, Helvidius, the other humiliations of nature, the womb for nine months growing larger, the sickness, the delivery, the blood, the swaddling-clothes. Picture to yourself the infant in the enveloping membranes. Introduce into your picture the hard manger, the wailing of the infant, the circumcision on the eighth day, the time of purification,… We do not blush, we are not put to silence.’” (St. Jerome, The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary Against Helvidius) http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.vi.v.html)

I am not sure St. Jerome is the best source to cite when it comes to drawing up the standard for sensitivity. Furthermore, Dr. Smith “cherry-picks” St. Jerome here. In that same document, Jerome denigrates marriage by saying: “Then come the prattling of infants, the noisy household, children watching for her word and waiting for her kiss, the reckoning up of expenses, the preparation to meet the outlay. On one side you will see a company of cooks, girded for the onslaught and attacking the meat: there you may hear the hum of a multitude of weavers. Meanwhile a message is delivered that the husband and his friends have arrived. The wife, like a swallow, flies all over the house. She has to see to everything. Is the sofa smooth? Is the pavement swept? Are the flowers in the cups? Is dinner ready? Tell me, pray, where amid all this is there room for the thought of God? Are these happy homes? Where there is the beating of drums, the noise and clatter of pipe and lute, the clanging of cymbals, can any fear of God be found?” He also says sexual union is a barrier to holiness: “I do not deny that holy women are found both among widows and those who have husbands; but they are such as have ceased to be wives, or such as, even in the close bond of marriage, imitate virgin chastity.

I cannot tell you how many times I have read Catholic blogs and articles ridiculing St. Jerome for stating these things. Now, if St. Jerome could be wrong about the quotations I gave, surely he can be wrong about the quotation given by Dr. Smith. This example does not prove Dr. Smith`s point. I believe she must choose another.

11. Dr. Smith: “Repeatedly, von Hildebrand asserts that West `puts too much emphasis on the body in a culture in which everything is body-centered.` Does he?

Yes, I believe he does. For proof, one need only refer to his “bedtime prayers for children.”

12. Dr. Smith: “Alice von Hildebrand states that only West’s interpretation of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is controversial; that no one has objected to the Theology of the Body itself. I find it curious that von Hildebrand does not know that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body has been seriously questioned by both conservatives and liberals.

It has not been as controversial as West`s presentations, and that for a number of reasons that have already been stated in a number of places by a number of those critiquing West`s work.

13. Dr. Smith: “Von Hildebrand tells us that West recommends we should stand naked in front of a mirror so as to realize that our bodies need not be a source of shame (Where did he say this? What was the context?) Again this is not proposal he regularly makes; if he said it, it was likely said on the spur of the moment.

His “look at Joe. Now look at Joe`s body,” is a staple in his presentations. The same error is at root in both of these. And it is not enough to say that it is not a proposal he regularly makes, because it is one of those things that again, even though mentioned once, make a huge impact and remain vivid even after much of what he says is forgotten.

14. Dr. Smith: “I don’t agree that any man who looks upon a prostitute will experience sexual attraction, as von Hildebrand asserts. Many feel compassion and sorrow when looking at a prostitute. They see a wounded person rather than the physicality of a female. They may even see her inner beauty. Von Hildebrand implies that West thinks a saint would say, `I am beyond and above temptations of the flesh.` Does he think that? Why does she think so?

At this point, I will refer the reader to two very interesting blog articles recently, which together with the comments that follow (which I would say are even more valuable) show, I believe, that this is exactly the errors West`s listeners are coming away with. One is the original blog posting of an article Catholic Exchange ran by Dr. David Delaney recently on this issue (http://cosmos-liturgy-sex.com/2010/10/06/concupiscence-west-schindler-debat/) and one is by “Theology of the Body Explained” editor, Sr. Lorraine, who posted a link to a critique of Dawn Eden’s blog (http://thomasfortoday.blogspot.com/2010/10/another-critique-of-edens-thesis.html). I believe Mr. West has seriously and perhaps dangerously misunderstood the Church’s teachings on “custody of the eyes” and the “gaze of purity” as these relate to “concupiscence” and “redemption.

15. Dr. Smith: “It is certainly true that anyone could experience severe temptations at some time; it is also true that Saints and truly virtuous people as well may be free from sexual and other temptations for a very long time. After all, asceticism and receiving the Sacraments do have a purpose and a good effect, don’t they? Virtue is real, isn’t it? Or are all attempts to discipline the flesh futile? This concept posed by West critics sounds more akin to Protestant theology’s “total depravity” doctrine than it does to Catholic teaching.

The problem is that West speaks little about asceticism. He speaks about offering up temptations in prayer and asking for the grace to continue to look and see purely instead of lustfully. St. JoseMaria Escriva spoke about Benedict throwing himself into the thornbush and Francis rolling around naked in the snow, and asks why we think we do not have to do the same. John Paul II used “the discipline” even into his old age. But yet, we hear nothing about these penances from West. His listeners do not leave realizing how essential practicing penance is (and not just abstaining from meat on Fridays and fasting every year on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday – which they do not hear about from West either).

16. Dr. Smith: “In their endorsement, Bishop Rhoades and Cardinal Rigali tell us they believe that West has a `particular charism` for the mission of promoting the Theology of the Body, and they state explicitly that he does so `with profound reverence for the mystery of human sexuality.` Von Hildebrand is questioning their judgment and, it seems, largely based on what she has heard about West’s work from others, rather than from direct experience.

I would question their judgment too. It would not be the first time that a theologian picked up on something that bishops were oblivious to. Read about Vatican II – it happened more as a rule than as an exception there. Dr. James Hitchcock has written extensively about this (http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c02205.htm).

17. Dr. Smith: “Moreover, bishops have a special charism for ensuring fidelity in Church teaching and by extension for knowing who teaches reliably.

Why is it, then, that in my home country (Canada), we have been using, for over 40 years, the official children`s catechism, which is based on the Dutch Catechism, remains mandated for use in all Catholic schools? Is it not possible that our Canadian bishops have been as irresponsible and mistaken on this as Cardinal Rigali potentially is in his evaluation of West? Dr. Smith cited in her last article about how catechesis in America has been abhorrent over the past 40 years. But this seems to contradict what she states above here.

18. Dr. Smith: “Those of us defending him find that when we carefully go step by step through some critique and show that West did not say what a critic says he said, his critics respond, `Well, just because X has not shown that West is guilty of Y, does not mean he is not guilty of Y`.

The problem is that his defenders seem to only focus on those critiques that have the potential of ``doing more damage``, while other critiques, which might be much less prone to error and make much stronger cases, are ignored because they are having ``little impact on West`s apostolate``. It is a good strategy, but less honest if one is truly concerned about examining West`s work for potential errors.

19. Dr. Smith: “Upon careful examination of critics’ works, I have found the more “global” criticisms of West to be false; such as the view that he violates a “hermeneutic of continuity,” or that he doesn’t appreciate the power of concupiscence.

Regarding the former, I believe I made a strong case for this in Part IV.C.5-17 of my critique (http://wademichaelstonge.blogspot.com/2010/09/theology-of-body-debate-ii-critique-of.html).
Regarding the latter, I refer the reader back to the links I provided above under Point 14.

20. Dr. Smith: “I am pleased von Hildebrand acknowledges that West has `great oratorical talent` and `does much good.` I sincerely hope that those who want to get to know the “real” West will go to his work and read and hear what he says, as Bishop Rhoades and Cardinal Rigali have. I guarantee that they will meet a very different person from the one portrayed in von Hildebrand’s essay. Those who read and listen thoughtfully will encounter a man through whom God has touched thousands of persons with authentic Catholic teaching on the true meaning of human love in the divine plan.

One of the problems I have had with many defences of West is that they almost read like canonizations. For reasons I spoke of on my blog (http://wademichaelstonge.blogspot.com/2010/09/theology-of-body-debate-iii-conclusion.html), I find these out of place for a man whose “great work” has come at the expense of his family and the duties he has towards them. He admitted it himself when returning from sabbatical, when he spoke about the “lack of balance”. We Catholics are just as much caught up in the “cult of personality” as our secular counterparts, as much as we like to think otherwise, and we value a man for the work he does rather than who he is in God`s eyes. West is insignificant compared to the contemplative nuns in God`s purview, or even those holy Catholic janitors who scrub toilets for a living. Yet, if most Catholics were in a room where West was on one side and contemplative nuns on the other, they would flock to West. This proves how spiritually blind most Catholics really are to the supernatural realities about them.

I think the Gospels make it clear that “popular speakers” will be least in the kingdom of God (if they even get into the kingdom), because they often neglect the duties of their state in life (which is the key to sanctity) and because, in the process, they get “swelled heads” (and pride is the chief of all sins). Perhaps it was solely a humble desire to evangelize the world that led West to go on Nightline, but as one who pursued media engagements in the past in order to further the message of the Gospel, I know my motives were certainly mixed (and maybe less pure than pure). And when I was pursuing a possible national television appearance in 2007, it was my pride that led me to do and say something that brought me crashing down. It was probably no different than Mr. West. As I said in my blog piece, that is my biggest issue with Mr. West – he preaches about living the nuptial meaning of the body and then divides his body between his apostolate and his family so that he does not fully give himself to either. The tragic thing is that others, such as Steve Pokorny, want to emulate him, and make the same mistake – embracing marriage but also an apostolate. And thus, they are “divided”, as St. Paul says, rather than making a “complete gift” of themselves to the “Beloved”. Their very lives seem to belie the message they are trying to convey.

Part II: Reiteration of Selected Points from von Hildebrand

Now, I will reprint some portions of von Hildebrand`s essay that I believe make good points but that I believe still remain unaddressed after 17 months.


(1) I.3. Throughout all his Catholic writings, (Dietrich von Hildebrand) insists upon humility and reverence: humility because nobody, except the Blessed One among women, Mary, is safe; and reverence because of the depth and mystery of this sacred domain—a domain Dietrich always believed called for veiling. ... My general criticism of Christopher West is that he does not seem to grasp the delicacy, reverence, privacy, and sacredness of the sexual sphere. He also underestimates the effects of Original Sin on the human condition.


(2) III.4.d. A humble awareness of our fallen nature creates a strict moral obligation to fly from temptations. ... As Monsignor Knox points out, to believe a Christian, however faithful, can place himself in spiritual danger and never fall prey to it, is a common error among religious enthusiasts. ... But this is to commit the sin of presumption.


(3) I.5. Sex enthusiasts in the Church like West often speak about the “raging hormones” many feel growing up, but the solution they propose to cure it—stimulate people even more, with a hyper-sexualized presentation of Catholic teaching—can easily aggravate the situation.

(4) II.1.a. Dietrich would have vigorously opposed Popcak's so-called ”one rule”--that married couples “may do whatever they wish,” as long as they don’t use contraception, “both feel loved and respected,” and the marital act culminates within the woman. (p. 193). As another reviewer commented , this reduces marital love to a lowest common denominator, where “everything else can be left to the judgment of each couple. A variety of sexual positions, oral sex, sexual toys, and role playing are all judged permissible as long as couples follow the ‘one rule.’” (Catholicbookreviews.org, 2008). ... These ideas would have struck Dietrich von Hildebrand as abhorrent. It is precisely because the marital bed is sacred that one should approach acts within it with enormous reverence. Degrading and perverse sexual behavior-- even it is it done by a married couple, who do not practice contraception-- should be condemned, as an assault on human dignity. The “pornification” of marriage should be resisted as vigorously as the pornification of our culture. ... In this context, it is important for couples to avoid what Canon Jacques Leclerc calls “any corruption of love” in the marital bed. He writes: “There are many who believe that once they are married, they may do whatever they like.” But “they do not understand,” he continues, that “the search for every means of increasing pleasure can be a perversion.” He cautions: “Now, there are even among the most Christian young people many who know nothing of the moral aspect of the problem and have only the rudimentary idea that everything is forbidden outside marriage, but that within marriage everything is allowed. It is thus a good thing to remember that the morality of conjugal relations does not allow that pleasure should be sought by every means, but calls for a sexual life that is at the same time healthy, simple and normal.” (Marriage: A Great Sacrament, 1951, p. 88). These are sentiments which my husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, would have thoroughly approved.

(5) III.4.b. Christopher West should know that we live in a society, which is radically materialistic, characterized by a cult of the body. Do we need encouragements to idolize what St Francis called "Brother Ass"? Christopher West puts too much emphasis on the body in a culture in which everything is body-centered.


(6) II.1.b-c. Analogy, in the AGE OF FAITH, was understood in a way that is completely different from our age of secularism, relativism, subjectivism and eroticism. Hence, a beautiful, sacred book like “the Song of Songs,” which draws parallels between God’s love and romantic love-, is bound to be misinterpreted by the modern, sex-obsessed mind. ... This false mentality of analogy was strongly opposed by Dietrich von Hildebrand, even though it was (and still is) countenanced by many contemporary writers. Chesterton, on the other hand, took my husband’s side. One day, Chesterton writes, he was taking a walk in the woods with a man whose “ . . . pointed beard gave him something of the look of Pan.` At one point this companion said to him: `Do you know why the spire of that church goes up like that?` I expressed a respectable agnosticism, and he answered in an off-hand way, `Oh, the same as the obelisks; the Phallic Worship of antiquity`. Then I looked across at him suddenly as he lay there leering above his goat-like beard; and for the moment I thought he was not Pan but the Devil. No mortal words can express the immense, the insane incongruity and unnatural perversion of thought involved in saying such a thing . . . (Everlasting Man, p. 152).” These words are a striking and prophetic rebuke to Christopher West’s efforts to employ “phallic symbolism to describe the Easter candle,” as Dr. David Schindler pointed out in his critique of West. Hugo Rahner has pointed out where these aberrant ideas about “phallic symbolism” came from: pagan mythology, not authentic Christianity. (See his book, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, 1963)

(7) II.1.d. This defective attitude might explain why Christopher West also believes that after the Holy Virgin gave birth to our Savior, she ejected a bleeding placenta, just as his wife had done after delivering their son. ... This is a dogma of our faith, that she was a Virgin, prius ac posterius. The conception was miraculous; the delivery was miraculous. Any intrusion into this mystery would have been a source of grief to Dietrich von Hildebrand who, because he recited Vespers and Compline every day, knew Psalm 130 well: "I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me". ... For Christopher West to offer graphic, speculative details about the Virgin Birth—like the ejected bleeding placenta—underscores my point. The analogy of the Virgin Birth with the birth of West’s own son is mistaken. The latter, though obviously a great blessing, was not conceived, through God, by a Virgin; and it was not the product of a miraculous delivery. Further, to "tear the veil" away from Bethlehem, and to believe an imaginary, explicit description of it is a more powerful way of referring to the mystery of mysteries, is something that Dietrich von Hildebrand would, as I say, have fiercely contested. Between a normal birth, and the mystery of Bethlehem, lies an abyss which man - out of trembling reverence—should not traverse. Silent adoration is the only valid response to such a mystery.

(8) IV.4.2.a. Dietrich von Hildebrand, who came from a privileged cultural and artistic background, and had been acquainted with holy paintings since his earliest youth, would never have made remarks about the size of the Holy Virgin’s bosom, as West has, repeating with praise an exhortation for Catholics to “rediscover” Mary’s “abundant breasts” (Crisis magazine, March , 2002) To Dietrich’s mind, this would be an act of irreverence. Her breasts were sacred and the response to the sacred is awe and not a critical approach to the size of "the blessed breasts that sucked thee". True religious art has always understood this. ... One of the requirements of sacred art is that the artist succeeds in creating, through visible means, an atmosphere of sacredness. When Mary is represented, the crucial element is that the image inspires in the viewer a feeling of reverence; whether she is painted with “abundant breasts” is totally irrelevant—otherwise, most other icons would have to be discarded. It suffices for the faithful believer to be inspired by a work of art; he or she should never be titillated by it.

(9) Conc. When referring to mysteries (such as the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Eucharist) Dietrich’s choice of words invited his listeners to a trembling reverence and adoration. Christopher West's aforementioned remarks, in contrast,-- however well intended-- about the "bloodied membrane" that the Holy Virgin ejected after Christ's birth would strike Dietrich as close to blasphemy. Were he with us today, Dietrich would have surely quoted the Holy Office’s warning to West: “Theological works are being published in which the delicate question of Mary’s virginity ‘in partu’ is treated with a deplorable crudeness of expression and, what is more serious, in flagrant contradiction to the doctrinal tradition of the Church and to the sense of respect the faithful have.” (From the Holy Office monitum, July , 1960, reprinted in A Short Treatise on the Virgin Mary by Rene Laurentin, AMI Press, 1991, , pp. 318-329)


(10) I.3. It is simply false to claim that the Church has, until recently, been blind to the deep meaning and beauty of sex as God intended it: we need only turn to St. Francis de Sales to see how profoundly he understood the meaning that God gave to this sphere. He writes: “It is honorable to all, in all, and in everything, that is, in all its parts" (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 38). It is simply not true to claim that, until recently, the beauty and meaning of this sphere had been totally obscured by Puritanism and Manichaeism.

(11) III.3.a. Anyone who reads Christopher West’s books, or listens to his talks, cannot help but notice one thing: he is obsessed by puritanism. Indeed, one might believe, listening to him, that it is the one great danger of our time.

(12) III.3.a-b. One of the strange things happening today is that any hint that the intimate sphere should be marked by a caveat, tempts some people to accuse West’s critics of playing Cassandra, and of "being a dualist". The problem is that “dualism” can have a number of meanings, and not all of them are contrary to Catholic belief. ... From the very beginning, the Church—the "pillar of truth” has rejected Gnosticism and any form of Manichaeism. Nothing, however, is easier for man than to fall in his reason. The human mind, wounded by sin, has the uncanny tendency to go from one error to its (apparent) contradiction, while in fact errors are usually first cousins. ... Today, the condemned "dualism” just referred to, has become for some a kind of philosophical obsession. They detect "dualism" in the writings of thinkers who totally agree with them in rejecting a false dualism, but, in obsessing about this point, miss a larger one, and the necessary distinctions. ... It is tempting ... to angelize him, and discard the body. ... Some claim that the union of body and soul is for the benefit of the soul: without sense organs, man's mind would be condemned to blindness. It should, however, also be said that the union of body and soul is very much to the benefit of the body: for the soul “personifies” the body, that is, it clearly separates us from animals.


(13) I.5. It must be recognized: “happy talk” about sex and sexuality, even if it is wrapped in religious language, cannot communicate the full truth about God’s plan for human sexuality unless it includes the difficulties of living out an elevated moral life. ... Moreover, they consistently ignore the one successful remedy the Church has always called upon to address this malady: asceticism, the spirit of renunciation and sacrifice. ... Why does St. Paul teach us, “And they that are Christ’s, have crucified the flesh with the passions and lusts” (Galatians 5: 24)? Why did St. Benedict throw himself into a thorny bush? Why did St. Francis engage in self-mortification? Because, following Scripture, they believed that disciplining their bodily desires, was indispensable to overcoming temptation. ... If such measures are considered unnecessary and too “extreme” today, other forms of asceticism—an intense prayer life, frequent confession, modesty in dress and language, and avoiding all possible occasions of sin-- should not be considered so. ... it is sheer illusion to believe that moral perfection can be pursued without this purifying discipline.

(14) III.4.e. Why is asceticism so stressed in religious orders and in authentic Catholic tradition, be it hair shirts, abstinence, the discipline, or the limiting of one's sleep to a minimum? Is that ever mentioned by Christopher West? Does he not know that John Paul II himself engaged in acts of self-mortification? And yet, that fact might be of great importance to teach us how to love, and it is love, which is the key to sex.


(15) II.2.b. English does not distinguish between shame in the negative sense (response to what is ugly, disgusting, repulsive, filthy) and shame that is positive (in the sense of personal, private, intimate, mysterious). This lack of distinction certainly explains certain "simplifications" and “misunderstandings” about human sexuality which punctuate the work of Christopher West. ... After our first parents discovered they were naked, they were ashamed. This shame had a positive, instructive purpose, because it made them aware that they had stripped themselves of the beautiful “veil of innocence” God had given them, before they sinned. These profound truths should be embraced and highlighted by Christopher West, not minimized or ignored.

(16) III.4.a. Christopher West confuses "shame" in a negative sense (ugly, disgusting, repulsive, morally repugnant) with pudeur—the aforementioned French word which refers to the reverence we should have toward what is personal, mysterious, private, or sacred. ... Reverence and humility were always regarded as keys to maintaining our purity. The idea of trying to be “naked without shame” was never contemplated, and for good reasons.

Theology of the Body Debate: To Be Continued ...


  1. I think Dr. Smith is not understanding the full importance of what St. Jerome says. When West wrote his remarks about his wife's placenta ejecting, he was comparing the Virgin Birth to the birth of his own child, and castigating those recoiled at such imagery as not having a healthy respect for the body.

    St. Jerome was talking about something entirely different:

    "For according to them there is more dishonour in a virgin giving birth to God by the organs of generation, than in a virgin being joined to her own husband after she has been delivered. Add, if you like, Helvidius, the other humiliations of nature, the womb for nine months growing larger, the sickness, the delivery, the blood, the swaddling-clothes. Picture to yourself the infant in the enveloping membranes. Introduce into your picture the hard manger, the wailing of the infant, the circumcision on the eighth day, the time of purification, so that he may be proved to be unclean. We do not blush, we are not put to silence. The greater the humiliations He endured for me, the more I owe Him. And when you have given every detail, you will be able to produce nothing more shameful than the cross, which we confess, in which we believe, and by which we triumph over our enemies."

    Jerome is speaking of the humiliation both Christ and Mary underwent, and how we should be forever in debt for their conduct.

    I think if Dr. Smith included everything there, her position would be a lot weaker. Based on her reading, she would have to view Jerome as stating that pregnancy was "shameful."

    Of course that's not true. He is simply pointing out the physical anguish that occurs naturally during pregnancy. Mary's mobility was no doubt lessened for example. Yet she is called to be the Queen of All Saints, and there were times where she couldn't get out of bed I'm sure. Yet she embraced this, offering her entire life, her trials, her sorrows, to the Father, her very being a "gift."

    Think about it, Christ and Mary were numbered amongst the sinners when they underwent their purification, even though they had no sin. How shameful, and yet did they complain?

  2. It seems as though West's defenders believe it is enough to answer just a couple of points from each of West's detractors, and that will suffice to dismiss their work even though substantial points are left unanswered. I had not read Dr. von Hildebrand's essay in full for some time so I had forgotten just how many substantial arguments she made against West's work. (And if one followed the reasoning of West's defenders, the fact that Dr. von Hildebrand has brought a number of flaws in West's approach to light is sufficient to reject West's work in toto.)

  3. But the fact is, there are also some objective standards and lines that one should not cross irregardless of where some people’s comfort zones might be.

    Very good point. I would go further and say that if someone is "comfortable" with some of the things that West says, then the problem lies with that person's "comfort zone" and not with those who believe that West has stepped over the line.

  4. Janet Smith responds to Alice von Hildebrand’s critique of Christopher West

    Lima, Peru, Oct 22, 2010 / 01:04 am (CNA)

    Smith also discussed the debate surrounding whether or not dwelling on the details of Christ’s birth displays an inordinate curiosity.
    “Von Hildebrand’s response to West’s likening the birth of his son to the birth of Jesus is curious. She believes it is incorrect to think that Mary may have expelled a bloody placenta. Pregnant wombs have placentas,” Smith wrote. “Did not Mary’s? Would it be wrong to think it might have been bloody? Christ’s body was covered with blood when he died, was it not? Scripture itself makes reference to Mary’s womb and breasts; is the placenta really so objectionable that it could not be mentioned?

    The "virginitas in partu" (virginity in giving birth) is not just a "pious tradition"...it is a Catholic Dogma "de fide divina et catholica" - which must be believed by "Divine and Catholic faith," infallibly proposed by the ordinary and universal Magisterium; whose denial on the part of Janet Smith is therefore - formally heretical and presumably malicious: she cannot be excused on account of ignorance. The specific contents of this Catholic dogma are as follows: non-rupture of the physical virginal integrity (I omit the biological term "ex reverentiam"); the absence of labor pains; AND...the "sine sordibus" - the absence of the biological accidents of natural birth: placenta, umbilical cord, etc. Janet Smith's blasphemous expression, "...pregnant women (sic-!) have placentas," just indicates her degree of hatred for Our Lord Jesus Christ and his Most Holy and Immaculate Mother...[cf., Pius XII, in Mystici Corporis: "...it was a miraculous birth." Vatican II: "..whose birth not only did not diminish his Mother's virginal integrity, but augmented it;" repeated by John Paul II in his Catechetical Marian discourses...]

  5. Carl, thanks for your contribution. You make an excellent point (although I wouldn't say Dr. Janet Smith has indicated a "degree of hatred" for Our Lord and Our Lady).

    I have been away from my blog for months, so I am just reading this now.