Monday, February 13, 2012

TOB: West, Fanaticism, and Tradition

“Fanaticism” is defined as “the character, spirit, or conduct of a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics”. [1] The latest discussions I have had with defenders of Christopher West’s theology have made me realize that there is a widespread religious “fanaticism” toward him and his work that results in some bizarre and untenably absurd interpretations of the sources of Catholic Tradition. A single example should suffice.

We’ll begin by playing the “Sesame Street” game
: “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things doesn’t belong, can you tell which thing is not like the other?”

Ready? Here goes ...

“To defend his purity, Saint Francis of Assisi rolled in the snow, Saint Benedict threw himself into a thornbush, Saint Bernard plunged into an icy pond, and John Paul II prayed for the grace to look at provocative women without lusting”.

Now, both West’s critics and defenders would choose the last one, and they would be right. But in the new pedagogical approach I was trained in when pursuing my education degree, it was not enough to get the right answer; you had to explain why it was the right answer. On that count, West’s defenders would fail – or at least those I have been dialoguing with lately would.

West’s critics would say that the last one does not belong because it is not a Catholic response to our tendency to lust. West’s defenders, on the other hand, would say that the last one doesn’t belong because it is the ideal response to our tendency to lust.

As I stated in my last article, “The ‘Smoking Guns’ of West’s Theology”, West believes and teaches that when we grow enough in chastity, we should dispense with practicing “custody of the eyes” which is merely an initial “negative” step for those in the “purgative stage” of purity, and should instead look upon women and their God-given beauty with the “pure gaze of love”. [2]

However, the Catholic Tradition considers “custody of the eyes” indispensible regardless of how much one grows in chastity – and in fact, as Catholic psychotherapist Marshall Fightlin points out, “growth in the virtue of chastity ... is marked, not by a decreased need for custody of the eyes, but by increased ease in the habit of custody of the eyes”. [3] Genevieve S. Kineke explains the reason for the need to practice custody of the eyes: “[men] are naturally hard-wired to act on certain stimuli”. [4] This is corroborated by Doctor St. Alphonsus Liguori – the greatest moral theologian in Church history, who wrote that “a deliberate glance at a person of a different sex often enkindles an infernal spark, which consumes the soul”. [5] As Dr. Hahn told West during their argument on the set of “Franciscan University Presents”, there is no way to know one has ever achieved such a state of “mature purity” that looking at a provocative woman would not cause concupiscence to flare up and overtake him. [6] Once again, St. Alphonsus agrees: “Brother Roger, a Franciscan of singular purity, being once asked why he was so reserved in his intercourse with women, replied, that when men avoid the occasions of sin, God preserves them; but when they expose themselves to danger, they are justly abandoned by the Lord, and easily fall into some grievous transgressions”. [7] At the very least, “custody of the eyes” is the proper response because there still exists a “positive” sense of “shame”. Dietrich von Hildebrand, in his In Defense of Purity, taught that “positive shame” is not a “protection from lust” but rather concerns privacy and intimacy that must be protected even apart from any danger of lust. According to von Hildebrand, the “unveiling” of the body is such an intimate and personal act (like a secret) that it should be shared only with those closest to us, such as our spouses or our parents when growing up. [8]

To prove the Catholic position, I began to look for Magisterial support. I found this from the encyclical Sacra Virginitas written by Pope Pius XII:
It should be noted, as indeed the Fathers and Doctors of the Church teach, that we can more easily struggle against and repress the wiles of evil and the enticements of the passions if we do not struggle directly against them, but rather flee from them as best we may. For the preserving of chastity, according to the teaching of Jerome, flight is more effective than open warfare: 'Therefore I flee, lest I be overcome.' Flight must be understood in this sense, that not only do we diligently avoid occasion of sin, but especially that in struggles of this kind we lift our minds and hearts to God ... Flight and alert vigilance, by which we carefully avoid the occasions of sin, have always been considered by holy men and women as the most effective method of combat in this matter”. [9]

Pius XII goes on to directly contradict, almost prophetically, the position held by West: “Today however it does not seem that everybody holds the same opinion. Some indeed claim that all Christians, and the clergy in particular, should not be ‘separated from the world’ as in the past, but should be ‘close to the world;’ therefore they should ‘take the risk’ and put their chastity to the test in order to show whether or not they have the strength to resist; therefore, they say, let young clerics see everything so that they may accustom themselves to gaze at everything with equanimity, and thus render themselves immune to all temptations. For this reason they readily grant young clerics the liberty to turn their eyes in any direction without the slightest concern for modesty; they may attend motion pictures, even those forbidden by ecclesiastical censorship; they may peruse even obscene periodicals; they may read novels which are listed in the Index of forbidden books or prohibited by the Natural Law. ... But it is easily seen that this method of educating and training the clergy to acquire the sanctity proper to their calling is wrong and harmful. For he that loveth danger shall perish in it;’ [Ecclus 3:27] most appropriate in this connection is the admonition of Augustine: ‘Do not say that you have a chaste mind if your eyes are unchaste, because an unchaste eye betrays an unchaste heart.’” [10]

The text could not be clearer – unless one has a fanatic devotion to West. In that case, West must be right – there can be no other possibility, and thus he must be defended regardless of what the Tradition says. But being the “orthodox Catholics” they are, those with such fanatic devotion know they cannot contradict the Tradition lest they be guilty of heresy. Therefore, what then happens is this: the Tradition gets twisted and a false synthesis is created so that they can say that both are true. In other words, West is teaching in continuity with the Tradition.

The display of mental gymnastics by Deacon Jim Russell [his words are in RED] illustrates this perfectly. [11] Unwilling to acknowledge that West might contradict Pius XII, Russell draws upon secular psychology and uses the idea of the “fight vs. flight” response that humans instinctually react with when facing a dangerous situation. Russell does not reference the Catholic Tradition; he does not attempt to research and find what the Doctors and Fathers of the Church have taught, or what previous Popes have written on the subject. Rather, in his vain attempt at finding anything in the Tradition, he borrows an idea and its corresponding phraseology from secular psychology and arbitrarily assigns to the “fight” aspect West’s idea of “the pure gaze of love” and to the “flight” response the Catholic admonition of practicing “custody of the eyes”.

Deacon Jim says: “
What is the larger context of this papal quote? You are attempting to use the quote to assert that he supports the notion that the *only* answer to temptation is *flight*, not ‘fight’. But that's not what the Holy Father says.” Deacon Jim goes on to cite paragraphs 57 and 58 of Sacra Virginitas, and continues: “[Pius XII] says, clearly, ‘that we can MORE EASILY struggle against and repress the wiles of evil and the enticements of the passions if we do not struggle directly against them, but rather flee from them as best we may.’ You seem to gloss over the phrase ‘more easily struggle,’ Wade. Firstly, ‘struggle’? So, the Holy Father *does* see this as a ‘fight’, doesn't he? Secondly, he is asserting that the ‘more easy’ way to ‘fight’ is to flee. Notice, Wade, he never says that the *only* way to fight is to flee. And neither do you, and neither does Liguori, and neither does Catholic Tradition. And neither does West. What you are looking for, but will never find, is support from Catholic Tradition that the *only* legitimate response to temptation is ‘flight’, not ‘fight’ … The Pius quote is by no means the magic bullet that makes your case. Pius doesn’t eliminate the idea of direct struggle anywhere in this quote”. Deacon Jim then went on to quote paragraph 48, and commented: “Hmmmm....stirring on his *soldiers* to the prize of.... *purity*.....’let him who can’.....FIGHT, conquer and receive his reward.’ Pope Pius using St. Jerome. Soldiers. Purity. Fight. Conquer. He then exclaimed,CATHOLIC TRADITION”. [12]

I simply responded by saying, “what a display of mental gymnastics”, pointed out he did not respond to the quotations I posted from St. Alphonsus, and appealed to the reader to decide for himself whether any of this made sense. [13] But Deacon Jim challenged me: “
Will you be able to respond respectfully with something other than saying it's ‘mental gymnastics’ to put #54 of "Sacra Virginitas" in context with #s 48, 57 and 58?” [14]

I knew it was a lost cause with Deacon Jim at this point, and I figured with few exceptions the readers would agree with me, so I was not going to bother to respond. But Kevin O’Brien took up the challenge. Because Kevin deleted some of these previous posts from Deacon Jim as he was in the process of banning him for a second time from his blog, [15] he had to re-post or summarize some of what Deacon Jim wrote and then proceed to give commentary:

a taste of what Deacon Jim was doing in the comments I deleted. He was claiming that paragraph 48 of the papal document in question encourages ‘fighting’ rather than ‘fleeing’ temptation, which in the context of our discussion on West means ‘staring at a naked lady other than your wife’ rather than ‘averting your eyes’. … This is a prime example of a terrible misreading. Pope Pius and St. Jerome are talking about commiting oneself by vow to lifelong virginity. They’re saying that such a commitment will challenge one’s powers to remain pure and to avoid temptation. They are exhorting consecrated virgins and lifelong celibates to fight for their purity. In no sense is St. Jerome encouraging someone to ‘fight and conquer’ by engaging temptation by staring at naked bodies. Deacon Jim is arguing that Wade's position ‘flight is better than fight’ when encountering sexual temptation is contradicted by his misreading of this paragraph, and that his misreading of this paragraph amounts to proof of West’s errors in Catholic Tradition. To turn around the words of this simple paragraph is not the kind of thing I will let a clergyman get away with on this blog.” [16]

After reprinting paragraph 48 for his blog readers, Kevin continues: “And now Deacon Jim is saying that paragraphs 57 & 58 of ‘Sacra Virginitas’ support his position that ‘fighting’ is better than ‘fleeing’, meaning in the context of this debate that engaging in near occasions of sin is better than shunning them”. He then reprinted the paragraphs and appealed to the reader, just as I did: “Judge for yourself if Pius is encouraging us to engage occasions of sin or to flee from them”. [17]

Concluding, Kevin says: “The argument here is not merely ‘fighting’ by ‘resisting temptation’, the context is your equivocation on what this ‘fight’ consists of. This ‘fight’ does not consist of deliberately engaging near occasions of sin. It does not consist of testing your mettle or the ‘maturity’ of your ‘purity’ by openly gazing on naked women. That is what this argument is about, but you keep trying to slither around and twist the terms”. [18]

Although I did not respond to Deacon Jim, I will now respond simply to show how contorted his defence of West is and how futile was his attempt at reconciling West with the Tradition.

Deacon Jim begins with the idea of “fight”. “Firstly, ‘struggle’? So, the Holy Father *does* see this as a ‘fight’, doesn't he? Yes he does. And what kind of “struggle” is Pius XII talking about? “Fleeing”. It is a “fight by means of flight”. That is precisely what Pius XII states: “*Flight* and alert vigilance, by which we carefully avoid the occasions of sin, have always been considered by holy men and women as the most effective method of *combat* in this matter”. In short, “flight” is the best way to “fight”. From here, we can see the absurdity of his next point.

Secondly, he is asserting that the ‘more easy’ way to ‘fight’ is to flee. Notice, Wade, he never says that the *only* way to fight is to flee … [Pius XII] says, clearly, ‘that we can MORE EASILY struggle against and repress the wiles of evil and the enticements of the passions if we do not struggle directly against them, but rather flee from them as best we may.’ You seem to gloss over the phrase ‘more easily struggle,’ Wade”. Hard as it is to believe, Deacon Jim is actually making this argument in all seriousness and seems to actually believe this is the correct interpretation. Deacon Jim would have us believe that Pius XII is actually teaching West’s doctrine of mature purity because the Pontiff is saying that it is not necessarily “best” to “flee” but that it is “easier” and thus advisable for those who have not attained “mature purity”. This is impossible when looking at it in the immediate context. After the Holy Father speaks about “flight [being] more effective than open warfare [fight]” and making it clear he is speaking of practicing “custody of the eyes” (something Deacon Jim agrees Pope Pius is teaching here), the Holy Father goes on to contrast this and juxtapose it with the erroneous alternative of “accustom[ing] themselves to gaze at everything with equanimity, and thus render themselves immune to all temptations”. In other words, the Holy Father contrasts practicing “custody of the eyes” or “flight” with Deacon Jim’s idea of “fight”, which is West’s doctrine of mature purity and the practice of the “pure gaze of love”.

Of course, Deacon Jim mischaracterizes my position: “You are attempting to use the quote to assert that he supports the notion that the *only* answer to temptation is *flight*, not ‘fight’. But that's not what the Holy Father says … What you are looking for, but will never find, is support from Catholic Tradition that the *only* legitimate response to temptation is ‘flight’, not ‘fight’”. If Deacon Jim would have been reading the comments in Kevin’s previous post with a view to learning my position and considering it honestly and fairly, he would have realized that I believe that the answer is both fight and flight – but in the sense of fighting by fleeing. [19]

After Deacon Jim was banned from Kevin’s blog, he sent me a private message with a quote from Theology of the Body: “I
n mature purity, man enjoys the fruits of victory over concupiscence”. [20] Deacon Jim asked, “Wade, what do you think this means?” I did not reply to him privately, but I re-posted the email on Kevin’s blog and commented, “Thanks to one non-contextualized quotation from John Paul II, we can not only dispense with everything that all of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church taught with regards to custody of the eyes, but we can re-define the scriptural and patristic notion of ‘spiritual warfare’ to mean that we continue to look upon scantily-clad women rather than looking away because the latter can in no way be classified as ‘fighting temptation’.” [21] That is indeed what Deacon Jim was trying to do: namely, absolutize one quotation from John Paul II in order to support the doctrine of mature purity and twist the rest of the Tradition to “support” this misinterpretation. This is the kind of eisegesis we are used to seeing from Protestants when they try to reconcile John 6 with their belief in the symbolic Eucharist: beginning with the position that the doctrine of the symbolic Eucharist must be correct, the rest of Scripture has to be twisted to support it.

Besides the strange attempts at reconciling the irreconcilable as with Deacon Jim, there is another response: namely, the knee-jerk reactions with a feeble attempt to defend the indefensible without having the necessary knowledge to even make a reasonable case. Here is what Pamela said in my article on “The ‘Smoking Guns’ of West’s Theology”:

I PRAISE St. Francis for jumping in a thorn bush at the SAME time I praise someone who says it is a holy and noble goal to reach a point in one's spirituality when one is not tempted by the naked body....a darn necessity these days in our culture or we're ALL doomed! ... It was an exhaustive hit piece on Christopher West, but nothing outside of gross speculation and personal opinions....or the odd use of random quotes from comment boxes??? What?! And your analysis of ‘Seminary’ was so bad ... I'm sorry. All vocations begin as a seed??? Nuns or Engaged Couples don't attend a seminary and THEY have vocations too! ... You DON'T ‘get it’ and for that I'm so sorry :( I'm ashamed that the National Catholic Register linked me to this article on my Kindle. They WILL be hearing from me. I want to go on but I think it's a lost cause ... all will be revealed someday! God bless”. [22]

This rant is more notable for what it fails to say than what it does say. Two of the most glaring omissions were these: there was no attempt to engage what St. Alphonsus said about “custody of the eyes” which clearly contradict West, and there was no comment on how West was looking young women he just met in the eyes, calling them by name, and telling them they were “beautiful women”.

She makes the same argument Deacon Jim made: namely, that it is better to “fight” (i.e. look “rightly” at provocative women) than “flee” (i.e. practice custody of the eyes). She also makes the same argument I have heard other disciples of West make: namely, that due to our immodest culture, we can no longer rely on practicing "custody of the eyes" but must instead learn to "look rightly" upon women regardless of their state of dress. This displays ignorance of the immodesty of previous cultures the Church has been called to evangelize and also ignores pertinent excerpts from the treatment of "mortification of the eyes" by St. Alphonsus, especially examples he gave of how the saints practiced custody of the eyes.

I asked her two questions and issued one challenge:

(1) Are you saying that St. Francis and St. Benedict and St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Augustine did not reach "mature purity" but that many today who have put the principles of Theology of the Body into practice have?

(2) If my analysis of West's definition of seminary was bad, then please correct me: why did the Fathers of the Council of Trent use the term "seminary" to identify schools in which priests would be trained? Educate me and all my readers on why the Church calls it a "seminary".

(3) I gave more than random quotes from comment boxes. I gave quotations from one of the 33 Doctors of the Church and the greatest moral theologian in Church history, St. Alphonsus Liguori. If you can achieve a synthesis between what St. Alphonsus writes in his chapter on "mortification of the eyes" and Christopher West's doctrine of mature purity, I would be happy to read it. [23]

I have yet to hear back from her. But I extend the questions and issue the challenge to any other defenders of West who feel they can give an adequate response.

Now, to come full circle: The quotation I used for the “Sesame Street” game was taken from St. Josemaria Escriva in his book, The Way. After stating, “To defend his purity, Saint Francis of Assisi rolled in the snow, Saint Benedict threw himself into a thorn bush, Saint Bernard plunged into an icy pond”, he asked, “You..., what have you done?” [24] Christopher West would respond, “I prayed for the grace to look upon women with the pure gaze of love and not lust”. I don't think
St. Josemaria would be too impressed with that answer.

1. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/fanaticism

2. http://wademichaelstonge.blogspot.com/2012/02/tob-smoking-guns-of-wests-theology.html, C7

3. http://wademichaelstonge.blogspot.com/2010/12/tob-debate-summary-of-west-errors.html, Exhibit #4

4. http://www.freezepage.com/1288836788TFZDDCIZQH, Comment #37

5. http://www.cathinfo.com/catholic.php?a=topic&t=14334

6. http://wademichaelstonge.blogspot.com/2012/02/tob-smoking-guns-of-wests-theology.html, A1

7. http://www.cathinfo.com/catholic.php?a=topic&t=14334

8. http://wademichaelstonge.blogspot.com/2010/12/tob-debate-summary-of-west-errors.html, Exhibit #3

9. Pope Pius XII, encyclical letter Sacra Virginitas [1954], 54 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_25031954_sacra-virginitas_en.html

10. Ibid., 55

11. http://thwordinc.blogspot.com/2012/02/west-breast-chest-sex.html; http://thwordinc.blogspot.com/2012/02/pope-pius-xii-contradicts-christopher.html

12. http://www.freezepage.com/1328711465TPESDDUUFN, Comments #6, 8

13. http://thwordinc.blogspot.com/2012/02/pope-pius-xii-contradicts-christopher.html, Comment #5

14. http://thwordinc.blogspot.com/2012/02/pope-pius-xii-contradicts-christopher.html, Comment #6

15. http://thwordinc.blogspot.com/2012/02/pope-pius-xii-contradicts-christopher.html, Comment #18

16. http://thwordinc.blogspot.com/2012/02/pope-pius-xii-contradicts-christopher.html, Comment #13

17. http://thwordinc.blogspot.com/2012/02/pope-pius-xii-contradicts-christopher.html, Comment #14

18. http://thwordinc.blogspot.com/2012/02/pope-pius-xii-contradicts-christopher.html, Comment #18

19. http://thwordinc.blogspot.com/2012/02/west-breast-chest-sex.html, Comment #75

20. http://www.ewtn.com/library/papaldoc/jp2tb57.htm, Paragraph #7

21. http://thwordinc.blogspot.com/2012/02/pope-pius-xii-contradicts-christopher.html, Comment #23

22. http://wademichaelstonge.blogspot.com/2012/02/tob-smoking-guns-of-wests-theology.html, Comment #8

23. http://wademichaelstonge.blogspot.com/2012/02/tob-smoking-guns-of-wests-theology.html, Comments #9, 10, 11

24. St. Josemaria Escriva, The Way, #143 http://www.escrivaworks.org/book/the_way-point-143.htm


  1. I wonder what West would say about the fact that we know JPII used corporal discipline- self-flagellation- as a means of penance and mortification of the flesh? How could this be if JPII was allegedly trying to free us from such "puritanical" and "erroneous" approaches, and was in West's "redeemed" state?

  2. Wow--you would think that Wade would give the guy who corrected his erroneous Christology (Wade asserted that Jesus was capable of sin--http://thwordinc.blogspot.com/2012/02/west-breast-chest-sex.html ) *some* benefit of the doubt in a discussion full of nuance.

    But apparently not--nor will I apparently have the opportunity to face an accuser who, instead of proclaiming truth, has consistently born false witness against me.

    God bless you, Wade.

    Deacon Jim Russell

  3. The most grace-filled response of a man for a woman's body is "Behold here is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" and then we fell. It is ridiculous to pray for strength to look on a woman without lust just as it is to determine not to think of onions by saying you won't think of onions. The context has already been sexualized by the word lust. The truly catholic response would be "give me the strength to see Christ in everyone". To say that one could reach a point where custody of the eyes can be dispensed with is to say that one day custody of the hands can be dispensed with. When a man looks upon a woman's body who is present in the flesh or walking down the street his eyes are his remote hands and the curves and beauty are a felt reality. One cannot do so intently for long without the chemical responses associated with the sexual urge. To state that one could engage in a visual feast while retaining a chaste heart is uncatholic not only from the point of view of the lust but from the assumption that man's ideal is dualistic where the mind can be separated from the bodily acts.
    I would make a case however for art in which the human form is isolated from the individual specimen. But I have to think about that one because I had the misfortune of viewing the Vatican museums as a young man entering puberty and would rate it a beautiful PG-13. www.veronikon.com

  4. Wade,

    Thanks for fighting the good fight here. Deacon Jim Russell, God bless him, demonstrated an even more astonishing display of mental gymnastics during the Lying Debate when he argued that the Catechism is not, in fact, a sure norm for teaching faith and morals, and that the teaching presented in the Catechism is atomistic, a disunited set of unrelated doctrines many of which can be safely ignored. And he turned a few sommersaults denying the plain meaning of "Sacrosanctum Concillium" so that he could defend Marty Haugen music, of all things. (The last example can be seen in the combox of one post, here: http://thwordinc.blogspot.com/2011/10/most-dangerous-thing-in-world.html )

    As to Pamela's comments, they reveal a kind of misplaced zeal that I'm noticing West's defenders share. In this same vein, but even more disturbing, is the Westian obsession with sex celebrated at a good Catholic university recently as "love week". The young female Catholic student who brags that we ARE our bodies and that the only way to redeem our lust is to shout "sex" at the top of our lungs (see her article here http://www.staustinreview.com/ink_desk/archives/valentines_day_the_sexual_revolution/ and my critique of it here http://www.thwordinc.blogspot.com/2012/02/shouting-from-rooftops-about-sex.html ) is as zealous but as confused as Pamela or as Deacon Jim.

    But never fear, for when the chips are down and West's defenders run out of steam running in circles to avoid quotations that contradict them, they have an ace in the whole that they always play.

    And that ace is "character assassination". Those of us criticizing the errors of Christopher West, errors which are sexualizing all of Scripture and seducing otherwise well-meaning young people, are simply out to get him. We are mean and jealous and narrow minded, and they'll show us. They'll pray for us - by God - for we are "character assassins" and we need it.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. To read Dietrich von Hildebrand is also to get the sense that he was prophetically rebutting West at least half a century before West came on the scene. He is particularly good at denouncing the obsession with "puritanism" as if puritanism is the overriding moral evil of the culture.