At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization is Christopher West’s latest answer to those of us who do not believe his teaching is an accurate interpretation of the Catechesis on Human Love of Blessed John Paul II (commonly referred to as the Theology of the Body [TOB]). Though eloquently argued, his positions have hardly been modified, and some of them still constitute a misrepresentation of the Gospel teaching on marriage and chastity. While there is much to be commended in the work of Christopher West, I believe that there is a fundamental flaw in his presentation of Blessed John Paul II’s teaching.
That flaw is his failure to show that the teaching of Blessed Pope John Paul II is a development of Catholic doctrine rather than a theological revolution. In his new book West admits that when he was first inspired by TOB he believed that its teaching was revolutionary. He now affirms that there can be no such revolutions in Catholic doctrine, but only “developments.” Unfortunately, West’s whole body of work is premised on pre- and post-TOB division of both Church history and the theological tradition.
Indeed, West takes a statement of Pope Benedict from his book, Light of the World (158), regarding “revolutions for the good” and applies it to TOB. However, West fails to indicate that the term “revolutions for the good” refers to the Eucharist as the only source of new and legitimate inspirations within the Church. It does not refer to theological innovations. West does not successfully distance himself from the idea that TOB is a revolution because his starting point is his belief that the Church’s catechesis prior to TOB was defective.
In fact, West continues to defend his revolutionary notion that Hugh Hefner got it right when he claimed that puritanism was the fundamental characteristic of religious attitudes toward sexuality prior to TOB.
In the views of both West and Hefner, the sexual revolution is to be explained primarily as a reaction against sexual repression. And while West does imply that there are other factors that influenced the sexual revolution he does not mention them.
Assuredly, prudish sexual tendencies have existed and continue to exist, but West’s assessment of the problem simply serves as a circular argument for his pre- and post-TOB analysis of history and theology.
Fr. Jose Granados has rejected outright the contention that our pornographic culture is rooted fundamentally in a puritanical attitude toward sexuality. He writes: “Pornography is in no sense an attempt to recover the beauty of the body and sexuality, but a sign of despair regarding this beauty and the possibility of finding meaning in human love.”
Pope Benedict has made it a hallmark of his pontificate to teach that there is continuity between the modern magisterium and the perennial tradition of the Church. In her master’s thesis, Dawn Eden claims that this same continuity applies to TOB and that West fails to show it: “The problem with using frustration at preconciliar sexual ‘repression’ as a starting point for catechesis is that it sets up a hermeneutic of discontinuity, suggesting that to love today’s Church is to resent yesterday’s Church.”
One way to show this continuity is to emphasize how Blessed Pope John Paul II’s teaching is not just a doctrine about the body, but, as Bishop Jean Laffitte has written, it is more properly a “Catechesis on Human Love.” This catechesis is not a radical new emphasis on the human body and the experience of sexuality, but a development of the whole doctrine on marriage and sexuality.
West’s false and misleading dichotomy between pre- and post-TOB teaching has led to an ideological presentation of John Paul II’s catechesis. Instead of TOB being presented as catechetical formation leading to more prudent, integrated and spontaneous judgments in respect to the preservation of married love and chastity, it becomes the ideological framework for reinterpreting the whole of Catholic doctrine.
Fundamental to the propagation of this ideology is a methodology of selective and decontextualized uses of quotations, especially from Blessed John Paul II. West routinely provides decontextualized snippets, as he does, for example, with the quote mentioned above from Pope Benedict about “revolutions for the good.”
One particularly egregious decontextualized use of the text of the Catechesis on Human Love has a particular place in West’s ideological presentation: the author’s claim that the Theology of the Body is “at the heart of the Gospel.” He writes: “Through this ‘theology of the body,’ John Paul II was plunging us anew into ‘the perspective of the whole Gospel, of the whole teaching, of the whole mission of Christ’” (TOB 49:3). “But what Blessed John Paul II actually writes is that the whole question of married love needs to be put into the context of the redemption, which includes the redemption of the body. Blessed John Paul is not saying that the Theology of the Body is the “perspective of the whole Gospel,” but that redemption, which includes the redemption of the body, is the “perspective of the whole Gospel.”
In his post-TOB ideological world-view, West becomes an advocate for a “revolution for the good,” by promoting his particular version of “liberty from the domination of concupiscence.” What Blessed John Paul II means by this, and what West means by this, are two different things.
The controversy over West’s work has centered on the issue of modesty. Modesty involves both interior and exterior values: matters of the heart, especially for men, and comportment of the body, especially for women. West acknowledges this in principle, but has consistently minimized the importance of external modesty, arguing that custody of the eyes is a function of continence, which is resistance against the “impulse to sin,” but not “true virtue.” He says a truly virtuous man, who has obtained “liberty from the dominion of concupiscence,” is able to see in a “new way” the attractive parts of a woman’s body without experiencing the movement of disordered desires.
John Paul II indeed teaches that, for the “man of concupiscence,” temperance has primarily a “negative function.” But in “mature purity, man enjoys the fruits of victory over concupiscence.” He says that Christian revelation “allows us to shift this meaning toward the positive function of purity of heart” (TOB 58.7). This new way of seeing inspired by the Gospel leads away from prudery and repression, or from a merely negative attempt to avoid sins against chastity.
However, Blessed John Paul II never claims victory over concupiscence and the virtue of mature chastity will mean that a man will not be sexually stimulated by the experience of a woman’s nakedness. He certainly does not, as some of West’s disciples contend, suggest that a truly chaste man will be empowered to be fascinated with and stare at the body of a woman not his wife and feel no sexual arousal.
West seems to suggest victory over the dominion of concupiscence means the near elimination of the sexual urge, or its more or less complete control by the will. Professor David Schindler rightly criticizes West for placing a “one-sided” emphasis on “purity of intention” in respect to temptations against chastity. This is mistaken because, as Schindler emphasizes, “concupiscence dwells ‘objectively’ in the body.” It cannot be eliminated by the power of intention. Thus the “fruits of victory” in which we are enabled to share belong only to Christ and to those who, in Him, practice the humility of modesty.
But West goes even further and suggests that almost any connection made between the vision of nakedness and spontaneous sexual desire involves the capitulation to Freudian libido, that is, the imputation of sexual motives to the most innocent manifestation of what differentiates men and women. So, according to West, if a man finds himself sexually aroused by the exposure of a breastfeeding woman, his attitude is Freudian or prudish.
This is ironic, because West is correct when he writes, quoting Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, in Love and Responsibility that the orientation toward the opposite sex, this “sexual urge,” is not to be understood primarily as an “occasion of sin.” Rather, the “sexual urge in this conception,” writes John Paul II, “is a vector of aspiration along which our whole existence develops and perfects itself from within” (46-47). Wojtyla also writes that this “natural drive” exists without any initiative from man. It happens to him: “Man is not responsible for what happens to him in the sphere of sex since he is obviously not himself the cause of it, but he is entirely responsible for what he does in this sphere.”
West has been the great advocate of sexual desire as something wonderful and holy, integrally related to the goodness of the body and the fact that its sexual character points to our union with God. Thus, it makes little sense that he insists, when a man experiences the vehemence of the sexual urge in the presence of a woman’s nakedness, and seeks to control it, that this is somehow the mere restraining of lust and not true virtue.
Shame or modesty, as Alice von Hildebrand points out, is a function of “reverence” for the mysteries of the “intimate sphere.” It is not a rejection of the body or of sex, but a profound respect for the link between this “intimate sphere” and the dignity of the human person. If sexual desire is as holy as West affirms it is, then it is also worthy of the reverence of modesty. Von Hildebrand writes: “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.”
So if the body is good, sexuality is good, the sexual urge is good, and conjugal union is good, and if the erotic cascade of physiological, psychological, emotional and spiritual experiences associated with the unveiling of a woman’s body are all good, then why should they stop when a man attains mature purity? What precisely does it mean to rejoice virtuously in the unveiled body of a woman who is not one’s wife? West makes no distinction between the basic sexual urge and its concrete disordered character. It is not the sexual urge that is bad, but the willful direction of that urge toward a person who is not one’s wife. The spontaneous movement of sexual desire toward a person who is not one’s wife does not come completely under the control of the will. A truly chaste man, and not merely one who is continent, is a man who mortifies the sexual urge, especially in respect to persons who are not his wife.
West’s pre- and post-TOB analysis of the Church’s teaching on chastity necessarily imputes puritanism and prudery to those who disagree with him.
To be sure, Blessed John Paul II does deal with these problems and their philosophical underpinnings, such as Manichaeism and Jansenism.
But one ideology will never be counteracted by another. Besides, there are few Catholics indeed who are philosophical body-haters. And when the Catechesis on Human Love is examined in the context of the wider Catholic Tradition in an integrated manner, one will discover that prudery is very often related to more general spiritual problems. If the practice of chastity becomes almost entirely rule-based and primarily approached from the point of view of negative precepts, it is because religion in general is dealt with in this way.
The solution to this kind of problem is never ideological but prudential.
The Catechesis on Human Love, when it is placed in the larger context of tradition, provides the faithful with the tools to see not only sexuality, but the whole of human life in the context of the freedom of divine love.
The exalted view of marriage and sexuality that belongs to the Catechesis on Human love serves precisely this function. But it is a development of doctrine based on a single, unbroken tradition of the Church, not a “revolution for the good.”
To be sure, the charismatic influence of Blessed Pope John Paul II was and continues to be a “revolution for the good,” but his doctrine is part of an unbroken tradition. To paraphrase a remark of Cardinal Ratzinger on Vatican II by applying it to the Catechesis on Human Love: there is no pre- or post-TOB Church: “there is but one, unique Church that walks toward the Lord, ever deepening and ever better understanding the
treasure of faith that he himself has entrusted to her” (Ratzinger Report, 35).
We should hope that Christopher West, a sincere and talented popularizer of the Catechesis on Human Love, will do more to promote its continuity with the unbroken tradition of the Church.
At the Heart of the Gospel, like all of West’s work, has many valid and helpful insights, but it is also strewn with misinterpretations of Pope John Paul II’s teaching. More detrimental and misleading yet is the revolutionary viewpoint that undergirds its entire presentation.