Thursday, August 05, 2010

Von Hildebrand and West: A Theological Debate Heats Up

The following is a comprehensive history since that fateful West interview. It is being posted with permission by Dr. Moynihan.

Letter #33, 2010 -- Alice and Christopher Dr. Robert Moynihan Editor of Inside the Vatican.
Tue, Aug 3, 2010 at 6:03 PM

What is the right relationship between sex and sanctity? That's what many Catholics in the US are asking as a simmering theological debate over the "Theology of the Body" threatens to boil over and further test the unity of the Church in the US. The debate touches on issues ranging from the doctrine of original sin to the legacy of Pope John Paul II. And the hierarchy itself seems divided...

By Robert Moynihan

"It had never been their intention to set up a separate Church... To be a leaven within the lump, to be an enclave of holiness within the corrupt body of Christendom, was the aim... But the logic of facts was against them. The enthusiast always begins by trying to form a church within the Church, always ends by finding himself committed to sectarian opposition." —Monsignor Ronald Knox, Enthusiasm

Love and Lust, Sin and Holiness

Note: The subject matter of the letter below is human sexuality, a matter which traditional Catholic teaching advises should always be treated with great discretion.

And, in essence, that is the tragedy, and the problem, with this growing debate -- that matters which should be dealt with in privacy, and with discretion, are being dealt with in public, and without great discretion.

So I hesitated before embarking on this letter. But in the end, I felt it important to write it and send it because the controversy does touch on all the issues and questions concerning sexuality in our lives -- from love and courtship and marriage, to sexual relations and sexual pleasure, to contraception and homosexuality.

Such matters are relevant to all of us who are born into this world -- who have physical bodies -- and, since our Western culture, increasingly, is offering (often imposing?) views on these matters not in keeping with traditional Christian faith and doctrine, these delicate matters are, in fact, particularly relevant today.

But I still prefer to write little myself on this matter. Rather, I prefer to cite what others are saying, in order to give readers an insight into this important controversy.

I particularly draw attention to the text by Alice von Hildebrand, at the end, which is an eloquent presentation of traditional Catholic teaching. Her text, as well, may be criticized, but it is written in a careful, respectful way and with a remarkable focus on the true end of human life, which is, in fact, not pleasure in this life and in this world, but eternal life in the world to come, and a joy which passes all understanding, but is not for that reason less real than any earthly joy.

Sex and Sanctity

An unusual and intense debate over Catholic teaching on human sexuality and how sexuality relates to sanctity is continuing to unfold in the United States.

The debate is complicated, and nuanced, and this newsflash cannot hope to deal with all the complications and nuances.

But, it is important, I think, that Catholics, and others, be aware that this debate is occurring.

The Man in the Crossfire

The man in the crossfire at the moment is Christopher West a Catholic layman who has made a career out of preaching his version of John Paul II's "Theology of the Body."

Here is a brief summary of his life's work.

West has a Masters in Theological Studies, Magna Cum Laude (1997) from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage & Family; Washington, D.C. He is a Certified Catechist of the Archdiocese of Denver Catechetical School (1997) and a Certified Instructor of Marriage Preparation in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. (1996). He received his Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology (1992) from the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland.

He is a faculty member of The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage & Family, Melbourne, Australia and of the Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary, Denver, Colorado, where he has been an Instructor in the theology of the body for the Seminary Spirituality Year Program from 2000 to the present, and a Fellow of the Theology of the Body Institute (2005-present) in Denver.

West writes on his web site: "The Theology of the Body Institute is a non-profit educational apostolate with the mission of spreading an understanding of the theology of the body throughout the world. As a fellow of the Institute, I serve as a chief researcher, writer, educator, lecturer, consultant, and spokesman for the organization."

Since 1997, West has given approximately 1,000 public lectures on four continents and in more than 150 cities throughout the United States. These include keynote addresses and full-length seminars and retreats on topics such as Christian anthropology (especially John Paul II’s theology of the body), the Creed, morality, sacraments, marriage, sexuality, and family life.

From 1997 to 2001, he served as a full-time advisor to and educator for Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver on issues related to Church teaching on marriage, human sexuality, and family life.

His books include: Theology of the Body for Beginners: A Basic Introduction to Pope John Paul II’s Sexual Revolution (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2004); Theology of the Body Explained: A Commentary on John Paul II’s “Gospel of the Body” (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2003);
The Wisdom of John Paul II (London: Catholic Truth Society, Publishers to the Holy See, 2001); and Chapter 6 on the Holy Father’s theology of the body, Good News About Sex & Marriage: Answers to Your Honest Questions About Catholic Teaching (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 2000).

Support from Leading Catholics

Here’s what prominent Catholic voices have to say about Christopher’s work:

"Christopher West is 'a prophet of the sexual counter-revolution.'" —The National Catholic Register

"Christopher West’s keen grasp of John Paul II’s theology of the body and his ability to make it accessible to others is changing lives, strengthening marriages, and renewing people’s faith in the Church across the country and internationally. He is on the front lines of the new evangelization and his message should be heard by all." —Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. Archbishop of Denver

"I am familiar with the excellent work Christopher West has done and continues to do promoting Catholic teaching on life and love, especially as given to us by Pope John Paul II in his 'theology of the body.' I am grateful to count him among the faithful of the Diocese of Harrisburg and to encourage one and all to listen with an open heart to the message of hope he brings." —Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, Diocese of Harrisburg, PA

"The vibrancy of Christopher West, his infectious enthusiasm and penetrating understanding of the thought of Pope John Paul II is well-known to those who have heard his lectures and tapes. The public needs to hear what the Holy Father thinks on issues of sexuality, marriage, and celibacy and West has generously committed his considerable talents to making this a possibility." —Dr. Janet Smith, Professor of Life Issues, Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit

"With intellectual care, with the experience bred of long years of teaching this material in the classroom and the parish, and taking account of his own experiences as a husband and father, Christopher West has put us in his debt by making the ‘theology of the body’ available to a wide -- and, I hope, appreciative -- readership." —George Weigel, Senior Fellow, Ethics & Public Policy Center

So West is a highly regarded, prominent, world-famous Catholic lay theologian on the subject of Pope John Paul II's "theology of the body."

What has sparked the controversy over his teaching?

The May 7, 2009, Television Report which Sparked the Controversy

In recent years, West has increasingly treated sexual pleasure in an ever more graphic and positive way.

Traditional Catholic teaching holds there is an element in sensual pleasure which can easily lead to selfishness, to immoderate desire for that pleasure, which then draws us, sometimes unwittingly, away from the true end of our lives, which is the love of God and neighbor above all else.

This has traditionally been called "concupiscense," or "lust," not love, and it is not compatible with true love, no matter how much we may wish it to be.

West has for some time raised eyebrows as he has seemed -- seemed -- to downplay this traditional teaching.

But the entire matter might have remained, more or less, a relatively minor one, had West not given an interview to a national television network, ABC News, which was then aired to millions.

And in that interview, West paired Pope John Paul II  with Hugh Hefner , the founder of Playboy magazine, as two of the key inspirations for his work.

Pope Hefner?

In short, West went so far as to seem to "baptize" the father, or godfather, of modern pornography.

Here is a link to the interview where West makes such statements:


This ABC interview led first to some sparring between West's critics and supporters. It then sparked the decision of Alice von Hildebrand to write a long essay, just released, critiquing West's theology (complete text below).

Schindler's Critique

First to criticize West was his former professor at the John Paul II Institute in Washington DC, David Schindler, editor of Communio magazine -- the theological journal founded by Joseph Ratzinger and other 40 years ago shortly after the Second Vatican Council.

On May 23, 2009 -- more than a year ago -- under the headline "Christopher West ‘significantly’ misrepresents JP II’s thought, leading theologian says," Schindler said, essentially, that West had gone far beyond anything John Paul II actually said and taught.

Here are excerpts from a Catholic News Agency story on the matter. (Catholic News Agency is based in Denver, Colorado, in the same archdiocese where West has worked under Archbishop Charles Chaput.)

Washington D.C., May 23, 2009 / 07:21 am (CNA) — Continuing the reaction to Catholic speaker Christopher West’s ABC interview on the Theology of the Body, prominent theologian David L. Schindler has said that, despite West’s fidelity to the Church and his positive results for many Catholics, his approach significantly misrepresents Pope John Paul II’s thought and is “too much about sex and too romantic.”

Schindler recommended West subject his theology to “renewed reflection.”

On May 7, ABC News presented a story and a seven-minute interview segment with Christopher West on his interpretation of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. ABC claimed West declared both John Paul II and Hugh Hefner to be his “two big heroes.” It also showed him saying that Christians “must complete what the sexual revolution began” and must bring God and sex “back together.”
In response to the story, West said that ABC tried to make his points understandable but “'sensationalized’ misrepresentations and distortions of his views and presentations.”

Schindler, who is also an editor of the international Catholic review “Communio,” emphasized that he agreed West intends to be a faithful Catholic. In fact, Schindler said he believes the speaker “would throw himself in front of a bus for the Church.”

Though remarking that West has had “positive results” in drawing many Catholics, Schindler said good will is not synonymous with sound thought.

“West’s work seems to me to misrepresent in significant ways the thought of John Paul II,” he wrote.

Schindler cited several instances where he said West was not only “vulgar and in bad taste” but also suggestive of “a disordered approach to human sexuality.”

He claimed that West has suggested spouses bless their genitals before making love, has blessed the ovaries of women in his classes, and has advised young men in college and the seminary to look at their naked bodies in the mirror daily “in order to overcome shame.”

(Note: This suggestion of West's strangely echoes the poem by American poet William Carlos Williams in his poem Danse Russe:

If I, when my wife is sleeping,
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees, --
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
'I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks,
against the yellow drawn shades, --
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

West would have seminarians dance in such a way, it would appear. But can we imagine the apostles and saints so dancing?)

Schindler also claimed that West has used “phallic symbolism” to describe the Easter candle, has criticized “flat-chested” images of Mary in art, and has claimed there is nothing wrong with an unnatural act as marital foreplay.

An “objective distortion” in approaching sexuality is not eliminated simply because of theological overtones, Schindler wrote.

He said West misconstrues the meaning of concupiscence and stresses “purity of intention” in a one-sided way when talking about lust.

Schindler charged that West presents love in a “reductive bodily-sexual sense” and treats the Christian mysteries as “more perfect realizations” of sex.

“But sex is not even the most important part of human love, let alone the key to the Christian mysteries–the Eucharist, for example,” he wrote, adding that West misses the “radical discontinuity” between divine love revealed by God and sexual love or intercourse.

Schindler charged that West promotes a “pansexualist tendency” that ties all important human and supernatural activity back to sex without making necessary distinctions.

“If we could just get over our prudishness and sin-induced guilt, he seems to think, we would be ready simply to dispense with clothes and look at others in their nakedness,” Schindler said.

He added that West treats shame and reverence with “a too-male vision” that is “distorted.” This misses the differences between men and women’s different experiences of modesty and shame, he explained.

The theologian also remarked that styles of preaching are not simply differences in personality or taste but have theological consequences. He argued that West tends to treat resistance to his lectures as if it was resistance to the Holy Spirit and urges questioners to overcome the “fear” generated by their poor formation.

“Well-balanced persons have spoken of how West makes them feel a sense of guilt, of resistance to the Holy Spirit, if they experience uneasiness about what he is saying,” he continued.

Schindler then charged that West’s interpretation of the Theology of the Body is “too much about sex and too romantic,” warning that his “unquestionably orthodox intensions” make his theology appear more credible than it is.

“His work often deflects people from the beauty and depth of what is the authentic meaning of John Paul II's anthropology of love, and thus of what was wrought in and through the Second Vatican Council.”

“West has worked tirelessly on behalf of the Church,” Schindler’s essay concluded. “However, if his work is to bear the Catholic fruit he so ardently desires, he needs to subject basic aspects of his theology to renewed reflection.”

To read Schindler's full critique of West's theology visit

West's Self-Defense

West defended himself by publishing this text on his website:

Christopher West on ABC's Nightline

Christopher West and the Theology of the Body Institute are pleased that a wider audience has been exposed to their work through the segment which aired Thursday, May 7, 2009 on ABC News Nightline.

It is our hope that it will encourage people to take a deeper look at the Church’s teachings on the sacredness of human sexuality as God intends it. In an effort to correct any editorial comments which may appear misleading, the following few points will help clarify the actual teaching of The Theology of the Body:

Regarding the connection between John Paul II and Hugh Hefner, Christopher often points out the interesting historical “coincidence” of the work of these two profoundly influential men. In the early 1950s, as Hefner was founding Playboy magazine, Karol Wojtyla began to lecture and write about the need for Christians to experience a redemption of their bodies and sexuality.

In their respective work, both Hefner and John Paul II responded to a puritanical/Manichean approach to sexuality, but they offered completely different solutions to the problem. This is the historical "connection" of which Christopher spoke in the Nightline interview. ABC latched onto this point, but they failed to provide the larger context Christopher offered in his extended interview with Nightline’s correspondent. This lack of proper context has led some to misinterpret Christopher’s remarks as somehow endorsing Hefner’s views.

The point Christopher made—but which wasn’t included in the Nightline piece—was that, as Catholics, we agree with Hugh Hefner’s diagnosis of the disease (i.e., a puritanical rejection of the body and sexuality is utterly contrary to Catholic faith), but we radically disagree with his cure.

Christopher told the Nightline correspondent that the Theology of the Body is the true cure for the disease that Hefner diagnosed. These distinctions were lost in the seven-minute piece that ABC aired.

Indeed, Nightline made it sound as if West considered Hefner a "hero" of his, which he certainly never said. West has dedicated his life to fighting the terrible distortions of pornography. West's "love" for Hugh Hefner is a Christian love—a hope that Hefner would come to discover the riches of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the profound insights of the Theology of the Body. To see the full context of what Christopher said visit.

Christopher West is not a sex therapist. He is a Catholic educator, author, lecturer, and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute. The TOB Institute is an educational organization and does not engage in sex therapy.

John Paul II's Theology of the Body is intended for every human being, regardless of his or her state in life and regardless of what sexual tendencies one might experience in this fallen world. The TOB povides not only a vision of God's glorious plan for human sexuality and married love, but a vision of what it means to be human and what it means to love in the image and likeness of God.

From beginning to end, Sacred Scripture unfolds a glorious love story, a story about the "marriage" between God and humanity, Christ and the Church.

By inviting men and women to particpate in this love, Scripture shows us the "path of love" -- including the path for spouses in their sexual intimacy. However, in a cultural climate fixated on the mechanics of sex rather than on authentic marital love, to describe the Bible as the "ultimate sex guide" can be misleading. It is certainly a guide to love, and, indeed, to the "ultimate" love: the love revealed in Christ.

The Song of Songs presents an unabashed biblical celebration of the chaste love of a husband and wife, including multiple references to the intimacies of "tasting" the goodness of the other. To construe this as an endorsement for "oral sex" (as the culture uses that term) can be more than misleading. Please see Christopher West's book Good News About Sex and Marriage (chapter 5) for the full context of his answer to this question...

...But In Rome, A Theologian Still Sees Problems

Nevertheless, the debate still seemed unfinished, especially considering that an important Roman theologian was arguing that there were srious problems with West's teachings.

Here are excerpts from an interview with Fr. Maurizio Faggioni, OFM, published on July 3, 2009.

Rome, Italy, Jul 3, 2009 / 02:33 pm (CNA) — Fr. Maurizio Faggioni, OFM, a professor at the top pontifical institute for moral theology, the Pontifical Academy “Alphonsianum,” said in a recent interview with Catholic News Agency that the teachings of the Church suggest “far more prudence” in approaching some of the issues raised by Christopher West in his presentation of the Theology of the Body.

Faggioni, a Franciscan who teaches at the Alphonsianum, an academy named upon the father of modern Moral theology, St. Alphonsus of Liguori, is one of the most consulted moral theologians and is an advisor to several Vatican dicasteries.

In a conversation with CNA, Fr. Faggioni explained that some of the issues discussed publicly by West, such as the appropriateness of anal sex or other forms of sexual “foreplay” in married relationships, have to be dealt with using great care, since “the risk is of displacing the attention from marital love and the anthropologic meaning of lovely gestures to merely the genital aspects.”

“Sexuality,” Fr. Faggioni said, launching into his analysis of West's presentation of the Theology of the Body, “is the language of love and this language is authentic only when it is respectful of the meaning of human love.”

According to the moral theologian, “the traditional moral theology certainly does not prohibit intimacy among spouses, but it never regards them as a substitute for the marital embrace and accepts intimacy only as a path toward a complete sexual union.”

Moreover, Fr. Faggioni said that “it is simply not true that the traditional Catholic moral supports the use of acts that Thomas Aquinas call contra naturam — against nature — (such as anal sex) as something ordinary.”

“Catholic moral theology calls us to be very discrete in discussing these issues, and encourages being particularly respectful to the sensibilities of persons and couples,” the Italian Franciscan explained.

“Regarding this type of intercourse or others, no one can pretend to accept from another person something that offends that person’s sensibility on sexual issues or that does not respect the structure and natural complementarity of the bodies of man and woman.”

The moral theologian warned that “today’s youth, in a special manner, have to be protected from unnecessary exposure to sexual-genital issues that can lead to a morbid curiosity.”

“This is not prudishness, but the wisdom of the Church that has time and again demonstrated the importance of discretion and prudence when it comes to sexual issues,” he added.

“When we make these types of assertions in an indiscriminate manner, we are actually getting into the beds of married couples, and that is something the moral teaching of the Church does not encourage at all.”

Regarding the practice of blessing the genitals before a sexual relationship, Fr. Faggioni expressed “real perplexity.” “Without doubt, all the body in each one of its parts is God’s creation and deserves honor. We precisely respect our private parts by surrounding them with greater respect and modesty.”

“In itself,” he continued, “nothing forbids thanking God for the sexual body of oneself or the spouse, but from the perspective of Christian anthropology, it is not right to emphasize the genitals as if our sexuality could be reduced to them.

“Love is made with all the body, with the entire person’s humanity, not only with the genitals.”

Fr. Faggioni also explained that Pope John Paul never intended to specifically address the sexual Puritanism of the United States. “Pope John Paul wanted to distance himself equally from the moral relativism that trivializes sex, as much as from the Puritanism that considers sex as taboo,” he explained.

The late Pope, the moral theologian also said “exalted the beauty of the body and sexuality, but also taught that the body cannot be used as an instrument, as if it would not be the bearer of a meaning and values that man and woman are called to embrace and live with gratefulness and fidelity,” he said on ending.

You can read this entire piece here.


Carnival said...

You subscribed to Dr. Moynihan's newsletters too? I just read this one this morning lol. (Did you read the one that said that Pope Benedict wanted to be a librarian?) I love his newsletters and this one I think is one of his best. We certainly live in a sex obsessed society. I just remember being in sex ed at age 12. A lady from planned parenthood came to my school and talked about contraception and sex like it was the only thing that mattered in life. And of course planned parenthood performs abortions =( In highschool I heard so many erroneous definitions of love and sex. We need people like von Hildebrand to remind us of what God really teaches about these issues. It's not cool, but its the Truth.

EC Gefroh said...

Yes I do thanks to a friend who shared one with me. I haven't read that one. I know what you mean about sex-obsession. My son and I listened to someone on TV describe love (meaning sex) as addicting as a drug.