Thursday, February 10, 2011

Clashing Voices Weigh in on Theology of the Body Controversy

I came across this post on Desiderium by Kevin Symonds which claims that Rome has given an answer to Christopher West's approach in teaching the Theology of the Body (TOB).   Since Christopher West's interview on Nightline in May of 2009 there has been much controversy and questions regarding his approach of teaching John Paul II's TOB due to remarks he made during that interview.  But, the problem with Kevin's claim that Vatican document Persona Humana "answers" and then later clarified "provides an answer" to Christopher West is that this was written in 1975 and geared to those who believe in the moral permissibility of homosexuality, premarital sex, masturbation et al and this obviously doesn't apply to Christopher West.

Kevin states:  "It is my suspicion that the effect of Christopher West's take on John Paul II's TOTB has led to irreverence in the minds of our generation of young adult Catholics."

I am not quite sure how Kevin Symonds can make this assertion when Christopher West is trying to appeal, open the door to, and is teaching individuals who are engaging in sexually illicit behavior what is morally licit sexual behavior, which is derived from TOB and past Church teaching.  Alice Von Hildebrand and Christopher West are both great philosophical/theological leaders but her criticisms of Christopher West's exegesis of TOB are unjustified.  Alice Von Hildebrand uses more of a soft-spoken manner to get her point across while Christopher West expressions are livelier and I would say that neither type of presentation is wrong.  In fact, it seems like Hildebrand and West are appealing to different audiences.  While Christopher West is opening the door to individuals who might change their immoral behavior Alice Von Hildebrand seems to be expounding on that with people who are grounded in their faith.

Kevin makes a good point that concupiscence is not easily overcome but only with prayerful sacrifice and taking up your cross daily.  That is a point that West himself acknowledges in his own blog about his earlier presentations.

"It is abundantly clear from both Catholic teaching and human experience that, so long as we are on earth, we will always have to battle with concupiscence - that disordering of our passions caused by original sin (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 405, 978, 1264, 1426). In some of my earliest lectures and tapes, I confess that I did not emphasize this important point clearly enough. The battle with concupiscence is fierce. Even the holiest saints can still recognize the pull of concupiscence within them. Yet, as John Paul II insisted, we "cannot stop at casting the 'heart' into a state of continual and irreversible suspicion due to the manifestations of the concupiscence of the flesh... Redemption is a truth, a reality, in the name of which man must feel himself called, and 'called with effectiveness'" (TOB 46:4). ...

..."I humbly invite all those who question what I teach about liberation from concupiscence to take a closer look at the teaching of John Paul II on the matter (see especially TOB 43:6, 45:3, 46:4, 46:6, 47:5, 48:1, 48:4, 49:4, 49:6, 58:7, 86:6-7, 101:3-5, 107:1-3, 128:3, 129:5). 

Going by the above statement it is evident that Christopher West agrees with Kevin that it is best for people to actually read Pope John Paul II's in order to get to know the Theology of the Body.

West continues:

"It is a point of utmost importance. Indeed, in a very real way, debates about what we are capable of in the battle with concupiscence take us to the crux of the Gospel itself. "This is what is at stake," John Paul II maintained, "the reality of Christ's redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence"  (Veritatis Splendor 103).

"The teaching of John Paul II is clear: liberation from concupiscence - or, more precisely, from the domination of concupiscence (John Paul II used both expressions) - is not only a possibility, it is a necessity if we are to live our lives "in the truth" and experience the divine plan for human love (see TOB 43:6, 47:5). Indeed, Christian sexual ethos "is always linked... with the liberation of the heart from concupiscence" (TOB 43:6). And this liberation is just as essential for consecrated celibates and single people as it is for married couples (see TOB 77:4).

"It is precisely this liberation that allows us to discover what John Paul II called "mature purity." In mature purity "man enjoys the fruits of victory over concupiscence" (TOB 58:7). This victory is gradual and certainly remains fragile here on earth, but it is nonetheless real. For those graced with its fruits, a whole new world opens up - another way of seeing, thinking, living, talking, loving, praying. But to those who cannot imagine freedom from concupiscence, such a way of seeing, living, talking, loving, and praying not only seems unusual - but improper, imprudent, dangerous, or even perverse."

It is unclear whether Kevin Symonds is merely going by what critics have said about West and his work or if he has actually sufficiently taken trouble to critically examine those sources himself. Kevin refers to himself as "being the geek who actually checks references..."  He recounted checking only one reference but he didn't even quote THAT one.  The remainder of his attacks on West lack a direct engagement with him and his work, focusing instead on what he has heard from others and the off-the-cuff defenses of West they use in conversation.  From reading Kevin Symonds' writings which are critical of West's work (presentation of TOB) what IS clear is that he fits the description West gives of one who cannot even imagine such freedom from concupiscence, and thus sees West's work as " improper, imprudent, dangerous, or even perverse."  Symonds uses the label "scandalous".  In all fairness, he does say that some freedom of the domination of concupiscence is possible for those who undergo ascesis, but the impression that he gives is that this is only possible for those who live a monastic life.  For ordinary lay people, particularly married people or young singles, he doesn't seem to hold out much hope that Christ's redemption can free them from bondage to lust, so even talking about such matters is immature at best (he judges West as immature from one presentation, though he does not offer any support for this assessment), and usually spiritually dangerous. Kevin seems to have a limited view of who has the capacity to overcome the dominance of concupiscence.

Another thing which is also clear from Kevin Symonds' unqualified endorsement of Alice Von Hildebrand's work - he is certain that her way of presenting the Catholic Church's teaching about sexuality, derived from her husband's work, is the only right way to teach this topic.  Whether she would agree with him on this score I do not pretend to know, but there is no question about that with regard to Christopher West.  He knows that he is not "the definitive voice on the subject" and is glad of others who teach it and of their different approaches.


Patrick Button said...

I'm not a huge fan of Chris West, but I don't think that he is a pervy heretic like som allege. Some of Alice Von Hildebrand's points were better than others. Her horror at West's use of the word "crapola" to describe pornography is silly and puritanical.

Teresa said...

I had the opportunity to hear one of Christopher West's presentations at FUS and I don't remember anything occurring that would be considered either heretical or off the wall. Taking issue with the word "crapola" being used to describe pornography does seem kind of silly and puritanical.