TOB Tuesday: The Pivotal Question

ChelseaTheology of the Body, TOB Tuesday5 Comments

Chris WestLast weekend Christopher West finally offered his reflections on the criticism that started after his appearance on Nightline this May.** One of the main things West was criticized for was his supposed dismissal of concupiscence and the human propensity toward sin. To which he responds, in part:

The pivotal question as I see it is this: What does the grace of redemption offer us in this life with regard to our disordered sexual tendencies? From there, the questions multiply: Is it possible to overcome the pull of lust within us? If not, what are we to do with our disordered desires? If so, to what degree can we be liberated from lust and how can we enter into this grace? Furthermore, what does it actually look like to live a life of ever deepening sexual redemption?

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).

Many people seem to doubt this “effectiveness” and thus conclude that the freedom I hold out is beyond the realm of man’s possibilities. From one perspective, these critics are correct. “But what are the ‘concrete possibilities of man’?” John Paul II asks. “And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ?” (Veritatis Splendor 103). For those dominated by lust, what I hold out is impossible. But those who enter the “effectiveness” of redemption discover “another vision of man’s possibilities” (TOB 46:6).

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Also worth checking out in this regard is a talk West did this summer for the Personalist Project on “Dietrich von Hildebrand on Sexuality” (which you can download here). The crux of West’s talk here is that for both von Hildebrand and JP II purity is possible – it’s difficult, but within our reach. Though our nature is wounded and subject to temptation, Christ came into the world to free us from the slavery of sin (Romans 6:1-14) and call us to perfection (Mt. 5:48).

This talk is especially significant since Dr. Alice Von Hildebrand, Dietrich’s widow, was one of the first to come out and publicly criticize West’s TOB interpretation and presentation. Before John Paul II became pope and delivered the 129 Wednesday audiences that make-up the “Theology of the Body“, German Catholic philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote extensively on the subjects of marriage and sexual purity. In fact, it is highly likely that it was von Hildebrand’s writings that influenced JP II as a young priest and inspired him to develop these thoughts even further. After his presentation, Prof. Michael Healy, whose “approach to sexuality has been fathered by Dietrich von Hildebrand and deeply enriched by Wojtyla” offered his own thoughts in: Christopher West: A Von Hildebrandian’s Perspective.

**For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about: This May ABC’s Nightline did a segment on Christopher West and JP II’s Theology of the Body. In typical mainstream media fashion, however, the six minute report did not exactly portray the Church teaching or West’s own views properly, which immediately prompted a response from West in order to clarify a few things.

Nevertheless, the whole thing sparked a few very public (and sometimes harsh) criticisms about West’s TOB interpretation and delivery from some Catholic theologians, including Alice von Hildebrand and David L. Schindler of the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and Fr. Angelo Geiger. Both Dr. Janet Smith and biblical scholar Michael Waldstein have spoken up in West’s defense and West himself has responded to his critics in this interview with Our Sunday Visitor. Also defending West most recently are Cardinal Justin Rigali and Bishop Kevin Rhoades who issued a joint letter of support. Jimmy Akin gave a very thorough and constructively critical, as well as defensive, look at West’s TOB etiquette.

All of that, of course, doesn’t even compare to the heated debate among commenters in the blogosphere. Things apparently got so bad at Mark Shea’s blog that he had to write a post telling his readers to cease what he called the trial and summary condemnation of Christopher West.

Chris WestAs for myself, all I can say is that, though I attended some Catholic school and was taught “Catholic sex ed”, I grew up never knowing what exactly the Church taught about human sexuality and why. It was through Christopher West and the abundant TOB resources he has helped make available to the general public that I even found out about the TOB in the first place and was able to gain at least a most basic understanding of the material. For that, I am eternally grateful. My goal next year is to study the teaching even further with a week-long Head to Heart Immersion Course offered at the Theology of the Body Institute.

5 Comments on “TOB Tuesday: The Pivotal Question”

  1. Talk about eternally greatful!! My journey toward the Catholic Church is a bit like Scott Haun’s in that I realized the lies of contraception and thought the same as he did, “Maybe the Catholic Church has at least one thing right!” That was the first step, all made possible by the “Time Bomb” tape (yes, tape) by Christopher West that I heard when I was 21. Now I am a married Catholic mother of 2 who is proudly practicing NFP and no longer have that burning question of “why are we here?” Christopher West handed me the map to the way home…and there’s no place like home 😉

  2. thanks for this piece. I’ve actually been hearing lots about chris west but I didn’t know nearly enough to form an opinion. thanks for spelling some things out without vitriol.

    Love the site.

  3. Matt – thanks for the link! I actually saw your post last night as I was writing this. I like what Janet Smith had to say about the whole thing:

    But for those whose lives are not spent in the academic world, a world in which minutiae can take on epic proportions, let me note that disagreements of the sort that Schindler has with West are an everyday occurrence in the world of academia. That is, we scholars disagree not only with our archenemies but also with our closest and dearest allies. And not just about small matters; Thomists disagree with other Thomists about serious issues of interpretation of Thomistic texts; Thomists and phenomenologists who both are entirely faithful to the Magisterium can have fierce disputes on all sorts of issues. Prof. William May and I once debated on the best way to defend Humanae Vitae.

    That, I think, is the crux of the matter. What JP II has written is a massive work of theology that I’m sure we will be unpacking for decades to come. Inevitably people are going to have different opinions on how certain things should be interpreted and delivered.

  4. Great post. My husband and I just returned form the Heart and hand Immersion course with Christopher. It was life changing for us. We learned so much about God, TOB as well as our own marriage and ministry.
    Christopher was authentic and powerful in his love of TOB and the Catholic faith. He is a tremendous witness of faith and love for God and the church. I pray that God will continue to bless him and his ministry.
    The world needs to hear the message of TOB now more than ever!

  5. I was taught about TOB at Immaculata University by a colleague of Christopher West. One of the problems West has, as Jimmy Akin and Bishops Rigali and Rhoades point out, is how to make JPII’s teachings accessible to people who are virtually uneducated on these issues, especially when the culture fosters anti-Catholic stereotypes. That being said, I have the utmost respect and admiration for Alice von Hildebrand, and I question whether any of West’s “vulgarities” to which she refers are ever appropriate, regardless of the audience. In light of von Hildebrand’s and others’ criticism, I have no doubt that West has reflected upon his approach with great humility.

    Excellent work, Chelsea. I hope you enjoy the course at the TOB Institute and your time here in beautiful southeastern Pennsylvania. 🙂

    God bless,

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