Over the past few weeks, I have watched a friend and fellow soldier in the Church get assaulted by his own troops, ironically due to his breakthrough appearance on ABC News’ Nightline, the kind of program we in the Catholic media have long been targeting as an instrument for communicating Catholic teaching in general, and Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB) message in particular.
As one of his publishers (along with the Daughters of St. Paul and Servant/St. Anthony’s Messenger), I have witnessed firsthand the dynamic impact Christopher West is having on people worldwide, both married and single. Few Catholic authors/evangelists can match his track record of eyes opened to Truth and hearts turned to Christ. Fewer still have shown the courage to battle the colossal dragon that is modern society’s dissolute sexual culture, a beast that threatens to devour the souls in its path, including those of our children.
When Archbishop Sheen would be told by agitators back in his day that they had left the Faith, he would reportedly reply, “Oh, what was your sin?” Most, undoubtedly, were sexual in nature, for the Church’s message of sexual restraint has never been an easy teaching. But here Christopher comes forward with an urgent message of sexual healing and renewal from the very heart of the Church, and he is vilified by certain quarters of the Catholic apostolate. All one can do is marvel.
Christopher, to a degree far greater than any other Catholic evangelist I have known in my 19 years of full-time ministry, is helping to heal people’s sexual wounds and correct their errors and misinterpretations of Church teaching. To read the testimonials we at Ascension Press receive each week in response to his books and conferences is to understand how positive an impact this man is having on people’s lives. The principles of Pope John Paul’s texts that Christopher is popularizing are stimulating vocations to consecrated life, strengthening youth, saving marriages, and saving babies worldwide.
Each year, more than 55,000 engaged persons in over 40 dioceses are being introduced to the authentic Catholic vision for marriage contained in Christopher’s marriage preparation program. Of the 91% who have entered the program sexually active, more than half of these couples said they will forego ongoing sexual relations until they are married. Nearly a third of these couples state that they will employ “Natural Family Planning” methods once they are married. And fully 61% made a deeper commitment to Christ because of the program. This is powerful evangelization.
Moreover, tens of thousands of college students on both Catholic and secular campuses have heard, perhaps for the first time, what “sexual freedom” really means! Cardinals and bishops from around the U.S. have invited Christopher to address the priests in their dioceses, and as a result, more than 3,600 priests in 31 dioceses have been given new tools to minister to a Catholic community that has, by and large, jettisoned much of the Catholic sexual ethic. The most consistent comment in surveys of these priests has been: “This was the single best continuing education day I have experienced in my entire priesthood.”
More than 25 bishops have taken time from their busy schedules to attend day-long seminars given by Christopher. One Midwestern bishop said after a seminar — and in front of a crowd of 600 — that Christopher is simply “one of the best Catholic evangelists in the Church today.”
Beyond that, more than 1,100 lay church leaders have attended Christopher’s weeklong course at the Theology of the Body Institute — and have given him an approval rating of over 96%. These leaders emerge substantially equipped to run TOB studies at their parishes, spreading John Paul II’s urgent message even deeper into the Catholic grassroots.
And these statistics do not even include the tens of thousands who have undertaken a personal or group study of the TOB via West’s books and workbooks — which bear Imprimaturs from bishops such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Sean Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, and Justin Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia.
As we know from the Acts of the Apostles, if a work is not of God, it will fail (5:38-39). Yet in this time of historic sexual anarchy, Christopher’s critics remain disinclined to attribute his overwhelmingly positive results to a blessing by God.
Distinct Mission and Voice
Christopher gets criticized by some for focusing too much on “sex: the verb,” though most who intimately know his work recognize that it focuses on the entire catechetical breadth of the TOB. For most of the Nightline interview, at which I was present, Christopher shared the pope’s vision about “sex: the noun.” But he was stung by hyper-aggressive editing in the final product, and has surely learned a lesson for future broadcast interviews. Despite the incoming fire, he should not avoid these television opportunities going forward. Any occasion to introduce millions of souls to Pope John Paul’s sublime teaching during this time of crisis simply must be seized.
This said, it should be noted that Christopher’s mission is different from others who teach and evangelize within the Catholic world. He is endeavoring to reach the vast majority of Catholics, including those who have not darkened the door of a church for years, the group comprising the “walking wounded” who have made bad choices in the past, or those who have grown up secretly thinking that their bodies or sex are somehow bad. This is an important part of West’s audience and reaching them is not easily accomplished. The sexual apologetics offered by many who have criticized Christopher will simply not reach, to any measurable degree, the wife who feels used by her husband, the man who has allowed impure habits to dominate his life, or the millions who view Catholicism as hopelessly repressive.
Given the sensitivity of the topics he addresses and the sheer volume of words he expresses in public, it is only natural that Christopher will occasionally answer questions or communicate ideas in ways that he will later need to refine. But he has never, and will never, reject a single teaching of the Catholic Church. The alleged “problems” in West’s presentations amount to issues of style, not doctrine.
A highly respected Catholic bishop and scholar once counseled Christopher with these words: “They will expect perfection of you.” This has certainly proven to be the case. But combating it by standing at podiums with scholarly paper in hand is not an option for a man who wants to connect with the vast audience of Desperate Housewives. As Jules Van Schaijik of The Personalist’s Project, said, “Attempting to anticipate all objections and prevent all possible misunderstandings would sap the life and sparkle from his talks. What he might gain in precision and clarity would be lost in effectiveness.”
There is no question that many in the Church are still very uncomfortable discussing the subject of sex. But while millions are drowning in a sea of filth advanced by our sexually-twisted media culture, Christopher is one of very few hazarding a high seas rescue mission and giving people a hand into the boat. Never has such a mission been so badly needed. Within the next 10 years, probably half the states in the U.S. will have embraced same-sex marriage. Already, most Catholics of child-bearing age have rejected Church teaching on contraception. And on this very day, more than 3,600 children will be killed in their mother’s womb. Yet some of our fellow Catholics have felt it important to spend their energies publicly lancing one of their own.
It is a fact that many of the Church’s most exalted figures also encountered their greatest resistance from within Church ranks. A comforting thought for a man carrying very heavy water in the cultural wildfire that threatens us all.
[CE Editor’s note: Although we have accepted two submissions in the past two weeks that are defensive of Christopher West, CE is not taking sides in the ongoing debate.]