Christopher West’s Work is “Completely Sound,” says Dr. Janet Smith

Christopher West’s interview on ABC’s Nightline has sparked some terrific discussion on the Internet. An impressive amount of the interaction is intelligent and illuminating, even some of that which is seriously wrong. One of the better responses is that by Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers and the follow-up comments to his blog.

[CE Editor’s note: This article contains several frank references to sexual matters and is for mature readers.]

Here, I want to offer a brief, partial, response to Prof. David Schindler’s assessment of West’s work. The fact that Nightline got a lot wrong about West’s work is not surprising. In fact, it is surprising how much it got right. Those of us who work with the media know that potential martyrdom awaits us at the hands of an editor. West has likely been suffering a kind of crucifixion over the past week. What is puzzling is that an influential scholar chose this moment to issue a sweeping, negative critique of West in such a public forum. I have great respect for the work and thought of Schindler and realize that it must be difficult to be on the receiving end of criticisms of the work of one of their most high profile graduates. I wish, however, he had found another occasion to express his reservations about West’s work.

I think we should be very careful in our evaluation of the work of someone who is on the front lines and who is doing pioneer work. Virtually every pioneering author and presenter has had severe detractors in his own time. Some of them have been disciplined by the Church and eventually exonerated. I would like to give examples and mention names, but I don’t want to ignite a firestorm of “how can you compare Christopher West to X, Y or Z?”!

 

I want to add my voice to those who are enthusiastic about the West/Theology of the Body phenomenon. I think it is important to keep in mind, as Akin does, who West’s audience is. It is largely the sexually wounded and confused who have been shaped by our promiscuous and licentious culture. People need to think long and hard about the appropriate pedagogy for that group. Yet, as West himself knows, his approach is not for everyone. An analogy that pushes the envelope may be “offensive” to one person and may be just the hook that draws another person in. West has adopted a style that appeals to a large segment of that population — and even to some who are “pure and innocent.” It is not hard to find hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals who will testify that they have come to love Christ and His Church, and better understand and live the Church’s teaching about sex because of the work of Christopher West. Cohabiters separate, contracepters stop contracepting, and men cease looking at pornography — and that is the short list. Countless young people are now taking up the study of the Theology of the Body because of West’s work. “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Schindler objects to the language used in a list of comments made by West and dismisses them as “vulgar,” “in bad taste,” and “silly.” Was Schindler careful to verify those comments and take into account the context in which they were made? Let me defend two matters mentioned by Schindler, “praying over genitals” and anal sex, that might seem peculiar if not properly understood. I hesitate to draw further attention to these subjects because I do not want to give the impression that West’s work focuses on tangential and sensational issues of sexuality. It does not. West focuses on making John Paul II’s vision of our creation as male and female accessible to the common person in the pew. But people deserve answers to their honest questions, and West is charitable in his willingness to meet people where they are.

A friend of mine who was sexually abused often finds it difficult to engage in the marital embrace (trying not to offend!). A very orthodox Catholic therapist recommended that her husband pray over her reproductive organs (being delicate here). Since he has been doing that, she has experienced some healing, and her enjoyment of the marital embrace has improved considerably. One has to ask why praying over throats is fine while praying over other parts of the body wrong or silly? It would be Manichean to suggest that some parts of the body are good (e.g., the throat) while others (e.g., the reproductive organs) are not.

I never like to talk about anal sex (sorry, I don’t know a good euphemism). As one of my friends has observed about my sensitivities regarding sexual matters, “You would censor Shakespeare!” (I would.) But the fact remains that Catholic couples in today’s world have questions about such issues. Many cannot understand why anal sex could possibly be appealing to anyone (include me and, indeed, West in that group), while others seem to find the act attractive. Certainly there isn’t any “Church teaching” about this action at a magisterial level, but few seem to know that there is a tradition of approval of such behavior as foreplay to intercourse (not to be confused with the biblical condemnation of sodomy which replaces intercourse) by orthodox Catholic ethicists. The principle generally invoked is that consensual actions that culminate in intercourse are morally permissible. People are free to challenge the “tradition” on this point, but it should be acknowledged that West is not a maverick concerning this issue. Indeed, his position is perhaps more “conservative” than that of the “tradition.” In his book Good News About Sex and Marriage, West clearly discourages the practice. Perhaps it is time for ethicists to work on the question, but what Schindler failed to mention is that West’s position is precisely (or even stricter than) what priests have been trained to teach married couples for a very long time.

In the second portion of his article, Schindler provides a list of his objections to West’s theology without citing one text to substantiate his charges. I would be very interested in seeing a more sustained presentation of Schindler’s critique. As it stands, I do not find that his concerns correspond with what I have read in West’s work or heard in his lectures. I believe a thorough discussion of the issues Schindler raises would enrich our understanding of the Theology of the Body. 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.

My point is this: The fact that the dean of the John Paul II Institute in Washington D.C. has issues with West’s approach should not discourage anyone from reading West’s work or attending his lectures. Schindler has serious disagreements with other reputable, orthodox theologians, including professors on staff at the John Paul II Institute. West’s extensive commentary on the Theology of the Body, Theology of the Body Explained, was reviewed for the nihil obstat for the Archdiocese of Boston by Prof. May, a longtime colleague of Schindler at the John Paul II Institute, who also gave it a glowing endorsement for the book jacket. (I also reviewed and strongly endorsed West’s book, Good New About Sex and Marriage.) Several times in his piece Schindler refers to West’s “intention” to be orthodox which could imply that he has not necessarily achieved orthodoxy. We should be clear that West’s works have been given an Imprimatur, an ecclesiastical judgment that a work is doctrinally sound. I share the view of others that they are completely theologically sound.

Again, I would be very interested in reading a sustained critique of West’s work by Schindler because of his own tremendous knowledge of the Theology of the Body. Yet, until he substantiates them and we have a response from West and his supporters, we will not be able to evaluate the validity of Schindler’s evaluation. West has been giving his presentations for over a decade now; he has shown spectacular docility and humility in reworking them in response to criticisms. I suspect that as a result of this recent dust-up West may want to adjust some of his approach (or he may not!), but I also am confident that onlookers will find that many of the criticisms against West are without foundation. Some are erroneous because the critics are not sufficiently acquainted with West’s work. Others are not sufficiently acquainted with John Paul II’s work. Sometimes differences are not about substance but about emphasis or semantics. When dealing with a subject as fraught with distortions and sensitivities as sexuality there are surely going to be differences between people of good will.

Scholars and graduate students will be studying and arguing over the proper interpretation of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body for centuries to come. I think West has already made a very worthy contribution to that discussion. Others are free to differ with him, but I am sure that, in the end, West’s influence will not be found to be a pernicious one. Rather, I expect we will all have an immense debt of gratitude to him.

[CE Editor’s notes: Professor Smith has revised this piece to include a more precise meaning of an imprimatur. Professor Smith is an occasional guest lecturer at the Theology of the Body Institute .

As of Monday, June 8th, Professor David Schindler has offered a rebuttal to this article by Janet Smith, as well as to Professor Waldstein, here.]

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