Lifesite News covers an important ongoing debate about Catholic teaching on human sexuality and the so-called “Theology of the Body”. In this case, the article discusses Alice von Hildebrand’s call for Christopher West (perhaps the most well-known speaker on the TOTB) to “renew” his approach to the subject.
Many Catholics who had previously ignored or opposed Catholic teaching on contraception and other issues facing marriage have been positively influenced by West’s message. However, the TOTB in some important respects is a divergence from the traditional Thomistic formulation of many of these objective truths in favor of a more phenomenological approach typified by Husserl, Stein and John Paul II.
Furthermore, Christopher West in particular has been criticized of late for the increasing sensationalism of his approach. From Lifesite News:
Von Hildebrand Calls Christopher West to ‘Renew’ Approach to Theology of the Body
By Patrick B. Craine
July 22, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) – As Catholic author and lecturer Christopher West continues his six-month sabbatical for “personal and professional renewal,” Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, widow of the famed theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand, has again exhorted him to correct what she calls his “hyper-sexualized approach” in presenting the Church’s teaching on sexuality.
“My general criticism of Christopher West is that he does not seem to grasp the delicacy, reverence, privacy, and sacredness of the sexual sphere,” she writes in a lengthy essay published by Catholic News Agency Wednesday. “He also underestimates the effects of Original Sin on the human condition.”
West began his break from teaching and speaking three months ago following a controversy that began in spring 2009 over his approach to teaching the late Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. The debate was sparked by a feature on ABC’s Nightline where West said there is a “very profound” connection between John Paul II and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and suggested that Christians should “complete what the sexual revolution began.”
West later clarified the remarks, saying that the most controversial statements were broadcast out of context by ABC. He was defended by the likes of prominent theologians Dr. Janet Smith and Dr. Michael Waldstein, and received the support of his bishop.
At the same time, von Hildebrand and others, including Dr. David Schindler from the John Paul II Institute, the institution where West received his Masters degree, used the controversy as an opportunity to critique certain elements of West’s approach to teaching sexual issues.
Dr. von Hildebrand’s aim in writing her most recent piece, she says, is to warn parents and educators about what she perceives as the philosophical and presentational errors of West’s work and the potential grave consequences that could result from his teaching.
She compares West’s approach with that of her late husband, whom she says rightly held a high regard for the reverence owed to the “intimate sphere.” “Throughout all his Catholic writings, he insists upon humility and reverence,” she writes. “Reverence because of the depth and mystery of this sacred domain—a domain Dietrich always believed called for veiling.”
Von Hildebrand quotes her husband as saying that “God, and not a boundless search for ‘pleasure,’ should always be king of the bedroom.”
However, according to von Hildebrand, “Christopher West’s presentations consistently use language that lacks sensitivity, thereby obscuring the good inherent in marriage and the marital embrace.”
She accuses West of being “obsessed by puritanism,” saying that he leads one to believe that this is “the one great danger of our time.” “In our sex-saturated society, to concentrate all of one’s efforts on this deplorable deformation, is to beat a dead horse,” she writes. “Puritanism was never the universal problem he imagines (in the Church or outside it); and today it is barely a speck on our cultural landscape.”
On this point, she says West mischaracterizes the theology of the body when he calls it a “revolution.” “It is simply false to claim that the Church has, until recently, been blind to the deep meaning and beauty of sex as God intended it,” she writes. Rather than being taught that sex is “dirty,” she says her generation was instead given a “sense of ‘mystery’” around sexuality.
West’s “hyper-sexualized approach,” she says, will only “aggravate” sexual temptation. Further, she also accuses him of ignoring the Church’s “one successful remedy” to such temptation: “asceticism, the spirit of renunciation and sacrifice.”
“It is sheer illusion to believe that moral perfection can be pursued without this purifying discipline,” she maintains.
She even goes so far as to question whether West could rightly be seen as a disciple of the late Pope John Paul II, upon whose work West’s life’s work is based. “Why is it that John Paul II’s presentation of the Theology of the Body was never seriously challenged, whereas Christopher West’s interpretation of it has unleashed enormous controversy?” she asks. “Could it be that West has misrepresented it in fundamental respects, and worse, employed his own offensive language and ‘pop culture’ ideas to vulgarize it?”
In several places, Dr. von Hildebrand praises West’s “many talents” and insists that he has much to offer the Church, but nevertheless insists that his work “suffers from certain faults, calling for correction.” “I believe he will only fulfill his potential if he presents the Theology of the Body according to the traditions of our Church – reverently, with humility – and liberate himself from the wayward ‘enthusiasms’ of our time,” she writes.
Regarding West’s sabbatical, she expressed her “sincere and prayerful hope that he will use this valuable time, of ‘personal and professional renewal,’ to consider the many concerns that have been raised about his work – and thereby ‘renew’ his approach as well.”
Dr. Alice von Hildebrand’s essay is entitled ‘Dietrich von Hildebrand, Catholic Philosopher, and Christopher West, Modern Enthusiast: Two Very Different Approaches to Love, Marriage and Sex’. It can be found here.