23 July 2010

Alice von Hildebrand and Christopher West

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.


anselmo said...

Based on Von Hildebrand's comments, at least the ones referenced in this source, I find it difficult to believe that she has actually read and listened to much of West's work. I've listened to his entire 10-disc lecture series, and I encountered none of the "wayward enthusiasms" or vulgarity she refers to.

StGuyFawkes said...

I don't know West's work but I do know something about "The Theology of the Body." I'd like to offer a couple of comments.

1.) A. Von Hildebrand's essay is well worth reading if only because it offers a short course in Catholic theology and ethics with respect to sex.

2.) Whatever West is guilty of in the matter of style or "enthusiasm" there is nothing in His Holiness' John Paul's Wednesday lectures which justifies a sensational approach. I notice that Mrs. Von Hildebrand is careful never to criticize the "Theology of the Body", but only offer sisterly correction to Mr. West treatment of such.

3.) I won't speak to whether Mr. West has overly eroticized or sensationalized the TOTB. However, I will say it would be an easy error to fall into because:

a.) His Holiness John Paul has done an amazing thing; he has countered the sexualization of the arts, the academy, and the media with a vision of an utterly ensouled human sexuality which argues that all of our sexual desires have as their origin and object a desire for union with God. Our desires for the opposite sex begins with and ends with our desire to see God's breath in our wives and in our children and to participate in sexuality with reverence.

b.) Thus, when considered rightly, the marital act, entered into chastely, using Aquinas' definition of chaste as "not too much and not to little pleasure", is an act that participates in God's act of creation and should be approached in an atmosphere of prayer and awe, reverence and respect and I might add -- restraint.

3. ) To say the above sounds much like "praying to sex" or adoring sex which is pagan and evil. This is not what the "Theology of the Body" intends. However, the door is certainly open to those who misunderstand or misappropriate His Holiness John Paul II's "Theology of the Body." If not West, someone will eventually try and have their way with John Paul's way and the result will be heresy.

4.) The Theology of the Body may not represent a revolution in the manner of Voltaire, but it does represent one in the matter of Chesterton who sees the Church's life as a revolution, that is a constant re-volvere or returning to the same Truth. One way of thinking about the "Theology of the Body" is to compare it to the doctrines of Freud. Freud maintains that religion is but a delusion emanating from repressed sexual feeling. John Paul, with Augustine, says that sexual feeling is delerium emanating from our desire for God. For Freud religion is the mist of illusion coming from the heat of lust. John Paul says that lust is the illusion coming from an inborn and ineradicatable love for God which we sinfully misdirect towards bodily pleasure.

His Holiness has turned Freud on his head. That's a revolution, or counterrevolution however you see it.

Latinmassgirl said...

West is modern in his approach in order to get the audience's attention. Unfortunately, if he was to be subtle in his approach, he may loose his audience. Dr. Alice von Hildebrand needs to realize that there is a need for Christopher West as is. He has saved many marriages with his straight talk, and brought people to Christ, while helping them to realize the sacredness of the embrace of love in marriage. Really, how many people would have taken the time to read "Theology of the Body" if it weren't for him?

I do not need the help of Christopher West at this time in my life, he helped my husband see our marital relationship as the most precious, reverent gift from God. When it comes to saving souls, all snobbery must be set aside.

StGuyFawkes said...

Latin Mass Girl,

You wrote: "Unfortunately, if he was to be subtle in his approach, he may lose his audience."

You've put your finger on a really interesting part of the problem. Unsubtlety is required in modern culture. Yet, the unsubtlety of modern culture is just another term for what A. V.Hildebrand brands as "vulgarity".

And so the "vulgarity" of modern culture seems to require a violent, or blatant response.

Unfortunately, this is the same arguement that apologists for the Novus Ordo use to defend the ubiquity and trashy unsubtlety of "altar cloths" and "potluck Masses" and "liturgical dancers".

As a lover of the Latin Mass I'm sure you'll appreciate the irony.

The problem in liturgy has an analogy in theology too. The argument is always "relevance" in one form or another.


St. Guy

Badger Catholic said...

Is the problem because he talks about the "O" word that rhymes with "Thor Spasm?"

Jeff Geerling said...

Another pertinent article on this issue (deals with the work of a good friend and Catholic blogger, Dawn Eden):


Where the Church is, I shall be said...

I came back to the Church after my college years, which were spent in what West calls "the dumpster." I learned so much about my faith from listening to Catholic Radio and reading books by Hahn, Akin, Madrid, JPII and other great apologists and theologians...even von Hildebrand herself!

But it was not until I heard a talk by West that I began to experience a sense of dignity, joy and hope about my physical being. My dumpster experiences were such that I thought I should be a nun because no one deserved to marry such a tainted girl!

I believe West speaks with a passion that is infectious--a passion of one who has been through the dumpster and has found the banquet and wants his brothers and sisters to find it also. He explains the Church's teaching on sexuality in a real, relevant and challenging way for those of us who have experienced the dumpster.

I see his sabbatical as an act of humility and am discouraged that some in the church seem to be interpreting it as a sign of weakness, defeat or acknowledgment of wrongdoing. I will be praying that the Holy Spirit is with him during this time. Please do the same!

(@StGuyFawkes--we are talking about speaking styles, not liturgical abuses, which are totally wrong*. His response is not violent or blatant, simply passionate. He uses stories/examples/etc. that the youth of today, who have been so bombarded with the dumpster, can relate to and, ultimately, help us internalize the Church's teachings )
*the Novus Ordo is not a liturgical abuse. If celebrated properly, it is actually the normal means of celebrating the Eucharist at this time in the Church.

BTW, I am now happily married and have three lovely children. Praise God!

StGuyFawkes said...

Dear Where the Church is...,

I don't really have a problem with the Novus Ordo if it is done with with reverence. My comment was meant to say that almost anything can be defended by saying "if you don't allow this riveting and popular means of communication you'll lose your audience." This is usually what gets said to defend "liturgical dance" or puppets on the altar. I present this as an irony.

I do not believe that the Novus Ordo was meant to be said in a vulgar way, I only mean to say that it does get said in a vulgar way.

I have no idea of West's strengths or weaknesses. I only meant to say that low or vulgar times seem to draw everything into the downward spiral of relevance. This seems to be the gist of Von Hildebrand's complaint: that West borrows the style and idioms of the contemporary comunicator. He lacks "pudeur", he is "impruident." In a word, she says he's vulgar.

Without having even heard West I'll have to admit a sneaking sympathy for him. Why? Flannery O'Connor once said that her essentially Catholic short stories had to contain a certain amount of freakishness and violence because the world, long departed from Christ, has become freakish; and, the worldly wouldn't recognize true freak if he stared them in the face.

I'm pointing to a dynamic where the truth, to be proclaimed among the noise of untruth has to partake of the boom and bang of the modern age and so it takes on some of the ages fractured idiom and distortions.

For instance referring to current sexual practices as "dumpster diving", well that seems like an example of the modern, curt, brutal communication style, brutal and vulgar.

It also hits the way young people live exactly on the square.

Has anyone endured five minutes of "Jersey Shore"?

I'm anxious to hear more of Christopher West.

St. Guy.

thetimman said...

Where the Church is:

I am one of those people positively affected by Christopher West. I have attended conferences by him at least three times. So, I have no animus against West. But I do think, as I learn more and more about the faith, that West's approach is deserving of thoughtful scrutiny, and I think the von Hildebrand book is for that reason very worthwhile.

Some trads dismiss West out of hand because in some respects his work could be seen as too much of a departure from traditional formulations of the faith and risks (or actually does) teach[ing] error. I considered West to be a bridge figure to those very far afield. Like all bridges it can be crossed both ways.

The sales pitch of West, in my opinion, has gotten more sizzly-over-steaky, but in terms of the faith my current concerns are that he emphasizes the unitive aspect of marriage over the procreative, which stands tradition on its head. Also, (this is more style) he doesn't really emphasize the real necessity of "grave" or "serious" reasons to abstain from relations while using NFP, and chooses to punt this issue. And finally, his works could be taken to mean that one can live in such a fashion as to be free from the possibility of temptation in the sexual area, and dismisses the "custody of the eyes" approach.

That being said, he has done a lot of good, and I hope that this whole fracas will shed light and not just heat.

Anonymous said...

I only peripherally know of West's teachings, TBH, and so come to this debate with wide open eyes.

After reading Von Hildebrand (and actually, echoing the capitalization tempest in a teacup from the Catholic schooling thread, the von should probably not be capitalized, right?) and Dawn Eden, I am struck by how all three parties (including West) appear to be carrying themselves very respectfully in the grand tradition of fraternal correction.

Latinmassgirl said...

I think we may have gone to West 3 times as well, a couple with you, Timman. I think that West does not emphasize the need to practice NFP for grave or serious issues because he is just trying to get couples to begin thinking about it, and he doesn't want to impart too much information. His main goal to me was to talk to men. To knock some sense into men about respecting sex and their wives. His anti-pornography emphasis and chastity before marriage is very good.

I remember thanking West for our 5th baby, so he must have been sending the right message to my husband!

carlscorner@hotmail.com said...

I beleive that Alice von Hildrbrand is right on target with her concerns over Chris West's approach to Theology of the Body...

One thing that we in the West have forgotten is that human being is a human person...we do not understand personhood the way we should...this is defitenly reflected in the less than human personhood approach of Chris West...

I have heard Chris West and read much of his work and have come to the conclusion that his approach is his own version of Theology of the Body--not JP-II. In fact, I beleive that Chris West knows very little of over about TOB the way our great pope intended...

He knows little about Personalism--that great Phenomological approach. Phenomonology was so touted by the great von Hildebrand...Dietrich has greatly influenced JP-II...does Christ ever bring this up?

Also--Chris talks a great deal about the "evils" of shame--but JP-II says that shame can also be a great thing--it leads one to the confessional doors looking for redemption and a chance to get some dignity returned...

Does Chris mention that?

There is plenty more...but I side with Alice--there are some very grave concerns that West is leading people astray on the true meaning of Pope John Paul II's teaching....

Carl Erickson
Galveston Newman Center Director

Anonymous said...

Alice von Hildebrand's essay struck me as more about praising her late husband and less about C. West. I also didn't get a sense from it that she is all that familiar with his work. It sounds like someone else was influencing her.

One odd point in it was in the "tua culpa, mea culpa" section. She quotes West as saying that he didn't receive the Church's true message about sexuality in his religious education. She chides him for this, saying he is blaming others instead of taking responsibility for himself.
Now that's very odd, especially since he was catechized during the difficult post-Vatican II era when catechetics was such a mess. One of Hildebrand's advisors for the essay, James Likoudis, spilled plenty of ink in the Wanderer during that time decrying the state of modern catechetics. So now all of a sudden it was the children's fault that they didn't get a solid Catholic education? And it's wrong of West or anyone else to note that (he wasn't complaining about it, just noting the fact)? Sorry, I'm not convinced.