Christopher West's Defenders

Christopher West came in for some criticism recently, much of it deserved, for his appearance on Nightline. In one sense, I sympathize with the critics. I have heard West speak, and found the simplification (bordering on sensationalization) of certain aspects of Theology of the Body somewhat off-putting. In a perfect world, people would read the writings of John Paull II and others to acquire a sophisticated, nuanced grasp of the subject matter. Nevertheless, that is not the world in which we live. That being the case I think, on balance, West’s work is valuable, difficult, and necessary.

And so I was somewhat surprised to see Dr. Schindler take the recent brouhaha as an opportunity to rather harshly criticize all of West’s work. The tension between academics and popularizers is nothing new (even writers as brilliant as C.S. Lewis and Chesterton had and have their academic detractors); but one would hope for a more restrained and sympathetic treatment given the difficulty of presenting the Catholic understanding of sexuality in the modern United States. I think the following defenses by Dr. Janet Smith and Dr. Michael Waldstein help provide a better context for understanding West and his work:

Dr. Janet Smith here:

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…

And Dr. Michael Waldstein here:

I know that David Schindler is a careful scholar, but I was surprised and taken aback by his recent blanket negative statement about Christopher West in reaction to West’s Nightline interview. He cites a few anecdotes, quotes some snippets of texts, recalls some discussions he had with West in the past, and then makes a number of sweeping, massive accusations against West’s work as a whole.
His West is not the Christopher West I know from studying West’s commentary on the Theology of the Body…

H/t: Insight Scoop.

17 Responses to Christopher West's Defenders

  • Both Doctors may have themselves jumped the gun in criticizing Schindler. I wonder if there are ulterior motives for their quick defense immodesty?

  • Tito,

    I agree that Mr. West occasionally exercises poor judgment with his illustrations, but I think it is unfair to identify a defense of him with a defense of immodesty. Even Dr. Schindler recognizes that his intention is to win as broad a hearing as possible for the Church’s teachings on sexuality.

  • Additionally, I think it is worth noting that Drs. Smith and Waldstein are some of the top scholars in this area. Dr. Waldstein was the translator of JPII’s Theology of the Body lectures and is on the Pontifical Council for the Family. Defenders of immodesty they are not.

  • I thought Jimmy Akin’s response to the Christopher West debate was both evenhanded and on target.

  • Bret,

    I agree. For those interested, it is the first link in the post above.

  • I just wish that West would abandon his claim that what he teaches is Theology of the Body, it’s not, except perhaps in the broadest sense. No way can you reason to his rather gross and immodest conclusions from what the Holy Father taught.

    That said, I don’t think a sweeping negative criticism is called for, more like fraternal correction. West does do a lot of good I think in trying to bring people to greater interest in the Church’s teachings. I think he’s a lot like Scott Hahn in that sense, definitely some problems but overall a good representative.

  • I love Scott Hahn. The Lamb’s Supper, Hail, Holy Queen, and Lord, Have Mercy — though simplistically written — are phenomenonal in their assertions and many of the points.

  • Eric,

    there’s much to said about his story and his presentation, and he provides a great starting point. Helped me a lot when I was ready to start getting serious about my faith.

  • John Henry,

    I agree with your statements.

    I was making a rhetorical statement as to why they would publicly come out as they did. Considering that they are frowning upon how Mr. Schindler has done.

    For me, I appreciate the passion that Christopher West brings to his seminars. I have been fortunate enough to have attended two of his seminars and have come away impressed with how he explains the Theology of the Body. With the exception of his promotion of questionable sexual practices, I find his work very informative which has brought me into better insight in how we can and are capable of behaving when sex is involved.

  • I have heard of Christopher West but never had a chance to read any of his books or attend any of his seminars. Obviously some of the criticism West is getting comes from people who latched onto the sound bite about Hugh Hefner and ignored the context.

    A similar thing happened years ago, when Pope John Paul was giving the series of audience talks that introduced the Theology of the Body concept. Anyone remember the media flap about his alleged claim that it was a sin for a man to “lust after” his wife? Of course he didn’t mean it was wrong to feel ANY sexual desire for one’s spouse; he meant it was wrong to treat one’s spouse as a sex object without regard for their own dignity or feelings. But, that got lost in the mainstream media.

    West has a really difficult job in that he’s preaching to people who aren’t necessarily converted or well catechized. All the “average” person knows when it comes to Catholic teaching on sexuality is that you’re not allowed to have sex before marriage, you’re not supposed to practice birth control, and you’re not even supposed to have “impure” thoughts about anyone.

    To most people who aren’t well versed in Catholic history and doctrine, this sounds very much like a Puritanical approach to sex — an assumption that it’s basically evil and tolerated only for the sake of having children. West has to really go out of his way to overcome this idea and it sounds like he does a good job of it.

    As for West’s alleged immodesty, while that is a legitimate concern, we have to remember that he’s addressing people who have spent their entire lives immersed in a culture of immodesty far worse than anything he promotes. After two generations of Playboy, MTV, Dr. Ruth, Donahue/Oprah/Springer et al., daytime/prime time soaps, Monica Lewinsky, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, etc., etc., most people aren’t going to be shocked by anything Christopher West talks about.

  • Also, I am sure that West’s audiences probably include a lot of married couples who are at different levels of understanding or acceptance of Church teaching on sexuality.

    I’m guessing that at least some of the men who attend are non-practicing or less than observant Catholics dragged there by committed Catholic wives who have tried everything they can think of to steer their husbands away from porn, questionable sexual practices, contraception, etc., without success. West’s approach can at least reassure these guys that if they adopt the mind of the Church on sexuality, it’s not going to “spoil” or take away all their fun, and could make their marriage even better.

    Or the audience might include Catholic men who have tried and failed to convince their non-Catholic or lapsed Catholic wives that the Church doesn’t expect them to spend their lives barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. Again, West’s approach might get through to them in a way others can’t.

  • Elaine,

    That doesn’t make sodomy a moral act even if between husband and wife. You just can’t justify suggesting immoral behaviour is acceptable. Finally, while SOME of his audience is in serious sexual sin, many of his audience are committed Catholics who are being scandalized by elements of his teachings.

  • Also, it is a much bigger danger when such errors are taught by a Catholic apparently reflecting the views of a pope, than known sexual deviants.

  • Elaine Krewer writes:

    “All the “average” person knows when it comes to Catholic teaching on sexuality is that you’re not allowed to have sex before marriage, you’re not supposed to practice birth control, and you’re not even supposed to have “impure” thoughts about anyone.”

    And what else does the “average” person need to know about Catholic teaching in order to save their soul and live a holy, sacramental life?

    Your comments drip with disdain for the “average” person who is not an intellectual encumbered with all the ins and outs of dogma and doctrine parsed by self elevated experts like C.W.

    So if you haven’t “bought the book” and “attended the seminar, or cruise” you’re just an “average” person. And I still don’t understand what is so bad about that? This very “average” person is married to a nice Catholic husband and has 8 beautiful children sent to us by God. Rather than horrifying me in its intensity and vulgar graphic nature, I have yet to understand how my life could possibly be improved by subjecting myself to anything that C.W. stands to profit by, or Janet Smith for that matter. Dr. Smith is involved with the Theology of the Body “ministry” or cottage industry depending upon your point of view. She stands to profit directly from the success (I’m speaking financially here) of that ministry.

  • I admit to not being very well versed in Christopher West and am hardly a ‘fan’ of his ministry. I’m also sympathetic to the concerns expressed by Dr. Schindler — his endorsement of anal sex, even as a prelude to ‘normal’ intercourse, in West’s book is understandably controversial (howbeit not without precedent).

    Unfortunately, Dr. Schindler also takes some liberties in presenting an eclectic mix of anecdotes about West out of context — as John Paul II’s original translator Dr. Waldstein notes, “the fact that he cites no texts from West’s work on which to base his four main objections also makes a response difficult.”

    That many of the anecdotes cited contain no further documentation as to their source speaks poorly of Dr. Schindler and doesn’t help his case at all. As one who has benefited from Schindler’s writings, I would have expected more from him.

    [Mary Alexander] I have yet to understand how my life could possibly be improved by subjecting myself to anything that C.W. stands to profit by, or Janet Smith for that matter. Dr. Smith is involved with the Theology of the Body “ministry” or cottage industry depending upon your point of view. She stands to profit directly from the success (I’m speaking financially here) of that ministry.

    Mary — I quite agree that what ‘the average Catholic’ knows about sex (presumably by way of the Catechism), is sufficient unto itself for one’s salvation.

    But I wonder how much if anything you actually know about Janet Smith, to dismiss her work so easily while simultaneously conveying with confidence how much she benefits from West’s writings on ‘Theology of the Body’?

  • Mary, I apologize for having offended you. When I say “average” I don’t mean in the sense of general educational level, income, material possessions, or intelligence. Nor did I mean to imply that being average in this sense is evil or worthy of contempt.

    I mean average in the sense of representing the majority of Catholics whose religious education stops at the grade school level, who do not practice their faith to its fullest extent if indeed they practice it at all, and who spend much of their life immersed in secular culture. I do not mean it as a term of disdain but as a realistic appraisal of where the majority of Catholics are coming from.

    With all due respect, the mere fact that you have “a nice Catholic husband” to whom you are still married, and “8 beautiful children sent to us by God” means that you are NOT “average” in the sense that I use the term. The size of your family puts you well outside the “average” right there. If you and your husband BOTH attend Mass faithfully every Sunday and go to confession frequently, that puts you in the minority as well.

    If you BOTH accept Church teaching about sexuality 100 percent, and do not practice any form of contraception, or even think about doing anything “vulgar” with one another — that is wonderful, and you are greatly blessed. I mean that sincerely. In fact I envy you. But, let’s face it, it does not represent the majority of Catholics.

    Nor does it represent the very real dilemmas faced by couples in which one or both is or has been addicted to or confronted by those things you find so horrifying, and is trying to either overcome them or persuade a resistant or reluctant spouse to do so.

    I realize that we don’t want to encourage a sort of gnosticism that implies that only people with certain “inside” knowledge or resources can attain holiness or virtue. I myself wonder how young struggling families with lots of kids who really want or need to hear someone like, say, Scott Hahn could possibly afford to go on a week-long apologetics cruise! I sure can’t afford to.

    Frankly, whatever “inside” knowledge I have stems from the fact that I once worked for a Catholic newspaper. At that time it was my job to attend seminars and know about this stuff, and we got free copies of a lot of these books. Then I lost my job there and had to go find one in the “real”, i.e. secular, world.

    Everything I know about people like West, Smith, Hahn, etc. today comes off the internet or from books checked out from the library for free. I can’t afford to “buy the book” either. My only other routine exposure to Catholic teaching right now comes from attending Sunday Mass, which by the way, I have to attend ALONE with my daughter because my husband now refuses to go.

    Yes, there was a time when I prided myself on being in the know about all things church related. Today, however, I’m lucky just to make it to Sunday Mass on time and decently dressed. So to some extent, Mary, I kinda know where you’re coming from, and again, I apologize for coming off as some kind of self-appointed expert.

  • While on the subject of Christopher West, Father Angelo Geiger, a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, has a guest post on Dawn Eden’s blog which captures my impression and concerns:

    West is easily interpreted as suggesting that without TOB Catholics have never had any clear vision of what God’s intention for human sexuality was from the beginning. Otherwise, would he not make a greater effort to teach chastity with a hermeneutic of continuity instead of concentrating almost exclusively on a very narrow part of magisterial teaching on human sexuality? It seems he is suggesting that our past has been clouded by puritanism because we did not have TOB, and our future will be the age of the love banquet because we do.

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