Christopher West’s interpretation of John Paul II has merit, but criticism of his views on continence and concupiscence are warranted, theology of the body instructor David H. Delaney has said. Discussing the pitfalls of West’s application of the Theology of the Body, Delaney noted several points where he appears to contradict Catholic belief and tradition.
Delaney, the academic dean of the Mexican American Catholic College, has a doctorate in systematic theology from the Catholic University of America. He teaches the Theology of the Body at the undergraduate and graduate levels and presents it popularly at parishes. He is currently broadcasting a series on Guadalupe Radio and Catholic television in San Antonio.
On his blog “Cosmos-Liturgy-Sex,” he published a summary of his upcoming Homiletic and Pastoral Review article titled “Concupiscence in the West-Schindler Debate” about the “important” discussion over West’s work.
Commenting that West correctly identified concupiscence as the primary issue, Delaney said concupiscence underlies most of the concerns of West’s critics. In Catholic moral theology “concupiscence” is a term describing the human propensity to sin.
Delaney wrote that although West can find some support in the work of John Paul II for the claim that Christ’s redemption frees man from concupiscence, he wrongly believes that “mature purity” excludes continence. West’s idea of “mature purity” is an “achievement in which one no longer need turn away” from temptations, Delaney wrote.
Citing theologian David Schindler’s statement that concupiscence dwells “objectively” in the body and continues throughout the course of earthly life, Delaney clarified that concupiscence is not a created reality but a deprivation of a good.
“Concupiscence is parasitic upon some created good. West legitimately rejects Schindler’s criticism to the degree he understands him to be making this mistake,” he contended.
West sees that mankind must cooperate with grace to overcome concupiscent temptations and “demand self-mastery from ourselves in each and every temptation.” A man noticing the shape of a woman’s body must demand of himself that he not reduce her to her sexual value but affirm her as created by God for her own sake.
According to Delaney, West is right about what John Paul II explicitly teaches, but he “seriously errs” when he tries to concretely apply the Theology of the Body. While West cites Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that continence is not a virtue by itself, he uses this to claim that men and women must reach a state in which we no longer need continence.
The definition of continence comes from the pre-Christian Aristotle and does not take into account concupiscence. St. Thomas does take this into account, and clarifies that continence is a virtue “in a broader sense,” as does John Paul II.
“Holding too strongly to the precise definition seems to have misled West into his error about the ability to dispense with continence,” Delaney wrote. “Ultimately, West’s view about liberation from continence contradicts Catholic tradition; something John Paul II never does.”
The late Pope’s idea of liberation is from the “constraint of the body” to instincts which are “insuperable” until the coming of redemption. However, freedom from this constraint is not the same as “near immunity from concupiscence for those who have become ‘pure’.”
John Paul II saw that “immediate continence,” self-mastery and habitual temperance are all simultaneously needed. According to Delaney, while God provides all we need for purity he does not always heal us to the point that there is no struggle.
While West rightly sees the good news for the man of concupiscence, he is wrong to suggest one may reach a point where continence is unneeded, the professor said.
“This is not what John Paul II means by mature purity and it can lead to serious problems for some,” Delaney commented.
In a Thursday e-mail to CNA, Delaney said he was motivated to write the article because many of his undergraduate and graduate students to whom he teaches the Theology of the Body find a “good, popular” understanding of the topic from West’s work, but also acquire “problematic” interpretations.
Many seem to understand West to be saying that “one cannot consider himself to be spiritually mature until he can expose himself to temptations, in most cases this is men looking at women's bodies, without succumbing to the temptation,” he wrote. “This is quite troubling advice because it seriously underestimates the problem of concupiscence.”
The theology professor noted that the view that one’s maturity should be tested risks putting oneself into “the near occasion of sin,” an action “diametrically opposed to Church teaching.” He also recounted how a good friend recovering from a pornography addiction wrongly thought that he could not consider himself spiritually mature until he “overcame his temptations, without the recourse to continence.”
He added that he wanted to alert pastors to potential errors in the resources they use while also understanding what is good.
“I do not at all wish to undermine the great work that Christopher West has done and hopefully will continue to do,” he commented. However, he noted the need for “serious revision” and said he cannot recommend West’s work without “serious reservations.”
Delaney also referred to “at least one very extreme critic” who has begun to damage the possibility of “dispassionate discussion.” While many of West’s friends and colleagues want to defend him against “unfair criticism,” this defensive attitude has not allowed them to evaluate some valid criticisms.
“It is my hope that this article will contribute to demonstrating that such a discussion is possible,” he told CNA.