Renowned Catholic thinker Dr. Alice von Hildebrand has criticized Theology of the Body speaker Christopher West, saying his approach has become too self-assured. She criticized his presentations as irreverent and insensitive to the “tremendous dangers” of concupiscence.
Also cautious of West’s remarks on his recent interview with ABC television were Mary Shivanandan and Fr. José Granados, both Catholic authors and theologians.
The news segment showed him calling for Catholics to complete “what the sexual revolution began.” He also described “very profound” historical connections between Hugh Hefner and Pope John Paul II.
West spoke to CNA on Friday, claiming the report somewhat sensationalized his views. He also denied several characterizations conveyed by the news story, explaining that he believed Hefner to be right in rejecting “the disease of Puritanism” but radically wrong in beginning the “pornographic revolution.”
He had told ABC that Hefner had a "yearning," an "ache" and a "longing" for love, union and intimacy.
In a Monday interview CNA spoke about West with Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, a Catholic philosopher and theologian who is professor emerita of Hunter College of the City University of New York.
Dr. von Hildebrand said she knew the “gist” of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and believed it was “very indebted” to her husband Dietrich von Hildebrand’s 1927 book “In Defense of Purity.” She said there is obviously an “abysmal difference” between the views shared by her husband and John Paul II and those presented by Christopher West.
Reporting that she had seen CNA’s follow-up interview with West, Dr. Von Hildebrand was very critical of the speaker.
“My feeling is that Christopher West has become famous because he started discussing the Theology of the Body, which is extremely appealing topic. The difficulty is that, in the meantime, he became so famous that I do believe he has become much too self-assured and has lost sight of the extreme sensitivity of the topic.”
This is “very troubling” because what she calls the “intimate sphere” is something “very mysterious, very profound, something that has a direct relationship with God.”
“My feeling is that his vocabulary and his way of approaching it totally lacks reverence.”
“Reverence is the key to purity,” she told CNA.” The intimate sphere “is not a topic of public discussion” but is “extremely serious.”
“It seems to me that his presentation, his vocabulary, the vulgarity of things that he uses are things that simply indicate that even though he might have good intentions he has derailed and is doing a lot of harm.”
She said people should not forget that we have been “profoundly affected” by original sin.
“In paradise there was perfect harmony between Adam and Eve. There was no concupiscence.”
“After original sin, not only were we separated from God and condemned to losing eternity. On top of it, every single human faculty was affected. Our intelligence was darkened. Our will was weakened. And all of a sudden, we had the dreadful experience of something called concupiscence.
Before the Fall, there was no inner temptation to impurity between Adam and Eve even though they were naked, she explained. After they sinned, the two started to look at one another with concupiscence.
The Fall had consequences that are “so serious” that it was only the Redemption and the grace of God could remedy.
The fight against concupiscence is “not an easy process,” Dr. von Hildebrand continued. “It is something that calls for holiness, which very few of us achieve. It is a sheer illusion to believe that by some sort of new technique we can find the solution to the problem.”
While one can lead a holy life in marriage, she said to become a saint is “a long and difficult process that calls for a spirit of penance, a readiness to sacrifice.”
“The tragedy of original sin is that all the beautiful male qualities of strength, courage, objectivity, nobility, a chivalrous attitude towards women, degenerated. The danger created by original sin is that many men use their strength and become brutal and abuse women or look at women as mere objects of pleasure.
“Eve was also profoundly affected by original sin,” she added.
“To my mind the conflict between man and woman can only be healed by striving for holiness,” she said. “There are many things Christopher West does not mention.”
Additionally, she charged that West does not mention the Old Testament figures who fell to sexual sin: David, King of Israel, who was blessed in “an extraordinary way” but ordered the murder of the husband of a woman with whom David committed adultery.
“Adulteries lead to murder. It is one of the most abominable stories you can imagine,” she said, explaining the Prophet Nathan’s rebuke of David led to the composition of Psalm 50.
She said it was upsetting to her as a youth to learn that a young man who prayed for “the straight and honest heart so that I may serve my people” went on to have 750 concubines.
“How can you be so good when you’re twenty, and lead such an abominable life when you’re seventy?” she asked. “As far as I can tell, this is something that Christopher West forgets, in this sphere which is extremely dangerous.”
She reported that a priest friend of hers had told her 90 percent of the sins that men accuse themselves of involve the Sixth Commandment against adultery.
Christopher West’s approach makes him forget that sex is “an extreme danger.” Though sex can be sanctified, that sanctification implies “a humility, a spirit of reverence, and totally avoiding the vulgarity that he uses in his language.”
“I’m shocked and horrified by the words that he uses. His mere mention of Hugh Hefner is to my mind an abomination.”
Mary Shivanandan, a theologian who authored the book “Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II’s Anthropology,” was also critical of West’s remarks.
“The sublime teaching of John Paul II’s theology of sexuality is not well served by West’s comparison to Hugh Hefner and his playboy bunnies,” she told CNA in a Monday e-mail. “The late pope had a profound reverence for God’s plan for human love, which such a comparison, no matter how well intentioned, can only diminish and degrade.”
Also providing comment for CNA was Fr. José Granados, a theologian who co-authored with Supreme Knight of Columbus Carl Andersen a book on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body titled “Called to Love.”
Fr. Granados said West’s suggestion that John Paul II took the sexual revolution a step further was “highly inadequate and open to serious misunderstanding.” He explained that Puritanism shares with pornography a negative vision of the body, viewing it without reference to the dignity of the person and to God’s plan for man.
“It is deprived of its symbolism and its language,” he said. While Puritanism attempts to silence the body and its urges, the sexual revolution exalts them “as an absolute.”
“Pornography is in no sense an attempt to recover the beauty of the body and sexuality, but a sign of despair regarding this beauty and the possibility of finding meaning in human love,” he said.
John Paul II’s Theology of the Body recovers “the meaning of the body” with reference to love and to man and God, Fr. Granados told CNA.
“The Pope’s proposal is not just about sexuality, but about the truth of love as the foundation of the person’s dignity and the meaning of reality; and about the family as the place where the person finds himself and his way towards happiness.
“Moreover, one of the results of the sexual revolution is precisely the pansexualism that surrounds our society. We cannot respond with a different kind of pansexualism, with a sort of ‘Catholic sexual revolution,’ which in the end promotes a similar obsession with sex, even if ‘holy’.”