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Dawn Eden responds to Dr. Janet Smith's thesis criticisms
Dawn Eden
Dawn Eden

.- Following professor Dr. Janet Smith's recent criticisms of author Dawn Eden's master's thesis critiquing Christopher West's approach to John Paul II's Theology of the Body, Eden responded on Friday, saying the professor “largely” misinterpreted the paragraphs cited.

Eden’s thesis – which gained public attention in June when she published her official defense – has sparked controversy among some Catholics, as it critically examines popular speaker Christopher West’s presentation of John Paul II’s teachings.

The author successfully defended her master’s thesis this past May 19 at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. 

In an article on the Catholic Exchange posted on Sept. 29, however, Dr. Janet Smith – who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit – offered a critique of Dawn Eden's thesis, saying she believed it to be “seriously flawed and may potentially do much harm.”

“I fear some people have taken a mere glance at her thesis, and since they are predisposed to accept her conclusions, they are dazzled by the number of quotations and footnotes into thinking that she has provided a worthy critique West’s work,” Smith wrote.

“Go to the sources that she cites and see if her representation of West’s views is accurate,” the professor said. “I think they will discover that Eden regularly distorts what West says.”

Smith added that in her opinion, it was unfortunate that Eden's thesis is “being used to attempt to thwart the work of Christopher West.”

In her article, the professor outlined and commented on multiple paragraphs from Eden's thesis, taking issue with Eden's criticisms of West's approach to certain Theology of the Body terms and also finding fault with what she believed to be Eden's “tone.” Smith also cited Eden's “faulty evidence,” “snide remarks” and “refusal to admit error” as points of contention.

Responding to Smith's criticisms in an e-mail to CNA on Friday, Eden said she was genuinely “honored” that the professor “would engage my M.A. thesis with such passion.”

“However,” Eden wrote, “I find Dr. Smith's essay confusing, in that she directly critiques only a few paragraphs of my thesis, which she largely misinterprets.”

“For example, she writes, 'Eden seems to disapprove of West’s claim that it is a major development in Catholic thought to say that the imago Dei is located 'not only in the individual man or woman but also (in the pope’s words) through the communion…which man and woman form right from the beginning.'”

“In fact,” said Eden, “nowhere do I 'disapprove' of Christopher West's saying that the pope's words express a 'dramatic development;' my thesis makes no judgment whatsoever on that claim.”

“By Mr. West's account, John Paul means that 'everything God wants to tell us on earth about who he is, the meaning of life, the reason he created us, how we are to live, as well as our ultimate destiny, is contained somehow in the meaning of the human body and the call of male and female to become 'one body' in marriage.' I maintain here and in my thesis that this interpretation of Mr. West's – with its inference that the male and female human bodies, understood within the call to marital union, contain within themselves the entire content of the mysteries of Christian faith – goes beyond the late Holy Father's words.”

Additionally, wrote Eden, “Dr. Smith's assessment reduces my thesis to a critique of a single author and speaker. On the contrary, my thesis demonstrates an overriding concern to critique a certain approach taken by West and his 'disciples' to interpreting recent teachings articulated by the Holy See.”

“In the wake of Vatican II, there were many who asserted that the open windows of the Council enabled a radical break that would bring fresh air inside a stale and fetid Magisterium.”

“It remains my contention,” she added, “that Mr. West and a number of popularizers formed by his catechesis – while intending to be faithful to Holy Mother Church – often use language disconcertingly similar to those propounding what Pope Benedict XVI calls a 'hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.'”

“I recognize that the paragraphs Dr. Smith cites from my thesis do not give full support to my contention on that point – because they are not meant to do so. The entire paper, taken as a whole, supports it, and I do not believe that her critique of a few paragraphs adequately or fairly assesses my work. I hope that readers of her essay will also read my thesis in its entirety – particularly the preface, in which I explain my reasons for writing it.”

“The real questions,” Eden said, “as I see them, are these: Where does the content and spirit of John Paul's Wednesday catecheses, taken as a whole, line up with what is being currently taught under the name “theology of the body” – or does it?  To what extent does it help the instruction of the faithful to isolate these Wednesday catecheses – which John Paul II himself said were by their nature incomplete, omitting 'multiple problems' that belong to the theology of the body, such as 'the problem of suffering and death, so important in the biblical message' – and present them as a self-contained compendium of Church teachings on 'the meaning of life'?

“Having posed these questions, I will leave it to others to continue discussing them, as I have answered them in my thesis to the best of my ability,” Eden concluded. “Current commitments preclude my engaging in an extended public discussion. I do not intend to publish further responses to critiques of my thesis from anyone other than Mr. West himself.”


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August 1, 2014

Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

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