Dawn Eden's thesis critiquing Christopher West's approach to presenting the teachings of John Paul II's Theology of the Body is continuing to generate debate. On Wednesday, professor Dr. Janet Smith weighed in on the issue, calling Eden's thesis “seriously flawed” after which author Steve Kellmeyer criticized Smith for unleashing “disjointed” attacks.
Eden’s thesis – which gained public attention in June when she published her official defense on her blog – has sparked controversy among some Catholics, as it critically examines popular speaker Christopher West’s presentation of John Paul II’s teachings.
Among the assertions made by West that she faulted was his claim that the Church’s liturgy “is modeled on the union of spouses,” which he supports by saying the Easter Candle is “truly” intended to be a phallic symbol. Eden countered this by citing documentation from the Consilium – the body of experts charged with revising the liturgy following Vatican II – showing that theologians appointed by the Magisterium had rejected the phallic interpretation of the candle.
Eden’s thesis also noted that West, in telling engaged couples that they should not marry until they attain a complete victory over lust, forgets that only the sacrament of matrimony can enable a couple to move from the imperfect virtue of continence into the perfect virtue of marital chastity. As a result, Eden claimed, he unwittingly promotes “a semi-Pelagian ideal of human-powered self-control.”
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 Catholic Exchange posted on Sept. 29, 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.”
“Dawn Eden hopes someday to teach at a Catholic college, I am sure, because of a desire to serve the Church,” Smith wrote. “She, of course, is to be lauded for her desire to do so and for her clear desire to protect the Catholic faithful from representations of the faith in the work of Christopher West that she finds inaccurate and even dangerous.”
However, “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 continued.
“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.”
“I am sorry that Eden’s academic career has been launched with the publication of this thesis,” she stated. “I believe she is an intelligent and talented person, but to serve the Church well, she will need to do much more careful work than is exhibited in her thesis.”
“When Eden’s work exhibits the care that West’s does, and when she exhibits his fairness, humility and docility, she will have a great deal to offer the Church.”
Reacting to Smith's post on Thursday, however, Catholic author and lecturer Steve Kellmeyer expressed dismay at the professor's Catholic Exchange piece.
In Sept. 30 post on his blog The Fifth Column, Kellmeyer wrote that “Janet Smith has unleashed one of the most disjointed, unscholarly attacks of her career.”
“Smith, who has zero formal education in theology, who has never even done undergraduate work in the discipline, much less gone through the rigorous examination of a graduate degree in theology, believes Dawn Eden's master's thesis is seriously flawed,” Kellmeyer said, adding that a “classical languages scholar, now informs us that she has become the standard to which graduate theology programs must submit themselves.”
“Keep in mind that by saying this, Smith not only denigrates Eden, she directly denigrates the entire board of theologians who judged Eden's thesis and found it acceptable, and indirectly denigrates the entire teaching institution which gave Eden her degree,” he asserted.
In her article, Kellmeyer argues, Smith “presents an immature, non-theological, virtually incoherent defense of Chris West. Her essay is almost entirely ad hominem, infrequently buttressed by very few and grossly misunderstood passages from John Paul II's general audiences.”
Additionally, said the author, “Smith has decided to go after a 'soft' target, a freshly-minted MA in theology – someone who has exactly the same credentials Chris West has, with the obvious exception that none of Eden's instructors have publicly condemned Eden's work.”