Adding to the current debate on the correct way to present the teachings of the late John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, Professor Janet Smith issued a response to philosopher Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, who recently critiqued the work of popular speaker Christopher West.
In an essay provided to CNA in July, Dr. von Hildebrand wrote on her difficulties with West’s teaching methodologies and contrasted how her late husband – the noted Dietrich von Hildebrand – would have discussed the Theology of the Body.
Dr. von Hildebrand explained in her essay that there are two main concerns she has with West's approach to presenting the teachings of Venerable John Paul II on human sexuality.
The first is that West “erroneously” assumes “that John Paul II has initiated a 'revolution' in Catholic teaching” in the concept of the Theology of the Body. The second concern is that West uses “loose” and what could be viewed as crude and graphic language in describing what she calls the “intimate sphere” of human sexuality.
Responding to her critique of West, Dr. Janet Smith posted an article on Catholic Exchange Monday, opening her remarks by saying that “Alice von Hildebrand is a philosopher who has been a tremendous model of courage and perseverance in defending the truth in a very hostile academic environment.”
Because von Hildebrand “is a fellow academic and has enormous influence, it seems appropriate that I respond to her critique of West,” Smith said.
“I am moved to make this response not only because I am on record as supporting West, but also because I know individuals who have never read the Theology or the Body or who are not much acquainted with West’s work who are using von Hildebrand’s essay to obstruct what I believe to be a very important apostolate.”
Although von Hildebrand “has the noblest of motives,” wrote Smith, her “piece on Christopher West does not exhibit the fairness and charity embodied and championed in the works of both von Hildebrands.”
Referring to von Hildebrand’s first point of contention to West, Smith said “I find it curious that von Hildebrand objects to calling the Theology of the Body a ‘revolution.’”
“Surely West does not mean that there has been a change in dogma or doctrine. And certainly he would allow that elements of the Theology of the Body can be found in previous Church teaching. Nonetheless, John Paul II, in the Theology of the Body, explained Church teachings about marriage in a unique blend of Thomism, phenomenology, personalism, and mysticism that is undoubtedly new and life-changing for many people.”
“For these people,” she noted, “the Theology of the Body is truly revolutionary and even a source of profound conversion.”
On the charge that the popular speaker engages in “loose” and crude language, Smith said that “West is a fantastic speaker; he speaks extemporaneously and freely.”
“Such speakers are immensely more enjoyable to listen to than those who read from a script. But there are risks to such a style; the choice of words may not be as precise as desired, and this may lead some in the audience to misunderstand what is really being said.”
“The speaker may choose better words and examples for future events,” she added, “but it is not wrong to expect that others will at least have a charitable interpretation of a speaker’s attempts to convey difficult truths.”
Smith then addressed von Hildebrand calling West a “sex enthusiast,” saying it was “a strange term to use in a piece that is presented as a philosophical critique.”
“Von Hildebrand tells us that her husband’s key word in his books was ‘love,’ not ‘pleasure.’ She thus seems to suggest that the key word in West’s works is ‘pleasure.’ But West stresses that the key to the Theology of the Body is the theme of ‘self-gift.’ Why not take him at his word?”
Speaking on West’s controversial reference to the Easter Candle as a phallic symbol – “again, an issue that is in no way central to his presentations,” Smith noted – the professor argued that nonetheless “this view is held by some respectable liturgists.”
Smith also discussed the debate surrounding whether or not dwelling on the details of Christ’s birth displays an inordinate curiosity.
“Von Hildebrand’s response to West’s likening the birth of his son to the birth of Jesus is curious. She believes it is incorrect to think that Mary may have expelled a bloody placenta. Pregnant wombs have placentas,” Smith wrote. “Did not Mary’s? Would it be wrong to think it might have been bloody? Christ’s body was covered with blood when he died, was it not? Scripture itself makes reference to Mary’s womb and breasts; is the placenta really so objectionable that it could not be mentioned?”
In her closing remarks, Smith said “I have undertaken this response to von Hildebrand’s essay only with reluctance, since I greatly admire her and I know she seeks only to do good.”
“I truly think von Hildebrand has been misled by others to focus on fairly tangential works, such as column on a play (which she has misread) and a book review, rather than to do the careful work of critiquing West’s more formal material and to adopt a tone toward a fellow faithful Christian apostle that is not characteristically hers.”
“She seems to find what she perceives to be the frosting on the cake so distasteful that she cannot even get to tasting the cake itself.”