.- Michael Waldstein, an Ave Maria University theology professor and translator of Pope John Paul II’s work, has joined the discussion about the Catholic speaker Christopher West’s presentation of the Theology of the Body. Defending West as an effective communicator and popularizer, Waldstein warned that a critical “spin” on West’s work does harm to the Theology of the Body.
The Theology of the Body is based on a series of addresses delivered by Pope John Paul II early in his pontificate. The topic concerns matters such as marital life, virginity, moral theology and the Resurrection. Following West’s appearance on ABC Nightline, John Paul II Institute dean and theologian David Schindler had written an essay critical of West at HeadlineBistro.com. Granting that West’s remarks were “in some sense” taken out of context, Schindler said West has a record of making comments and actions “not inconsistent” with the context presented by the Nightline editors.
Schindler also criticized West’s interpretation of the Theology of the Body for significantly misrepresenting the thought of Pope John Paul II, for being “too much about sex and too romantic,” and for neglecting a sound understanding of concupiscence.
Waldstein addressed Schindler’s remarks in an essay published on InsideCatholic.com, saying that Schindler’s essay was a “blanket negative statement.” Waldstein said Schindler made “sweeping accusations” against a position he did not recognize as West’s.
Countering Schindler’s argument that West misses the meaning of concupiscence, Waldstein argued that West was correct in diagnosing “strong Jansenist influences” in American Catholicism of the early twentieth century.
Jansenism was a rigoristic French approach to spirituality and theology condemned as heretical in the seventeenth century.
“This Jansenist negativity, which is still deeply rooted in some conservative Catholic quarters of the United States (much less in Europe), is profoundly opposed to the pedagogy of the body proposed by John Paul II,” Waldstein continued.
He said the “vehemence” of Schindler’s “condemnation” of West was “somewhat understandable,” as Schindler must uphold the reputation of the John Paul II Institute.
“Although getting the Theology of the Body message out to the very large audience on Nightline was potentially an important moment in Catholic evangelization, the distortions have the potential of harming not only West's reputation, but the Institute's as well,” Waldstein wrote. “If Nightline is right, one would expect the main textbook at the John Paul II Institute to be The Joy of Sex According to John Paul II, edited by David Schindler and Hugh Hefner (centerfold included).”
However, Waldstein warned that it is important not to “trample” on particular persons. He characterized Schindler as “ready to accept ABC’s spin at face value.” He suggested that Schindler should offer his analysis in “an appropriate journal” rather than using the “media firestorm” to “go in for a quick kill.”
Waldstein said West’s “main strength” is his “effective communication” of John Paul II’s teaching on a popular level.
“West's theological penetration of John Paul II's work and the expression of his insight in his published materials have high academic quality. They are worthy of serious scholarly engagement. In writing my own book about the Theology of the Body (which is almost completed), I turn to West's commentary often and with profit,” he added.
“Both ABC's spin on West and Schindler's condemnation of him in agreement with that spin do harm to the cause of the Theology of the Body,” Waldstein’s article concluded. “I appeal to all who work for the promotion of the Theology of the Body to do their utmost to counteract this harm.”
Theologian Prof. Janet Smith also recently defended West against Dr. Alice von Hildebrand’s criticisms that West’s approach to the Theology of the Body ignores “tremendous dangers.”