.- Critically examining Christopher West’s presentation of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, chastity speaker Dawn Eden has said that West conveys “elements of truth.” However, West’s demand that couples have perfect chastity before marriage promotes a kind of “Puritanism” that discourages Catholics from dating, courtship and continence.
Eden, the author of the book “The Thrill of the Chaste,” gave her critique in a master’s thesis at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. She delivered a speech on her thesis there on May 19, posting the speech’s text on her blog “The Dawn Patrol.”
The chastity speaker explained that she chose the topic because it involves the promotion of the Catholic vision of marriage and family, issues “close to my heart.” She said the subject was also “highly topical” because of recent public debate about West’s work conducted by Catholic theologians and scholars.
Her thesis tried to view the Theology of the Body through the “hermeneutic of continuity,” a view that sees the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council as continuous with the pre-Vatican II Church.
While West tries to undermine the idea that the Church has a negative view of sex, in Eden’s view he fuels another myth that the Church is fundamentally different after Vatican II. She cited West’s comments that the Theology of the Body is “revolutionary” because previous generations of Christians grew up under a “repressive approach” to sexual matters.
“His praise of Pope John Paul II is predicated on the repeated assumption, sometimes explicit, that the pre-conciliar Church was stodgy and prudish,” Eden argued. “While he no doubt intends to promote charity and unity, his approach effectively encourages division and disdain for our past.”
Saying that West presents himself as the “definitive interpreter” of John Paul II’s teachings, she worried some of his promotional material implies that the Christian Creed is something to be viewed “in light of the theology of the body, rather than vice versa.”
Eden acknowledged certain “elements of truth” in West’s interpretations. The liturgy is spousal “in a certain sense” and the sexual union of spouses can also be said to image Trinitarian love also “in a certain sense.”
However, she claimed West teaches that the true message of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is that sexual desire “necessarily mediates desire for God.” He risks sexualizing Christianity rather than Christianizing sexuality, she warned.
In Eden’s view, West’s upbringing in the Mother of God Community formed his view of a “normative” Catholic upbringing. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the leaders of the Maryland-based group exercised “puritanical control” over members’ lives, including their dating.
In 1995 Cardinal James Hickey, the Archbishop of Washington, ordered reforms to correct its abuses. This came after West spent his late teens and early 20s living with his family in the Catholic community, which he later described as a “cult.”
Eden suggested that West’s experiences bear on his interpretation of John Paul II’s teachings on continence. Because in his upbringing engaged couples were barred from spending time alone together, she said it was understandable he wishes to show how Catholic teaching permits more latitude.
“Unfortunately, in his desire to counter puritanical attitudes, West ends up promoting an ideal that has the net effect of promoting Puritanism,” Eden argued. “West says that not only must an engaged couple be continent, they must possess the virtue of perfect chastity prior to marriage. That is, they should have no fear of being alone together, because they should have no lust for one another.”
Eden noted West’s comment in a 2009 talk that there is no “magic trick” and no “waving at the wand at the altar, that suddenly makes your sexual behavior beautiful, true, good, lovely, and pure."
According to Eden, this is wrong because it implies that continence is an insufficient preparation for marriage and because it claims that the sacrament of marriage “in no way affects the development of virtue.”
Catholic teaching in fact recognizes that the grace of marriage is what enables couples to transform their “imperfect virtue” of continence into the “perfect virtue of chastity,” explained Eden. She also quoted St. Paul’s words that all that is a required of an engaged couple is that they control themselves “in holiness and honor.”
“By raising the bar so high, to the point where any feeling of lust is proof that one is not ready for marriage, West is effectively promoting the very angelism that he decries,” Eden commented. “In an age when Catholics—along with singles in general—are marrying later and later, such a misinterpretation of Church teaching has real pastoral implications.”
She said twice during her lectures someone has asked her why Catholics are so afraid to date. Others have told her some Catholics who study the Theology of the Body think they can’t date before marriage.
“Young Catholics who are told that they are not ready to marry until they have not only continence, but perfect chastity, are simply avoiding the rituals of courtship,” Eden commented.
By way of suggesting positive corrections, Eden noted that John Paul II said catechesis on the Theology of the Body is incomplete without addressing “the problem of suffering and death.” A vision of married life should show both how spouses share in the Trinitarian communion and how they similarly share in Christ’s sufferings on the Cross.