In short, my critique of them is much the same as my critique overall of most Catholic thought as a traditionalist. Many Catholic commentators today speak with an ignorance at best, an outright hostility at worst, towards the Church as it has existed before the Second Vatican Council. Their error is just like that of the traditionalist who declares Vatican II as breaking with dogmatic Catholic teaching. Today’s modern mind accepts that there has been a radical change, yet this was a good change. To them, the Church before Vatican II was either wrong or insensitive to many pressing questions of the Church.
Christopher West and many apologists carry this in their interpretation of Theology of the Body. Before TOB, the Church was hostile towards sex. Now, the Church finally understands sexuality. Comparing the Church to a teenager in puberty, West infers that the Church is just now beginning to understand the truth of sex. This would certainly come as news to the 2,000 years of Catholics who converted the sex crazed Greeks and Romans!
One classic example of this hermeneutic comes when discussing the issue of occasions of sin. Traditionally, the Church has taught that when one finds themselves in an occasion of sin, especially involving lust that comes from concupiscence (our inordinate desire towards sin), we are to avoid that occasion. Christopher West views this as lacking “mature purity.” For as he says in his book Theology of the Body Explained:
Trusting our own freedom to control concupiscence and to choose the good can be very threatening. It is much easier to distrust ourselves and hold our hearts in continual suspicion. But this is the antithesis of the meaning of life. We are called to set our eyes on Christ, get out of the boat, and walk on water. Many Christians, it seems, stay in the boat for fear of sinking if they were to get out. This may seem like a “safer” approach. … The truth of human life ... can only be found on the water amidst the wind and the waves—in the drama of putting faith to the test and learning to walk with our eyes set on the Lord (Page 274, revised edition)
I know what West and those like him are trying to do here. Placing their faith in the Resurrection, they boldly proclaim that Christ can transform our disordered desires towards that which is pure. No Catholic should disagree with this part. Yet is the best way to acquire this to look for it “on the water amidst the waves”? There is a certain ambiguity in this statement, and if one is not careful, I submit they are placing themselves in grave danger.
Should we look to “put our faith to the test?” The Scriptures would seem to tell a different story:
Then the devil took him up into the holy city, and set him upon the pinnacle of the temple, And said to him: If you be the Son of God, cast yourself down, for it is written: That he has given his angels charge over you, and in their hands shall they bear you up, lest perhaps you dash your foot against a stone. Jesus said to him: It is written again: You shall not tempt the Lord your God.
Of course, Christ was not in an occasion of sin here. Yet if Christ would refuse to put God to the test here, why should we in occasions of sin? Are we to go into these occasions, thinking “oh my purity is strong enough” and expect God to transform us? Is this not putting God to the test? What is to happen if we do not hearken to God transforming us? That is why the wise person never willingly places themselves in occasions of sin. He is conscious of his own nature to avoid them, knowing they are a weakness.
But what of Peter? When Christ asked Peter to walk on water, this again was not in the context of an occasion of sin. In the context, we see Christ’s disciples afraid of a ravaging storm. Christ appears and calms the storm. In their disbelief, Christ then states that this should not surprise them. Peter, then in his impetuosity, desires to walk on water. As he begins to walk on water, he becomes afraid, and begins drowning. Christ rebukes him for his lack of faith. The only way this would be made congruous would be to state that Christ places us in situations where lust is a real danger, demanding we overcome them. If that is what Mr. West and his ilk are saying, perhaps they should come out and say it. I think if that is what they said, most people would realize this for the wrong idea that it is.
I believe the Scriptures show a better way, and that better way is in the story of Elijah, as recounted in the first book of Kings, Chapter 19. In the context, Elijah has just won a great victory over the priests of Baal. When fire consumed his sacrifice, he proved Yahweh as the one true God, and all the priests of Baal were slaughtered by the people. The evil Jezebel becomes enraged at this action (for she was a devout follower of Baal), and causes Elijah to go into exile. Terrified for his life, he finds solace under a tree:
Then Elijah was afraid, and rising up, he went wherever he had a mind: and he came to Bersabee of Juda, and left his servant there, and he went forward, one day's journey into the desert. And when he was there, and sat under a juniper tree, he requested for his soul that he might die, and said: It is enough for me, Lord; take away my soul: for I am no better than my fathers. And he cast himself down, and slept in the shadow of the juniper tree: and behold an angel of the Lord touched him, and said to him: Arise and eat. He looked, and behold there was at his head a hearth cake, and a vessel of water: and he ate and drank, and he fell asleep again. And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said to him: Arise, eat: for you have yet a great way to go. And he arose, and ate and drank, and walked in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights, unto the mount of God, Horeb.
We see here that the great prophet’s soul was supremely troubled. So troubled was his soul, he wished death. While not necessarily an occasion of sin, this could certainly be analogous. God does not tell him to “test his faith” by returning to square off against Jezebel. Instead, he is nourished with heavenly food, and told to retreat into solitude, deep into Arabia. When he reached Arabia in this time of deep solace, God again appears to him. Telling him to take courage, God orders Elijah outside where he will see God’s presence. We then read:
And he said to him: Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord: and behold the Lord passes, and a great and strong wind before the Lord, overthrowing the mountains, and breaking the rocks in pieces: but the Lord is not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake: but the Lord is not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire: but the Lord is not in the fire. And after the fire, a whistling of a gentle air. And when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his mantle, and coming forth, stood in the entering in of the cave, and behold a voice unto him, saying: What do you here, Elias?
In this instance, Elijah found God’s presence in the “stillness” (as other translations have it.) The voice of God was not within the tumult and grandiose manifestations of the world at this point, but rather in that silence. The lesson from this is clear. When one is troubled, retreat into solitude, and listen for the stillness of the Holy Spirit to guide us. At that point, separated from all that troubles our soul (in the occasions of sin), we find the ability to truly transform ourselves! After receiving this strength in solitude, Elijah then continues on his mission. Ironically, that is not back into the same situation, but to anoint those who will execute God’s vengeance upon the house of Ahab.
To retreat from occasions of sin is not prudery, it is wisdom. There may be times when we are unable to retreat fully. In those instances, yes, we must trust in the Lord to guide us. Yet we should not constantly put ourselves in danger. While God will deliver from the lion’s den, this does not give us a license to go jump into the pit at our nearest zoo.
When one reads John Paul II, he teaches precisely this thought, in accordance with the traditional teachings of the Church regarding the occasions of sin:
For those who beseech the Father not to be tempted beyond their own strength and not to succumb to temptation, and for those who do not expose themselves to occasions of sin, being subjected to temptation does not mean that they have sinned; rather it is an opportunity for growing in fidelity and consistency through humility and watchfulness (Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Penitentia)
Note well what it is said by the Holy Father. He does not counsel “putting faith to the test” and “risking it” regarding occasions of sin. Rather, he praises those who seek to avoid such instances. However, there will still be temptation, even if we avoid those occasions of sin. At that point, temptation becomes a chance to grow in holiness. That holiness is not found in charging into the situation. It is found in being acutely aware of our weaknesses, and instead finding strength from God away from those situations, so that when we have to deal with those temptations (for they will find us), they are a chance to grow in faith and love of God.
For those who equate being sensible with prudery, such an interpretation is impossible. Yet I submit it is their interpretation which is not wise. This is not a game. Fortune favors the prudent even more than the brave.