It appears that in the debate surrounding Dawn Eden’s Master’s thesis, the defenders of Christopher West have decided to call in the heavy artillery. Dr. Janet Smith has issued a lengthy attack upon Dawn Eden (Dr. Smith admits the essay she wrote has absolutely nothing to do with fraternal correction!) as a person, and her thesis as a work. Sadly, when the work is actually weighed and considered, it comes up woefully short. Like most of the attacks so far, it is disjointed, full of ad hominem arguments, anachronistic interpretation, and the like. The only difference now is there’s a PhD after the name. Some may think I am departing from my relatively congenial tone I’ve had in this debate, and they are right. Sometimes it just has to be called out for the shoddy work that it is. Following Dr. Smith’s outline, I will divide the work as well.
We see right off the bat that which is known as poisoning the well. At least half the essay deals with no evidence Miss Eden cited, but simply “the tone” and how it is off putting. It’s character assassination 101. Before you move to the evidence (or in absence of evidence!) smear your opponent in the worst light possible.
She starts off by painting Miss Eden as somebody who refuses to admit she got something wrong. Prideful, close-minded! Yet is this really the case? Dr. Smith argues that of course Mr. West has taken his critic’s words to heart, as he has substantially revised his previous work. The good doctor believes that Miss Eden should’ve been mentioning this in-depth in her thesis.
Dr. Smith does not realize she is simply begging the question. She failed to demonstrate where these supposed changes impact the points Miss Eden is critiquing. Dr. Smith mentions one thing Mr. West changed his views on: in previous works, Mr. West came awfully close to saying there was nothing wrong with sodomy if practiced in marriage, provided the “climax occurs the normal way.” (As far as I’m aware, people like Dr. Gregory Popcak still hold this view.) Now if Dawn Eden were to write in her thesis that West still believes this, Dr. Smith would have a perfect counter. Yet if one wants to do a search on “sodomy” in Miss Eden’s thesis, it’s nowhere to be found.
Some will counter “Dr. Smith never said it was” and they would be right. Yet this little thought exercise was meant to prove a point. The fact that West has revised his views in the past is irrelevant to the points raised in the thesis, which were based on the current edition of his books, his current articles, etc. If anything, including the past revisions would speak ever stronger for Miss Eden's case. In responding to her critics, Miss Eden could say something along the lines of:
While the reader may believe I am being overly harsh and sweeping in my criticisms of Christopher West, they should note that this is not without precedent. According to Dr. Janet Smith at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (who is also one of West’s biggest defenders), “…he [Mr. West] substantially rewrote portions” of his opus Theology of the Body Explained. If his work was flawed enough as it needed to be “substantially rewrote” before, who is to say that now is any different?
That places defenders of West already one step in the hole. They have to defend someone who is serially revising his published works. While we all make mistakes shouldn’t this say perhaps we should be a little more careful before spouting off opinions in public as Catholic teaching? In short, if Dr. Smith wants to mention where Mr. West has “corrected” himself in relation to Dawn Eden’s thesis, she is certainly welcome to. Otherwise, she is arguing something that is irrelevant, and arguing it from silence at that.
On Appeals to Authority
The next fallacy inherent in Dr. Smith’s work is that of the appeal to authority. She is certainly correct that one must be careful when questioning those in authority, especially if they are Bishops. Perhaps Dr. Smith does not realize this, but she implicitly does the same thing she claims Miss Eden is guilty of! When discussing the rather rotten state of catechesis in the American Church, Dr. Smith states:
Does all criticism of “yesterday’s Church” foster resentment and is it thus wrong to criticize yesterday’s Church? Who would deny that across the board, catechetical teaching in the US for several decades was seriously inadequate if not erroneous?
Tell me dear reader, who was responsible for the “inadequate if not erroneous” catechesis if not ultimately the Bishops? Did Dr. Smith write any of them in private before making this claim? Elsewhere she states that a bishop has the “legitimate claim to be judges of the fidelity of an author’s work.” Since last time I checked, she is no Bishop; she has essentially disqualified herself from this debate. She cannot say whether or not West has gotten it right or not, as she is not a Bishop.
This is of course absurd. In the end, Rome has not (and almost certainly will not) pronounce with any definitive certainty on the writings of Christopher West. As a result, Catholic thought can take a variety of opinions regarding the claims he makes. They can be evaluated, accepted, or rejected. Since nobody is calling anybody a heretic, it is really rather pointless to mention that Bishop’s have stated the work isn’t heretical. Nobody said it was! Or does Dr. Smith think an imprimatur and nihil obstat means complete agreement and perfect orthodoxy of a work?
Furthermore, is it the assertion of Dr. Smith that Bishops are always right? As she herself noted, some of them allowed things that were “erroneous” to be perpetuated throughout their dioceses, and did little if anything to stop it. Church history teaches us that many times, Bishops have simply gotten it wrong, even some of those who were very good Bishops. Pope Zozimus was an overall good Pope. Yet he was wrong in his assessment of the sincerity of Pelagius. When St. Augustine denounced Pelagius, Pelagius would say “even the Bishop of Rome accepts what I am saying! I am no heretic!” This did not deter the greatest of the Church Fathers. Not only did he intensify his attacks on Pelagius, he wrote to the current pope, reminding him of Pope Innocent’s assessment, and why he believes that situation has not changed. If a Bishop came forth and gave the same arguments against Mr. West that Dawn Eden gave, would that make any difference to Dr. Smith? We all know the answer to that question. Of course it wouldn’t, and Dr. Smith would be no less of a Catholic for writing in public that she thought the Bishop’s reasoning was flawed. The argument from authority in this case means: Ignore all evidence folks. Chutzpah indeed Dr. Smith!
After stating that Dawn Eden is close-minded, lacking in pride and humility, and someone who has made her remarks just so she could make a quick buck, Dr. Smith demonstrates to Dawn Eden what chutzpah really is:
Of course, substance is more important than tone, but if one takes an aggressive or ad hominem tone, one is less likely to earn a receptive hearing. A bad tone can convey to the reader that the critic has a personal agenda against a particular author; that the critic has produced a polemic rather than a sober scholarly analysis.
Let me get this straight, for the record. Dr. Janet Smith believes that Dawn Eden has betrayed a negative bias in her work, and a personal agenda. Failure to do this, in Dr. Smith’s own words, tells the reader that the critic is just interested in “firewood for burning.” Let us recap. Before any substance is dealt with, Dr: Smith says Miss Eden:
1.) Lacks shame in admitting she is wrong. (In the paragraph “Refusal to admit error)
2.) Lacking in docility and humility, in essence, arrogant. (“Teaching Authority”)
3.) Full of Chutzpah
4.) Orchestrated a marketing ploy to get rich by timing the release of her thesis with the holding of the TOB Congress, turning her from an obscure graduate student to someone flying around the country to give talks.
6.) Disrespects the intelligence of her readers (in other words, engages in intellectual dishonesty)