Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Response to Wade St. Onge RE: TOB, West, and Related Issues

A blogger by the name of Wade St. Onge has written a rather comprehensive commentary on his thoughts regarding the entire fracas involving Christopher West, Dawn Eden, Alice Von Hildebrand, and Theology of the Body as a whole. In an ongoing discussion with Wade, he has asked me to reproduce some of those insights that I did in an email discussion with him over this weekend.

While I will reproduce a lot of the correspondence, I also hope to develop these even further. Though bound by current constraints in which I would like to write about, I hope to in future posts return to these manners. Overall, I think that his commentary is very long, but well worth the read. There are things he covers in this work which give a very fresh insight to this controversy.

While a lot of his commentary offers I believe brutal analysis into a lot of the misunderstandings Mr. West demonstrates, he begins with offering some praise. While I think there can be much to praise, I do have a few issues.

1.) On the “Prudish” Church

Wade begins by sympathizing with Mr. West’s claims of rampant “prudery” in the Church before Theology of the Body. He believes this is so in that he feels many priests spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with what we call traditionally “sins of the flesh.”

Let me begin by stating that arriving at a sufficient answer here is near impossible. There is no data to analyze. (Indeed, if there was, some priests would most likely be receiving a call and excommunication papers from Rome.) We are dealing primarily here with subjective experiences. What follows from me is purely speculative.

Let us ask ourselves however: what is “prudery?” This is constantly left undefined by Mr. West and his defenders. From now on, we should always ask them to define their terms. For Wade, it is the priests focusing too much on sexual sins in the confessional. It is a curious definition of “prudery” and I guess I would like him to elaborate on it further.

We do know that sins of the flesh claim an inordinate amount of souls. In the Old Testament, we know that one of the most serious sins facing the two kingdoms was that of the qdeshim (male cult prostitutes) by which Jews were drawn from the worship to Yahweh towards the worship of the pagan gods. Sins of this nature are not only particularly appealing (because of the pleasure they give) but also extremely hard to root out (given the fact that they represent objectification par excellence.) Sins of lust killed the 6 husbands of Sara, and it can be inferred the temptation of the “daughters of men” in Genesis led to the Nephilim, leading to the Great flood.

We also know that in today’s hyper-sexualized culture, these kinds of sins are of particular problem and risk. The Church in her wisdom in the confessional tries to deal with those sins. Granted, some priests might not do the best job, but we are dealing with something that is a very serious nature here, as I’m sure Wade would agree.

He anticipates this objection, thinking that this kind of mentality could lead to prudishness. Perhaps. That being said, orthodox spiritual instruction can also lead to scrupulosity in the untrained. The problem of prudery I submit comes from a zeal not tempered by prudence or humility. Far from a healthy sexuality, prudishness is an inordinate fear, an inability to have a healthy understanding of their spiritual growth/nature. Their sentiment in attempting to avoid occasions of sin is laudable, yet their zealousness leads to problems of their own. I think West doesn’t treat this seriously. Prudery is indeed a serious problem. Yet a simple change of intellect is normally not enough to combat this. This requires very careful spiritual guidance from a competent director.

West many times seems to downplay the noble intention of the people who suffer from this problem. He seems to treat Hugh Heffner and John Paul II on the same side of attempting to overthrow “Victorian prudery”, even if Heffner went about it the wrong way. Prudery, like scrupulosity, ultimately comes from something noble. In West’s attacks on prudery, he essentially treats prudery as the source of all problems in society. One can hardly be faulted for thinking Mr. West actually believes that if not for prudery, a healthy sexual ethic would exist in the minds of Christians. This is the height of naiveté.

2.) On Analogies

One of the most heated areas of dispute in this entire fracas regards how many promoters of Christopher West’s employ certain analogies. Wade mentions one of them when Mr. West describes heaven as the “ultimate climax.” Dr. Janet Smith describes God as a stalker.

He believes that there is a sort of prudishness in why Catholics will call heaven “the heavenly Jerusalem” but not “the heavenly climax.” I believe Mr. West and those that make this statement ultimately confuse the purpose of symbolism. The marital embrace is meant to be a sign of something. It is to be a sign, with all the human limitations, of the deep intimate union we are called to in Christ Jesus. Once we are in heaven, such signs are no longer necessary. We will have that perfect mystical union.

So isn’t this the “ultimate climax?” Not exactly. A “climax” implies the end of an act and an exchange in a sexual act. In heaven, let us make this clear, there is not sex. Let me repeat: Heaven is not sexual. Silly as that sounds, we’ve got to establish that. Furthermore, once we reach that intimate union, there is no “climax.” Rather, once we are in heaven, that union is just beginning, and never ends. It is something so beyond the senses, there really is nothing to describe it.

Now some will certainly counter that the Bible and tradition is full of a “nuptial” or spousal language employed to demonstrate the relationship between Christ and His Church, and with every individual Christian. This is certainly true. Yet this is not sexual. There is a difference between an imagery of a marriage, and the imagery of sex. Sex exists as a symbol here on Earth. Sex will be gone in heaven, as it will no longer have a purpose. There will be no more procreation, nor there need for a sign of deeper union. I submit that is why the Bible lacks “sexual” language in describing heavenly union.

Yet if sex will not be there, marriage will. Not in the individual sense of two individuals marrying however, for “they are not married or given in marriage”. Instead, there will be one giant marriage of Christ and the Church, celebrated at the wedding feast of the Lamb. As any married couple will tell you (and I’m sure I’ll learn soon enough one of these days!) marriage is about far more than sex. When one begins the journey down the mystical road the spiritual writers speak of, they begin to experience a foretaste of this heavenly bliss. This is the reason people like St. John of the Cross employed spousal imagery.

Yet at the same time, we arrive at certain problems. We will not always experience that foretaste of union. This could lead someone to think they have done something wrong. Indeed, rather than bliss, there is a real dryness in their spirituality at that point. St. John of the Cross wrote the poem Dark Night of the Soul (along with the commentaries on it of The Ascent of Mt. Carmel and the far more famous book Dark Night of the Soul) to explain this phenomena. To him, this was not a sign of spiritual weakness. Rather, the soul was beginning to mature and prepare itself for that divine union. When a couple enters into an earthly marriage, they experience the same. Many times, there is not a fire of love and passion, but rather a very dry feeling in their relationship. This could be the way of beginning to look past their needs and desires, and instead being a gift to the other person. Archbishop Fulton Sheen captured this perfectly, even speaking of a “Dark Night of the Body” in marriage:

What the Dark Night of the Soul is to the spiritual life, the Dark Night of the Body is to marriage. Neither are permanent; both are occasions of purification for fresher insights into Love. If the fig tree of love is to bear fruit, it must be purged and dunged. Dryness in the spiritual life and in marriage are really actual graces. God’s finger is stirring the waters of the soul, creating discontent, that new efforts may be put forth. … There are two kinds of dryness: there is one which rots, which is the dryness of love without God; and there is also a dryness which ripens, and that is won when one grows through the fires and heat of sacrifice.
This line of thought is practically absent from the thought of Christopher West. I would even go as far to say that as long as this is not emphasized, his theology is not “nuptial” at all. One could even go towards saying it is but a shadow of the truth.

3.)  Briefly on Eros
Now some could say I am downplaying “eros”, treating it as a dirty thing. To do so is to have a misunderstanding of eros that is pretty common. In short, eros need not be “sexual” love, or even a love of physical attraction. eros is just as much about a love that is “creative” as it is sexual. Let’s take a small trip back through Greek mythology here.

In Greek lore, Eros was the god of fertility. The earliest conceptions of Eros, he embodied not only love but the creative aspect of nature which flows into society. Naturally, this was closely inclined with fertility. This kind of love no doubt comes from the One True God. Yet just like all things tainted by sin, man’s conception of Eros soon turned into mere passionate sexual love. Soon, in many cases love was dropped from the understanding altogether. Most Greeks certainly engaged in the erotic, but did so without love.

As God began preparing the intellectual landscape for His Son, you begin to see a heightening of eros. Plato comes along and reminds the Greeks that eros need not be sexual. In fact, the best eros is not sexual. Rather, it is a love of the created. In this case, one sees the beauty of another created figure, and simply loves them for that created beauty. The best eros however moves beyond that. The initial draw to the beauty of a person becomes something deeper. One becomes in love with what they truly represent, their highest values. Highest of all to Plato was wisdom. So in his eros, it ceases being about sex and sensual love, and turns into an appreciation of what makes that person special. It becomes a love of the uniqueness of the human person. From there, it becomes a longing for the completion that person provides. While this can be sexual and something physical, to limit this in Platonic thought would be foolish. That which is greatest for Plato to love was that which was eternal, beyond this physical world. There were some shortcomings of Plato, lacking the light of Christ of course. Yet I think one can see him laying out the intellectual landscape for something greater.

When Christ comes, He indeed shows us something even better. As great as eros was meant to be, Christ elevates agape above all else. Agape is that love which is the highest of all loves. The love that asks nothing in return and instead gives. Christ ultimately could have accomplished union with the people of God without His own sacrifice. He is God, He could have chosen differently. Instead, He takes on flesh in the Incarnation and God gives up His own life on the cross for those created to know, love, and serve Him. Eros no doubt led to this self-sacrificing love. Christ loved each one of us individually and longed for the deepest union possible with every human being. Yet Christ baptizes eros into true agape. That, my friends, is the “nuptial” and spousal imagery of the Scriptures. Now I want the reader to ask themselves a question: How much of this understanding of eros is really present in the thought of Christopher West? Is it entirely absent? Of course not. Yet is it more focusing on it as a mere sexual love? I would wager it is.

In the end, a misunderstanding of several basic concepts leads Mr. West to make analogies that really are ill-advised. (See my writings in the TOB section of this blog for some examples.)

There is more I could say to Wade, and I hope to do so in the future. For now, this will have to suffice.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Wade, it seems to me that you are drawing conclusions from what is primarily anecdotal evidence. I don't think I've ever confessed to a priest who spent an "inordinate" amount of time giving me advice on sins against chastity. And I don't think I've had more than 2-3 confessions that lasted 10 minutes. Most confessions don't last even 5 minutes.

    Whether or not this particular priest spent an inordinate amount of time discussing sins against chastity is a question that I am not equipped to answer. I suspect that Kevin is not equipped either. We don't know (nor do we want to) the kind and number of your sins. Nor do we know what sort of penitents this particular priest has had in the past.

  3. I have responded to this post, Kevin, on my blog. It can be found here:

  4. Thanks, dcs. You posted something similar on my blog, and I still stand behind the reply I gave you there.

  5. Wade, thanks for pointing that out -- I had missed your reply. In fact, I had forgotten that I had even commented on your blog, which is why I commented here as well -- so please don't think I'm following you around the Internet to attack you. :)

  6. No worries! I see that you have posted again on my blog. Thank you for your contributions. I have few followers, few readers, and few commenters (in fact you were the first commenter ever on my blog), so I certainly appreciate your presence there!


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