Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Hermeneutic of Suspicion

In many of the discussions surrounding Christopher West's interpretation of "Theology of the Body", West invokes John Paul II talking about the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion."  I'd like to offer a very brief outline of this understanding.

As anyone who studies Church history knows, the Church has dealt with various heresies.  Sometimes, those heretical concepts colored the judgement of even good and honorable men, some even saints!  St. Hippolytus was an anti-pope.  Tertullian died outside of the Church due to his Montanism.  St. Cyprian through his rigorous orthodoxy at times lacked Christian charity towards the lapsed, and Pope St. Stephen rebuked him for it.

That this mindset has also colored the worldview of some Catholics throughout the years in the battle to present an authentically Christian view of sexuality is not surprising.  We know that the Manichean influences that Augustine was once associated with at times led to some problematic statements he made regarding sexuality.  While one should be very careful in substantiating the charge, there are those throughout Church history, even saints, who had a very dismissive view of sex and sexuality.  This is why we must take great care to understand their statements in a wide context.  Charity requires that we first attempt to reconcile their statements with the greater Catholic tradition. 

I believe the precise opposite has happened with the debate surrounding Christopher West and those who defend him.  A classic example of this occurs in the comboxes at Sr. Lorraine's blog.  After what was a fairly boilerplate discussion, the topic turned to the importance of the marital embrace within marriage.  Some were arguing that it was the "central" and "fullest" way of understanding the "spousal meaning of the body."  Wade St. Onge objected to this line of thought, and used St. Frances De Sales to buttress his claims:

Married people ought not to keep their affections fixed on the sensual pleasures of their vocation, but ought afterwards to wash their hearts to purify them as soon as possible, so that they may then with a calm mind devote themselves to other purer and higher activities. (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 39: “The Sanctity of the Marriage Bed”)

The response of Sr. Lorraine was telling.

Well, Wade,it seems to me that the quote from St Francis de Sales perhaps has a bit of the attitude of suspicion, as John Paul might call it.....  But when he says "wash their hearts to purify them" he seems to imply that they were somehow made impure by conjugal union. But authentic conjugal union marked by love is not an impure activity, so why would they need to be thereafter purified? Even some of the saints had traces of Manichaean attitudes, as probably most of us do still have them in some ways.

I find this troubling in a number of ways.  Most importantly, she's accusing a Doctor of the Church of Manichean tendencies.  Not just any doctor, but one of the great spiritual masters of the Church, of whom Pope Pius XI said the following:

What is more, it appears that Francis de Sales was given to the Church by God for a very special mission. His task was to give the lie to a prejudice which in his lifetime was deeply rooted and has not been destroyed even today, that the ideal of genuine sanctity held up for our imitation by the Church is impossible of attainment or, at best, is so difficult that it surpasses the capabilities of the great majority of the faithful and is, therefore, to be thought of as the exclusive possession of a few great souls. St. Francis likewise disproved the false idea that holiness was so hedged around by annoyances and hardships that it is inadaptable to a life lived outside cloister walls. (Rerum Omnium Perturbationem )
I submit it is quite imprudent to charge one of the great spiritual masters with Manichean tendencies, unless you have some real evidence.  Sister Lorraine provides none.  While some may find the quote Wade cited troubling, reading the context helps give a far better understanding of the text in mind.  I submit that not only is the great Doctor assured of his spiritual orthodoxy, but he provides a large problem for the partisans of Mr. West.

There is one problem with the quote:  depending on which version you have, it will or will not exist.  An interesting discussion for scholars of St. Frances, but we need not bother ourselves with this debate.  The context of the discussion surrounds that of over-indulgence.  In giving his advice on the marriage bed, St. Frances says the following:

The marriage bed must be undefiled, as the apostle says, that is to say, kept free from uncleanness and all profane filthiness. Holy wedlock was first instituted in the earthly paradise, where as yet there never had been any disorder of concupiscence or of anything immodest.

We see here that St. Frances talks about the divine origin of marriage.  God instituted marriage, and it is something that helps the spouses grow in holiness.  There are those who take their warped views into the bedroom, and give us all kinds of perversity.  (A popular example is Dr. Gregory Popcak's "one rule" which states that almost anything goes in the bedroom, provided contraception isn't used and the spouse's fulfillment is in mind.)

He then goes on to point out that like anything else, humans can abuse what was given to us by God.  He demonstrates how to eat is holy, but people abuse eating into gluttony:

Just as to eat, not for the preservation of life, but to keep up that mutual intercourse and consideration which we owe to each other, is a thing in itself both very just and lawful, so the mutual and lawful compliance of the persons united in holy marriage is called by St. Paul a debt. But it is a debt so great that he allows neither of the parties exemption from it without the free and voluntary consent of the other....
After talking about the varying degrees of which indulgence is permitted (provided the primary purpose of marriage not thwarted), St. Frances says:

In truth, nuptial commerce, which is so holy, just and commendable in itself and most profitable to the commonwealth, is yet in certain cases dangerous to those that exercise it. Sometimes it causes their souls to be seriously ill with venial sin, as in cases of simple excess. Sometimes it kills it effectually by mortal sin, as when the order appointed for the procreation of children is violated and perverted. In this latter case according as one departs more or less from this order, the sins are more or less abominable, but they are always mortal. The procreation of children is the first and principal end of marriage. Hence no one may ever lawfully depart from the due order that that end requires.
Let us remember that above all, St. Frances was a pastor of souls.  He understood well that sexual temptation is a serious issue, even in marriage.  Even in marriage, even in the just, there can still be the temptation to use and exploit another person for your own ends.  The more one focuses on the sensual, the greater that danger is, just as the more one focuses on the pleasure food provides, the greater the risk of gluttony and over-eating.  It is in this context that the quote from Wade is given.  St. Frances continues afterwards:

In this advice consists the perfect practice of that excellent doctrine which St. Paul gave to the Corinthians: "The time is short," said he, "it remaineth that they also who have wives be as though they have none." According to St. Gregory,' that man has a wife as if he had none, who takes bodily consolation with her in such a manner as not to be diverted from spiritual demands. What is said of the husband is understood likewise of the wife. "Let those that use the world," says the same apostle, "be as though they used it not".... We should enjoy spiritual things but only use corporal. When their use is turned into enjoyment, our rational soul is also changed into a brutish and beastly soul.
St. Frances is not saying that the marital embrace is unholy.  Quite the contrary.  He is telling people to exercises it properly, and to never let it interfere with your spiritual duties, especially those towards your spouse.  Good as the marital embrace may be, it is not the epitome of marriage.  Though it is a readily available sign of the union of husband and wife that they are "one flesh", one can think of even greater signs.  (Indeed, St. Joseph did not partake in marital relations with the Blessed Mother, yet in John Paul II's eyes they practiced the spousal meaning of the body par excellence.)

Now is St. Frances saying that one can take no enjoyment from the marital embrace?  Certainly not.  What he is saying is that the said enjoyment of yourself should never be the main focus.  How many people do we know, even in marriage, who are only thinking of themselves and their "needs."  The more one focuses on their needs, the more likely they will start neglecting their spouse.  If indeed the marital embrace is supposed to provide (however faint) a glimpse of the enjoyment we spend in heaven, should we not afterwards stay focused on what that is, instead of what gave that enjoyment?

I believe I have demonstrated that on this area, and so many others, the great doctor is truly above "suspicion."  The question becomes:  Why is he not taken at his word?  I believe that if we do take this great spiritual master at his word, the positions of Mr. West and his associates are quite hard to justify, as I intend to prove another time.


  1. Not to pat a fellow partisan on the back, but this is masterful.

  2. Thanks dcs. It just amazes me how people, in their attempt to defend something, absolutely throw some of the greatest Christians in history under the bus.

    One should take great care in even insinuating that statement in public, even if you agree with it.

  3. I'm sure the pro-West crowd will just love to read what St. Francis has to say about the marriage debt.

  4. I have to say that the charge of "Manichaean" from West's defenders is turning into a bromide. I don't think the Manichaean heresy had a lot of influence on the Church. One can't just blurt out "Manichaean!" whenever one encounters a writing that doesn't conform to one's idea of what the Church teaches today.

    The irony is that Manichaeism is a gnostic heresy, professing to bring salvation through knowledge. Isn't that a bit like what West & Co. are teaching? All we have to do is know TOB, the fullness of the Church's teaching on sex, and then we'll be able to achieve mature purity and be freed from concupiscence.

  5. I really enjoyed this article; it was well done.

    Anyone who knows even the basics can see St Francis was simply giving a commentary on 1 Cor 7 (which is essentially being ignored by many on the West side).

    What made me laugh was when you said the only "problem" was whether that original quote was authentic or not...yet that quote is nothing but a restatement of 1 Cor 7:5,

    "Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control."

    Sister Lorraine can't really accuse the first quote of being Manichean without also accusing St Paul of the same thing!

  6. Hello Nick,

    Perhaps I should clarify. I never doubted the authenticity of the quote. Just that certain versions of De Sales' work do not carry that section, yet the original of course does.

  7. Kevin, do you have the particular source for Fr. Loya's statement?

  8. Hello Greg,

    Yes, I now do. When Catholic Exchange re-designed their entire site, a lot of the old links got broke.

    I'll be re-adding the link now that it is good again.

    For now:


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