Saturday, October 2, 2010

The TOB Debate: Where are we Now?

In an attempt to be a bridge builder, Wade Michael St. Onge has written his latest.  He repeats his thesis from before in an attempt to find common ground on both sides of the aisle in the TOB debate that was sparked by Dr. Schlinder's critique of his former student, as well as escalated by Dawn Eden's Master's thesis on the issue.  He re-states part of his thesis as follows:

West's approach is good for the particular audience he is catering to. However, West's approach is not suited to the “spiritually mature” or those with a firm grasp of Catholic doctrine. These Catholics can get some good things out of it and enjoy it, but they can also be rightly bothered by some of the things he says and see them as problematic.
While this might have some merit, in the end I believe the objective reader is forced to reject this thesis.  The key to why this is so I will attempt to explain.  I fully concede I may be viewed as a biased observer, having worked on this issue with Dawn Eden, Steve Kellmeyer, and others.  I make no apologies for my work.  For the most part, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have noted my civil yet tenacious tone in this debate.

1.)  "Mature" Audiences

Wade's thesis ultimately falls short for one simple reason:  Mr. West and his defenders (outside of perhaps Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouve) reject this characterization of Mr. West's work.  They would not hold that their work is of little value to the "spiritually mature."  Whenever we hear that Mr. West's work is not that of a theologian, but an evangelist, there is never a discussion of how his work can be harmonized with the more  allegedly "advanced" material for Catholics "eating out of the banquet" instead of the dumpster.  Instead, we are told that for the ones in the dumpster, there are the talks and lectures of Mr. West.  For the more spiritually "mature", there is Heaven's Song and Theology of the Body Explained, both books by Mr. West.  For the one "mature", there is the Theology of the Body Institute, an institute that if not the catholic equivalent of an intellectual shell company for Christopher West, is dominated by his influence and his school of thought nonetheless.

The "mature" works are where the focus of a lot of criticism is.  I have noted that I find Mr. West's exegesis of Sirach which he used in Theology of the Body Explained troubling, amongst other issues.  In her thesis, Dawn Eden finds his treatment of continence and virtue in TOB explained problematic.  Many of us objected when the "mature" audience at the TOB Congress advocated calling God a stalker, and stating that before John Paul II, the Church was in darkness in regards to sexuality.  (As Fr. Loya famously said.)

2.)  What are we?

I believe the second problem is that of our critics assessment of us and our positions.  Speaking bluntly, they do not view us as "spiritually mature."  When Catholic luminary Alice Von Hildebrand spoke up against Christopher West, the general consensus of her critics was that she is an old out of touch prude.  Dawn Eden's thesis has been lampooned as the work of someone with a vendetta against Christopher West at best, a cynical marketing ploy to make herself rich by tearing down faithful Catholics and Bishops at worst.  (As Dr. Janet Smith recently said in her response to Miss Eden.)  Miss Eden is also viewed as obstinate, with a blatant refusal to acknowledge she is wrong.

On the other side for the most part, we have been willing to grant them much.  Dawn Eden spoke at length in the introduction to her thesis about the positive influence Christopher West was in her own life.  She talks about how he is to be applauded for bringing souls to the Church.  Fr. Angelo spoke about how the problem of prudery in the Church is real, and the difficulties in presenting something so philosophically rich to a popular audience.  (In short, one can be more forgiving in this arena.)  Now some of my friends across the aisle will point to the works of Steve Kellmeyer, who could be called highly polemical in his works against Christopher West.  Yet if one looks at his works, one finds in the comments section those on his side who have had a gentleman's disagreement with him in regards to tone.

For the record, I believe that Mr. Kellmeyer's tone is no worse than that of Christopher West.  In fact, I will say it is better, for reasons I will expound upon later.  Mr. Kellmeyer's role is the one who rallies the troops.  Most of his audience already agrees with him.  He is the provider of "red meat."  It certainly isn't for everyone.  Yet if anyone comes there from the opposite side in charity and attempts to have a dialogue with him (As Christina King has done), one sees a very civil discussion going on.  His last three posts on the issue have lacked a lot of the polemical tone that previous ones have.

Why do I say that his behavior is better than those of my opponents across the aisle?  In the eyes of Mr. West, those who disagree with him are part of the "religious right."  We are Manichean's.  We are prudes.    In the eyes of Dr. Janet Smith, we are those who seek to "repress" the truth about sexuality, and are guilty of hidden agendas, to say nothing of launching a campaign against Bishops "known for their fidelity to the Magesterium."  They are the Optimates, we are the Populares.  (1)

I for one have heard nobody across the aisle step up and condemn this kind of argumentation.  Even Sr. Lorraine, who has attempted to provide a civil forum for discussion of these manners (and has been a model of civility), has not issued (at least in public) any criticism of this approach.  How do these examples encourage a civil debate?

For what it is worth, I do not think my friends across the aisle are being deceptive.  I do not believe they are engaging in grandstanding to score points in some debate.  They really believe what they say.  They think their critics have Manichean tendencies, and are full of hidden agendas.  As long as this is the case, there is a wide chasm that I believe cannot be bridged.

I am not sure if the first issue can be resolved.  I am however certain the second issue can.  I believe my friends across the aisle are mistaken on certain things.  Yet I have never doubted their sincerity.  I believe at times their passions get the best of them.  Such happens to even the best of men.  When Dr. Smith found herself guilty of this, she had the integrity to admit it, and deserves the utmost of commendation for this.  (3)  They believe a good man is being unfairly criticized, and have rallied to his defense.  Such is understandable, even laudable.  I hope should I ever find myself in controversy in the future, I can have such zealous allies.

When commenting on this issue, Mr. Brian Killian stated the following:

My impression from following this debate is that everyone is partially right and partially wrong.

What everyone should do is stop the merry-go-round of criticizing the other person, and sit down and look for what is wrong in their own approach or their own content. Each person in this debate should find one thing that their critics are right about. That should move the discussion forward a bit!

Maybe we should set up a group blog where everyone involved in the debate can discuss matters in a civil and charitable manner.
I am skeptical that such a group project would have any fruit.  Yet I can get completely behind a call for civility.  I write this post with the hope that my friends across the aisle can see where their critics are coming from.  Small though my voice may be, I invite them to engage in charity.  Do not doubt our motives, our agendas.  As they are so fond of saying, we are all "on the same team."  Provided charity is upheld, we can then move onto the issues of substance.  I am not sure if they can be resolved as I said earlier.  However, I do think that if done in a civil and cordial manner, everyone can learn.


In the interest of fairness, Mrs. Christina King commented in the comboxes below, protesting some of the things that I had said.  One of the statements I did not have the full information on (I really could not have known), and the other, I believe while the case can be made, really distracts from the issues at hand, and has the potential to turn things into mud-slinging.  To try and keep the bridges built, I have removed these two specific charges from the article.  I regret and apologize for any misunderstanding that arose as a result of incomplete information, and I expect to be held accountable to keep the dialogue going with civility.  Anything that contributes to the opposite I hope to avoid.

1.)  In the final days of the Roman Republic, the defenders of the Senate viewed themselves the Optimates, or "good men."  They viewed their opponents as populares, many times little better than an angry mob who, if given any authority, would ruin Rome.

2.)  What comes of this of course is hard to say.  The charges are still up in her essay that she now admits were uncharitable.  She has however promised that she has an essay forthcoming analyzing Dr. Von Hildebrand's criticism of Mr. West, and promised a far more irenic tone.  I for one look forward to reading this.

To Part V, Addenda

Return to Response Index


  1. Kevin, you say: “I fully concede I may be viewed as a biased observer. ... I make no apologies for my work.”

    Nor should you. You have done a top-notch job representing this side. But I agree – I think you are tending towards a certain bias. I think this has become evident in the “Easter Candle as phallic symbol” debate. Your opponents have made some good points in this regard that you refuse to acknowledge and continue to argue against without any change in your original position. I think your bias is also coming through in your defence of Mr. Kellmeyer’s tone. I do not think his tone can be defended by anyone who is looking objectively at it. Not only do you defend him, but you turn around and accuse Christina King of being uncharitable and Sr. Lorraine for not coming out against it! But you actually defended Kellmeyer here – which is more than could be said of Sr. Lorraine in regards to Mrs. King.

    I think it also comes through on your lengthy response on the Latin issue, although this one is more debatable. Kellmeyer just did not convince me on this one. That certain issues that will go unnamed are “sensitive” issues begs the question – “why are these considered so ‘sensitive’?” Once again, the possibility of a “prudish spirit” comes to mind here. There are many sensitive matters – but “sexual” matters seem to be “uber-sensitive” beyond any other thing in the human or worldly experience. Why?

  2. To respond to your critique of my thesis:

    You say: “Wade's thesis ultimately falls short for one simple reason: Mr. West and his defenders (outside of perhaps Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouve) reject this characterization of Mr. West's work.”

    I do not think you can reject my thesis just because they reject my characterization of his work. If I say he is a good “evangelist” but a poor “catechist” or “theologian” and West says “no, I am a good catechist and theologian”, that doesn’t mean I’m not right and it doesn’t mean he is. Just because West “claims” that “TOB Explained” and “TOB Institute” are for “spiritually mature” Christians, the mere claim does not make it so, and his mere claim does not make my thesis wrong.

    If I say “TOB Explained” and “TOB Institute” has certain deficiencies and omissions – which I think they do – then I can still claim it is not for the “spiritually mature” or those well-catechised. If “TOB Explained” faithfully reflects JP2’s teaching (I think for the most part it does), then I would say TOB itself has deficiencies and omissions – which I certainly think it does, and which I explained in my blog article.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. That certain issues that will go unnamed are “sensitive” issues begs the question – “why are these considered so ‘sensitive’?” Once again, the possibility of a “prudish spirit” comes to mind here.

    It's not prudery but prudence. Confessors used to be warned not to subject penitents (especially children) to extensive questioning because such questioning can actually teach sins to the penitent of which he had previously been innocently unaware. Now, if a priest knows that a certain sin, even a sin against impurity, has become common within a community, then by all means he ought to preach against it because the common good requires it. But I don't think priests in general need to preach against the sort of sins of impurity that Kevin mentions in his post, at least not within a parish -- perhaps on a retreat for members of Courage.

    There are many sensitive matters – but “sexual” matters seem to be “uber-sensitive” beyond any other thing in the human or worldly experience. Why?

    I have to say that I am a bit surprised that you would even need to ask that question.

  5. "I think this has become evident in the “Easter Candle as phallic symbol” debate. Your opponents have made some good points in this regard that you refuse to acknowledge and continue to argue against without any change in your original position."

    I'm just curious, what are those points? On my part, the challenge I issued remains unanswered, there have been no citations from the Fathers, and nobody has dealt with the Consillium which rejects the phallic interpretation. (And one of the reasons why Sr. Lorraine says people should just stop bringing the argument up.)

    My original position was/is two fold:

    1.) The Easter Candle is not a Phallic symbol and a sexual act is not simulated/symbolized

    2.) The statement that this is the tradition of the Fathers, especially in the East, has so far been an argument from silence.

  6. Now in regards to polemical statements of certain authors:

    People are free to see I've had a discussion with Mr. Kellmeyer on his blog about his tone at times, and how I think some of his work is too much tone, too little substance.

    As one who loves to read Roman history, and then religious figures such as Tertullian and St. Jerome and St. Frances De Sales (the gentle tone of Introduction to the Devout Life was almost entirely absent in the Catholic Controversies for example), strong polemical attacks have their place.

    In making the polemics, you are to avoid personal information for starters. When Mrs. King raised issues about Dawn Eden's past personal indiscretions, and said this disqualified her from making any criticism in her masters thesis, that was out of line.

    Mocking Dr. Smith by saying "what, the Church needs to know more about the conditions under which a priest counsels a penitent for violating livestock?" in certain audiences can be an effective use of rhetoric. It shows the absurdity of the argument.

    Whenever Mr. Kellmeyer has "crossed the line" his colleagues have called him out on it. While it may or may not have made a difference in the end, one side at least is attempting to keep it from getting too personal.

    Can you name me any examples from our friends on the other side of the fence? Any public statements that say "you know, this is way out of line" when discussing another? I am unaware

  7. Now on the final two points:

    1.) If one is attempting to find common ground with a thesis, then that common ground must be held by both sides in order to have any value. They do not hold that their critics are well-catechized or spiritually mature. Quite the opposite in fact.

    So even if what you say might be true on a surface level (I think it has some uses, but ultimately comes up short), of what value is it on the operational level?

    On the Latin Dr. Smith finds "repressive":

    My problem with this entire thing was it was obvious Dr. Smith didn't actually do her homework. I think she got caught playing Google scholar. She looked up a few things online, didn't check their context, saw it fit her pre-conceived notions, and ran with it.

    The work wasn't "repressive" of Church teaching on sexuality. Indeed, it wasn't even really concerned with an in-depth treatment of why this or that is wrong. The author assumed a priest with a robust seminary training would already know that.

    The work simply intended to deal with how to best help priests in the confessional apply Catholic moral theology.

    Second, if anyone actually wants to read the section on sins against the 6th and 9th commandment of the work, it's obvious this isnt the work of a "prude." Since the work discusses, in rather explicit terms, the intent of the person engaging in impurity, the methodolgy a priest should engage in when dealing with someone committing this, etc.

    Does Dr. Smith think the Church is being repressive in not talking about how to deal with the sin of beastiality in the confessional? She may have been able to make her point with other sources. It's obvious she wasn't applying any scholarly rigor here.

    I'm certain if one of her students turned in work with such standards, she'd flunk him, and rightly so.

  8. I referred back to Sr. Lorraine's blog, and I would have to agree with you. I take back what I said - for the most part. You clarified it for me when you identified, "equivocating 'spousal' and 'sexual'" as being erroneous. However, is it not true that the "sexual" is a sign of the "spousal"? Kevin, you seem to want to say that the "sexual" act or sexual union doesn't really signify anything.

    However, I do stand behind my defense of my thesis as I outlined earlier.

  9. Kevin,

    Yet if anyone comes there from the opposite side in charity and attempts to have a dialogue with him (As Christina King has done), one sees a very civil discussion going on. His last three posts on the issue have lacked a lot of the polemical tone that previous ones have.

    I would have to agree. I have come to understand more of where and even why there is a disconnect in our understanding of each others position. Mr. Kellmeyer has been very friendly and cordial indeed.

    "In the eyes of Christina King, Dawn Eden's thesis is illegitimate because of past indiscretions she may have committed in her personal life."

    Absolutely untrue. If that were the case then I would have no business being a speaker or catechist or mother or wife etc.. You have misunderstood me sir. We are all imperfect and have faults and God tends to use the smallest to carry out his largest tasks. I have never used her past as means for why her work would be illegitamized.

    What I did do is loose my cool because I became angry that a "masters thesis" could suddenly become a definitive document on Catholic theology. This is what you later say was PART of my uncharitable comments.

    As for the "uncharitable comments", you did have something to do with removing them. You reproached me upon which I immediately and humbly submitted.

    I agreed that although I believed and still believe that what I had written was truthful, it was uncharitable to have it made public. I contacted Sr. Lorraine directly, who was at a book launch that night and asked her to remove it right away. She assured me should do so and thanked me for letting her know. I then went to your blog and thanked you for the correction and told you that I contacted Sr. Lorraine directly to have it removed.

    The way you write this thing, you have taken all credit away from me for returning to loving charity, which I did immediately upon your reproach. Most likely, Sr. Lorraine did not address it because it was myself and not you that made her aware of the comments and asked her to remove them in the spirit of charity and to further the discussion.

    It is fine if you want to place me "across the aisle" but please give me credit where credit is due.

  10. 2.) I am aware of one instance in private, because I myself was involved. When Christina King made some comments that were (to put it mildly) quite uncharitable. I requested Sister remove them. While no comment was made publicly, they were removed. If there are any such private events, I am unaware of them, but I am not ruling out the possibility.

    This whole thing just makes me mad. Not only are you now bringing up a private conversation, one that no one can verify, you leave it to the imaginations of others to decide what was said and assign your motive and guilt to me. Then you add that there is a possibility of further uncharitable dialogue between Sr. Lorraine and I.

    I think this is bad form and what is the point of you typing these words and posting them? Is this space worth these words? Are they furthering dialogue and understanding or fueling more discord? Me thinks the latter.

  11. Mrs. King,

    I mean no attempt to twist the facts as is.

    I left open the possibility in the note I cited that I was unaware of things that may have happened in the private realm.

    I was only going off your public comments, with no apology, and a statement that if sister wanted to remove them, she could, but you weren't sorry for airing them.

    I am aware of the reproach elsewhere where I likened some of your statements to others people don't like on "my side", asking if you want to be "that person."

    But, in fairness, providing this information, I'll update this post sometime tonight or early tomorrow morning, since you have provided information that was not available.

  12. Mrs. King,

    I trust the revision meets your satisfaction?

    Will be shooting you a message when I'm home to discuss this further.


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