In the midst of the current controversy over the Theology of the Body, Dr. Michael Waldstein says Christopher West’s work is “deep and faithful.”
I know that David Schindler is a careful scholar, but I was surprised and taken aback by his recent blanket negative statement about Christopher West in reaction to West’s Nightline interview. He cites a few anecdotes, quotes some snippets of texts, recalls some discussions he had with West in the past, and then makes a number of sweeping, massive accusations against West’s work as a whole.
His West is not the Christopher West I know from studying West’s commentary on the Theology of the Body.
Because of my close work with West during the writing of the new translation of John Paul II’s original work, I know he has a deep and faithful understanding of the late pope. West’s work is uncompromisingly in line with the Church’s faith. Perhaps most striking is his humility in approaching the Theology of the Body and the great desire he has to reach broken humanity with this liberating message.
To answer all of Schindler’s objections would require a response too lengthy for the moment; the fact that he cites no texts from West’s work on which to base his four main objections also makes a response difficult.
Let me take a single example of Schindler’s critique to show how it misses its target: Schindler claims, “West misconstrues the meaning of concupiscence” by denying the permanence of “objective” concupiscence. In fact, West does not contradict the Catholic teaching that concupiscence and the fomes peccati (the tendency to sin) are objective consequences of the Fall that remain in every human being until death. He is correct in diagnosing strong Jansenist influences in the American Catholicism of the early Twentieth Century, which have historical roots similar to those of Puritanism. Jesuit seminarians, when they took a bath, had to scatter charcoal dust on the surface of the water so that they would not see their own genitals and become sexually aroused. The appropriate dress for attractive women according to the same spirit would be a black cardboard box. This Jansenist negativity, which is still deeply rooted in some conservative Catholic quarters of the United States (much less in Europe), is profoundly opposed to the pedagogy of the body proposed by John Paul II.
John Paul II considers true growth in virtue not only possible, but necessary for every man and woman. This is the authentic teaching of the orthodox Catholic tradition in contrast to Jansenism: Also in the sexual sphere, true growth in virtue is possible; virtue can overcome the tendency to sin, though objective concupiscence and the consequent danger of sin remain real. The path to virtue leads through deep awareness of the spousal meaning of the body and through authentic growth in love. “Love, and then do what you want!” says St. Augustine, who is (wrongly) invoked as the father of both Puritanism and Jansenism. These are the truths West highlights in his writings and presentations. I doubt that Schindler denies these truths, but his critique of West sounds almost as if he does.
There are circumstances that make the vehemence of Schindler’s condemnation of West somewhat understandable. As the Provost/Dean of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, Schindler has the responsibility of protecting the name and reputation of this Institute — a great common good. Although getting the Theology of the Body message out to the very large audience on Nightline was potentially an important moment in Catholic evangelization, the distortions have the potential of harming not only West’s reputation, but the Institute’s as well. If Nightline is right, one would expect the main textbook at the John Paul II Institute to be The Joy of Sex According to John Paul II, edited by David Schindler and Hugh Hefner (centerfold included).
Yet, it is exactly at the point when the defense of a great common good becomes pressing that care needs to be taken so that one does not trample on particular persons, especially when doing so seems to be an effective means of achieving one’s end.
The salacious spin Nightline put on West’s work (suggesting West is a fan of Hefner’s Playboy Magazine) did not come from West, but from ABC, which knows that “sex sells.” I see a great irony in these circumstances. Schindler has a remarkably clear and profound perception of the defects of our dominant liberal culture. He also has a correspondingly keen x-ray vision for the regular distortion of Catholic life and theology in the dominant media. Yet in this instance, he is ready to accept ABC’s spin at face value, regardless of West’s protestations to the contrary and, more importantly, regardless of West’s published works. To use ABC’s spin against West is an act of injustice. It does violence to one of the most eloquent and effective messengers of the Theology of the Body.
Since he is a careful scholar, Schindler should offer an analysis of West’s position as documented in his most recent published works in an appropriate journal, rather than using this media firestorm to go in for a quick kill. He should allow the scholarly process of close reading and judicious interpretation, argument and counterargument to take place, in which West has the opportunity to respond to criticisms in a deliberate fashion.
West’s main strength lies in his effective communication of John Paul II’s teaching on a popular level. An academic might look down at such “popularizing” and disdain serious intellectual engagement with West. In fact, West’s theological penetration of John Paul II’s work and the expression of his insight in his published materials have high academic quality. They are worthy of serious scholarly engagement. In writing my own book about the Theology of the Body (which is almost completed), I turn to West’s commentary often and with profit.
Both ABC’s spin on West and Schindler’s condemnation of him in agreement with that spin do harm to the cause of the Theology of the Body. I appeal to all who work for the promotion of the Theology of the Body to do their utmost to counteract this harm.
UPDATE: Dr. David Schindler has responded here.