By Scott Alessi
When Christopher West agreed to appear on ABC's "Nightline," the popular author and speaker was hopeful that the national exposure would bring more attention to his teachings on the Catholic view of sexuality. But once the controversial segment hit the airwaves May 7, West may have gotten more than he bargained for.
The piece generated a great deal of discussion, mostly due to the comparisons West drew between Pope John Paul II and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Yet even among those who were able to see past the segment's inaccuracies and exaggerations, a substantial debate has emerged over West's approach to Pope John Paul's teachings on the "theology of the body."
Several prominent Catholic theologians have spoken out both to defend and to criticize the work of West, who has been presenting the Church's teachings on sexuality to couples worldwide for more than a decade. Although he has remained mostly silent as new commentaries on both sides of the argument have surfaced on the Internet, West told Our Sunday Visitor that he has been wrestling with the question of whether or not he made the right choice in appearing on ABC.
"On the one hand, a few million people in the secular world heard about the theology of the body for the first time," he said. "There has also been an extraordinary online discussion among Catholics that I think will lead to a clearer understanding of the theology of the body for us all.
"On the other hand, the 'Nightline' piece has caused a lot of consternation among certain Catholics. For any way my own folly contributed to that, I do have regret. There have been some hard-earned lessons for me in all of this, and I'm praying that I don't miss any of them."
Among the most prominent detractors has been David Schindler, professor of theology and dean of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America. Schindler, a former teacher of West's at the John Paul II Institute, told OSV that he has been concerned for a number of years with West's work and that the "Nightline" segment gave him an opportunity to express those concerns.
While he clearly has respect for West's intentions and his unwavering devotion to the Church, Schindler said that there are very serious disagreements between the two over the manner in which West has interpreted the teachings of Pope John Paul.
"The problems are not merely matters of taste; on the contrary, they affect the content of theology," he said. "The problem is that the theology of the body gets reduced to a theology of sex, and that is a serious problem.
"John Paul II's theology of the body must be seen within his theological anthropology as a whole, which is an entire vision of reality centered in love and expressed in the communion of persons and inclusive of the body. It is this anthropological whole that underpins his defense of Humanae Vitae [the Church's 1968 prohibition of contraception]."
Schindler said that he has in the past brought these objections to the attention of West, who respectfully disagreed and has continued on the same course in his presentation of the theology of the body. As a result, Schindler said he felt compelled to "raise a horizon of objective concerns."
"I decided to make a statement because of the great numbers of people who have experienced uneasiness regarding the work of West," he said. "They need to know that this uneasiness has an objective foundation in that work itself. It is not just a matter of their having an unconscious 'Puritanism' or prudishness, but often has to do with what are healthy human and Catholic instincts."
While West said that he is certainly open to criticism of his work and is grateful to those who have helped him to refine his approach, he disagrees with the assertion that he has been anything but faithful to the original intent of Pope John Paul's teachings. He added that some of the arguments against him have only shown that the individuals making those criticisms are not familiar with his work.
In particular, West feels that the critique that his approach is "all about sex" is unfounded.
"In the language of John Paul II, 'sex' refers first to our identity as male and female," he explained. "The pope's original title reveals his emphasis: 'Man and Woman, He Created Them.'
"Many good people seem unaware of what the great saints have taught about the mystical dimensions of our sexuality. This is where John Paul II's theology of the body leads us -- into the mystical depths of our creation as male and female, and the call of the two to become 'one flesh.'
"It's all meant to lead us to the 'great mystery' of divine love, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 5," he added. "One of the main goals of John Paul's theology of the body is to illuminate this 'great mystery.' It is one of my main goals as well."
Other respected theologians who have worked with West, such as Janet Smith and Michael Waldstein, have fervently defended his work. Smith, chair of life ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, told OSV that she feels many of the negative comments have been based on hearsay and things taken out of context. She added that while West's methods may sometimes be unorthodox, there is no doubting his success.
"He is a guy that pushes the envelope a bit, and you've got to be prepared for some hits when you do that," she said. "But overall if one sees what he's doing, it is really magnificent."
Smith attributed West's style to a wisdom that allows him to understand an audience of young Catholics who otherwise would not hear or possibly not even be interested in the teachings on the theology of the body. His positive influence on these young couples, she explained, is perhaps the greatest argument in his favor.
"He has worked very hard to understand where those living in the modern culture are coming from, and he's tried to really reach out to them, which a lot of us would be very uncomfortable doing," Smith said. "And I think he has found a way to do it.
"Some people find some of his examples vulgar and crude, but at the end of the day, I think many more people are going to develop a greater reverence for sexuality and for the opposite sex and for marriage than they had at the beginning."
Viewers of the "Nightline" segment on Christopher West may have been led to believe that the theologian considers Pope John Paul II and Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy Enterprises, to be on equal ground in their treatment of sexuality. But the piece, which condensed several hours of footage into a seven-minute video feature, may have missed the mark in presenting West's comparison between the two.
West told Our Sunday Visitor his explanation of the connection he drew between Hefner and the pope was misrepresented.
"Both men began addressing the problem of Puritanism at the same historical moment -- the early 1950s. As Catholics, we actually agree with Hefner's diagnosis of the disease: a Puritanical rejection of the body and sex is utterly contrary to Catholic faith. But we radically disagree with his cure. John Paul II offered the world the real cure for the disease of Puritanism and its twin sister, sexual license.
"My strong disagreement with Hefner never showed up in the piece. Instead, they claimed Hefner is a 'hero' of mine. It's been painful to see that some Catholics have accepted ABC's spin at face value."
Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.