Christopher West is the world’s most famous apostle of Blessed John Paul II’s theology of the body (TOB). Over the past 18 years, his passionate, engaging and masterfully marketed proclamation of Pope John Paul’s thoughts on human love in the divine plan — through lectures, books, audio and video recordings — has transformed tens of thousands of lives, renewed marriages, revitalized marriage preparation programs, reformulated chastity curricula and helped detonate the theological time-bomb of the Church’s sexual counterrevolution inaugurated by the pontiff.
More than anyone else, West has made the theology of the body mainstream, popularizing the pope’s densely theological catecheses in a way that countless Catholics have been able to relate to, understand, live and spread.
But West has also — unintentionally — made the TOB unnecessarily controversial. Pope John Paul’s teachings on the beauty and purpose of human love were bound to be disputed by hedonists and puritans, both inside and outside the Church. Comments West made in a six-minute “Nightline” segment in May 2009, however, made the theology of the body seem suspicious even to those who are fully supportive of the Church’s teachings on human sexuality.
The fallout led some dioceses to cancel workshops for priests and faithful. It induced some respected theologians to make detailed, global criticisms of West’s work and other esteemed ones to make equally meticulous and universal vindications. It prompted a sometimes acerbic war in the blogosphere as West’s defenders and detractors dueled over what he taught and meant, leaving many observers confused not only about West but about the TOB as a whole. It also led West to take a year’s sabbatical of purification, prayer and renewal as he pondered the criticism.
West’s new book, “At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization” (Image Books, $14.99), is the fruit of that sabbatical, a response to that criticism, and a new, synthetic elaboration of West’s thoughts on why the TOB is a crucial component in the re-evangelization of the secularized cultures of the West.
Both those familiar and unfamiliar with West’s work will find in the book what has made him one of the most popular Catholic authors and lecturers. With clarity, brevity and eagerness, West makes the case that at the heart of the Gospel is the “great mystery” (Eph 5:32) of the “marriage of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ” and the “astounding invitation” Christ extends to each of us to “enter into this same nuptial exchange.” Pope John Paul’s theology of the body, West writes, was meant to help us to learn how to “love one another in the image of the Trinity,” and each of the seven principal chapters of the book is meant to present one aspect of that pedagogy and program or to respond to a contemporary challenge to it.
The final chapter is a true tour de force arguing that the new evangelization, to succeed, needs to be an affirmation of the good, true and beautiful of the created world and that the TOB helps us to see, live and propose to a skeptical world not merely the beauty of the Church’s teachings on sexual difference, love, sex, marriage and family, but also her understanding of God, the Church, the sacraments and more.
The structure of the book, however, seems to be less a systematic presentation of this heart of the Gospel than a response to the “rather harsh critiques” that have been made about West’s work. West thanks those whose challenges “have sharpened me, refined me, and encouraged me to dig even deeper into the thought and wisdom of John Paul II,” humbly noting where he thinks “these authors have been correct in their critiques of my work” as well as where he believes they “have been mistaken.”
Among the mistakes, he candidly mentions that at times his presentations lacked “sensitivity,” “gentleness” and “patience,” such that others have found them “a bit jarring”; occasionally “failed to communicate some important distinctions”; used illustrations that were “not the best”; pushed so hard against a “hyper-spiritual” understanding of human sexuality that his own ideas seemed excessively physical; and were “naïve” in dealing with those who might misinterpret his work.
He says that these mistakes were part of an “ongoing process” of “trial and error” to find the proper language and concepts to convey the pope’s rich theological and pastoral treasure. He believes that the “spirited conversation that the TOB has engendered in recent years represents a positive development and an important catechetical moment for the Church.”
While good can clearly come out of “spirited conversation,” trials and errors, it doesn’t always do so, and it is probably too early to pronounce on whether it has or will from the controversies surrounding the TOB of the last few years. Regardless, “At the Heart of the Gospel” is West’s earnest attempt to ensure that it does.
With regard to what he considers was mistaken criticism, West resolves many of the graver charges while at the same time unintentionally confirming some of the minor ones, particularly with regard to his prudence and theological precision.
For example, West persuasively argues that the “Nightline” interview sensationalized and misrepresented his comments about Hugh Hefner as one of his “two big heroes” alongside John Paul II. Nevertheless he seems to wade anew into the more general stream of criticism by vigorously reasserting that Hefner was “correct in his diagnosis of the disease” of Puritanism, erring only in his self-indulgent pseudo-cure. This makes it seem that Hefner, albeit in a misguided way, is fighting the good fight, something that is bound to solicit criticism.
Likewise, in the appendices, West convincingly responds to critics’ inferences that he was basically heretical for declaring in previous works that there was “nothing inherently wrong” in marital sodomy and for vigorously advocating a spousal understanding of the sacrament of baptism. The way West frames these theological speculations then and now, however, leaves people not just confused by discomfiting images, but questioning his judgment and — to the extent that many learn the TOB primarily from West’s works — wondering about John Paul II and the TOB as a whole.
West’s treatment of conjugal sodomy is particularly troubling. After emphasizing that the patron of moral theology St. Alphonsus Ligouri and he himself, based on Pope John Paul’s personalist principles, strongly condemn the practice, West still argues that the opinion of relatively obscure moral theologians — employing a clearly inadequate, canonical definition of sodomy as a premise to conclude that it’s licit provided that the conjugal act is completed in the natural way — constitutes a “theological consensus” he has no authority to contradict. This not only misunderstands what constitutes theological consensus and its authority, but injudiciously leaves those spouses who might be so disoriented as to have to seek guidance on the matter with basically a yellow light rather than a red one they obviously need.
In other places, it’s his lack of precision that causes confusion. West responds effectively to the criticisms that he misunderstands John Paul II’s and the Church’s teaching on how the grace of redemption helps us to overcome the “domination of concupiscence.” Yet, despite showing his orthodox understanding, he repeatedly uses expressions that focus on “overcoming concupiscence.” Mastering the “domination of concupiscence” is different from overcoming concupiscence itself, for we will always be tempted, but the grace of the redemption makes it possible for us not to succumb to those temptations. This imprecision is what led to the criticism about his understanding of concupiscence in the first place.
Similarly, West is often imprecise with regard to the meaning of the “body” in John Paul II’s theology. Even though he states that we cannot “reduce the spiritual and divine mystery to its bodily sign,” he nevertheless says that the language of Christianity “is the body” and that Pope John Paul’s principal concern was to help men and women “understand the meaning of their bodies.” The language of Christianity, rather, is the language of love expressed through the body and the pope’s principal concern was to help men and women discover not the meaning of their bodies but who they are and are called to become in Christ through imitating Christ’s unselfish gift of himself to others body and soul. West wouldn’t deny this, but in not stating the teaching precisely, he makes possible not only misunderstanding but false criticism.
“At the Heart of the Gospel” is a fitting illustration of West’s overall corpus — full of enormous strengths and beauty while at the same time containing minor, though substantial, defects that one hopes will be corrected in West’s much-needed future work.
Father Roger J. Landry is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Mass., and executive editor of the Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River. His eight-part series on the theology of the body has run multiple times on EWTN.