Michael Healy

Christopher West: A von Hildebrandian’s Perspective

Jun. 4, 2009, at 7:59pm

imageAs professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville, I have been teaching a course on the nature of love, using Von Hildebrand, Wojtyla, Pieper, and Kierkegaard (among others) for nearly three decades. I have known of Christopher West’s work more indirectly through the decidedly good influences his works have had on my children. However, this past Wednesday, June 3, I got the chance to finally meet Mr. West. It was my privilege to put on a joint presentation with him on purity and sexuality sponsored by the Personalist Project. Nearly two hundred were in attendance, including a great many young people, most I’m sure drawn by the prospect of hearing Christopher—who is a bit more well-known than I.

My approach to sexuality has been fathered by Dietrich von Hildebrand and deeply enriched by Wojtyla. In the midst of the recent controversies surrounding Christopher’s work, or presentation of the material, including criticism from Alice von Hildebrand herself, I was very interested to meet Christopher and see him in action. After our presentation together, I want to join with Janet Smith and Michael Waldstein in a hearty endorsement of Christopher’s work and presentation.

He did a masterful job of going back to acknowledge Von Hildebrand as one of the heroic pioneers (in the face of considerable opposition and misinterpretation in his day) who laid the groundwork for the achievement of Wojtyla, both men offering an interpretation of the sexual sphere that strives to do justice to the personalist element. He interpreted the gradual victory of purity in the commitment of the will, in the making of that commitment organic in the heart, and finally in the victory of genuine love in the whole person in light of the purgative, illuminative, and unitive stages of the spiritual life.

In content, he was right on the mark; in presentation, he was terrific! While I gave a lecture, he conducted an enamoured interaction with his audience. Thus, I too am distressed at the critical pieces recently penned by Alice von Hildebrand and David Schindler. I wish to offer my perspective on some of those criticisms.

As an approach, let me detail a couple of points in Christopher’s presentation Wednesday night, or the question and answer period that followed, that might seem to support some of the attacks against him, but which really do not. First, knowing what was already blowing in the wind from the Nightline interview, Christopher at one point in the talk announced “Hugh Hefner is gold.” This seems rather overbold and undifferentiated, quite possibly misleading (if taken out of context.) But in the midst of his talk, affirming the fundamental value of each person, the destructive effects of sin, yet the antidote available to us in Christ, all the clues and evidence and perspective in which to take his bold statement properly were there. Moreover, a short time later, he amended his description of Mr. Hefner to “tarnished gold” (as are we all.) Moreover, when I affirmed in the Q&A session the greater clarity of the second statement, he went on to elaborate that the “tarnish” may involve yards and yards of dirt and dung that stand between us and our true redeemed selves. So when you look into the full facts and the full context, all is perfectly in order. But then, one might ask, why does he do this? Why does he speak the way he does?

Some might call it sloppy or needlessly opaque, but I think there are deeper things going on here in terms of content in relation to style. First, as to content, whether Christopher consciously intends this or just naturally does it, I think he at times practices what Kierkegaard (a favorite of Alice von Hildebrand) describes as his own approach of “indirect communication.” Soren Kierkegaard, radical Christian existentialist, was of the opinion (especially in his early years) that just stating the truth to others on the level of direct intellectual communication often merely remained on that level and never penetrated any deeper. So Kierkegaard began to state things in extremes, yet in such a way that the clues and the evidence were there for the mind of the reader to see through the extreme statement itself and bring it back into balance as an insight and a “work” that the reader did for himself. Thus the truth was more actively seen by the reader, as an achievement, not just passively absorbed. Now I think Christopher West does the same (whether as a consciously chosen technique or not is irrelevant.) It is effective. When he says, a half hour into his talk unfolding the real truth about JPII and human sexuality, that “Hugh Hefner is gold,” everyone there knows darn well he doesn’t mean that the way Larry Flynt might mean it. Christopher means it in light of all that he has said before—but the listener has to think through it all himself in a more active way to get at the truth, after his initial shock wears off at what appears to be a simple statement. This is a way of presenting content that forces the reader or listener to think and get more actively involved. It works. Especially when Christopher himself clarifies as he goes along (which, as has been pointed out, he surely did in the Nightline interview but the context and clarifications never made it off the cutting room floor.)

However, also on just the level of style alone, I think we have to give each speaker a certain freedom and leeway in terms of how he presents his material. Christopher’s approach is so dynamic, so in tune with his enthusiastic personality, so evocative for his audience that I would sooner put a beautiful Bengal tiger in a tiny cage than nitpick Christopher to death on his presentation. He comes as a powerful package all at once! It would be a tragedy to reduce him to a “tame” lion. He may have to backtrack and clarify later, but let him hit people right between the eyes in the present.

Now, let me turn to a second example from our joint presentation that might seem to exemplify one of the criticisms launched at Christopher yet which I think can be defended in more than one way. In the question and answer session, one gentleman questioned whether explicit descriptions of private acts ought to be used in public and that he himself found this offensive. Did that make him a prude? In point of fact, in my opinion, the question did seem to imply too narrow a perspective: as if even those speaking on the topic of integrating sex properly into love are not allowed to be specific. For instance, in my own talk, following Von Hildebrand discussing how the power of sex as a sheer physical act has the danger of swamping the spirit unless “informed” by a spiritual act of even greater power (betrothed love transformed in Christ), I referred to the “power of the orgasm and its thrusting.” So, in reply to the gentleman, Christopher asked him to consider why he felt the way he did and to consider whether he wasn’t being oversensitive to the matter rather than just properly sensitive. Did he have some problem with accepting his sexuality? I did not see this as illegitimate pressure on the questioner but as a reasonable consideration. Nonetheless, I had a slightly different take on the matter in my own response. I said the fellow may in fact have a healthy sensitivity to the crudeness of our culture in addressing this most private sphere, so he might be defending the depth and intimacy of sex in not wanting public display, even verbally, about it. However, I pointed out that such an event as this lecture was precisely not a normal everyday situation, but an educational presentation about the sexual sphere. Thus we as speakers had a right and an obligation, in this special educational context, to discuss matters openly (although here too of course a deep reverence for this intimate sphere should prevail.) Christopher had no problem with my answer as I had no problem with his. But, someone might ask, why didn’t Christopher make or allow for my point from the beginning? Why start in with the idea that the questioner might have a problem with his sexuality? Well, of course, in the future maybe Christopher on his own will allow more clearly for a point like mine, because as Janet Smith and others have observed, he is clearly a very humble man, always ready and eager to learn and improve (would that we all were). However, secondly, it may in fact be true that such a questioner does have a hidden problem with his sexuality: so this should at least be addressed. Why might Christopher come to this conclusion? To quote Janet Smith:

I think it important to keep in mind “who West’s audience is.” It is largely the sexually wounded and confused who have been shaped by our promiscuous and licentious culture. People need to think long and hard about the appropriate pedagogy for that group. Yet, as West himself knows, his approach is not for everyone. An analogy that pushes the envelope may be “offensive” to one person and may be just the hook that draws another person in. (See her recent article on Christopher West at

I think Christopher West has more experience on the front lines of our sexualized culture than most of us; thus, we can respectfully let him follow his own “instincts” (probably not the best “personalist” word here) in these matters.

One of the commentators to Michael Waldstein’s defense of Christopher West, demands an answer to each of the charges leveled against West by David Schindler. I think Janet Smith has largely done this in her article cited above. Much depends on the context and situation, but nothing I see in that list is inherently wrong. It just needs proper explanation and application. Even the “anal penetration as foreplay” reference would seem to be parallel to the discussion of the status of preparatory oral-genital contacts discussed extensively by Frs. Ford and Kelly in their two-volume moral theology book from the 1950’s for seminarians (future priests in the confessional) with similar conclusion and this is referenced as the authority to consult by Germaine Grisez in his great ongoing compendium of moral theology. (See The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. II, p. 641, ftnt 176 where Grisez mentions only oral-genital contacts, but as I say Ford and Kelly treat this in such a way that anal-genital contacts would seem to be parallel). Again, no one is recommending such acts, and they have their dangers both physically and morally, and many find them physically and aesthetically repugnant, but the thinkers in question are just discussing the technicalities of what is and is not strictly forbidden. Priests have to know this for the confessional; it is not out of idle curiosity that such things are discussed. So I think the list of “charges” is really answerable.

I have but one regret about my evening with Christopher West. After my talk (“Von Hildebrand on Sexuality: 3 Ways of Attraction, 3 Dangers in Action, 3 Reasons for Renunciation”) and Christopher’s fine and lively commentary, I was invited up to join him for questions and first to offer some reflections on his segment. At that point I felt so at one with him in our approach and so “at home” with him in general, that I just offered one or two minor clarifications of his talk and then opened the floor for questions. But this was ungracious of me. I should have first expressed how deeply grateful and appreciative I was of his remarks, of his insightful use of Von Hildebrand’s contributions, and of his kindness toward me in referring to my own remarks. I regret forgetting to explicitly show my thanks to Christopher and my admiration for his commentary. Please accept this written piece as my filling in of that lacunae. (By the way, our joint talks, and the Q & A session that follows, should be available online shortly at

(EDITORS UPDATE: the talks are up by now, and can be downloaded for free from this page We have also posted four short audio clips from the question and answer session. Look for them under the “The Christopher West controversy:” series on the right column of the Linde page page).

Bill Drennen • Jun 5, 2009 - 1:48 pm

Dr. Healy,

I generally agree with your assessment of the unity between your and Christopher West’s presentations. I have myself found however that there are a few aspects that need a lot more thoughtful reflection. I agree that most of the high profile stuff has been adequately explained and or is understood in context, ect. and I am not concerned so much about them.

I thought that the difference between your responses to the man who expressed uncomfortableness is worthy of note. I expressed this in a post on the member center and copy that post here. Id like to hear your reaction.

Sexual evangelism and privacy | Bill Drennen

The event last night was incredibly inspiring in many ways and also very interesting. I was struck by Katie’s comments regarding the position of the PP being at the cusp between the academic world and the world outside academia.

It has occurred to me that there is a tension between the philosophers role of reflecting on truth and cherishing them in a deeply respectful way and the evangelist role of opening them up to the world.

I relate to the last question from the man who felt something naturally uncomfortable with the way in which sexuality was being promoted with all the evangelical fervor of Christopher West. Is there a marketing effect that can cheapen the cherished value that we hold, and how can one effect the change so badly needed in the world with regards to sexuality while still protecting the privacy natural to the sexual sphere?

How much of this tension is a reflection of calling and style? Personally, I much prefer tending my garden with special attention and depth and know that it will not be appreciated and may even be harmed if I invite the masses to walk through. Maybe my calling is to protect and care for those beautiful rare plants in my garden and my particular charism makes privacy a top priority.

I noticed the contrast of the response of both Christopher and Dr. Healy to this mans concerns and I thought it was informative. Christopher’s response was focused on the truth and the freedom to express it and he did not seem to naturally have the sensitivity to the privacy concerns at least in his initial reaction. Dr. Healy in contrast, first addressed the privacy appropriate to the topic and then went on to show the appropriate use of sexual detail depending on context.

The experience last night spurred a short discussion between Joan and I about our approach to sex education of our girls. We don’t feel it is appropriate for example for us to detail the explicit sexual act with our girls. There is a privacy and mystery that seems to us to be appropriate to their discovery of sex. We don’t want them to be informed by the pornographic culture but we also feel it inappropriate to reduce the beauty of sex to a biology lesson given by their parents.

Ideally I think it should be a private mystery the fulness of which is left for them to discover at the right time. Here is the tension again with the evangelical approach. Just because something is true does not mean it should be known or proclaimed necessarily or without regard to the appropriate time or context. Some special truths are meant to be secrets privately discovered or else their very nature will be lessoned in some way.

Clay • Jun 5, 2009 - 6:42 pm

It would seem that the people who feel that Mr West may be cheapening the value and reverance of sexuality by his presentation, are those who already understand the true, beautiful and iconic meaning of our sexuality.  As Dr. Smith said most of the people that Mr West is addressing are those who have been wounded deeply by sex.  Speaking as someone who was sexually molested and struggled with pornography for many years, I would say that the real violation and irreverance in regards to our sexuality lies within the pornographic culture in which we all live.  I have regretfully seen and done far too much in my own life that has cheapened this beautiful mystery into a carnival ride and far too many people in this world are doing the same thing.  This is truly where the irreverance lies.  Mr West is trying to reattach the true, iconic meaning and value to the act to draw those people, like myself, who have know clue about their sexuality, into the deep. I think reverance is a matter of the heart, that is expressed differently for different people.  Would we consider a man to be irreverant for playing music joyfully from his heart to Our Lord exposed in the most Blessed Sacrament?  An irreverant person would be one who desecrated the Precious Body or was aware of mortal sin and received anyway.  What about the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears?  It seems to me that she was so filled with love and joy at the Truth that sat before her, that worrying about the “reverant” way to express herself was the last thing in her mind. It would seem that those who have fallen the farthest into sin are those who have the greatest joy when they discover the truth.  I do not believe that Mr West is implementing marketing techniques but rather, he is expressing his true joy in JP II’s teachings on human sexuality and his hope is that we all will share in that joy.
  Also, regarding the belief that we should allow those being taught about sexuality to discover the fulness of the mystery at the right time.  I agree, but it would seem to me that the secret that is to be discovered is the very essence and mystery of the other person, your spouse, in whom you are embracing.  This is a true moment of discovery between spouses and I tremble at the holiness of it.  Mr West isn’t sharing personal sexual experiences and allowing us into his bedroom and he certainly isn’t seeking to “rend the veil” of the sacred mystery that lies within each human person.

Katie van Schaijik • Jun 5, 2009 - 8:09 pm

You have a more than worthwhile point, Clay.  Thank you for weighing in!

Michael J. Healy • Jun 5, 2009 - 9:43 pm

Dear Clay,
Sorry I didn’t comment earlier in such a way as to include your post, but I simply agree with everything you say and feel no need for further comment.

Michael J. Healy • Jun 5, 2009 - 7:27 pm

Dear Bill,
Thank you for your thoughtful comments.  I think you and Katie van Schaijik, in her separate posting, have many good insights.  I would just point out that, given the complexity and different levels of human beings, both things may be true.  That is, a person may simultaneously have both a healthy sensitivity about sexuality on one level and on another level some left-over attitudes based too much in fear or condemnation of the sphere.  Both need to be addressed.  However, I think it is important both in charity and in pedagogy to acknowledge and affirm what is good and healthy in a person’s attitude before addressing what might be unhealthy so that the listener doesn’t get too negative an idea of his own state.  Perhaps Chris could do more of this kind of distinguishing.  Some puritanical attitudes on one level combined with a healthy sensitivity on other levels is certainly a more hopeful state (and probably more true for most of us in our sexualized culture) than just a blanket assertion of puritan hang-ups.

However, I’m a bit conflicted about how you should approach your daughters.  I don’t think it has to be in a neutral, clinical manner like so many destructive sex-ed programs.  You can present it in all its depth and reverence and importance.  Otherwise, your daughters may just pick it up from the pornographic culture.  Nonetheless, even picking it up as something “secret” and “forbidden” might at least preserve some of the extraordinary aura if the sexual sphere.  I once heard an eminent moral theologian (who has written extensively on the topic of human sexuality) state that he was proud that he had never had some “explicit talk” with his kids, implying that it’s OK to learn about it in secret, behind-the-scenes ways.  I’m not sure I agree with this, however, especially considering that sex in 2009 is often presented in reductionistic, animalic ways that are completely blind to its extraordinary character.

Katie van Schaijik • Jun 5, 2009 - 8:08 pm

Bill, I love what you say about philosophers vs. evangelists.  The philosophers have to learn to respect and appreciate and learn from the different role and experience of the evangelist.  He carries the truth we brood over to the starving masses.  Without him, we are in danger of becoming too academic in the negative sense—too removed from the facts (and souls!) on the ground. 
At the same time, the evangelist has to not forget that for his work to stay fresh and pure, he will have to keep returning to the sources.  He will need to be continually renewed, continually deepened, and continually challenged by the truth the philosophers are cherishing and unfolding.

Scott Johnston • Jun 7, 2009 - 12:13 am

Katie, this brings up another (not huge, but real) concern with CW. Judging at least by his demeanor during a public presentation, he almost seems to think that everything written by JPII is by that fact alone, necessarily awesome and worthy of complete acceptance.

Now, I certainly agree that JPII was a great man and his work on TOB is a great blessing for the Church. However, this does not mean that everything he wrote is beyond criticism and of equal value for the masses. I point this out (what is probably obvious to most readers here) because when I asked CW to speak on concupiscence, he concluded his response by a quote from JPII. I had no particular problem with the quote (though it didn’t strike me as especially clear), but, I also remember being a bit puzzled by the apparent weight CW gave to it. He seemed to consider it as though it was almost on par with Scripture. Almost like he was saying, “this is what JPII said and this, of course, is the incontrovertible end of all difference of opinion on this matter.”

I hope that Catholics realize that everything stated by a pope, even as pope, is not by that very fact the de facto official teaching of the Church. Popes can (and especially in the case of both JPII and BXVI) still write as a private theologian or philosopher while pope. JPII’s books penned while he was pope and BXVI’s book on Jesus are clear examples of this.

I don’t claim that CW doesn’t know this; I assume he does. But, during a talk, one can get the impression that his point of view is not as grounded in non-JPII teaching as it ought to be to have sufficient balance and to be as well-rooted in the magisterial teaching of the Church as perhaps it could be. (Please note this is just an impression of mine, not an assertion about which I would claim certitude.)

Jules van Schaijik • Jun 7, 2009 - 6:48 am

Scott, I don’t really disagree with what you say here, but I do think it is a little besides the point.  C West just wanted to show that the point about concupiscence, for which he is so often criticized, comes straight from JPII himself.  That does not necessarily mean it is true, of course, but it does give it a lot more weight.  It also answers the criticism that West misinterprets JPII.

Scott Johnston • Jun 7, 2009 - 12:57 pm

Thank you, Jules. Good point. In light of the claim that he misinterprets JPII, this is understandable; I hadn’t thought of that. I do wonder though if perhaps this is a subject on which the specific language of JPII might be improved a bit to be more clear? I don’t know but just saying it is possible. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I recall thinking that the quote CW selected seemed a little vague, at least on first hearing. I would like to read the text (then perhaps it would appear to be clear).

Bill Drennen • Jun 5, 2009 - 2:17 pm

Dr. Healy,

Double dipping here. I read up on David Schindler’s critiques and also Janet Smith’s defense. Janet Smith in no way gives an adequate answer to a couple of his very insightful points on the theology he raises but I also don’t understand David’s first point and his understanding of concupiscence.

Schindler’s first point:

“West misconstrues the meaning of concupiscence, stressing purity of intention one-sidedly when talking about problems of lust.
When I first pointed this problem out to him several years ago, his response was that he refused to limit the power of Christ to transform us. My response is that concupiscence dwells “objectively” in the body, and continues its “objective” presence in the body throughout the course of our infralapsarian existence; and that we should expect holiness to “trump” temptations or disordered tendencies in the area of sexuality exactly as often as we should expect holiness to “trump” the reality of having to undergo death.”

I Disagree and take West’s side on this. Though I’m certainly no Theology expert as David Schindler. I remember you saying at the lecture, “Or then we have had no saints”. Can I assume you agree with me and how can we understand Dr. Schindler here?

His point #2:

Point#2: Second, West has an inadequate notion of analogy. He conceives love in a reductive bodily-sexual sense, then reads the Christian mysteries as though they were somehow ever-greater and more perfect realizations of what he emphasizes as key in our own experience, namely, sex.

Here I agree as I expressed in other posts that the natural privacy of sex is not respected. This also reflects Alice Von Hildebrand’s comments. I don’t think the sex act was Gods intention to hold out to the world as the prime explicit symbol or “Icon” of his revelation. I relate to Christopher West’s insights in this area but he seems to give it a sort of first place in priority making it the front and center marketing add for God. As central to the human person as sexuality is, I don’t know that it’s meant to carry that weight. I am aware that the Theology of the Body has profound implications and effects as a lens many areas of theology but this front and center aspect can also undermine the very nature of the privacy and mystery that is our sexuality wouldn’t you agree? I know JPII was very bold but he also always maintained a profound respect and mystery which gets lost in the marketed evangelical approach to the TOTB.

Point #3:

Third, West’s treatment of shame and reverence is marred by a too-male vision of things–not only too much maleness but distorted maleness. If we could just get over our prudishness and sin-induced guilt, he seems to think, we would be ready simply to dispense with clothes and look at others in their nakedness. He has no discernible sense of the difference between what might be a feminine as distinct from masculine sense of unveiling.

Here I think Schindler has a very perceptive insight. This is something I found studying Mary Shivinandan’s book which seemed to be much more Feminine in interpretation. I found her interpretation also allowed much more of the artistic beauty of JPIIs thought to be preserved.

sorry to give you so much work. Appreciate any feedback you have time for.

Michael J. Healy • Jun 5, 2009 - 8:16 pm

Dear Bill,
Point #1: West certainly went far beyond just “purity of intention” in his commentary Wednesday night, so Schindler doesn’t seem to do justice here.  As I summarize in my original reflections on West, he developed the purgative, illuminative, and unitive dimensions of the spiritual life in his response Wednesday.  Purgative involving good will and good intentions, illuminative the gradual victory over the passions with some continued explicit failings, unitive the integrative victory of grace.  Now if Schindler means to say that serious danger and temptation will always be with us (as Alice von Hildbrand also cautions), I see nothing in West that contradicts this.  But if Schindler means that falling into sexual sin is as inevitable as death, then I think he errs—then, as I said in the response Wednesday night, there would never have been a saint—much less an “incorruptible.”

Point #2: Here I must confess that perhaps my knowledge of West’s work is too limited to give an adequate reply, but I have to say Schindler’s description did not at all fit with what Chris did in either style or content Wednesday night.  I didn’t sense any “reading up” from sex to all else in his discussion of the mystical stages. 
In terms of respecting the natural privacy of sex while still talking about it, Alice von Hildebrand is an example for us all here.  Her tone of voice, her demeanor, her choice of words all convey the unique reverence for this sphere which is the only adequate approach to it.  However, anticipating the third point, perhaps there can also be some legitimate male-female differences here. 
One more comment on the Schindler point would be that to emphasize the body in human personal experience would seem to be appropriate in that we are indeed embodied persons.  Even the most abstract intellectual knowledge is in one way or another grounded in prior sense experience, though going beyond it.  Our personal relations to others, even outside the sexual sphere, perforce go through the body—we are not angelic communicators by direct mind to mind penetration.  This already reveals something of the great dignity of our physical being—it is the avenue for all personal communication and communion between human beings. Thus to emphasize the body in the most powerful act of the body, sex, does not necessarily imply mere reductionism nor the betrayal of analogy. 

Point #3: If Schindler means that West’s approach involves a distorted maleness, than that still has to be proved.  It cannot simply be asserted off-hand and left there.  (Janet Smith calls attention to this kind of lack in Schindler’s short piece as well.)
However, if West’s approach reflects his maleness, well “Thank God and Alleluia!”  I didn’t get the impression that he was a girl.  So I’m very happy we have West on the one hand and Shivanandan (or Alice von Hildebrand) on the other.  We can learn untold treasures from each perspective on the mystery.  This is not to say that being a male allows one to be irreverent, and some may still think West could improve here, but I just didn’t see a problem Wednesday night.

Finally, let me just say that perhaps some of West’s critics skip too lightly over the continued problem, handicap, and hindrance to happiness that lies in on-going guilt and fear about the body and sex, coming from prudishness and puritanism.  Sometimes when people “see through” a certain problem in their own lives, it creates a tendency to downplay how difficult that problem may still be in the lives of others—or in the lives of the many.  Despite my deep imbibing of Von Hildebrand, Wojtyla, Pieper, etc. on sex and love, some of my initial reactions in the sexual sphere are still “touched” by the Manichean split of spirit good-body bad, love good-sex bad, which was the “form” under which I spent most of my teenage years, the “form” under which I first came into the sexual sphere.  Most of us could use more than a little “liberation” on the emotional level from such hang-ups, even those who can give inspiring talks overcoming the “split.”

Katie van Schaijik • Jun 5, 2009 - 8:28 pm

Well, this is getting very interesting. I am beginning to wonder whether I might not be subject to more residual puritanism than I’d thought.  I have to say I find mention of thrusting and wide openness and all that decidedly uncomfortable.  I, too, was glad my teenage children were not present.
Am I prudish, do you think?  Or, if that’s too directly personal: Is there something objectively prudish in such discomfort?
I remember being a lector at my cousin’s wedding and feeling foolish for having to read out loud in church: “Your breasts are like clusters of grapes.”  Perhaps we ARE too prudish.

Clay • Jun 5, 2009 - 11:47 pm

I really admire the fact that your willing to ask that question, irregardless of whatever the answer maybe.  We all need to have the humility and courage to reflect on the movements of our own hearts.

Lindsay • Jun 9, 2009 - 10:23 am

I was also a bit taken aback by the “open and thrusting” remark. I suppose the distinction between graphic and explicit is worthwhile here.

As I have reflected on the distinctions between the “sexually wounded and steeped in our pornographic culture” and those who appreciate the deep mystery, beauty, and veiled nature of the sexual sphere I feel like most of us are subject to both. I recently was thinking about this and realized that, as a 25 year old woman, I have never been sexually abused, never been pressured for sex, never been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, and am waiting to be married to engage in intercourse. I was amazed what an advantage this gives my heart compared to those who have experienced those things- despite this I still feel very wounded by the surrounding culture.

I don’t want to accuse anyone of naivete, I am amazed and consider it a blessing if others my age have been even more protected from the pornographic culture than I have been. (I did work for a Christian outreach to male prostitutes so I have been exposed to many impurities I would not otherwise wish to have been exposed to.) I do think those that to underestimate the insidiousness of everything from pop music which promotes a sado-masochist understanding of sexuality (which many many songs played in most clubs and top 40 radio do), the multi-billion dollar pornography industry which informs a shocking number of young men (and women’s) ideas about sexuality, advertising which takes pornography as its muse, all the way to the sexual scandal you cannot avoid if you want to buy groceries- it’s hard to imagine the whisper of the holy to get through the cacophany of these things.

I wonder if talking in a normal measured tone or even excitedly about sexual matters is a necessary and justified response. As a camp counselor overseeing 50 teenage girls a few years ago I would host “porch time” when they could come to me and talk about anything. I purposely was always reading Lauren Winner’s “Real Sex (The Naked Truth About Chastity)” when they came to talk and was grateful for the conversations it sparked. I think having a safe space to talk about sexuality is necessary in a culture where the innocents are often vulnerable. To not protect them with authentic knowledge is a huge disservice. Even news about gay marriage, rape as a war strategy in some parts of the world,female circumcision, or other current topics will expose young people to topics which we would rather not have explicit conversations. When forced into them I think it better to have a ready and beautiful response than shroud it in mystery and leave it to google and wikipedia to answer questions.

Teresa Fedoryka • Jun 9, 2009 - 9:08 pm

Katie - I don’t think you are too prudish at all!  Just because you may be highly sensitive to those things does not make you prudish.  I think Jules said it so wonderfully in the last Nature of Love class when he spoke of shame.  He said that shame does not just refer to things that are bad, rather it essentially refers to the “feeling” we have when things that we prefer remain hidden are revealed (Jules said it much better).  The tremendous beauty of our sexuality and the fact that it is something intensely personal (not because we choose it to be so, at least this is my opinion, but because in it’s nature it is so intimately tied into each individual person) lends itself to be protected and to be “hidden” from public consumption.
Why cannot it not be perfectly legitimate to be highly sensitive to the desire to keep hidden what is so intimately and personaly yours.  I think that’s perfectly fair.  It could be another thing to impose your/ones sensitivy on others but if one is inclined to keep this hidden, out of respect for the beauty and intimately personal expression of our sexuality I think that person should by all means keep it as hidden as he/she wants.
I think this hits at my issue with Chris West.  I feel that he makes our sexuality a “function of” our humanity, which, in a way depersonalizes it.  I may not be using the correct phrase here (I’m “seeing” a mathematical equation in my head that’s being applied to person’s sexuality)  This is just my impression of his approach.  I’m looking forward to the talk being put online so I can re-listen to both talks and maybe come to a different conclusion.

Katie van Schaijik • Jun 10, 2009 - 10:32 am

Teresa, I agree with you completely about shame.  And I tend to agree that CW’s work could be improved by a deeper appreciation of the essential, deeply personal intimacy of sexuality.
But, on the other hand, he has challenged me to consider whether there is not more risidual puritanism in our culture than I had thought.  It may not be so. 
In any case, I take it as a given that puritanism is bad and that to whatever degree I or anyone else is infected with it, we suffer.  But I think it’s also given that impurity is a much worse, more widespread and more serious moral problem in our society than puritanism. 
The trick is to find a way of ridding ourselves of both.
Thank God we have the Holy Spirit!  Otherwise, I’d give up today.

Matthew Pinto • Jun 16, 2009 - 5:57 pm

Teresa, thanks for your comments. I do very much believe that the more you, and others, familiarize yourself with Christopher’s work, you’ll see that he has an extraordinary “deep appreciation of the essential, deeply personal intimacy of sexuality”. This is why he spends so much time on it. He’s quite literally blown away by what the sexual union is…and means…and foreshadows, etc. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of time with him, because I work closely with him. My reverence for the marital act has reached great heights (compared to what it was…not “objectively speaking”), even if I still have a ways to go, because of his work.

Teresa Fedoryka • Jun 21, 2009 - 9:43 pm

Hi Matt - I actually didn’t say anything about Chris West’s appreciation of the personal intimacy of sexuality.  I only said that I don’t particularly care for his style in approaching the issue, which strikes me as kind of generalizing and dealing with sexuality in a way which actually de-personalizes it.  But that’s the way it struck me and that’s why I’m looking forward to listening to the talk again to see what I take away from it a second time.

Joan Drennen • Jun 8, 2009 - 11:54 pm

Dr. Healy,

1 further point regarding male and female. I think while it is obviously true what you say about CW being male, as a theologian the theology should idealy be balanced between the two.

Scott Johnston • Jun 7, 2009 - 1:48 am

Bill, I would like to offer some thoughts on your Schindler point no. 1, in that this issue of critiquing CW’s understanding of concupiscence is precisely why I asked my question at the Wednesday event.

I hope I can help clarify what Dr. Schindler meant, without presuming to speak for him.

What did he mean by

concupiscence dwells “objectively” in the body, and continues its “objective” presence in the body throughout the course of our infralapsarian existence; and that we should expect holiness to “trump” temptations or disordered tendencies in the area of sexuality exactly as often as we should expect holiness to “trump” the reality of having to undergo death

To make this language more clear, we have to consider for a bit the state of man before the Fall, and, in a corresponding way, what effects the Fall had. The effects of the Fall were several and correspond to several kinds of gifts man possessed before the Fall. Sanctifying grace restores and transforms man with respect to one category of gift lost by the Fall. But, it does not restore all of the types of gifts lost by the Fall. I think this is the background behind what Schindler means in his language about concupiscence dwelling and continuing objectively in the body. We have to do a little metaphysics of the Fall and salvation here. “Integrity” (i.e. freedom from concupiscence) is among the divine gifts that man had before the Fall; it is in the same category of pre-lapsarian divine gifts as freedom from death and suffering. The fact that suffering and bodily death remain even after sanctifying grace is received into the soul shows, likewise, that concupiscence must also remain after sanctifying grace indwells the soul because the presence of concupiscence is a “package deal” along with the presence of the inevitability of physical death. If sanctifying grace were also to remove the punishment of bodily death, then, we could expect concupiscence as well to be removed. But this is not the case, since everyone dies.

Please bear with me, for I hope to be more helpful than obscure and this requires a certain minimum territory to be covered. . .

To expand on what I just said, I would like to offer these additional points which I copy from a longer post on my own blog (for the full post, see


Catholic theology delineates three states or categories of gifts and attributes that mankind originally possessed as first created by God (i.e. man’s condition before sin entered the world). These are three: 1. nature, 2. preternature, and 3. supernature. These roughly can be thought of as 1. the state of created human beings according to all the powers and conditions inherent to their own essence as human beings, apart from any special help from God beyond what He built into human nature itself; 2. human nature with some added assistance from God to “stretch” it beyond what it could do on its own, but in a way that is nicely harmonious with and complementary to its own merely natural powers (preternature completes or perfects nature); 3. human nature plus special help from God enabling it to do things or to exist in ways completely above and unlike what human nature itself could ever attain to in any way by itself.

Here are examples to help clarify:

nature: digestion; sight; movement; language ability

preternature (nature completed): integrity (absence of concupiscence); freedom from suffering; immortality
(effects of losing, see CCC 400)

supernature: sanctifying grace (the life of God present in the human soul making man friends with God and able to live with Him in eternal life); miraculous healing
(effects of losing, see Gn 2:17; Rom 6:23; CCC 399)

With this in mind, here is a quote from the Catechism that talks about the effects of original sin:

  [Original sin] is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin—an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence.” Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle. [CCC 405]

The significant point here in all this, in the context of some confusion over what Christopher West really says and means, is this: concupiscence, not in itself the same as sin, is a result of the loss of the preternatural gifts (see above)—not a result of the loss of supernatural gifts. This loss is a consequence of original sin. Sanctifying grace (regained by Baptism and then strengthened by prayer, the sacraments, and charity) restores the loss of the supernatural gift of God’s life to man’s soul. However, sanctifying grace does not restore the preternatural gifts. Man still suffers. He still dies a physical death. And, he is tempted to sin because of concupiscence.

It is a mistake to think that sanctifying grace—which increases in the soul as a person grows in holiness—removes concupiscence. It does not. It restores that divine life to the soul which makes it possible for the human person to live in heaven. But temptation, in this life, will remain as a trial and a test—just as physical death and suffering remain. Even the most holy saint will still die, still suffer, and still be tempted. His temptation, however, need not lead to sin. Sanctifying grace helps the child of God to better deal with the temptations of concupiscence so that they no longer lead him into sin, though temptations still occur.


So, at the risk of being too lengthy, I hope this helps Dr. Schindler’s language to be more understandable. Just as holiness does not trump (bodily) death, so too does holiness not trump the presence of concupiscence, for these are both in that category which is the consequences of losing the preternatural gifts. Sanctifying grace, while repairing the loss of supernatural gifts, does not restore the loss of those called preternatural (though it does help us greatly in being able to deal with concupiscence, suffering, and death).

Scott Johnston • Jun 7, 2009 - 1:19 pm

I need to make a follow-up here to clearly say what I haven’t said here yet: given Christoper West’s presentation Wednesday evening, including his response to being asked about his thoughts on concupiscence, I do not think there is a problem with CW’s understanding of Church teaching on concupiscence.

And so I do not think any critique of West that would seem to claim that CW holds that grace obliterates concupiscence is on target. I think it is clear CW does not hold this. I apologize for not stating this outright above, which I should have done.

So, as far as concupiscence goes, I think CW is fine. There may be occassions when he is loose with his terms in such a way that he can be mistakenly construed to hold something problematic about concupiscence, and to the degree this may be true he should be more careful about his specific language.

I’m not trying to promote myself but this is directly relevant so I hope you don’t mind my mentioning that I gave a fuller explanation of my reaction to what West said specifically about concupiscence, at

I was supportive of CW on this issue.

Please pardon the repetitiveness of my prior post in response to Bill.

Matthew Pinto • Jun 16, 2009 - 5:59 pm

Thanks for this, Scott. I think many will see this once they actually hear what he says versus relying on hearsay, which I think has dominated much of the discussion in the blogosphere thus far.

Bill Drennen • Jun 10, 2009 - 4:38 pm

thanks Scott, It does help a lot. Maybe our sexuality is one place where this tension between our concupiscence and our liberation and redemption is most easily evident. So easy to err on both sides, too much license or too little freedom.


For the 2nd part of this comment thread click here.

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