The Personalist Project

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).

Comments (59)

Bill Drennen

#1, Jun 5, 2009 9:48am

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.


#2, Jun 5, 2009 10:17am

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

#3, Jun 5, 2009 12:31pm

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

Michael Healy

#4, Jun 5, 2009 2:42pm

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 Healy

#5, Jun 5, 2009 3:27pm

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

#6, Jun 5, 2009 3:43pm

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

#7, Jun 5, 2009 4:08pm

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

#8, Jun 5, 2009 4:09pm

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

#9, Jun 5, 2009 4:16pm

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

#10, Jun 5, 2009 4:28pm

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‚Äôs 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‚Äìnot 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 Healy

#11, Jun 5, 2009 4:37pm

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

#12, Jun 5, 2009 5:43pm

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.


#13, Jun 5, 2009 7:08pm

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.


#14, Jun 5, 2009 7:47pm

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.


#15, Jun 5, 2009 9:34pm

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

#16, Jun 6, 2009 5:05am

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.


#17, Jun 6, 2009 7:06am

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.


#18, Jun 6, 2009 7:51am

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

#19, Jun 6, 2009 7:56am

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

#20, Jun 6, 2009 8:11am

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 http:/

Scott Johnston

#21, Jun 6, 2009 8:17am

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


#22, Jun 6, 2009 8:38am

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

#23, Jun 6, 2009 8:45am

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.



#24, Jun 6, 2009 9:10am

Dr. Healy,

Please allow me to clarify my point from the other night regarding CW’s use of the words prudish and puritanical. Because it was getting late the other night, I didn’t want to be too long-winded in my question.

A difficulty that I’ve had with CW’s approach in talks that I’ve heard is that he often begins with those “buzzwords” and clearly states that most Christians are prudish and puritanical. He’ll say it was because of those traits in the culture that “led” Hefner to start Playboy. He’ll also say that it is because of our prudishness that there is a loin cloth on the crucifix. Europeans are not prudish, he states, that’s why there is a naked Jesus on their crucifixes. (Although I never saw one when I lived there)

So he speaks about our prudishness, but during this 3 day mission at my church, he never clearly defined what was prudish and what would be considered modesty or discretion.  This lack of “setting boundaries” led, in a sense, to a license to use whatever language in the name of the Theology of the Body.  If one objected to how one was talking due to the lack of modesty or discretion, one was labeled as prudish. Follow threads talking about TOB and you’ll see that word used very often.

In this mission I spoke of, in particular, I saw the “fruit” of his talks, of those who now felt they had a license to be more open. After the talks, people were much more “loose” with their language and such. One example I remember is standing outside after the talk and saying to my wife we needed to go home, someone I barely knew said “Oh yeah,I know what you’re going to do” and gave me a nudge. Although I implied nothing of that, it showed how sex seemed to lose its sacredness and was now reduced to the common. CW does talk about the sacredness of sex so I don’t fault him for that but again I felt the root problem is people coming out of his talks not having a clear understanding of what is modesty and discretion and what is prudish. I believe he puts FAR too much emphasis on his “prudish and puritanical” message.

Another example I know of is from my son who went to a young adults group. The talk was always about TOB (from CW’s material) and my son would tell me how unguarded the discussions were. Again, it seemed as if “anything goes” as long as we are talking about TOB. This was far from a deep theological discussion but more of a license to speak about whatever one wanted. My son, of course, was called prudish but to no surprise a young lady was soon pregnant out of wedlock.  Boundaries were needed but they were thrown out in the name of prudishness.

Lastly, regarding my comment about the CW’s use of the quote from Love and Responsibility. I do agree there is a place to use that quote such as at a conference the other night. That conference, however, was clearly about sexuality. This church mission was about TOB and many didn’t know what all that entailed. Sex was really the only topic- starting off with talking about how prudish we are as a whole. There were children in the crowd. Parents brought them to a church mission without knowing sex was to be the only topic, in essence. And that quote was totally unnecessary, in my opinion. Its purpose seemed to be more for shock value and to say “Look, see the Pope is not prudish!” as he (CW) got very animated. So I agree it can be used in a proper context but that wasn’t one of them.

With that said, I did enjoy CW’s talk the other night for the most part. It was a welcome change to how I’ve heard him speak in the past. He was much more clear in his presentation and avoided some of the “shocking” things I’ve heard him say in the past that are unnecessary. I hope he continues to be that way. I also enjoyed your presentation very much.

Katie van Schaijik

#25, Jun 6, 2009 10:40am

Thanks for a very thoughtful post, Tim, which followed an important question the other night that got too little attention because of the lateness of the hour.  I think you’ve nailed THE point of tension between Christopher West and his critics.  I think this whole public blow up will bear a lot of fruit if we can make progress toward each other right here.  I mean, that if we can be patient and bear with each other and hear each other out in dealing with the problem of prudence, we all stand to gain.

UPDATE: I wrote “prudence” but I meant prudishness.

Michael Healy

#26, Jun 6, 2009 11:42am

Dear Tim,
Thanks for your insightful comments and examples.  I agree that we need a better definition of prudishness so as not to imply that all “reservation” about the sexual sphere goes back to this.  So your question was well-placed on Wednesday.
However, open talk in a seminar does not necessarily lead to intrusive comments like the stranger who addressed you and your wife after Chris’ talk.  I think he just showed he had a problem, perhaps revealed on the occasion of Chris’ talk but already there previously, not just because of Chris’ talk.
Further, deeply-reverent students schooled in the Von Hildebrandian approach to love and sex have also managed to have babies out of wedlock.  I don’t think dismissing prudishness, or open talk about sex, is the heart of the problem here.  Would that it were that easy!  Still, as I said above in another reply, we do have to be careful to express ourselves in language and in attitude in such a way as to do justice to the awesome mystery and to the depth and intimacy of the sexual sphere.  Some, and more than just one or two, seem to think Chris could improve here.  May he ponder it in prayer.


#27, Jun 6, 2009 11:53am

I am glad people, like Clay, have been helped by West.  There is no doubt some good that has come from his talks. But I’d like to respond to some comments made from Clay and Dr. Healy.  Clay wrote “As Dr. Smith said most of the people that Mr West is addressing are those who have been wounded deeply by sex.” Maybe there was a specific context to that quote we’re unaware of but I think it’s safe to say there are many who are wounded one way or another.  Dr. Healy wrote in response to my comment “open talk in a seminar does not necessarily lead to intrusive comments like the stranger who addressed you and your wife after Chris‚Äô talk.  I think he just showed he had a problem, perhaps revealed on the occasion of Chris‚Äô talk…”

If in fact, many who attend his seminars or listen to his talks are “wounded”, isn’t it safe to assume open talk without clear and understandable boundaries about what’s prudish and what’s modest will lead to those kinds of comments? I am not denying the “problem” is already there.  It just seems all the more necessary to be careful in what is said and in the avoidance of what is not said.

I remember West saying, referring to JP II’s statement, that what’s wrong with pornography isn’t that it shows too much but that it shows too little.  That’s sort of the problem I’ve seen in West’s delivery in the past. He talks too much about how we are prudish and too little about modesty and discretion. Considering the people he’s talking to he needs to improve in that area.

Michael Healy

#28, Jun 6, 2009 12:25pm

Dear Tim,
I can agree in general with the point you make about our care in how we speak, perhaps especially before a “wounded” group; yet, as Janet Smith and others have said, we still need to meet them where they are if we are to begin to bring them along toward fullness.  This is going to be a fine line to walk and speakers may err on either side of it: too restrained and you may never reach your audience, too free and you may offend.  I’m not sure how to fully resolve such a dilemma on general terms, except to say each speaker has to decide where to draw his line.  You clearly take exception to where Chris’ draws his, others think he’s on the mark.

Other than that, two quick points.  One, speakers cannot always be held responsible for what those in the audience later come out with.  If some crude fellow, after my line from my Von Hildebrand talk on the power of sex as a physical act, turned to his wife later that night and said “let’s do some thrusting,” I would think this totally inadequate, reductionistic, and insulting (depending on whether it was said comically or with a twinkle in his eye, etc.)—but I would not agree to take responsibility on my part for his out-of-context use the word or description, since I was using it precisely to illustrate the mistake and the danger of the physical swamping the spiritual.

Second, I believe the quote about pornography is incomplete.  The full quote is much more clever, illustrative, educational and ironic in its turn of phrase: “The problem with pornography is not that it shows too much ABOUT THE HUMAN PERSON but that it shows too little.”  Why? Because it only shows the man or woman as a sex object and precisely not as a person.  Without that key central phrase, the truncated quote is misleading and invites misinterpretation, unless it is clear in the context of a broader presentation what is meant and the shorter quote is used then for shock value or to make people think through it.  But if you just missed the importance of that phrase and thus left it out as non-essential, that would not be fair to Chris or to JPII.


#29, Jun 6, 2009 12:59pm

Dr. Healy,

“Without that key central phrase, the truncated quote is misleading and invites misinterpretation, unless it is clear in the context of a broader presentation what is meant and the shorter quote is used then for shock value or to make people think through it.  But if you just missed the importance of that phrase and thus left it out as non-essential, that would not be fair to Chris or to JPII.”  I agree the truncated quote is somewhat misleading and invites misinterpretation.  That’s why if one uses it in a seminar, as West did (I never heard the full quote), then one should be sure to give a full, clear explanation. First impressions are lasting so if one uses a truncated version for shock value it rests on the speaker to clear up the probable and expected misunderstandings that would come from that. Wouldn’t you agree? Even the full quote would need adequately explained to a general audience- maybe not to philosophy majors.

On this point of pornography and the use, or misuse, of this quote, I left his talk at my church not understanding why pornography is wrong from his point of view. I already held it as a conviction but he didn’t make it understandable from his presentation. What he said was confusing. I spoke about it with my wife and other friends in attendance and no one was able to explain why it was wrong in light of what he said that night. Hence, again, my problem was his lack of clarity. Was it an “off” night or is it a pattern? I don’t know? But I don’t think the fault was in those of us listening.

Thanks for the opportunity to hear you speak the other night. It is my sincere prayer that Chris listens to the criticisms people have of his content and delivery and then, in turn, becomes even more effective in his presentations. His presentation the other night was much improved from talks I’ve heard before. Ironically, he was the least “racy” I’ve ever heard him considering especially it was a night about sexuality. And lastly, I disagree with his assertion that TOB is JPII’s greatest legacy of his papacy. That would have to go to the Catechism, for sure.  If only more Catholics studied their catechisms…

Katie van Schaijik

#30, Jun 6, 2009 1:23pm

Put me down as someone who thinks John Paul’s personalism, including perhaps especially his theology of the body, but extending well beyond it, was his greatest gift to the Church.

Katie van Schaijik

#31, Jun 6, 2009 1:51pm

Another smallish point, Tim, from someone who has some sympathy with your general concern.
I don’t know whether it’s right and fair to put so much of the burden of communication on the one doing the teaching.  Sometimes a teacher is clear, but from the very newness of his teaching to his hearers, he is misunderstood.

I think hearers—especially of a Catholic presenter who is as highly regarded generally as CW is—have a certain responsibility to assume good faith on his part, and to work to understand him rightly.

The quote you referred to seems to me a good case in point.  While I suppose it’s abstractly open to misunderstanding, to me it seems hard to believe that a Catholic of good will (toward CW) could take it to mean that he advocates for more nakedness.

Michael Healy

#32, Jun 6, 2009 1:56pm

Dear Tim,
I think Katie’s reply here is sufficient.


#33, Jun 6, 2009 8:13pm

Dear Katie,

I don’t see it as an argument about whether or not people assume with good faith. I still see it as a lack of clear teaching on his part which can lead to misunderstandings even to people of good will. Given that the consensus is we are “wounded” in this area by and large, and there is a “newness of his teaching”, it would seem especially important to be very clear on one’s message. How much of it falls on his shoulders we probably disagree on.

As a teacher of the faith, I strive to teach systematically and organically. One must build a foundation and build upon it as well as be aware of one’s audience. It can be tough, no doubt. But his “foundation” from talks I’ve been to is to start with how prudish we are as Christians. And from there he peppers his talk with sexual references, ie the Paschal candle as a phallic symbol or the quote from Love & Responsibility that I still say was completely unnecessary. Its main purpose was to shock (“If the Pope talks like that…”). Again I say,it is fair to assume many will not (and have not) know(n) how to process his information.

It would be better if we just heard this seminar I am speaking of, actually two of them. From there we could base our judgments on something more concrete and less vague. My prayer is that he future talks resemble more of the one the other night.

Katie van Schaijik

#34, Jun 6, 2009 9:48pm

But Tim, suppose CW isn’t about trying to teach the faith systematically?  He’s not, after all, a catechist.  Rather, he’s on a particular mission to spread JP II’s message about sexuality to seriously messed up generation.  If that’s his aim, then being clear will be only one of several concerns.  He’ll also be concerned with being engaging, for instance.  Saying startling things can be a powerful and thoroughly legitimate pedagogical tool.  It’s especially good for shaking people out of complacency. It’s a way of pressing them to realize that their own assumptions may be off; that they have more investigating to do.

If he’s convinced that residual puritanism is a serious problem among Christians, he’ll make a point of showing how it’s out of keeping with the fulness of our faith, with tradition, and with the published words of the Pope. 

Many may not know how to process it, but clearly many do.  Look at what he’s accomplished.

Another point: If the conjugal union is an icon of the Holy Trinity, why should we be disturbed by the thought that the Easter candle might be a phallic symbol?


#35, Jun 7, 2009 2:48am

It seems I am being removed from further notifications so I’ll just say in closing, Katie, that it is true that there are other concerns such as being engaging and shaking people out of complacency. Amen sister! But one can hardly say being clear is only one of several concerns. It seems clear to me it holds a primacy, much like liberty and the pursuit of happiness mean little without first the right to life.

And, by the way, I have seen what he’s accomplished. May the Holy Spirit guide us in our understanding of what is good and true and may we brought to everlasting life.  God bless.

Katie van Schaijik

#36, Jun 7, 2009 8:57am

“Being removed from further notifications?”  I’m confused.  If something has given you the impression that you are anything but very welcome here, Tim, I am sorry.  I greatly appreciate your contributions—especially because they represent the thoughts of many who wouldn’t be able to express them with such clarity and charity.

Bill Drennen

#37, Jun 7, 2009 9:19am

Katie, Here is where my extreme skepticism of evangelical fundamentalism comes in. All too often this type of evangelism creates Christians with roots about as deep as the weeds that spring up in my garden.

I’m frankly not impressed with the numbers of those drawn to all these type of seminars. I’ll wait and see how many lasting marriages result or if the birth rate out of wedlock comes down etc.

My experience is that massive alter calls have little impact on lasting changed lives. Therefore I believe it is important to present the gospel truths in all their completeness accurately right from the start with no shortcuts.


Bill Drennen

#38, Jun 8, 2009 7:54pm

Katie, I think that the phallic symbol idea is ludicrous to be blunt and the connection to the icon of the Trinity is a ridiculous stretch!

Here is a great example of the veiled feminine sexuality that is lacking. This icon of conjugal union is one of extreme holiness and should be treated with a similar respect that the holy of holies is, not meant to be front a center in front of the congregation. Then the privacy becomes distorted into pornography. Certainly there was no intention by using the easter candle to remind the congregation of male arousal. This is not faithful to JPII’s teaching where the man makes of himself a gift to the service of the modesty of the female rather then rejoicing in his own maleness.


Katie van Schaijik

#39, Jun 9, 2009 5:44am

Bill, I’m sorry if I misunderstood your original point about evangelists by reading it too hastily. 
My own sense is this: the evangelist’s task is different from the philosopher’s and theologian’s, but also organically linked to them. He announces the good news; he calls people out of darkness and into light; he tells them where they can find grace and truth. 

If he were to suggest that what he presents is all there is to it, then he’d be wrong.  That’s where many fundamentalists go off, I think.

Katie van Schaijik

#40, Jun 9, 2009 5:59am

Bill, why would a phallic symbol have to be taken as a symbol of male sexual triumphalism?!  Why can it not be seen a sign of creative love and fatherhood?  That’s how I see it.

Don’t forget: a symbol IS a kind of veil.  Nothing pornographic whatsoever in SYMBOLS of human sexuality. That would only be the case if sex were in itself not good.  So I say again that if the conjugal union is worthy to be taken as an image of the Holy Trinity, then why should we object to a phallic symbol as pointing to creative fatherhood?

UPDATE:  Consider for instance, that the innocence of children is entirely protected in the use of such a symbol.

Bill Drennen

#41, Jun 9, 2009 6:02am

Its not good in isolation.

I think when male sexuality is emphasized over female that distortion results. Male is more obvious and female is veiled. If the male is presented alone or not in submission to the female then it is often not in right order. I think if the symbol does not show this proper use and is just by itself then it is already distorted. The central teaching of TOTB is the idea of the gift. Sexuality must always be seen in relationship to show this.

Beyond all this, the analogy to the Trinity of the conjugal union is only a very imperfect image showing only a glimpse of one perspective of the whole truth. The pascal candle is a symbol of a much deeper reality then our human sexuality. It’s all too Freudian to read sex into everything in such a way. This is why I’m skeptical that sex was either the original sin or the ultimate expression of the Trinity.

Katie van Schaijik

#42, Jun 9, 2009 6:11am

Bill, for the record, I personally never thought of the Easter candle as a phallic symbol.  Nor am I attached to the notion.  My claim is only that in view of the Catholic understanding of the conjugal union as an icon of the Holy Trinity, as bound up with God’s plans of love for the world, as fundamentally good and as the awe-inspiring mystery by which new persons come into being, we should find nothing disturbing in the notion of the Easter candle being seen by some as a phallic symbol.  We are not against phallic symbols.
I think you go too far when you say that “the analogy to the Trinity of the conjugal union is only a very imperfect image showing only a glimpse of one perspective of the whole truth.”  Though no human image of the Trinity is complete by itself, JP II (among others) considered it the most perfect earthly icon.  Consider the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs, which saints and mystics throughout ecclesial history have treated as revealing the essence of God’s love; St. Paul refers to marriage as bespeaking Christ’s love for the Church. It is the “locus” of God’s creative power and our procreation in the world. It has been elevated to the level of a sacrament…

Freud was wrong (grossly wrong) in viewing sex as a mere animalic drive.  He was not wrong in discovering its depth and power and centrality in human life.


#43, Jun 9, 2009 6:23am

This has been an extremely interesting conversation that you have all been having the past several days.  I had read the original article by Dr. Healy but not any of the comments.  To add to the comments about the phallic symbol of the Easter candle, that is not a Christopher West construct.  Google it and you will see that it is even mentioned in some books on the liturgy—I don’t know if they are good books or not but they do talk about it.  Also, the Vatican website has an article that mentions the Baptismal font as a womb—is that the feminine that someone thought was missing from the symbol?  I agree with Katie that the symbol doesn’t have to be a negative thing—a phallic symbol can be one of giving life, fertility, as the womb is one of safety, nurturing, receiving life.

Concerning the issue of modesty, I tend to agree with Christopher West about the need for us to all examine why we have issues with certain things being mentioned, etc.  I have been having a conversation with two or three people—I presume they are men—on another blog who have been talking about the need for extreme modesty in dress—dresses below the knee, etc—and in language.  Interestingly they go on to say that the Church says that in marriage if a husband asks for marital intimacy, the wife is obliged to acquiesce except for a few very limited circumstances.  This has to do with the “marriage debt”.  Spacing children and emotional exhaustion are not acceptable reasons.  To me that is using modesty as a cover for some pretty distorted understandings of marriage and sexuality, much as the original Puritans did. 

I understand that people can and do misunderstand TOB when it is presented in somewhat of an earthy way but that is not necessarily because anything wrong is said but that their perception is already skewed and they are reading their skewed understanding into what was said, as Katie indicated earlier.  Also, for those who have been immersed in the world, as so many people are these days, the way in which Christopher talks is extremely restrained!  I hear young women(my nieces and their friends) using the F word all of the time and talking in ways that you would not even imagine if you are an older person as I am.  I truly believe that if one were to talk in too pure or restrained manner to these young people about these issues, they would tune you out since it is so far from their world.  And there is value in saying things that get people’s attention since it causes them to sit up and pay attention when they might have otherwise not heard what you have to say!

I also don’t understand why quoting from Love and Responsibility is a bad thing if it is used as an example to clarify a teaching or to show that the Pope didn’t have a problem with speaking in a certain way.  It would be interesting to know how the Pope spoke with all of the young people in Poland when he was a young priest and bishop.  We might be shocked!

Katie van Schaijik

#44, Jun 9, 2009 5:08pm

Lauretta, thank you for your kind words.  About the marriage debt: Michael Healy and Josef Seifert and I have been discussing this question in a couple of separate posts at the Linde.  (Look for the tag “conjugal rights”.)  I am glad you’ve mentioned these examples of Catholic men defending this de-personalizing misunderstanding of its meaning.  If they are married, I feel sorry for their wives.  If they are priests or teachers, I feel sorry for the couples they influence.


#45, Jun 10, 2009 6:32am

Tim, one quick point: I’m almost certain that quote about pornography comes from JPII himself. West just echoes the point to show that pornography does not reveal enough about the “entire person”, a person’s innate dignity and beauty.


#46, Jun 10, 2009 12:32pm

What an outstanding analysis!

In the spirit of Kierkegaard and West, let me just say that Chris West is Arius! By that I mean, a subtle heretic whose theology looks good on the surface, who makes up little ditties that please the populace but which are really just a means of spreading a false and misleading theology.

He suckers in people who should know better, like the prof who wrote this blog piece, just as Arius suckered in several bishops.

The idea that sodomy or sodomitical practices are acceptable is a purely post-Vatican II construct, created in the same spirit that brought Bernard Haring to say abortion was not really a sin anymore. There is no warrant in tradition to say that sodomy can be defended either as a consummated act or as foreplay. But that doesn’t stop West or his Kierkegaardian sycophant, Healy!

And let’s not forget that Germaine Grisez is, himself, theologically suspect because he explicitly denies a teaching of the Church, i.e., he denies that there exists a hierarchy of goods! So, like modernism, synthesis of all heresies, Chris West’s TOB is a bandwagon that all the theological nutcases seem to be jumping on!

Than you, Kierkegaard!

And thank you, Dr. Healy, for providing a wonderful philosophical support for all of us who really dislike West’s distortion of John Paul II and the teachings of the Catholic Church! Again, an OUTSTANDING essay!

Katie van Schaijik

#47, Jun 10, 2009 12:38pm

Steve, this forum is for civil discourse not rude ranting.  If you have an argument, make it.  If you just want to rage and abuse others, take it somewhere else.

Michael Healy

#48, Jun 10, 2009 12:57pm

Dear Steve,
Thanks for the sarcasm, but I’m afraid you are displaying your own ignorance.  Are Janet Smith and Michael Waldstein also to be lumped with Grisez, West, and myself as suckering, deceiving heretics?  Janet Smith mentions the same facts that I do about incomplete anal-genital contacts (while noting that both she and West find such acts completely unappealing, not to be recommended, and rather to be cautioned against, as do I); she also mentions that West’s books have received the Nihil Obstat after being reviewed by no less that Bill May.  Is he also a heretic?  If so, then we are rapidly running out of good theologians.

Concerning the object of your ire here, it is certainly true that any orgasm, or even unjustifiable risk of orgasm, outside normal intercourse would be a grave sin against chastity.  Everyone mentioned above fully agrees with this, so it is hardly parallel to denying the sin of abortion.

Concerning such contacts as incomplete, preparatory acts, let me quote extensively from Frs. Ford and Kelly (both impeccably orthodox and writing in the late 50’s and early 60’s for seminarians, again with nihil obstat and imprimatur from Patrick O’Boyle, Archbishop of Washington, at a time when there was certainly no “fudging” in the granting of an imprimatur):

“Practices such as these are repugnant and shocking to a great many people, and intolerable to some, but their morality cannot be decided on the basis of emotional reactions which, though normal, are apparently not universal. People differ very widely in their estimates of what is shameful or disgusting in sexual matters, these differences being the result of differing cultural backgrounds, family attitudes, sexual education, natural temperament, and other factors.”  They go on to say that while no one should ever “speak as though there were no objections to these practices from the viewpoint of the Christian law,” neither is it justified to make “any universal a priori judgment as to sinful or inordinate hedonism” here, though these are the dangers. Further, of course, it would always be a grave sin against charity and justice to try to force such acts on an unwilling partner; they are not part of the marital debitum.  It seems to me that all the authors mentioned above, including West, fit solidly within these guidelines. 

Now this is not to deny that in the past even such incomplete acts have been condemned as intrinsically wrong by some theologians—and if you think so too, you also have support within the Catholic tradition.  But this is a question which has not been finally decided and closed—compared to the question of artificial contraception for instance.  And as Ford and Kelly say (before Vatican II, before the massive rejection of Church teaching on sexuality), “most theologians today” would not describe them as always intrinsically wrong, but simply as dangerous and to be cautioned about.  This is a fine distinction, but one that theologians have to make.  However, as Janet Smith says, we really should not take up any more space about such topics in connection with Chris West, as such things are completely tangential to his message and his work.  Yet if he is accused of betraying the Catholic teaching here, he has to be defended, despite the fact that I too, like Janet, would prefer not to mention the topic. (Quotes from Ford and Kelly are from Contemporary Moral Theology, Vol. II, Marriage Questions, Ch. 11, Special Problems of Conjugal Intimacy, pp. 228-230).

Katie van Schaijik

#49, Jun 10, 2009 10:07pm

Dr. Healy, I agree entirely that it is unjust to accuse CW (or anyone else) of heresy for expressing an opinion on a matter that has not been settled finally by the Church.
But I wonder whether you would agree with me in doubting that the morality of a practice like anal foreplay should not be thought of as hinging on whether or not a given couple finds it “appealing”.  Shouldn’t the question rather be whether or not it is fully consistent with the dignity of persons and the nature of human sexuality?

Michael Healy

#50, Jun 10, 2009 11:45pm

Dear Katie,
Yes, “appealing” or being open to such things is not sufficient, I just meant it was a priori necessary given that it would be forbidden to try to force one’s spouse into such acts.

Ford and Kelly indicate three guidelines for limitation here: conjugal justice and charity, conjugal chastity, and Christian self-restraint.  Then they mention the difficulty in making universal judgments here and say that “the partners themselves are the most competent judges of these reasons [I would add, assuming informed consciences], pertaining as they do to such an intimate area of their conjugal relationship.”

Katie van Schaijik

#51, Jun 16, 2009 1:57pm

I think I’m not satisfied with Ford and Kelly here.  I wonder whether such an approach isn’t too objectivistic‚Äîlacking exactly the kind of personalist perspective that was central to Wojtyla/JP II’s contributions to the Church.

Scott Johnston

#52, Jun 16, 2009 1:59pm


Your lack of respect for others speaks for itself. You seem to have an agenda that is apart from participating in a sincere and open discussion.

Because of your disrespectful tone, I don’t consider your remarks to be worthy of comment. But I will mention one thing. I attended the talk Wednesday and also had the pleasure of joining Dr. Healy and a few others for a glass of wine after things wound down. I also am familiar with Dr. Healy as a teacher because I was a student in his classes at Franciscan University back around 2000 or so. I can say very resolutely, based on direct personal experience, that Dr. Healy, while impressed with CW, certainly was nowhere near swooning. Your suggestion of this above is patently ridiculous, and highly unworthy of any Christian. You owe an apology.

Scott Johnston

#53, Jun 16, 2009 2:03pm

Thank you, Dr. Healy, for your additional thoughts on Wednesday evening.

If it is possible, I am sympathetic with most all the comments here, with the exception of Steve.

Regarding Tim’s concerns, I think he has a valid point, but I also I agree with Dr. Healy that problematic responses to West’s ideas are not necessarily fairly laid upon his shoulders (at least not in all cases). I know that priests’ homilies can be taken in some very odd ways that were not intended by the preacher, nor that were perceived by most of the other hearers.  To undertake any sort of public preaching ministry is to tread on dangerous ground, and this is only heightened when the topic is so inherently sensitive. West is certainly to be praised for his courage in this regard. That being said, perhaps it is advisable that he reevaluate whether what he is willing to say in public does not at times fall a little too far on the side of immodesty.

The aspect that would be my concern here, is I’m not sure if West’s response to Tim’s question about what entails prudishness was adequate. Yes, and as Dr. Healy agreed, a person can be too sensitive to discussion of sexual topics even when the context is appropriate for such. But, I don’t think this is all that is involved. Even when the context is appropriate for some explicit language, this does not mean that any and all reticence to hearing such is rooted in prudishness. I wonder if West is not too hasty to dismiss Tim’s (or others with similar concerns) sensitivity. One can have a healthy sense of proper decorum, modesty, and of the propriety of allowing some things to remain shrouded in mystery, without being at the same time, overly prudish.

Perhaps the bottom line here is that this topic is one of those areas that in our fallen world, we cannot draw clear boundaries that are exactly on the mark and that would work well in all situations. We struggle to achieve what is noble and dignified, while also being as engaging and as fruitful as possible. It is important I think to acknowledge that constant prayerful discernment and openness to correction should always attain.

I think Katie’s slip of terms above was not inapplicable. This is an area where the virtue of prudence is very much to the fore. There are principles that should always be abided. But, how one applies them in a particular context is indeed a matter of prudence. And, for an adequate analysis, not only are the circumstances and the specific matter of what is said (and how) relevant, but the interior motivation of the speaker (and of the hearers) as well. Why is something being said? Is it truly necessary to achieve the desired effect? What is the reason for any negative reactions? Are these based on a healthy insight into the sublimity and intimacy of the sexual sphere? Are they tainted by a wounded past? Both?

Katie van Schaijik

#54, Jun 20, 2009 11:22am

I have deleted “Steve’s” posts and blocked his email from further comment.  As I said above, this forum is for civil, truth-and-good-oriented discourse, not for venting rage and heaping abuse.


#55, Jun 20, 2009 3:03pm

This piece seems to confirm some of the criticims leveled at West and others: That it is ultimately the person who objects to what they have perceived as irreverant, innappropriate references, who need to question themselves, and whether they have an allegedly puritanical view.  As Schindler has noted, this is a pattern that those who question West encounter.  I think this is a sign that something is askew- when someone seems to think that thier ministry is infallible, and cannot be questioned, which some at least accuse West of.  This also seems to be a general counter move to address the criticisms, rather than addressing and refuting the substance of them. 
We must be very careful about realizing that the bar has been so lowered today, that what may appear as appropriate for today, may not be objectively so; and the reason things may have been considered innappropriate some years ago, and still today, is not because of a puritanical view. 

As a breif comment in regard to Smith, she appears to contradict herself in her two pieces.  She questions whether the examples cited by Schindler are accurate, but then takes pains to defend a couple of them, thereby inferring that they are legitimate.  In the second piece she clearly seems to admit that at least some of them are accurate, and again defends them.(She is certainly correct about the Easter candle example.)  In this second piece, she also claims they are unsubstanitiated, then infers they were taken out of context.  The latter would seem to be a case of either/or; if they are out of context, then this infers they are generally substantiated. 

I also think it worth noting that most of the defenders of West so far have a vested interest in doing so, if even financially; e.g. they do talks with West, publish his books.

Katie van Schaijik

#56, Jun 21, 2009 1:11pm

David, if it is true that CW thinks his ministry is infallible and cannot be questioned, then of course you are right.  But I doubt he thinks that.
I agree with you (see my post on The Problem of Projection) that it would be wrong to assume that ALL criticism of CW’s explicitness must come from prudishness.  But, like Janet Smith and Mike Healy and others, I begin to think that most of us may be more infected with it than we realize.  And if that’s the case, then CW must come up against it all the time.  It wouldn’t be surprising if he were extremely sensitive to it. 
I don’t agree with you about Janet Smith.  She was challenging Schindler’s unacademic way of proceeding, not every point of his critique.  She argues that CW’s work deserves a fuller and fairer treatment than Schindler gave it. 
Your last line seems to me a kind of slur.  No one that I know of who has defended CW here, with the exception of Matt Pinto, has any “vested interest” in doing so.  Is it right to make such a charge without any substantiation?


#57, Jun 21, 2009 5:43pm

Katie, I agree very much with what you said.  I was one of those people who needed that very direct challenge from CW.  Almost all of the serious Catholics to whom we have presented TOB also found that they had this misunderstanding.  I am thinking that is why CW keeps proposing this to people as well.  Even if this doesn’t apply to a few, I believe it does the majority of people.  And, it never hurts all of us to do a little examination once in awhile to make sure that these prevalent cultural attitudes don’t creep into our thinking patterns!


#58, Jun 22, 2009 10:37am

When someone overanalyzes a crude comment like that as having deeper meanings, it’s the same as rationalizing the indefensible.

We all like West and his work, but let’s not assume that he’s always right or that he has no room for improvement.  In particular, crass language and non-sequiturs like in the reference to Hefner.

Is it really too hard to admit that he screwed up?  Aren’t we adults who can support without blind loyalty?

Katie van Schaijik

#59, Jun 22, 2009 10:47am

Augustine, what are you referring to as a “crude comment”? 
I, for one, do not assume CW is always right.  I agree that the Hugh Hefner reference was severely problematic.  Count me among those who think that HH is much further from the truth about human sexuality than the worst of prudes.  I don’t think his “work” should be treated as progress in any sense.
About the “crass language”, though, there seems to be real debate.

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