Yesterday a friend sent me Fr. Angelo Geiger’s latest guest post at the Dawn Patrol on the controversy surrounding Christopher West. I have less sympathy with it than I did with his first piece. I think he is unfair to West and his defenders.
For instance, in his first paragraph he identifies part of the debate as being over whether CW’s approach is “out of step with Catholic tradition.” I find this an unhelpfully ambiguous phrase. It seems clearly meant to indicate unsoundness. But there are ways of being “out of step” with the tradition that are thoroughly legitimate. Wasn’t Joan of Arc’s taking on the role of a soldier rather out of keeping with tradition? Couldn’t Dietrich von Hildebrand’s emphasis on love as the meaning of marriage be seen as in some sense novel? Doesn’t Mass in the vernacular represent a certain break with the past? Don’t many people dismiss the charismatic renewal as a whole on the grounds that it is unlike what we are used to in the Church?
In other words, to show that a person’s methodology or “line of thought” is heterodox and “dangerous” (as David Schindler implied of CW’s), it is not enough to show that it is new or unusual or “out of step” with the tradition; you have to show (it seems to me) that it is incompatible with the tradition. I don’t think either Schindler or Fr. Geiger comes close to doing that.
Even if we grant that the Easter candle is primarily meant to symbolize the light of Christ; even if we acknowledge that its form follows its function, why should that preclude the possibility that it may have other connotations as well? If the conjugal union is an icon of the Holy Trinity and the source of new life in the world, why should we be startled or offended by the idea of phallic symbols? Why should we see them as in themselves vulgar or prurient? Does noticing a phallic aspect in a thing mean we are dirty-minded? Is sex something dirty? I think anyone who thinks so DOES (sorry) betray an element of prudishness.
Then there is Fr. Geiger’s strange treatment of Janet Smith. He “rolled his eyes” as she “confessed” to her prudery and says that “she tells us we should all be ashamed if we don’t like the idea of the Easter candle being a phallic symbol.” Where does she tell us anything of the kind? Why must he twist and belittle her remarks? What is wrong in her saying that she has felt challenged by this discussion to consider whether her own reaction might not be somewhat prudish?
Then, I dislike intensely his derisive-sounding use of the term “copulation” in reference to liturgical symbolism. Here I am with Damian Fedoryka. Among persons there is no morally indifferent physical act. There is only either the marital embrace or sexual sin. Hence the dousing of the Easter candle in the holy water font, if it has sexual connotations, would be a symbol of self-giving, procreative spousal love, not “copulation.” Copulating is for animals.
Finally, Fr. Geiger seems to take it for granted it that his own reaction against the idea of sexual imagery intertwined with liturgy and prayers is the normal, natural and right one for all Catholics. But I’d like to know how he can be sure of that. Is it not at least possible that CW is right that we are all much more under the influence of prudishness than we realize; that we are missing a depth dimension in a lot of liturgical symbolism because of it; that we are lacking altogether an adequate appreciation of the centrality and greatness of human sexuality in God’s plan of salvation for the world? Or, if you think that goes too far, what about this: Isn’t it possible that some people are just much more sexually charged and alert than others, so that they notice “signs and symbols” that others miss? And if so, isn’t it great that they find those signs and symbols in their religious life, and not separated from it?