The Personalist Project

Comments (18)


#1, Jun 21, 2009 8:48pm

Jules, when I googled the idea of the phallic symbolism, one of the sites that came up was for the Word and Worship Workbook by Mary Birmingham.  I think it was mentioned for all three years in the liturgical cycle, but the one I wrote down was for Year C.  The reference is on page 233.  I will continue to look, but that is the first one that looked somewhat legitimate that I found.  Hope it helps.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Jun 22, 2009 2:42am

Thanks Lauretta.  I found it.  In her introduction to the Easter vigil Mary Birmingham (I assume) writes:

“Huddled around ancient fires, our ancestors told their stories and enacted the rituals that formed them into a holy nation, a consecrated assembly, a people set apart.  We, too, gather this night around similar sacred flames to remember our origins, to tell out story, and to ‘do’ the business of making church.  The ancient phallic symbol of Easter candle is plunged into the embryonic waters of font.  Tonight, the church gives birth.  As she labors in love, Mother Church sings her pangs of joy as neophytes are born and hearts are reborn”

Two points about this passage:
1) These are Birmingham’s words and reflections.  What I would like to know is if there are any sources in the tradition that back up her interpretation.  Are there any saints that talk this way?  Any Fathers or Doctors of the Church?
2) It seems theologically questionable on other grounds.  E.g. can we be said to ‘do’ the business of making church?  (But I am out of my depth here, so will say no more.)


#3, Jun 22, 2009 6:59am

I know, Jules, about the question of orthodoxy concerning this source, and I tend to shy away from it myself.  However, I was using it just to show that it was not something that CW invented.  I was browsing the Web and on Dawn Eden’s blog, someone named Geoffrey Miller was commenting on this issue.  He is a Maronite Catholic, I think, and had some rather interesting things to say.  He is somewhat sarcastic, so beware, but brought up some things about Eastern Catholic spirituality that were rather intriguing and it may be from that Tradition that a reference of this sort about the Easter candle might be found.  He was stating that in his Church tradition, they refer to the Cross as a bed on which the marriage between God and the Church is consummated.  He also says that JPII stole his TOB ideas from the Eastern church and they already have an understanding of this way of thinking and it is visible in their liturgy.

The priest who was writing an article for Dawn’s website brought up some interesting things as well, talking about the Baptismal font being a womb and the water becoming impregnated.  He went on to discount the phallic imagery of the Easter candle because the conception of Christ was virginal.  However, if we are using symbols to impart an idea, how would you symbolically represent that virginal impregnation by the Holy Spirit?

It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to me, if the font is a womb, that which receives and nurtures life, that the candle, the light of Christ, could be phallic, in that it gives life.  Might we be taking these symbols too literally and losing the deeper meaning?


#4, Jun 22, 2009 7:56am


I did not say, nor did I refer to any sources that say that the baptismal water is “impregnated.”  The water is made fruitful for regeneration, that is, rebirth by way of the death and resurrection of Christ, symbolized by a washing in the life-giving waters of His grace.  This is done after the manner of Our Lord’s conception and resurrection, that is, virginally.

Please read the liturgical prayers and patristic description of the womb imagery of the font in my essay.  The references are virginal not coital.  Furthermore, the conception of Our Lord is not an impregnation precisely because there is no insemination.  I make fairly clear why the Church uses the language it does, and avoids that which it does not.  And again, no one has found any explicit patristic basis for the candle/font union being seen as coital.


#5, Jun 22, 2009 10:12am

Father, I’m sorry that I misquoted you!  I must have combined what I had been reading from other sources with your post as well.  I did a little more research and discovered that others such as Karl Rahner and A.G. Martimort do use the term impregnated in relation to the baptismal water and Mark Shea uses the term impregnated concerning Christ’s conception.

A question that came to me was whether the phallic symbol necessarily denotes the act being coital if the symbol of womb does not automatically denote the same.


#6, Jun 22, 2009 10:40am


Thanks for the reply.

But IMO there is no phallic symbology here anymore than there is genital symbology in the font.  Womb here refers to birth, not the conjugal act.  A woman gives birth without the help of the father.


#7, Jun 22, 2009 1:25pm

I agree very much that this is not referring to the conjugal act in the literal sense.  I understand womb to be symbolic for that which receives life, nurtures life, bears forth life; impregnate to mean to make fruitful; and phallic to be symbolic for that which generates life.  This is all physical imagery(I hope that is the right word) for a spiritual reality.  When I hear of something being a phallic symbol, my first thought is not of the conjugal act but of the power to generate life.  The waters of baptism are made fruitful by God to regenerate us, by a new birth, into the life of Christ.

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Jun 22, 2009 6:45pm

I’m with you, Lauretta.  For me, phallic symbol bespeaks fatherhood, creativity, life-giving power.  Womb bespeaks interiority, nurturing, brooding-over-mystery.


#9, Jun 23, 2009 4:47am


I am not sure how you separate the conjugal act and the power to generate life when discussing the symbolism of genitals, especially when the context is a consideration of the physical gesture-simulation of the act.

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Jun 23, 2009 5:49am

Not being a patristics scholar or a liturgist or theologian, I cannot speak to the tradition.  No doubt I have much to learn in this area as in others.  But as someone profoundly formed by and devoted to JP II’s thought, I feel a certain resistance to the stress on virginal vs. coital—almost as if there is something impure and anti-spiritual in the conjugal embrace.
I am thinking, for instance, of his saying, “Love is the unification of persons.”
I wish I had the terms and background and mental clarity to express what I’m trying to express!


#11, Jun 23, 2009 7:09am

I feel intimidated to respond at times since I am so uneducated in all of the areas you mention, Katie, but I found a footnote yesterday from TOB when JPII was discussing the Song of Songs that I thought might express what you are saying.  This is by L. Alonso-Schokel:
“Some readers of the Song of Songs have jumped immediately to reading a disincarnate love into its words.  They have forgotten the lovers or have petrified them into pretence, into an intellectual key,...they have multiplied the most minute allegorical correspondences in every sentence, word, or image…This is not the right way.  He who does not believe in the human love of the spouses, he who must ask forgiveness for the body, does not have the right to rise higher…With the affirmation of human love, by contrast, it is possible to discover the revelation of God in it.”

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Jun 23, 2009 7:37am

Yes, that touches on my point, Lauretta.  It seems to me that part of the development of TOB was precisely to show how highly the Church regards the spousal union—how closely linked it is both literally and metaphorically to God’s plan of salvation for the world—how thoroughly integrated it is with religious mystery…

If a person becomes aware of that, and experiences the grace and transforming power of it in her own life, is it strange or perverse if she begins to perceive associations with it in many of the Church’s prayers and rites?  Would that be pansexualism?


#13, Jun 23, 2009 8:39am

Exactly, Katie!  I would enjoy so much talking with someone from the Eastern Catholic or Orthodox traditions because I really think they may have more of a sense of this than we Latin Catholics do.  It takes a major re-ordering of one’s thinking to begin to see this but it is so freeing once you do.  I think there is so much we can miss that the Church is trying to tell us through signs and rituals if we tend to assign a negative value to sexuality.

It seems that we are being prepared through marriage and its intimacy for that which we will experience in heaven, the intimacy of which we can scarcely imagine now.  If we don’t learn to see the beauty of that intimate encounter here, what a shock it will be when we die!


#14, Aug 20, 2009 8:20pm

I can hardly believe some of what I am reading here….

First of all, this is my very 1st post on The Linde, so please be kind to my Personhood by not coming down on me like a ton of bricks if you disagree.  ;-)

My comments:

1) I can’t comprehend how looking at the Liturgical traditions of the Eastern Catholic or Orthodox traditions is really pertinent for those of us from the Latin Rite tradition. 

For CW’s “coital” symbolism assertions to have legitimate merit from our Latin Rite tradition (I’m assuming that the vast majority of us are Roman Catholic), I would consider it necessary for him and others supporting him to find this kind of symbolism explicitly and historically derived (e.g. prior to Vatican II) from the writings of “official” Latin Rite theologians/liturgists, and not by “borrowing” it from those of the Eastern traditions.

2) I also see the St. Joan of Arc reference in Katie’s June 20th post wrt “expanding tradition” to be another non-sequitur.  Sorry, Katie.  Why?  Because we are talking about Liturgical tradition specifically here, and not about Catholic tradition in general.

3) I’m nothing more than an “amateur” philosopher (having read only several of the great Dr. DvH’s books - and being a HUGE fan of his nonetheless).  However, the insistence and pompousness exhibited by CW and others who support him in his challenging others in public of their “prudishness” in the sexual realm seems utterly unbelievable - who of you, deep down in your heart of hearts, TRULY believes that Dr. DvH would support CW’s “prudishness” challenges towards others?  Do you think that he would even DREAM of subjecting someone to that kind of public challenge and humiliation?  I cannot….

CW is completely off his rocker, IMHO, to challenge ANYONE in public with that “prudish” tag/label/challenge, if for no other reason than it is in-and-of-itself demeaning to the Personhood of the individuals he confronts in that public venue.  In essence, he is “dressing them down” in public.  How utterly horrible!!!

4) Taking CW’s “prudishness” mantra to its ultimate extent (as Fr. Angelo Geiger in his commentary has done) - would CW advocate that we start stripping the images of Our Lord on the Crucifix of His loin covering, so that we finally “get over our prudishness”?  PUHLEEEZE!

IMHO, CW has come dangerously close to completely losing his bearings with the metaphysical reality of humanity and our Catholic tradition - he either does not realize (or else horrifically under-emphasizes) that ALL human Persons are FALLEN creatures; unlike the realities in the Garden of Eden, the sexual sphere since then has ALWAYS been taught by the Catholic Church to be one which SHOULD be reserved to private moments between spouses, and in Truth MUST ALWAYS be governed in public with proper modesty, respect, and reverence - and the traditions of the Catholic Church have ALWAYS treated it in this fashion.  Keep in mind also that Dr. DvH was VEHEMENTLY opposed to sex education outside of the home (see The Devastated Vineyard - Ch. 4 - “The Great Illusion” - page 27).  Theology of the Body taught at home - certainly YES; taught in a public forum - NO WAY! 

I think I can also safely say that Dr. DvH would champion, as his wife Dr. Alice von Hildebrand has already done, that the sexual sphere is one which should ALWAYS be treated with the utmost reverence, and with the most incredible modesty/chastity/purity.  I would suspect that many honorable champions of Personalism are utterly ABHORRED (as I am) at how CW has in several critical respects essentially derailed (or perhaps even hijacked) this incredibly beautiful philosophy, especially as it relates to the incredible delicateness, preciousness, and beauty of the gift the Marital Embrace. 

This is what those of us whom CW deems “prudish” are most offended by - although the ridiculousness of his apparent elevation of the human sexual sphere to being even above that of the human mind & will comes in a VERY, VERY close second.

I hope that there is further commentary.  Sorry that I “jumped on” this blog topic so late….

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B


#15, Aug 21, 2009 11:48am

I also wanted to post something directly quoting the view that Dr. DvH had on “prudishness.” 

These quotes are taken from pages 28-29 (Chapter 4 - The Great Illusion) of his classic “The Devastated Vineyard” - note that the bolded texts below are my own emphases.

Pg. 28:

“... We should experience shame when someone praises our virtue and brings it out into the open, or when we ourselves make public things which are by their very nature intimate.  All kinds of being ashamed are deeply human, classical attitudes, especially the shame which encourages us to keep intimate things out of the public eye.

It is a stupid mistake to interpret this latter kind of shame, which is especially related to the sexual sphere, as prudery, as contempt of this sphere, as a sign that one views it as tabu.”

Pg. 29:

“True and noble shame towards the sexual sphere, with which even the pagans were acquainted (just think of the gestures of the hands of many of the Venus figures, which covered the breasts and the pubic region), is a classical human characteristic, an adequate response to the mysterious intimacy of this sphere.”


Hopefully, these remarks by Dr. DvH himself will finally convince Christopher West and his supporters that they need to refrain from their “prudishness” assertions and confrontations. 

These remarks also show that we (TOB advocates who strongly feel that more reverence and modesty is needed in its promotion) have very strong advocates in both Drs. DvH and AvH for our “prudish” position.

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B


#16, Aug 22, 2009 11:44am

Hi Steve,

I presume that since I was the one mentioning the Eastern church, the coital symbolism, etc. you would like a response to your comments from me.  First of all, I am a lay person with no formal education in these areas so my knowledge is definitely not complete and profound in these areas.  I will, however, respond from the meager deposit of knowledge which I have.  Anyone else who has more knowledge, please correct any errors I may present because of my ignorance!

First, concerning the Eastern churches.  Pope John Paul II told us, I believe, that both Churches, the East and the West, are impoverished because they need the wisdom and insight that the other Church has to offer them.  He wanted us to delve into the traditions, etc. of the other Church and use the gifts they have to give us.  It seems that the Eastern churches tend to be more contemplative in nature and the Western or Latin church tends to be more active as a whole.  Both are good and necessary but incomplete if out of balance.  We do have Fathers and Doctors of the Church from the Eastern tradition and certainly should not ignore the wisdom they bring to us.  After all, the first Christians would now all be considered coming from the Eastern church culture.

Second, I don’t know for sure where CW got the coital symbolism but I do know that he is not the first one to present the idea.  I still have a difficult time understanding why it is appropriate to use the female sexual anatomy in symbolism for liturgical matters but not the male anatomy.  The Vatican website has a reference to the Baptismal font as a womb.

As far as CW challenging others about the possibility of prudishness or negativity toward sexuality in a public manner, I have been interested in the responses to this challenge—why all of the emotion?  Is that not the job of a good teacher to challenge us at times about our preconceived opinions and positions to purify and deepen our understanding of something?  Plus I believe that these people first challenged CW in public about his teaching methods which then would naturally have to elicit a public response.
I know that when I heard that challenge in CW’s talks on video, I took the time to do an examination of conscience and found out that I did have many wrong attitudes that did not conform to the Catholic truth.

I believe that Dr. Healy (I believe it was he) had a very insightful explanation as to why CW may teach the way that he does—being explicit and somewhat aggressive.  It works!  It makes people think about their attitudes toward sexuality and examine whether or not they are healthy and truly Catholic.

My husband and I have presented CW’s videos to numerous people but not nearly as many as CW himself—obviously!  In our experience, almost all of those who complained the loudest about CW’s methods were those who were struggling with sexual issues—pornography, masturbation, lack of mastery of self which devolves into using their wives as objects to satiate their disordered desires.

As far as nudity is concerned—that of Christ and people in general, I just read a quote from JPII that states that nudity is not immoral unless its intent is to incite lust and disordered desires in others.  A woman posing for art students is not immoral when she is naked if all in the room are there to help each other to learn to be artists.

A naked Christ on the Cross is part of Church tradition.  St. Cyril of Jerusalem—I think—mentioned it as well as others.  Pope John Paul talked about it in his book, Sign of Contradiction.

It seems to me that much of what people complain about when CW teaches is more about what Pope John Paul was saying than CW.  Read Love and Responsibility and TOB and see how explicit the Pope himself talks and then think about how intimate the conversations must have been that he had with lay people to have those insights into marital sexuality.  I have not heard CW say anything more explicit than what the Pope has said.  CW may use more colloquial terms but he is no more explicit.

Modesty is not going to fix our sexual disorders.  The Muslims are very modest but can be very perverse sexually as well as those from the Victorian era.  Modesty is a very subjective, cultural thing as well. A European from the Victorian era would have a much different definition of modesty than someone from an African tribe, don’t you think?

I don’t believe that TOB should be taught in a more modest and reverent manner if this is being used as a cover to not deal with our own disordered desires.  I have seen numerous people do this—including myself—so I have some scepticism as to the motive for this idea.  The audience needs to be discerned, I believe, to determine the manner in which we present the material.  Children need to be spoken to in a very modest and reverent manner about these issues for sure but those who are going to classes or conferences to specifically learn about this subject should be prepared to hear some rather explicit explanations about things.  If you are going to be offended, don’t go to the teaching!  That would be like people wanting to learn how to help those with drug addictions not wanting to hear about the specifics of the problem and the effects of lives.  How can you help if you don’t know the world they live in?


#17, Aug 22, 2009 7:02pm


I wish to respond in a spirit of generosity and good will . . . and frankness.  I have to strongly disagree with you.  I do appreciate the exigencies of contemporary society and the need for apologists to be free to formulate arguments that work and that address the real situation on the ground; however, the very nature of such exigencies create a tension because in our effort to evangelize we may be tempted to tailor the message more to the exigencies than to divine revelation.  In any case, I repeat once again that I do not question the good will or honesty of anyone, but I must say that I believe the arguments I have presented and continue to present, and which have remained largely unanswered, call into serious question many of the aspects of West’s approach.

First of all, regarding the “coital symbolism” of the paschal candle and holy water font, I must remind everyone that that the original purpose of this particular post was to establish whether or not there is a basis for it in Church tradition.  In fact, I have been discussing this issue since mid June and still no one has provided any solid evidence in favor of it.  I have argued the question extensively (see my compendium of TOB posts) and no one has countered with patristic or magisterial evidence.  I have acknowledged patristic the references to the baptismal font as a womb, but no one has explained how this becomes a reference to the sexual act, and certainly no one has found anything explicit in Church tradition to show that anyone in the early Church or thereafter believed that the liturgical act in question had coital significance..  I have noted before the methodological habit of trying to make isolated references to fathers, saints and doctors do more work than they were ever intended to do. 

In reference to the notion that the font is a womb, we must note that Baptism is sacramental rebirth.  So why are we to think of sexual organs and intercourse here, any more than when we say the words “Blessed is the fruit of Your womb?”  I can’t imagine that anyone would argue that a reference to Our Lady’s womb in the context of the virgin birth has coital significance.

The fact is that there is simply no patristic or magisterial testimony to the existence of a simulated sex act within the liturgy.  It simply does not exist and no matter how often vague references are made to “others” who have said there is, even if it comes from sources whose authority is, for whatever reason, above question, that does not make it a Catholic interpretation of the liturgy based on patristic evidence.  I would beg that if anyone is convinced to the contrary that they provide real evidence and not simply dismiss the compelling evidence I have made available.

Secondly, I am not sure that the responses to West’s challenges to prudishness have been emotional.  Rather, I would say that they have been tenacious.  In other words, those who believe West to be misguided on the point are intellectually convinced and find the response “Well, you only think that way because you are not comfortable with your sexuality,” a bit wearying because it is a circular argument without substance.  What has been criticized in this regard is not West’s defense of his methodology, but the fact that for years he has countered any critique of his explicitness with a questioning of his interlocutor’s interior life.  It is one thing to critique what a person says in a public lecture; it is another to examine someone else’s conscience in public.  It is also a non sequitur, and that is the reason why many vehemently oppose it.

In reference to the type of people who have a hard time with West’s methods, the assertion that most of them have struggles with sexual issues assumes that what they propose as an intellectual argument is just a front for another problem.  In all charity, this is why you may perceive response from those who object to be emotional.  It is because their arguments are not being taken seriously.

If I am not mistaken, this method of presenting TOB is based on the assumption that many, if not most people, are struggling with “pornography, masturbation,” or a “lack of mastery of self which devolves into using their wives as objects to satiate their disordered desires.”  Thus, that most of those who objected to West’s methods have problems like these does not suggest that they object to West’s methods because they have such problems.

About “nakedness on the Cross”:  what is in question is not whether Christ was naked on the Cross, but whether such nakedness is a revelation which ought to be looked upon, if possible, or whether, in fact, the stripping of Christ naked was a shameful deed and a humiliation.  There is no question of its typological significance in reference to Adam and the garden, but there is a question of whether we should in any sense or context take it upon ourselves to strip Our Lord of the loin cloth in view of some presumed mandate to look upon his nakedness.  I submit that there is simply no basis or mandate for this whatsoever.  I have never seen patristic or magisterial authority argue for this.  Again real sources are what are necessary to establish this.  None have been given.

If, in fact, those who have these objections, are more misaligned from Pope John Paul II than they are from Christopher West, then I would like to know where in the pope’s writings the things that we object to are explicitly stated, especially since you assert that the pope is as explicit as West.  The pope simply does say the things that we object to in West‘s work.  It is not simply a matter of colloquialisms. 

Furthermore, it is not simply a matter of explicitness.  I don’t know that most of those who would agree with me would argue against explicitness in every instance, especially when there are real concrete questions that need to be addressed. 

I have thought long and hard about all this.  There is a sense, in which I think West has gone too far with the idea of the redemption of the body, where he does not deny the effects of original sin, but he does seem to minimize them.  I don’t entirely disagree with him when he says that we need to learn how to deal with temptation in a more enlightened, spontaneous and peaceful way, but I do think he puts excessive reliance on the “newness” of TOB as the answer.  There is also a sense in which I think he has turned TOB into a crusade against prudery in a way which was never intended by John Paul II.  Yet, at the same time I acknowledge prudery is a problem that needs to be addressed.  But what stands at the heart of my concern is neither his particular regard for the “redemption of the body” nor his crusade against prudery, it is his assertion that what we really ought to be seeking is a holy fascination with the body and sexuality.  Heaven’s Song is an advanced class.  It is not for those who are struggling with pornography and masturbation.  It is for those who are already enlightened, and it preaches a fixation with matters anatomical and sexual.  I submit that this is purely an invention.  I am not suggesting that West is dishonest, only that in this particular matter he is off the rails. This tendency to unveil and fixate on the body and sexuality runs throughout West’s work, from the introductory and apologetical treatments, to the more advance discussions.

I am open to correction.  I have no animus.  I just do not think it is right or intellectually justified to assert such things unless solid arguments can be provided, especially when on the face of it, this seems to be an innovation.

What Muslim women practice is not Christian modesty.  Muslim women are covered head to toe because Muslim men consider their sexual desires something they cannot control.  Muslim women are blamed for their own abuse by men if they break the dress codes.  I recently read of a Muslim woman who was a victim of an honor killing because her father did not approve of her relationship with a non-Muslim.  She was murdered by two relatives who gang raped her before they took her life.  I do not mean to equate every Muslim with such fanatics.  But I do find the comparison between Muslim and Christian modesty unfitting.

Furthermore, modesty is a form of reverence.  West says over and over how HOLY sex is.  Well, holy means “other.”  By its very nature it is separated:  heaven and earth; sanctuary and congregation tabernacle and church.  Of course, through Christ we are infused with that holiness;  however, the holiness of something in no way suggests that it ought to become familiar or that the most sacred acts should become as unveiled as possible. 

Modesty is not entirely subjective.  The act of veiling what is holy is fairly spontaneous, though because of fallen nature it needs to be sustained and perfected by the enlightenment of faith.  This is not at all to say that Catholic women should learn how to dress from Muslim women or that Catholic men should not learn to have a more faith-filled regard for the body and sexuality and learn to be more spontaneous and peaceful in their regard to the beauty of women.  But to suggest that we ought to do as much unveiling as possible as long as it is holy is not something in keeping with balanced and wholesome modesty.  John Paul II never taught otherwise.  This is an invention of Christopher West.

Again, if anything I have said is incorrect, I am open to modification, but I need to see contextualized references to the teaching of the Church and its tradition, not mere extrapolations given extra weight because they are spoken by the acknowledged authority on TOB.

I don’t mean to be offensive or lack in generosity, but I have written a considerable amount on this blog about this matter, and I would not be honest if I didn’t make myself clear.  At least I believe I must say that I do not think a merely fair-minded and congenial dialogue on this matter is going to necessarily get us anywhere.  West’s positions need to be substantiated.  Until now, it seems to me that they have not.


#18, Aug 24, 2009 6:27am

Fr. Angelo,

Thanks so very much for your TOB commentary; it was incredibly more thorough and articulate than mine ever could be.

Know that you, as well as so many other devotedly orthodox Catholic Priests, will have MANY prayer and Mass intentions offered daily on your behalf!

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B

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