The Personalist Project

I agree whole-heartedly with the substance of Michael Healy’s evaluation of Christopher West’s presentation last night. But I’d like to press one point of (perhaps) contention a bit.

In the course of his talk, Christopher made this very true remark:

If someone realizes he is in bondage to alcohol, he shouldn’t go where people are drinking. But he has no right to project his own bondage onto our freedom (to condemn us as imprudent because we go into a bar.) Similarly, if a person’s entire idea of sex is skewed by lust, he will have a tendency to project his own distorted attitude onto others. He will interpret any discussion of sex as salacious in itself. In such cases, his accusations against frank, but morally wholesome talk of sex only serve to expose his own impurity.

That’s true. It happens all the time.

But I thought CW might go further than this. He seemed to me to suggest once or twice (including in his response to the last question) that anyone who reacts negatively to his explicitness thereby exposes his own impurity. If that’s what he meant, then I think he goes too far.

Is it not more than possible that some of the criticisms come from a place not of prudishness, but of deep reverence for the sexual sphere and deep sensitivity to its intimate and morally delicate and dangerous nature? Objections in such cases have nothing to do with a projection of salaciousness onto Christopher West or a cramped uptightness in ourselves. They are motivated rather by a true Christian concern for how such talk might hit the ear and affect the imagination of a young teenager or of a person who is struggling with concupiscence or striving for heroic purity—or with a concern for safeguarding virtue and cultivating a sense of the essential mysteriousness of sex.

For instance, I have a friend who comes across as morally balanced and solid in his faith. He was dedicated to God from youth. He went to Franciscan University, dated girls, and expected to enjoy marriage someday, until the moment he unexpectedly heard God calling him to the priesthood. He said yes, though with natural fear and trembling. In seminary, he had to struggle to “change his mind” from that of a man looking forward to marriage to that of a man ready to renounce sex for life. He told me that Christopher West’s presentation at his seminary was an unhappy experience—not because he disagreed with his basic message, but because it was too graphic. It put images in his head that he didn’t want—not because they were ugly or impure, but because they were too vivid. He said, “I really didn’t need to be picturing him and his wife like that.”

Now, this was probably 15 years ago. It may be that West has dialed down the graphic factor since. I hear that he has. Certainly there was nothing objectionably explicit in his talk last night. Mike Healy (that von Hildebrandian intellectual) was much more explicit than CW was. But I think the anecdote serves to make my point. Discomfort with explicitness may be evidence of a hang-up in the person who feels it. But it need not be, and if we assume it is, we are committing a projection of our own.

Comments (11)

Bill Drennen

#1, Jun 5, 2009 5:56am

The problem of privacy

One of the major abuses of sex in the modern culture involves the violation of privacy. Exposure has caused a condition where we experience our sexuality in the full view of the class so to speak. This can not be redeemed by simply correcting the professor and giving him the correct language and analysis to teach the class.

This is a shortcoming of the evangelical approach to teaching the theology of the body. As a parent of teenage girls, my belief is that explicit teaching will actually undermine the power and dignity of my daughter‚"s sexuality. As they experience negative sexual content in the culture I don‚"t think this is countered by simply correcting the information they receive. Rather I believe it is better that our communication be respectful of the privacy and mystery of their own discovery.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jun 5, 2009 6:05am

I’m with you, Bill.  Devout parents are in a challenging place in our culture.  So are all Christian teachers.  I’m thinking of the passage in Jeremiah where the Israelites were told to build the wall with one hand while they fight the enemy with the other.  Somehow we have to find ways of meeting the wounded and debauched “where they’re at” even while we carefully cultivate the pure and beautiful sensibilities of the innocent. 
Each of us will have to do this in his own way, according to his individual place and vocation in the world.
It won’t be easy for any of us.

Bill Drennen

#3, Jun 5, 2009 8:17am

I read the critique of Alice Von Hildebrand and completely resonate with her concerns and perspective. At the same time, I want to maintain my faith that a life lived free of concupicence is progresively possible and the gift the CW has is challenging us with this posibility.

She says, ‚"It is something that calls for holiness, which very few of us achieve. It is a sheer illusion to believe that by some sort of new technique we can find the solution to the problem.‚"

As I listen to CW I find myself believing in the hope of a pure sexuality but not completely able to connect the dots intellectually with his explanations of what that purity is like. There is a mystery that all the attempts of analogy fail to describe. The analysis and excitement of the “idea” which is so easily taken up in the TOTB movement does not carry its own weight and fails to fulfill and the more I learn about the beautiful truths of our intimate personhood the more I realize that I must live these truths to enable them in the privacy of my own vocation and there is no substitute for this living out of the truth.

The bible speaks of knowledge sexually between Adam and Eve as an intimate and private thing which is almost the antitheses of analytical knowledge. We all laugh when Dr. Healy jokes about sharing intellectual thoughts to his wife during sex. The deeper knowledge of sexual union is betrayed by any such attempt.


Michael Healy

#4, Jun 5, 2009 3:34pm

Dear Katie,
You make many good points.  See my response to Bill on my string of comments.  Just to clarify what Bill refers to in the last paragraph, I don’t actually do this—I was also pointing out how incongruous and inappropriate it would be, which is why people laughed at the thought.

Scott Johnston

#5, Jun 6, 2009 2:28pm


Exactly! I completely, wholeheartedly agree with your post. It exactly describes the very same concern I have with CW. I too wondered whether Christopher was inappropriately lumping all reluctance on the part of others about his more graphic language into the category of prudishness. I think his response to Tim’s question did seem to imply that Tim’s very apprehension necessarily indicates some problem in Tim. I don’t agree that this is necessarily the case (though it could be) for the very reasons you give. And having been in seminary myself, the example of your friend is right on target. There are things which, though not in themselves sinful, are prudent to avoid for the sake of preserving chastity. It is not automatically less saintly to simply avoid something that could lead one into trouble.

Isn’t modesty in dress analogous to proper modesty and decorum in speech? For example, a woman might choose to avoid an outfit which in most practicing Catholics’ opinion would not be immodest (but let’s say is close to the limit). Even so, she chooses not to wear it because she would rather err on the side of caution out of respect for the sensitivity of others than risk presenting an obstacle for another person’s chastity. This is not the same as prudery. While not strictly required, her choice would be an example of charity.


#6, Jun 15, 2009 4:40pm

I see that this is somewhat old conversation but I would like to ask a few questions.  Pertaining your friend who was thinking of the priesthood, would he not have to be very comfortable in discussing sexual issues if he were thinking of being a priest?  If he were planning on hearing confessions, that is.  Would a priest hearing confessions not have to be comfortable with hearing just about anything?  It would seem that some people might feel the need to be pretty explicit in their confessions and a priest would not serve their needs well if he were to be shocked or embarrassed.  What of the priests who have had somewhat racy pasts such as Fr. Corapi?  How does he deal with all of the past memories of the life he once led?

Could purity have as much to do with the serenity with which we deal with whatever we are exposed to as much as not exposing ourselves to things, whether it be visual or verbal?

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Jun 15, 2009 5:03pm

yes, I agree with you.  Here, as I think Lindsay pointed out somewhere, there may be an important distinction between explicit and graphic.  Namely, I think a priest has to be able to hear anything, but perhaps he need not need to picture anything.  The anonymity of the confessional is meaningful in such cases.  (I mean not being able to see the face and figureof the person confessing must help a priest not to have unwanted mental images.)
Further, I think any person who is teaching about sex in a pedagogical way should take care not to make it personal.  I mean, he shouldn’t talk about his personal experiences with his wife (as I think CW may have done at the time, though I could be wrong) in a way that makes picturing virtually impossible to avoid.
But it may be that priests need to be deliberately prepared for more exposure to sex than they used to need to be.  I’d love to hear from priests on this point.

Scott Johnston

#8, Jun 15, 2009 6:57pm

[Former seminarian here who has lived with many priests.] An excessive degree of graphic detail is not necessary for confession. A penitent need only give enough detail to indicate what the sin involved was. Painting an overly detailed mental picture is not only unnecessary, but uncharitable toward the priest. Good confessors know how to guide a penitent who wants to be excessively graphic, how to moderate his words to say what is necessary without crossing the line.

For example, “fornication 3 times” is enough. No need to give explicit depictions of the circumstances. However, if something more depraved were involved then that would need to be indicated (eg. multiple partners). But again, only in enough detail to specify what the sin was.

I think that sometimes people are confused about what entails a good confession; confession and spiritual direction are not the same thing. Yes, they can take place together, but as a general rule, for regular scheduled confessions where there is a line of people penitents should not expect the confession to also entail an involved spiritual direction session.

It is appropriate in spiritual direction, perhaps, to go into more detail about one’s sins than is needed for a good confession. The best way to combine the two is to schedule an appointment for direction and in the context of spiritual direction, also make a confession. A regular confession itself should be short and sweet (kind and number for each sin), with obvious exceptions for certain circumstances (e.g. a confession after 30 years away from the Church).

I also have heard priests say that there is grace involved for priests as they administer the sacrament that helps them to hear penitents without being scandalized. Also, priests consistently say that after a certain length of time as a priest they have heard it all, and any shock value is gone. They remark that anyone who thinks he is confessing something they have not heard before is nearly always mistaken. Sin, they will say, is essentially boring, uncreative, and only capable of so much variety.

Scott Johnston

#9, Jun 15, 2009 7:20pm

Forgive me a follow-up! Seminarians nearing ordination take a pastoral course on the sacrament of penance. This usually would include an experienced confessor talking with them about various dangers, and just in general, advice on the priestly craft of what to expect in confession and how to handle various situations. These are private discussions between experienced priests and men being prepared for the priesthood. So, with a good pastoral formation program, there should not be too many surprises when a priest begins hearing confessions.

Also, I think it is instructive to note how various very holy priests took their role as confessor into their personal relationship with Christ. For example, St. Dominic would, on a nightly basis, perform acts of penance on behalf of those he ministered to. He would weep tears of sorrow because of the sin he encountered, praying, “what will become of sinners?” and chastising his body on behalf of others. St. John Vianny, I understand, pretty much lived on potatoes, also for penitential reasons.

I have heard a priest I know (more in the category of “ordinary” than the above two) say to men interested in the priesthood (in a talk about being a priest) that whatever penance he gives penitents, he also does himself on their behalf. He gave this as a way to remain personally engaged with each person’s spiritual state so that ministering to people would never become routine.

At any rate, I think that by a priest cultivating a great willingness—even great desire—to do penance on behalf of the people he ministers to, there would be little danger of being personally scandalized or tempted beyond his ability, with grace, to handle. Such a priest is kept ever aware (by his own penance and deep personal concern) of the gravity of sin and of the great harm it causes. Katie’s remark about the benefit of anonymous confession is also very on target. Many people do not realize that the reason anonymous confession is still said by the Church to be the preferred form is not only for the benefit of the penitent, but for the protection of the priest as well.


#10, Jun 15, 2009 8:23pm

Thanks for the clarification about confession.  I agree very much with what you were saying about priests through their own penance and grace from God being able to handle almost any circumstance.

  In my mind I was thinking of something more than the five minutes in the weekly confession line, however.  I was thinking more of someone who has wounded or been wounded in a profound way and is in need of counseling and compassion.  It seems to me that it would be necessary for a priest in these circumstances to be able to connect in an intimate way with the individual without any semblance of shock, embarrassment or disapproval, or temptation.  This, I would think, would necessitate these things being discussed in an academic, very thorough, explicit way.  As would anyone who is in the fields of counseling, and, I would think, marriage preparation. 

I know that in the two years or so that we worked in that area we had at least two instances of women sharing with us that they had been sexually abused.  We, I think, could have handled the issue better than we did and, if that arises again, I would react differently.  We need to have the purity to react with great compassion and love and with a listening ear so that they can trust us to help them in healing those deep wounds.

I have great concern that we are spending so much time and effort on modesty in speech that we are shutting ourselves off from being able to be there for the many deeply wounded people in the world.  I have been shocked at how many people that I know who have been sexually abused.  It was almost overwhelming at one point when I was being bombarded with all of these tragic cases.  And these revelations came because people were telling their friends that we were doing marriage prep and would know how to help in these circumstances!

As I have said before, I think that if we have the purity to not be shocked and possibly tempted by these very profound and intimate encounters with others, we could do so much more for people.  And is that not what we are called to do as Christians—love, that is, be a gift to and for others?

Also, do you think that JPII was inappropriate when he discussed with, what I understand, were groups of young people that which must have been very intimate matters in order for him to be able to write Love and Responsibility?

Scott Johnston

#11, Jun 16, 2009 8:52am

Laurette, you have a beautiful heart for helping others!

Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but, I think the discussion about modesty in speech has been taking place here with the presumption of a public setting (such as a public talk by CW), not so much private settings.

Definitely, in private situations (counseling, spiritual direction, etc.), whatever the person needs to discuss is fair game if it is truly of potential benefit. I hope nothing that has been said here by myself or others that would impede someone from receiving another person who comes looking for help with an appropriately open heart.

As to the personal ability of an individual to effectively and charitably receive someone privately who needs good counsel about intimate topics, I think personal temperament and personality play a significant part here. Some priests might be great at some things but would not be very good giving private counsel about certain topics. Some might have the potential to be good counselors on sexual matters but need help to develop those abilities.

One place that I know priests can receive some excellent assistance in developing skills that can help them effectively counsel those who have been sexually wounded, is the Rachel’s Vineyard apostolate developed by Theresa Burke. This ministry reaches out specifically to those who are post-abortive, to help them open their hearts to the healing that Jesus wants to work in them. It is a very personal, emotionally intense, intimate sort of ministry. They have a process of training priests and seminarians to play a crucial role in the healing of these women. I would think that this is one example of a way for priests (and others) to be trained in a proven ministry in how to spiritually accompany someone who has been wounded in the intimate sphere of our sexuality.

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