By John-Henry Westen

July 27, 2010 ( – In her Theology Master’s thesis, written for the DC Dominican House of Studies, pro-life personality Dawn Eden has critiqued Christopher West’s take on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which is also spread by the Theology of the Body Institute.

A dispute over West’s methods erupted in May 2009 after ABC aired an interview with the prominent Catholic apologist, in which he appeared to make several highly controversial statements. Although West later clarified and said the statements in question were taken out of context, one of West’s former professors, David Schindler, of the Pontifical Institute for Marriage and the Family in D.C., took the opportunity to express concerns about various aspects of West’s approach.

In her thesis Eden, like Schindler, specifies that she does not question West’s intention to be orthodox. Rather, she proposes corrective measures which she suggests would redeem the “unwitting flaws” in West’s catechesis, which “detract from his intended message.”

For Eden, one of the main contentions with West’s approach is that it opposes traditional conceptions of modesty and the recommended practice of looking away from immodesty (‘custody of the eyes’).

Eden notes that the Catholic Church has traditionally stated that chastity education should include instruction on avoiding occasions of sin. “West states, by contrast, that mature purity is found only in those who are willing to ‘risk’ concupiscence so that they might reap the benefits of ‘union with Christ and his Church.'”

Citing examples from West’s writings, Eden explains that, “By ‘risking,’ he means specifically that men who struggle with lust should practice looking at beautiful women so that they might learn to raise their thoughts and feelings from lust, to joy at encountering the image of God in female beauty.”

In her thesis titled, “Towards a ‘Climate of Chastity’: Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity,” Eden argues that such advice runs contrary to traditional Catholic teaching. In the ninth chapter of the Book of Sirach, Eden points out, men are encouraged to look away from shapely women.

Furthermore she points out that Pope John Paul II, who originated the Theology of the Body, has pointed out that after the loss of original grace, man and woman have a “specific necessity of privacy with regard to their own bodies.” Eden states that John Paul’s “understanding of modesty—seeing it not merely as a reaction to the potential lustful ‘look,’ but as a requirement for a ‘truly human culture of morals’—is absent from West’s TOB.”

One of the central arguments West uses in making his point about the necessity of taking the “risk” of “trusting our own freedom to control concupiscence and to choose the good,” is the story of “two bishops.” Eden’s thesis quotes West relating the story:

The following story illustrates what mature Christian purity looks like. Two bishops walked out of a cathedral just as a scantily clad prostitute passed by. One bishop immediately turned away. The other bishop looked at her intently. The bishop who turned away exclaimed, “Brother bishop, what are you doing? Turn your eyes!” When the bishop turned around, he lamented with tears streaming down his face, “How tragic that such beauty is being sold to the lusts of men.” Which one of those bishops was vivified with the ethos of redemption? Which one had passed over from merely meeting the demands of the law to a superabounding fulfillment of the law?

West explains that “the bishop who looked away was continent, but the bishop who saw rightly was virtuous.”

Eden argues, however, that the story, as presented by West, is misleading. She writes that West says the story is “adapted from the story of Bishop St. Nonnus of Edessa and the harlot Pelagia” and he cites Helen Waddell’s account of Nonnus and Pelagia in The Desert Fathers.

However Eden points out that Waddell’s account of Nonnus and Pelagia differs significantly from West’s. “Pelagia, in Waddell’s account, does not notice that Nonnus looks at her on the street,” writes Eden. “Her conversion comes about afterwards, when she hears him preach.”

Eden adds, “Most significantly, when Pelagia then writes to the bishop and asks to see him, he agrees only on the condition that there be other bishops present. ‘[S]eek not to tempt my weakness,’ he writes.” Eden explains: “It is not surprising that West omits that last detail, as, by his own definition, it would mean Bishop St. Nonnus was insufficiently virtuous.”

Eden suggests that a possible motivation for what she says is West’s over-sexualization of Theology of the Body and shunning of traditional practices of custody of the eyes could be the fact that he lived with his parents in an overly-restrictive community which was condemned by the local bishop. Writes Eden, “West told the Washington Post that, after spending years living in the community and submitting to its leaders’ control of his social contacts, his work, and his studies, he realized, ‘It’s a cult. I’ve been living in a cult.'”

Eden presents her thesis as contributing to the necessary amendments to West’s popular presentation. She says she is hopeful about the six-month sabbatical that West has undertaken to (in the words of his institute) “reflect more deeply on fraternal and spiritual guidance he has received in order to continue developing his methodology and praxis as it relates to the promulgation of the Theology of the Body.”

Eden’s full thesis is being made available free to priests, seminarians, religious, and others requesting it who work officially for the Church (e.g. for a parish, diocese, etc.). Others who wish to receive a copy are asked to donate to a fund set up to support her doctoral studies – see details here.