Christopher West Controversy Fuels Debate about the Problem of Modesty
By Alex Bush and John Jalsevac
May 25, 2009 (LifeSiteNews.com) - Christopher West, the prolific author and well-known speaker who shot to fame in the Catholic world as a result of his work popularizing Pope John Paul II’s "Theology of the Body," has come under fire recently for comments made during an interview with ABC’s Nightline. In the interview he told Nightline that there is a "very profound" connection between John Paul II and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and suggested that Christians should "complete what the sexual revolution began."
The Nightline segment, which aired on May 7 and which highlighted West’s work with the "theology of the body" set off a firestorm of controversy in the Catholic publishing world, with some accusing West of playing loose with JPII’s teachings and of trivializing certain aspects of Christian sexual theology, and others defending West as a skilled promoter of authentic Catholic teaching on sensitive subject.
Shortly after the controversy broke, West’s organization (the Theology of the Body Institute - TOB) issued a statement of clarification, in which it said that ABC had misrepresented West’s views on several matters, and had pulled quotations out of context in a bid to "sensationalize" the story. TOB clarified that Hugh Hefner is not a "hero" of West’s, as ABC had suggested, and that in West’s opinion the connection between JPII and Hefner was simply that both were reacting to an unhealthy Puritanism.
But while "we agree with Hugh Hefner’s diagnosis of the disease (i.e., a puritanical rejection of the body and sexuality is utterly contrary to Catholic faith) … we radically disagree with his cure," said the TOB release, pointing out that West has spent his life opposing "the terrible distortions of pornography."
Nevertheless, in the opinion of David Schindler, a professor at the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America, even with the clarifications Christopher West’s take on the "Theology of the Body" is open to criticism on a number of significant points.
"Regarding his interview on Nightline, Christopher West says that his remarks were taken out of context. In some sense, this is surely true," Schindler said. "However, the comments as aired are the latest in a long list of statements and actions not inconsistent with the context set by the Nightline editors."
Schindler writes that he has asked West whether or not he believes that sexual temptation can be completely extinguished through holiness, rather than simply subdued and controlled. West responded, according to Schindler, that "he refused to limit the power of Christ to transform us."
According to Schindler, West appears to be saying that "if we could just get over our prudishness and sin-induced guilt ... we would be ready simply to dispense with clothes and look at others in their nakedness."
However, Schindler responded that according to Christian theology, temptation "dwells ‘objectively’ in the body, and continues its ‘objective’ presence in the body throughout our life on this earth."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, in paragraph 405, that Original Sin has caused human nature to become wounded and is now "subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin - an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence."
Schindler said 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."
A number of West’s ideas and choices of language, says Schindler, are "vulgar and in bad taste, not to mention sometimes bordering on the just plain silly" and "indicate a disordered approach to human sexuality."
Despite his criticisms of West, however, Schindler adds the caveat that "I agree with those who vigorously defend West’s intention of fidelity to the Church. Certainly he has had positive results in drawing many Catholics into a deeper understanding of their faith."
He continues, however, to say that "It is important to understand … that good will is not synonymous with sound thought; and I must say, not without reluctance, that West’s work seems to me to misrepresent in significant ways the thought of John Paul II."
Dr. Alice von Hildebrand is another highly influential figure who has also expressed concerns about some aspects of West’s teaching since the airing of the Nightline segment. A professor emerita at Hunter College of the City University of New York and Catholic philosopher and theologian, von Hildebrand told the Catholic News Agency that "before the Fall, there was no inner temptation to impurity between Adam and Eve even though they were naked. After they sinned, the two started to look at one another with concupiscence."
Von Hildebrand holds the opinion that West’s approach forgets the "extreme danger" that the realm of sexuality presents because of concupiscence. She believes, however, that sex can be sanctified through "humility" and a "spirit of reverence."
"My feeling is that [West’s] vocabulary and his way of approaching it totally lacks reverence," said von Hildebrand.
"Reverence is the key to purity."
That "reverence" is what has led the Catholic Church to promote the virtues of purity and modesty, virtues that some critics, including von Hildebrand, have expressed concern that West’s teaching could, even if unintentionally, serve to undermine.
The Catechism, in paragraph 2521, speaks about sexual temptation and modesty, saying: "Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity."
The following paragraph continues, stating that modesty "inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet."
Despite the controversy, however, West’s following, especially in the Catholic world, remains strong. His supporters have pointed out that West’s work has made accessible to millions the profound teachings of John Paul II, and has significantly affected countless people’s lives. Currently there is a note on Christopher West’s website saying that he is aware of the controversy over his remarks, and that he will issue a further clarification in the near future.
Related LifeSiteNews.com Coverage:
Dressing to Sexually Arouse Men or Not
Canadian Artist and Catholic Novelist Michael O’Brien on Modesty in the Culture of Shamelessness
Immodest Dress in the Church: Like Frogs in Boiling Water
Other Related Sites:
TOB’s Clarification Statement:
Christopher West’s ideas on sexuality ignore ‘tremendous dangers,’ Alice von Hildebrand says