Alice Von Hildebrand (and others) critique Christopher West on Theology of the Body

Alice Von Hildebrand (and others) critique Christopher West on Theology of the Body May 14, 2009

Here’s the story from Catholic News Agency. I am not too keen on getting in the middle of the substance of the article (obviously Brett is the expert here), but I would like to say why I am so refreshed to read this.

Too many good, holy, and faithful Catholics—including some of my own family and dearest friends—hold the belief that certain ideas that become popular through the rhetoric of Catholic celebrities (West, Hahn, Cavins [who is a dear friend of mine] and friends) are monolithic or, at the very least, do more good than harm and should be left alone and go unquestioned.

Professor Von Hildebrand reminds us that when approaching the  mystery of the human person (among other things) there is no reason for complacent idolatry—even when it seems innocent and doing more good than harm. Disagreement with popular ideas peddled by Catholic authors and speakers is not tantamount to dissenting Christ, obviously. Because of this, we need more unsettling voices to remind ourselves that Augustine’s restlessness is not reserved for a chosen few. We are all called to constant death and conversion.

Many times, it is best to begin with the death of the ideas we hold dear to see if they can stand the fire of true, loving rigor.


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  • It doesn’t sound like she really has read or heard much about West other than that one interview. I don’t understand how his popularization of the TOB could be called dissent, or how one can criticize him for not being 100% perfect in the way he teaches.

  • Nate: I really don’t want to get into an argument over the substance of the critique, but it is not just her in that piece it also includes two scholars on the matter. What I refer to as “dissent” is not the popularizers, but, instead, those who dare to question their popular ideas. In this case, Dr. Von Hildebrand.

  • David Nickol

    “In paradise there was perfect harmony between Adam and Eve. There was no concupiscence.”

    “After original sin, not only were we separated from God and condemned to losing eternity. On top of it, every single human faculty was affected. Our intelligence was darkened. Our will was weakened. And all of a sudden, we had the dreadful experience of something called concupiscence.

    Before the Fall, there was no inner temptation to impurity between Adam and Eve even though they were naked, she explained. After they sinned, the two started to look at one another with concupiscence.

    How does she know? And how do you take this kind of thing seriously if you don’t take the story of Adam and Eve literally? Even if you do believe the story of Adam and Eve is literally true, how much information is there about Adam and Eve before the fall? Does the Bible tell us how intelligent Adam and Eve were before the fall, or how strong their wills were? Here whole analysis about humans before and after the fall is fantasy!

    As Nate said above, it sounds like she’s reacting to the television interview instead of West’s body of work. And as for ohn Paul II’s Theology of the Body, she says she knows the “gist” of it. Why should we take her criticisms seriously when she doesn’t seem to know much about either West or TOB?

  • Thanks for clarifying that for me, Sam. I misread what you wrote.

  • I personally think that West tends to reduce a lot of things from TOB and although he is helpful to the Church in some ways, I think he missed a lot of important points in TOB. Jose Granados wrote an article on the theology of the suffering body a couple of years ago in Communio and it was excellent. I would refer to him rather than West (and of course the other people from JP Institute).

    I also think A. vonH is off in her critique as well. She has a tendency to absolutize her husband and although A Defense of Purity is good, it is very insufficient and lacks the depth that JPII had in TOB.

  • David: Epistemological issues of Eden aside, I will say this: Alice Von Hildebrand is not lacking knowledge of this vein of literature, ranging from her late husband’s seminal writings to the work of JPII—although she is clearly not well versed in West’s work, she only cites a “gist.” But one could easily make the argument that West has no business saying this or that about JPII without reading up on Von Hildebrand and so on. But that’s really not my point.

    My point is this: It is okay, and even healthy, to dispute ideas that are in vogue—so much so that they seem monolithic—within popular Catholic discourse. We need more of this not less, even if, in the end, we disagree with it and favor the trend. For example, see Apolonio’s balanced comment.

    Believe it or not, this post has less to do with TOB and more to do with restless, Catholic conversion.

  • How does she know? And how do you take this kind of thing seriously if you don’t take the story of Adam and Eve literally? Even if you do believe the story of Adam and Eve is literally true, how much information is there about Adam and Eve before the fall? Does the Bible tell us how intelligent Adam and Eve were before the fall, or how strong their wills were? Here whole analysis about humans before and after the fall is fantasy!

    Perhaps so, but by citing it she puts herself squarely in the phenomenological framework of TOB, as JPII himself places the beginnings of Church teaching about the body in the story of Adam and Eve.

  • Ronald King

    Could it be that John Paul II is wrong about his basic premise in his Theology of The Body and the characteristics he attributes to the original human beings in their relationship to God and each other is a product of imagination of the ideal love that we all seek. In other words he seems to associate mature characteristics with the two humans that would be impossible for them to achieve as original creations.
    I cannot blame JP II for his interpretation of the beginning because his foundation for understanding human beings is influenced by this CCC 398 “In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good.”
    It is from that interpretation that our sense of human dignity is to be formed and our human interactions begin. How can we ever hope to have an intelligent conversation about human relationships if that is what we believe?

  • David Nickol

    Perhaps so, but by citing it she puts herself squarely in the phenomenological framework of TOB, as JPII himself places the beginnings of Church teaching about the body in the story of Adam and Eve.

    Michael,

    Thanks for the info. Setting modern science aside for the moment, there are so many problems with the story of Adam and Eve, I don’t see how it is possible to interpret it in the kind of detail Professor Von Hildebrand (and apparently John Paul II) does. If Adam and Eve do not have “knowledge of good and evil,” how can they be culpable for doing something wrong?

    And then there’s this:

    Then the LORD God said: “See! The man has become like one of us, knowing what is good and what is bad! Therefore, he must not be allowed to put out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life also, and thus eat of it and live forever.”

    How can it be a bad thing to be like God? And it appears Adam and Eve are not banished from Eden simply because they disobeyed. It is so they can eat of the tree of life and live forever. It sounds as if God would be powerless to deal with the situation should they eat of the tree of life.

    And it seems clear that being made in God’s image, in the story, means being made to look like God — who comes down to walk in the garden occasionally.

    And the story is never mentioned again in the Hebrew Bible. And of course Jews have never interpreted Adam and Eve to have brought down the human race with them in some kind of “fall.”

    What does contemporary theology have to say about the story of Adam and Eve? What would I be taught in an introductory course in whatever the appropriate subject would be? Old Testament theology? Certainly in a course in the Old Testament, a beginning student would be taught that the story was mythical, wouldn’t they? I understand how a creation myth could be rich with meaning, but surely it doesn’t make any sense to talk about mythical human beings as if they were real, does it?

  • Mark DeFrancisis

    The mythical story gets at our deepest ontological makeup, as though it were unaffected by our existential state of being on the world with sin.

  • David Nickol

    The mythical story gets at our deepest ontological makeup, as though it were unaffected by our existential state of being on the world with sin.

    Mark,

    If I understood what that meant, I wouldn’t have asked the questions I did in the way I did. Let me ask the most basic question. Is the story of Adam and Eve about human nature as it is? Or is it about human nature as it was before some historical event, and then after that historical event?

    As the Catechism says: “The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.”

    The Catechism doesn’t so much say the story of Adam and Eve is mythical, but rather that it is a story of a historical event — something that the parents of the human race did — told figuratively. The part about them eating forbidden fruit in a magnificent garden is figurative. The part about an individual man and an individual woman from whom we are all descended is affirmed.

  • Mark DeFrancisis

    David,

    I have the same ‘difficulty’ with the catechism that you do, if I understand you correctly.

    Does my faith really require that I believe a one couple, one event etiology of sin’s entrance into the human condition? I personally think not.

  • Ronald King

    David, I am new to this so I do not know if what I say is relevant because I come from 30 years of education and experience in the field of psychotherapy and interpersonal neurobiology. I returned to Catholicism after 40 years of dismissing it as rigid and unloving.
    From my perspective, the story of Adam and Eve is about human nature and the awakening self-awareness of human beings in relationship to an unknown creator, an unknown world and an unknown other. It is about the formation of identity and the vulnerability of human beings in their attachments to one another that exhibits the source of suffering inherent in all human relationships.
    The interpretation in the catechism exhibits the continuing effect of transgenerational shame that began with the man’s response to blame his mate as the source of his perceived mistaken behavior, when it wasn’t a mistake to begin with. However, the woman’s natural response to what is interpreted as temptation is to seek or to understand who she is because she certainly did not get anything more than being named a woman because of her relationship to the man. That would certainly be felt as lacking especially if they are made in the image and likeness of God.
    Isn’t it interesting to note that the man calls her woman before he becomes aware of the knowledge of good and evil, then, after receiving this awareness he calls her Eve, which is associated with life.
    I am not going to write more because I do not know if anyone would be interested in the 20,000 words I have on this aspect of creation that encompasses present human conflict and suffering.

  • JC

    I haven’t watched the Nightline video, but I watched West’s official video on the subject, “The Playboy and the Pope,” on his website last night, and I cannot see how anyone can find fault with what he says His main point is that Christians, by adopting a Dualistic heresy in regard to “the flesh,” inadvertantly create the problem of perversion–an argument that secular psychologists often make.

    He reads a passage from Hefner’s auto biography, talking about how Hefner’s parents never even hugged him. That is the “ache” West refers to in the Nightline interview. He makes it absolutely clear that Hefner’s position is wrong, but he draws the parallel that Hefner and Woytyla are addressing the same problem, only Hefner is the wrong way. It’s really a very powerful video.

  • Elizabeth

    Dr. Hildebrand explains the errors. Has anyone actually read what she has said?

  • I did.

  • Travis

    “Many times, it is best to begin with the death of the ideas we hold dear to see if they can stand the fire of true, loving rigor.”

    I agree, and the fact that Dr. von Hildebrand’s critique is being met with automatic displeasure by many fans of Mr. West shows, I think, an inherent weakness in Catholic neo-orthodoxy: the sense that every utterance of the champions of the neo-orthodox crowd is somehow infallible and beyond being questioned.

    At the risk of sounding too extreme, I would remind us also that the teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium are subject to such rigor, if a good reason warrants, according to Canon Law.

    I have read Mr. West’s work, been to several of his seminars, and have read John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. And while I find many points authentic and helpful in TOB, I have publicly questioned some of Mr. West’s conclusions and inferences at his seminars in his Q & A sessions.

    One time, Mr. West replied to me with the following: “Whether John Paul II’s thought represents a development of or a departure from the Tradition is for the theologians to decide.” So, in theory at least, he is correct about that.

    But try finding many of his followers who would be willing to subject his thought to a critique that leads to the conclusion that he has radically departed from the Tradition.

    And I believe in some ways, he has. In fact, some of his conclusions and inferences smack of theological error, if not heresy, when held against the Tradition. And it goes far beyond what Dr. von Hildebrand touched upon, though she is certainly on to something when she mentions Mr. West’s failure to adequately account for concupiscence.

    And if indeed John Paul II himself is speaking in the capacity of the Authentic Ordinary Magisterium (a level of teaching lost on most neo-orthodox folks), then Mr. West is correct, that the content of TOB is subject to the rigor of the theologians in the Church.

    But how will the masses respond if aspects of this popular teaching are shown to be erroneous?