Critiquing Christopher West

Critiquing Christopher West October 13, 2010

As a long time “chastity speaker” and recent author (How Far Can We Go?  A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating, Novalis 2009, Paulist Press 2011), I am often asked my view of other, better known, workers in this corner of the Lord’s vineyard.  Christopher West is inevitably at the top of the list.  In the sorts of forums this question gets asked, there is rarely time for any kind of in-depth analysis and so my response generally looks something like: “He does a lot of good work.  I wouldn’t say everything in exactly the way he says it, but he seems to be helping a lot of people.”

Critiquing Chris West is dicey business.  First of all, we live in a culture that produces confusion and trauma in the arena of sexuality at an alarming rate.  For a Catholic to critique another Catholic who has devoted his life to helping people in this context requires some tact.  Many people live healthier, more integrated sexual lives because of Chris West’s work.

Secondly, as Dawn Eden recently discovered, West has powerful friends.  Eden wrote a (publicly available) Master’s thesis critiquing West and Dr. Janet Smith came out swinging in his defense.  (Smith has since taken her critique down, though excerpts from it, along with a pretty balanced analysis, can be found over at Aggie Catholics.  Eden’s friend, the indomitable Steve Kellmeyer, has responded to Dr. Smith in his typical fashion over at The Fifth Column.)  If I were Dawn Eden I’d feel a little in over my head right now, though she seems to be taking it in stride.

Here’s the thing:  though I am hesitant to rail too loudly against someone who is helping so many people, and though I certainly don’t want to have to face down Chris West’s defenders in some sort of Catholic media tempest, I have never been able to fully endorse his program.  Vox Nova readers may have noticed oblique critiques of West’s presentation in some of my early posts here and here.  And when the whole Schindler, von Hildebrand thing broke, I watched with baited breath, hoping someone with a bit more weight than I would be able to articulate my problems with West’s work.

It didn’t take.  It’s not that I thought Schindler and von Hildebrand were wrong, and I certainly didn’t think they were jealous, but their criticisms were not my criticisms.  West’s risque language had never been what bothered me about his presentation.  It’s just that he seems so, well, hokey.

Now I know that being hokey isn’t an indictable offense.  In fact, my sense that such a critique was too superficial is what kept me from saying it out loud until just now.  But perhaps being too hokey has pastoral implications that we should be careful about?  It wasn’t until I came across some lesser-known literature critiquing West that I was finally able to name the issue:  West’s celestial rhetoric about sex, God, and the meaning of life never seems to touch the ground.  This resonated with me.  The reason “hokey” is pastorally problematic is because “hokey” isn’t enough when real people in real relationships have real problems.  Rereading my old posts, it is easy to see that this was my real issue, even if I didn’t name it.

You may not have heard of David Cloutier, William Mattison III, or David McCarthy.  They are relatively young, especially Cloutier and Mattison, and they are not popularizers, though McCarthy’s Sex and Love in the Home has sold well enough to warrant a second edition.  (I would not be surprised if we soon hear similar news of Cloutier’s Love Reason and God’s Story:  An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics or Mattison’s Introducing Moral Theology:  True Happiness and the Virtues.  They are both excellent.)  These are not the types to hold press conferences.  Nevertheless, their comparatively low profile did not prevent them from approaching Chris West’s work from just the angle I was looking for.

The high-profile attacks on West (Schindler, von Hildebrand, Eden, Kellmeyer) have all come from the right (in Kellmeyer’s case, the extreme right), the place where West and his allies are thought to stand.  These lesser-known scholars, while supportive of Church teaching in the area of sexual ethics, are not so easy to place on the spectrum.  Their critiques don’t so much come from right or left, but from below.  And they ask some tough questions that I think are worth looking at.  I will finish this post with a couple quotes from their work to give you a sense of their concerns.

In the collected volume, Leaving and Coming Home: New Wineskins for Catholic Sexual Ethics (edited by Cloutier), David McCarthy has a piece titled “Cohabitation and Marriage.”  On pages 135-136 he writes:

“West’s personalism is rhetorical rather than epistemological.  This point is not necessarily a criticism; rhetoric is important as “public speaking.”  In this regard, West’s work is impressive for its attention to sexual practices.  He faces up to questions that most of us keep private.  His Good News about Sex and Marriage deals with a host of difficult questions:  the line between sensual contact and sexual intercourse, masturbation, pornography, oral sex and stimulation, and anal intercourse as foreplay.  The appeal of his personalism, it seems to me, is that it offers a public language for talking about sex.  There are limits, however. . . . West’s personalism does not extend to difficulties in marriage and what might count as reasons for separation (leaving aside the question of divorce).  It does not help with the ongoing struggles of marriage, like raising children, maintaining a home, and figuring out how to pay for cars and school clothes.  The ready answer to relationship and practical questions seems to be, for West, a constant return to the sexual act and to the “I do” moment of the marriage vows.  (The sexual act is a reliving of the “I do” moment.)  For people looking to be married for decades, this kind of personalism will not be of help for very long, probably not past the honeymoon period when sex is the center of the relationship.  The real trajectory of West’s personalism is objective conformity to the teachings of the Church.  Yet, he does not use these teachings and the Church’s claims about marriage to give a practical picture of how marriage, from day-to-day and year-to-year, looks different than cohabitation, other than the dishonesty of the sexual act.  Certainly, the difference extends to the interpersonal and social character of the relationship as a whole.  West gives us a definition of sex that shows the failing of sex within cohabitation as an instance of non-marital sex, but he does not attend to the ways that the practices of marriage (apart from the sexual act itself) are different than cohabitation.”

In short, in order to maintain the Catholic position that marriage is a radically different kind of relationship than cohabitation, those interested in defending Church teaching (and West is interested in nothing if not in that) need to look at more than the sexual aspect of the relationship.

In the same volume, Cloutier and Mattison co-author a piece titled, “Bodies Poured Out in Christ:  Marriage Beyond the Theology of the Body.”  Here are a couple lengthy quotes:

“[West] makes the challenge of embodied self-giving love too easy, reducing the problem of sin to a matter of sexual selfishness vs. self-giving, and presenting the life-giving alternative to sin as intense and private ecstatic moments.  The lifelong practice of self-giving love involves struggle and pain and sacrifice that is not simply about controlling (in West’s favorite phrase) “the urge to merge.”  Sexual lust is not the primary problem; our real challenge is loving the people we find around us in all their embodied brokenness.

In this way, we believe that TOB is insufficiently prophetic in its challenge to the privatized “SuperRelationsip” ideal of the culture.  Our objection is not informed by pessimism about the possibilities of sexual self-giving, nor is it an attempt to dismiss the teaching of Humanae vitae.  Rather, the myopic fixation on sexual purity is an importantly incomplete story of married discipleship and the challenges to it in contemporary culture.  Yes, it is a strong antidote to the culture of “lust,” and in particular bodily objectification.  But though redeemed life in Christ is indeed marked by a healing of our disintegrated and lustful desires that free us to give of ourselves, that self-giving love is exemplified not primarily in ecstatic/transcendent moments such as sex or wedding vows but in the service to each other in our brokenness that Christ exemplified and called his disciples to do the same.”  [Pages 219-22]


“Because of the absence of any articulation of the social mission of the Christian family, West’s presentation further supports the inward-looking, consumption-oriented, privatized practice of marriage already dominant in most American households.  He would do well to attend to the lengthy and substantial presentation of this social mission provided by John Paul himself in his 1980 exhortation Familiaris Consortio and 1994’s Letter to Families.  In these works, the call to love other bodies through the works of mercy moves beyond the family circle.  Unfortunately these themes are not incorporated into the Pope’s own Theology of the Body, and thus West’s presentation is a very plausible way of reading these particular texts.  When the social mission is omitted, TOB makes couples think they can live a closed, consumer lifestyle to the hilt, for example – so long as their sex life conforms to the views of the church.  A full presentation of John Paul’s own theology of marriage would lead West to a less privatized view of marriage, where the shared mission and social bonds formed in the community would serve as supports to the couple, as well as a calling to them in the life of their marriage.  This would be a truly prophetic call in a culture of consumerism.  But perhaps such a call is avoided because it would prove so “unpopular” among West’s intended audiences, who may share the culture’s highly privatized, “closed” version of the household.

When Jesus shows his glory on the mount of the transfiguration, Peter (whom the gospels tell us was so overwhelmed he didn’t know what he was saying) wants to stay and even build houses to dwell on the mountain.  But Christians are not allowed to dwell on the mountain, nor in Eden.  With its focus on sexual self-giving and purity, TOB threatens to leave its audience on the mount of the transfiguration rather than exhorting them to follow Christ down the mountain to serve the broken bodies of the world, even to the point of death.  Christ’s own example reveals that Christian discipleship is more about laying down one’s life in embodied self-giving love than it is about the peak experiences.  We worry that TOB’s audience will be left disillusioned and ill-prepared for sacramental marriage.  They may find themselves in marriages where self-giving embodied love within the family is understood too narrowly, and furthermore fails to extend beyond the family itself to the world outside.

In defining embodied self-giving love so narrowly, TOB risks giving us the perishable bread of the culture, which we eat but which does not ultimately satisfy, rather than the real bread of Christ’s Body which does not perish.  That real eucharist consists of seeing our mutual donation of our bodies to each other in marriage as a commitment not just in the bedroom, but in the entire common life of the marriage.  We give our bodies to our spouses not simply for the spouse, but in order to become more fully Christ’s Body.  That Body is not one that gives to others and to the world primarily through sex, but rather through pouring itself out in radical service typified in the works of mercy.  TOB’s fixation on the body solely in the bedroom is like a fixation on the Body solely at the consecration:  crucial, but incomplete on its own.”  [Pages 223-224]

The Chris West wars have generated much heat and little light, in part because the cult of personality surrounding the man himself gives such a personal touch to the critiques and defenses.  There has been too much said and written that doesn’t deal with the real issue here, namely, how does the the Theology of the Body help us to live like Christians.  The work of scholars like McCarthy, Cloutier, and Mattison, in my view, introduces some sanity into the debate.

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto.  He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.  He is the co-author of How Far Can We Go?  A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.

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