An Explanation of Why CERC did not Post Dawn Eden's ThesisCERC
People have been asking me why we haven't posted Dawn Eden's thesis, which was critical of Christopher West, when we have represented ourselves as wanting to be a clearinghouse for reasoned arguments on both sides of this issue.
Please allow me to provide some background.
CERC has played host to eleven articles by Christopher West over the years.
Early in September, 2010, after becoming more aware of the controversy surrounding Christopher West, I decided to remove all of West's articles from CERC.
People who visit CERC consider it a reliable source of Church teaching. I didn't want to be endorsing, simply by hosting those articles, the work of a man who was under a cloud and who perhaps was not representing John Paul II's Theology of the Body as received. I wasn't condemning West. My thinking was to wait and see where things settled out before considering whether to re-post his articles.
However, at our CERC AGM in Vancouver on September 10, it was recommended by the executive board that I restore West's articles to the site.
The reasons given by the board were that West had not been found doctrinally unsound by any official ecclesial body. In addition, Christopher West was at that moment on his way to Vancouver to give a course.
His Grace Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver is a great supporter of CERC and a very discerning cleric. To remove West's articles in advance of West coming to Vancouver would suggest that, in the judgement of CERC, the Archbishop had been wrong in inviting West.
I was to re-post the articles and it was suggested that CERC play host to both sides of the controversy just to show our readers that disagreements, even vigorous ones, can coexist in the Catholic world and that discussion based on reason and charity can be productive in the cause of truth. (See here.)
Shortly after that, I contacted both Dawn Eden, for permission to post her thesis, and Janet Smith, to post her critique of Eden's thesis, to CERC.
I then sent a copy of the thesis, Janet's response, and Eden's response to Janet's response, to two philosophically minded thinkers I know who also happen to have no dog in this fight. As it turned out, neither had more than a passing familiarity with West's work. That suited my purposes perfectly, as all I wanted them to do was to evaluate the soundness of the evidence, the arguments, and the conclusions before them.
One of these two has asked not to be identified in any of my discussion about this.
He is well known in Catholic circles and, even though he was just responding to the thesis and criticism of it, he didn't want his views to be seen as an endorsement or a criticism of something (the corpus of Christopher West's work) he wasn't extensively familiar with.
Sean Murphy's critique is below. I and our other reviewer, agree with his analysis and conclusions.
You have asked for my comments about an editorial problem you now face
because of a continuing controversy concerning Christopher West. As I
understand the situation, you are considering whether or not CERC should
formally take a position with respect to it, and, if so, what that position
In the first place, it is important to distinguish taking a position on the controversy from taking a position on the corpus of Mr. West's work, which would certainly be implied in refusing carte blanche to post any of his materials. Such a refusal would be justified on one or more of the following grounds:
Refusal to post any of Mr. West's materials in the case of (b) and (c) above, in advance of final judgement, would be appropriate because CERC wishes to ensure that readers can have full confidence in all of the materials on its website, which is intended for a general audience.
In the absence of such grounds, there is no reason to treat Mr.
West's work differently than any other materials that CERC reviews
with a view to posting, and I understand this to be CERC's current
The current dispute concerning his work is a different matter and has become a problem in its own right. It has been generated by a master's thesis by Dawn Eden that she has made public. Critics of Mr. West include reputable scholars known for fidelity to the Magisterium. However, one also finds reputable scholars known for fidelity to the Magisterium among his supporters. You have asked me to review Dawn Eden's thesis as a first step in addressing the controversy.
CERC, in service to its readers, cannot ignore a development that
touches fundamental aspects of Church teaching and that has become
as notorious as the West-Eden controversy. In such cases it is
always preferable to avoid engaging in the controversy itself.
Instead, one would expect CERC to provide a balanced and thoughtful
account of the dispute and refer interested readers to appropriate
sources for further information. The issue is whether or not this
approach should be taken in this case.
My view is that it is impossible to produce a "balanced account" of a controversy when the position of one of the parties is clearly untenable.Miss Eden accuses Mr. West of a presentation of theology of the body that is "damaging,"1and "theologically compromised"2 "in its failure to understand continence as it is defined by the traditional teachings of the Church,"3 and that appears "to validate the culture's preoccupation with sex."4 She accuses him of teaching that the deposit of faith is incomplete and that Church doctrine keeps pace with changing times.5
Having read almost nothing of Mr. West's work I cannot rule out the possibility that a case might be made to support one of these accusations. But, having read Miss Eden's thesis, if there is a case to be made, she has not made it. The burden of proof lies on the accuser, and she has failed to discharge it.
Thus, CERC cannot present her thesis as a credible critique, and it would be unjust to do so. On the contrary: in explaining its position on the controversy, CERC would be remiss if it did not draw attention to the flaws in her presentation. It is unfortunate that CERC has been placed in this position by Miss Eden's decision to publicize her thesis and campaign for its acceptance.
I have reached this conclusion by considering (a) what Miss Eden proposes in her thesis and (b) whether or not what she provides by way of evidence supports her claims. This is done without reference to external sources other than the work of Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II on the subject of pornography and art, and the list of Mr. West's materials available on line.
I have done this to avoid the appearance of partisanship or of
having been adversely influenced by the writings of Mr. West's
Miss Eden states that in the first chapter of her thesis she provides "a comprehensive overview of Mr. West's presentation of the TOB."6 She means "presentation" to be taken in the broad sense of his interpretation of the writings of Pope John Paul II,"7not only in [Mr. West's] own lectures and writings, but also the presentation he promotes through his training programs at the Theology of the Body Institute, as well as the programs he has developed for parishes, marriage-prep programs, and study groups."8 These materials were produced over a period of about 13 years.9
Miss Eden purports to offer this "comprehensive overview" in about nine double-spaced pages. The overview consists of a summary of ten major themes she claims to have discovered in his presentation, a claim that she supports by quotes from 24 of Mr. West's works.10 However, it is impossible, in nine double-spaced pages, to produce a "comprehensive overview" of the volume of materials produced by Christopher West over a period of 13 years, particularly about a subject as profound as the theology of the body.11 That is a project for a book, not a 77 page thesis.
This conclusion is supported by a closer look at the references Miss Eden provides in Chapter 1. She refers to only three of five books by Mr. West and only one of nine CD/DVD's by him.12 In fact, the references in Chapter 1 ignore most of Mr. West's work, including:
Thus, she has, contrary to her stated intention and without explanation, neglected virtually all of the materials that ought to have been considered if she wished to produce a comprehensive overview of his training, parish, marriage prep and study group programs. While it is true that 20 of the 24 sources from which she draws provide a selection from his "lectures and writings," Miss Eden does not explain why she has selected them (rather than others) and why it is reasonable to consider them representative of his ‘presentation' - particularly in the absence of evidence from the neglected materials.
Readers who think that these criticisms amount to nothing more than page and footnote counting may be assisted by an analogy. Miss Eden's accusations against Mr. West are analogous to allegations of fraud (false representations) against a businessman, which can only be proved (or disproved) by an examination of all of the books and documents of the business that might have relevant information, combined with statements from all ascertainable witnesses. If the police examined only some of the documents, did not explain why they did not examine all of them, did not explain why they chose to look at some documents rather than others, failed to obtain witness statements, and (apparently) presented only documents unfavourable to the accused, no fair-minded person would agree that the investigation was adequate, or that a conviction for fraud could be fairly based upon it.
The author's claim to have produced a "comprehensive overview"
amounts, at best, to wishful thinking. If Chapter 1 is, indeed, an
example of what is considered a "comprehensive overview" in a
master's programme, I will henceforth think much less highly of
In a footnote in Chapter 1 Miss Eden states that she will show in the succeeding chapter that Mr. West's interpretation of the symbolism of the Paschal Candle "was condemned by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council."13 Anyone who is familiar with Council's 16 documents will recognize at once that this statement is false. Her own references in the following chapter show that clarification on this point did not come from the Council Fathers, but from a commission formed after the Council ended.14 Moreover, while the clarification and other sources cited by Miss Eden demonstrate that Mr. West was mistaken about Paschal symbolism, the guidance issued was explanatory and pastoral; there was no "condemnation."
None of the possible interpretations of this are favourable to
Miss Eden. Either she has failed to check her manuscript to correct
an obvious and serious mistake that she later detected, or she does
not know the difference between documents issued by an ecumenical
council and those produced by subsequent Church committees, or she
does not understand the difference between correction and
condemnation, or she has deliberately or carelessly used exaggerated
and inflammatory language, or she has knowingly made a false
accusation. These are not the marks of a thesis that warrants
affirmation by thoughtful and prudent people.
Chapter 1 presents Miss Eden's summary of ten themes that she claims to have found in Christopher West's presentation of theology of the body. These are provided without comment and without evidence that they contradict either Church teaching or the theology of the body as taught by Pope John Paul II.
Thus, in Chapter 2, one would expect to find a coherent account of the Holy Father's theology of the body and a cogent explanation of how each of the ten themes noted in Chapter 1 of the thesis departs from it.
Instead, Miss Eden first offers criticism by Mark Lowery in 2001.15 She acknowledges that Lowery found Mr. West's materials "virtually free from error" and suggested only "fine-tuning" of his presentation. This section, ending with Mr. West's response, does not support Miss Eden's accusations.
She next reports statements that Mr. West made on ABC News "Nightline in May, 2009, and his attempts to clarify them.16 Following this she acknowledges the existence of the controversy that continued following his remarks, citing (without further detail or analysis) essays by recognized Catholic scholars who disagree about the validity of Mr. West's expression of the theology of the body. The section closes with an affirmation of the soundness of Mr. West's presentation by Justin Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Kevin Rhoades.17 Thus, all that is established in this part of the thesis is that Mr. West made some ill-considered remarks on national televison that resulted in a controversy, and that, despite the controversy, representatives of the Magisterium were satisfied with his work. This does not support Miss Eden's accusations.
Next, drawing from the criticism of Dr. David Schindler and referring to the first of her ten themes in Chapter 1, Miss Eden states, "West's overall "preoccupation" indicates "a disordered approach to human sexuality."18 She then summarizes (without comment or analysis) Dr. Schindler's criticisms, and notes that Professors Janet Smith and Michael Waldstein disagree with him. Much of this part is devoted to demonstrating that Mr. West was mistaken about the symbolism of the Paschal Candle.19 All that she succeeds in establishing in this section is that Dr. Schindler's assessment is disputed by Professors Smith and Waldstein, and that Mr. West has made a mistake about liturgical symbolism.
Citing her theme 8, she then states that "West ignores the
"objective" presence of concupiscence in the body."20 She
goes on to quote Dr. Schindler's criticism and the responses from
Professors Smith and Waldstein and from Mr. West himself, once more,
without comment or analysis.21 Again, this part of the
thesis demonstrates that there is disagreement among reputable
scholars about West's understanding of concupiscence, but, nothing
is offered to demonstrate the validity of either the accusation
opening this section or Miss Eden's global accusations about his
Since Miss Eden has offered nothing up until this point that supports her accusations, the next part of the thesis, in which she offers her own assessment (p. 32-62), is critical.
Under the heading, "Nuptiality as key to sexual healing" (p. 32-38) Miss Eden offers a critique of Mr. West's most recent book, Heaven's Song: Sexual love as it was meant to be. She asserts that "the basis for his approach to sexual healing" is "his call to ‘holy fascination' with the body and God's plan for sexual union."22 Her subsequent discussion does not demonstrate that she has properly understood Mr. West. Even if she has correctly stated his position, in this section she does no more than raise questions about it; she does not answer them or prove that he is mistaken.
In the next section, headed "Concupiscence and the two bishops"(p. 38-49), Miss Eden draws from four sources by Mr. West, principally his Theology of the Body Explained.23 She begins with the statement that the "key to [West's] understanding of concupiscence" is [his] contention that sexual desire necessarily mediates union with God." It is not clear from anything said previously in the thesis nor in what follows that this is a fair and full statement of his views on the relationship between sexual desire and union with God.
In discussing concupiscence Miss Eden comments upon some of Mr. West's reflections on human freedom and what she portrays as his understanding of the relationship between continence and virtue. However, taking the material precisely as she presents it and looking no further, she fails to demonstrate that one must conclude that "West emphasizes that a couple must advance beyond mere continence prior to marriage."24 Moreover, her claim that Mr. West holds "that John Paul is using a different definition of continence than that of St. Thomas"25 is actually an argument that she develops herself and then attributes to Mr. West as something that he "might" put forward.26
Considering Mr. West's treatment of "occasions of sin" (p. 49-55), Miss Eden introduces an eleventh theme that she neglected to include in the comprehensive overview in Chapter 1: "the association of "mature purity" with a man's ability to actively seek out what would be, for other men, occasions of sin, and – instead of being defiled by them – find in them a source of further purification."27
The only evidence she offers for this "running theme" are stories Mr. West told about two of his personal experiences: one at mass, the other at the beach. It is abundantly clear from both of these accounts – as they are given by Miss Eden – that Mr. West did not "actively seek out" occasions of sin, but turned unsought temptations into opportunities for an increase in grace. It is equally clear – again from Miss Eden's account – that he does not recommend the strategy without appropriate reservations. Despite this, Miss Eden goes on to say:
If that is true, then credit for introducing this novel idea belongs to Miss Eden, not Mr. West. Her claim that this is Mr. West's position is contradicted by the only evidence she offers to support it.
Concerning "pornography vs theo-graphy" (p. 55-57), Miss Eden alleges that Mr. West's most serious misinterpretation of the theology of the body is his failure to understand John Paul II's distinction between pornography and legitimate art.29 She further claims that the Holy Father's understanding of modesty "is absent" from his presentation.30
However, her failure to consult most of Mr. West's work precludes reliance on her claim that modesty is absent from it. Further: a comparison of the comments of Pope John Paul II on the subject (of which there are more than those quoted in the thesis)31 to those of Mr. West (provided by Miss Eden) does not inevitably lead to her conclusion. Rather, it becomes apparent that other conclusions are possible, and that her approach to the topic is far too simplistic.
The last section of Chapter 2 is headed "A penchant for promoting problematic pop-culture" (p. 57-62). Here, Miss Eden responds to Mr. West's comments about the Vagina Monologues, pop singer Katy Perry, and the stage play Spring Awakening. It is likely that, on reflection, she would qualify her statement that "exposing naked flesh outside a nuptial context is objectively wrong regardless of whether the artist or the short-skirt wearer "intends" to arouse,"32 since it is inconsistent with the careful consideration of this topic by John Paul II (See note 31). It provides further reason to be cautious in accepting the assessment she offers.
She suggests that Mr. West's responses to these cultural artifacts are too much coloured by a personal reaction against "puritanism," and that they reflect an insufficient awareness of the objective dangers of such entertainment.33 Based on the material she presents here and the reflections of John Paul II (again, see note 31) the suggestion is plausible. However, it is also clear from what she presents that Mr. West was offering an hypothesis about their origins and suggestions about how to turn them into "teachable moments." He was not, as her heading states, promoting the work of the singer or playwrights.
Taking Chapter 2 as a whole, Miss Eden has failed to provide a
careful, systematic and detailed analysis of Mr. West's work in
light of John Paul II's theology. It does not substantiate her
Chapter 3 of the thesis opens with the statement that the
preceding chapters showed "that Christopher West's presentation of
the theology of the body is compromised by errors and lacunae."(p.
63) Since the preceding chapters did nothing of the sort, and
Chapter 3 relies on this claim, it is not necessary to review it.
According to Miss Eden, Mr. West's presentation of the theology of the body
None of these accusations are demonstrated by her thesis; the last is shown to be a false accusation by the evidence that she presents to support it.
1. Thesis, p. 77
Sean Murphy "An Explanation of Why CERC did not Post Dawn Eden's Thesis." Catholic Education Resource Center (October 13, 2010).
Printed with permission of the author Sean Murphy.
Sean Murphy is a Catholic layman. He retired from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 2009 after almost 35 years' police service. Over the years he was described by superiors as a "tenacious," "conscientious" and "meticulously thorough" investigator.
Mr. Murphy has made a special study of the documents of the Second Vatican Council and Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage. His paper on the nuptial meaning of the Eucharist was among three chosen for presentation at the 1993 conference of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and later published in the conference proceedings. His articles have appeared in Catholic periodicals, including the BC Catholic, Catholic Insight magazine and the Journal of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Canada). Others are posted on the Internet at the Catholic Education Resource Centre, Catholic Exchange and the Catholic Civil Rights League website. His comments and responses to attacks on religious freedom and Catholic teaching have appeared in the media, including some BC community papers, the Vancouver Sun, The Province, Xtra West, the Ottawa Citizen, Halifax Daily News, the BC Catholic, and Christian Week.
Copyright © 2010 Sean Murphy
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.