Engaging Dawn Eden’s Thesis -


I have known Christopher West for over a decade. As I remember, at our first meeting, when he was still a graduate student, he approached me to chastise me a bit for failing to respond to some criticisms one of his professors had made of me!

It is a bit ironic that over a decade later, I find myself occupied with responding to criticisms made of him. It was some years later that I met him again as he had become a speaker on the "circuit". I saw immediately that he was a powerful speaker in love with the truth and with his audience. His love for both is truly touching. At first I was somewhat uncomfortable with what even at the time seemed to be minor elements in his presentation but over time I have become very comfortable with his style.

In part this is because he has changed; Katrina Zeno posted a comment on my original version of this paper and noted how because of a conversation she and a friend had with him, he decided to rerecord his original series of talks to show greater sensitivity in talking about sexual matters. I also changed; as I learned more about Theology of the Body I became aware that some of what was unsettling about what West said, was because John Paul II's views can be unsettling. John Paul II can take us a bit out of our comfort zones, both philosophically and theologically! I have taught for the Theology of the Body Institute and have used West's materials and found them to display an excellent pedagogy. I believe him to be a great gift to the Church.

I have heard testimony personally from people who have had profound conversions because of West. A marriage preparation instructor told me that since she had begun using West's material (materials I have reviewed and found superb), she had astonishing numbers of her students decide to stop cohabiting and using contraception – numbers unlike anything she had seen in her previous fifteen years of marriage preparation. Michael Waldstein, translator of the Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, told me how much he learned in constant consultation with West as he worked on his translation. West rewrote Theology of the Body Explained (because of what he learned from Waldstein). He put out a revised edition of his Good News about Sex and Marriage because of feedback he received. There is abundant evidence that West is receptive to constructive criticism.

I have known of Dawn Eden's work since she published The Thrill of the Chaste. It is an excellent book for helping those who struggle with the modern culture of easy sexuality. Eden bravely tells her own story – and it is a marvelous story of conversion. Some people are offended by her explicit recounting of her life but I greatly appreciate her work. (Augustine was quite frank, by the way!) I believe it has and will change the lives of many. I was delighted to hear that she was pursuing advanced studies in Catholic Theology. She hopes someday to teach at a Catholic college, I am sure, because of a desire to serve the Church. She, of course, is to be lauded for her desire to do so and for her clear desire to protect the Catholic faithful from representations of the faith in the work of Christopher West that she finds inaccurate and even dangerous.

Unfortunately, I believe Eden's master's thesis on West is seriously flawed and may potentially do much harm. I have communicated some of my concerns to Eden, but that dialogue did not end well. I have directed several really fine master's theses over the years – some have been awarded the magna cum laude and even the summa cum laude. Nonetheless, I have never judged any of them worthy of publication as they were. Reading master's theses to which one has not been assigned as a reader is something few faculty members are inclined to do. But Eden has chosen to make her thesis public and since, in my view, it risks doing considerable harm to an extremely important apostolate and since I am on record as a supporter of West, I believe it is right for me to take a close look at her work.

I fear some people have taken a mere glance at her thesis, and since they are predisposed to accept her conclusions, they are dazzled by the number of quotations and footnotes into thinking that she has provided a worthy critique West's work. It distresses me that some people who have never read the Theology of the Body or West's work on the Theology of the Body or tested the claims of Eden's thesis feel comfortable pressuring priests and organizations not to use West's material. Here, I would like to invite those who are using Eden's thesis as the foundation of their rejection of West to test her claims. Go to the sources that she cites and see if her representation of West's views is accurate. I think they will discover that Eden regularly distorts what West says.

Most of the remarks that follow grow out of many years of reviewing master's theses. I couldn't avoid making the kinds of comments I would make on a master's thesis that came across my desk.

The Importance of Fair Analysis and Accurate Representation

When I go to the sources Eden cites for the problems she finds in West's work, I discover that she often seriously misrepresents what West has said and what he means. To demonstrate how flawed Eden's method of analysis is, I am going to assess only one criticism that Eden makes of West: the claim that West's view of the Theology of the Body as causing a "revolution" is not faithful to a "hermeneutic of continuity." Eden identifies this as "perhaps the most damaging aspect of West's presentation" (Eden's Thesis, 77; hereafter ET) and includes it in the title of her thesis. (See also remarks in her Preface, no page numbers provided). I have tested other criticisms that she makes in her thesis and find that her treatment of them exhibits the same features: a distortion of what West said, a misreading of texts, and numerous irrelevant claims. On the average it takes about 5-10 sentences to correct any erroneous claims; thus time and space do not permit exposing all the erroneous claims she makes. I believe my analysis of her central criticism raises serious doubts about the whole of her thesis.

Hermeneutic of Continuity

Violating the "hermeneutic of continuity" is what Eden considers to be the most serious flaw in West's work. Oddly, she does not set aside any specific portion of her thesis to defend this charge. Her most direct engagement of the issue of "hermeneutic of continuity" is in her presentation of the first of ten "themes" she finds in West's work, a section of only two pages at most. She states the theme in this way: "The Theology of the Body is an all-encompassing theology that requires theologians and religious educators to recontextualize 'everything' about Christian faith and life" (ET, 11). She explains further by stating, "It isn't just about sex and marriage;" it is a "revolution" that "will lead to a dramatic development of thinking about the Creed." (Eden notes that this quotation came from George Weigel's Witness to Hope, 343). There is a striking set of words linked here: "all-encompassing," "recontextualize," "everything," "revolution," and "dramatic development." Eden bombards her readers with words that she seems to believe will shock them. Surely, there can be no hermeneutic of continuity if such radical claims are being made.

But does West say such things and, if so, where, and what does he mean? The merit of Eden's thesis over against some of the other pieces against him is that it provides readers with sources where they can go to verify her charges. Unfortunately, as I have stated, when one goes to the sources or even reads carefully what Eden has stated, one rarely draws the same conclusions that she does. I was hoping to find where West says what she states the first theme to be. Eden doesn't lead us to any passages that state that the Theology of the Body is an "all-encompassing" theology; she only notes that West said it "isn't just about sex and marriage." (ET, 11) I would have thought Eden would be pleased that West says the Theology of the Body "isn't just about sex and marriage," because elsewhere she accuses him of presenting the Theology of the Body as though it were only about sex and marriage. He can't win!

Recontextualizing Everything

Eden does acknowledge that the word "recontextualize" is hers, but she does not acknowledge that none of the words in her first theme belong to West. (ET, 11, footnote, 25) That is, he does not say that "theologians and religious educators" must do anything in respect to "everything about Christian faith and life." In reference to the word "everything," she refers us to an essay by West, entitled "What is the Theology of the Body and Why is it Changing So Many Lives?" The word "everything" does not appear in that essay. I did find some interesting material there, however. West quotes John Paul II as saying that "Since our creation as male and female is the 'fundamental fact of human existence' (Feb. 13, 1980), the theology of the body affords 'the rediscovery of the meaning of the whole of existence, the meaning of life' (Oct. 29, 1980)." This certainly is a sweeping claim, but it is John Paul II's claim, not West's. West follows John Paul II in understanding that the Theology of the Body will allow us to "rediscover" the meaning of existence and life. This rediscovery is a kind of revolution but it is in no way a revolution that involves any change in doctrine. It is a reappropriation of the deepest roots of the faith. There is no discontinuity here.

When Sister Marianne Lorraine Trouvé (who is providing an excellent critical commentary of Eden's thesis on her blog) also pointed out Eden's error of providing the wrong source regarding the "everything to change" assertion, Eden thanks her for pointing out the error and notes: "The source should have been listed as West's article 'The Pope's Theology of the Body.' (Catholic Education Resource Center)." I invite others to read that piece and see if West is claiming that "everything about Christian faith and life" must be "recontextualized." Again, I think those who go to the source will find a wonderful article disclosing the treasures of the Theology of the Body. I also invite readers to study section 59 of Man and Woman He Created Them (aka, Theology of the Body) to see what claims John Paul II makes about pedagogy and the Theology of the Body.

A search for "everything" in the source that Eden provides, leads us to these paragraphs:

According to John Paul, by reflecting on these three levels [Original Man, Historical Man, Eschatological Man] of "experiencing" the body, sexuality, and marriage, we discover the very structure and deepest reality of human identity – we find our place in the cosmos and even penetrate the mystery of the Trinitarian God. How is this so through contemplating the body, sex, and marriage? As John Paul shows us, the question of sexuality and marriage is not a peripheral issue. In fact, he says the call to "nuptial love" inscribed in our bodies is "the fundamental element of human existence in the world" (General Audience 1/16/80). In light of Ephesians 5, he even says that the ultimate truth about the "great mystery" of marriage "is in a certain sense the central theme of the whole of revelation, its central reality" (General Audience 9/8/82).

This is to say that everything God wants to tell us on earth about who he is, the meaning of life, the reason he created us, how we are to live, as well as our ultimate destiny, is contained somehow in the meaning of the human body and the call of male and female to become "one body" in marriage. How? Pointing always to the Scriptures, the Holy Father reminds us that the Christian mystery itself is a mystery about marriage – the marriage between Christ and the Church. Yes, God's plan from all eternity is to draw us into the closest communion with himself – to "marry" us! Jesus took on a body so we could become "one body" with him (which we do in the Eucharist). (my emphasis, Eden cites this very passage on the next page [ET, 12] but without citing the prior paragraph or the subsequent clarification.)

West is hardly giving instructions to theologians and educators to "recontextualize everything." Rather, he is simply pointing out that the Holy Father is directing us to contemplate the mystery of the body, of marriage, and the relationship of Christ and his Church. We see no "revolution" here, no calls for "doctrinal development."

Dramatic Development in the Creed

Readers must read a critic's claims carefully. Eden notes that West often quotes Weigel's famous statement that the Theology of the Body "will compel a dramatic development of thinking about virtually every major theme in the Creed" (ET, 11). But she merely cites this claim without indicating why she thinks this is a false assessment. In addition, Eden doesn't present what Weigel says to justify what he said. What is meant by it? Careless readers may think it suggests that there must be "dramatic developments" in the Creed, but what it says is that there will be a "dramatic development" in our thinking about the Creed. I am quite certain it doesn't mean that the Creed will change – it doesn't mean there will be a dramatic change in doctrine – or any change in doctrine, for that matter. What it does suggest is that we will have a deeper understanding of the themes of the Creed.

Imago Dei

Eden seems to disapprove of West's claim that it is a major development in Catholic thought to say that the imago Dei is located "not only in the individual man or woman but also (in the pope's words) 'through the communion…which man and woman form right from the beginning." (ET, 11) Here, as elsewhere, it is difficult to know what point she is making. The previous negative tone she has set about West's work suggests that this is a claim which she contests. If she does not mean to convey disapproval she needs to explain why she includes this point. Moreover, she might like to know that this is not just West's view but that of Cardinal Scola, "The Nuptial Mystery: A Perspective for Systematic Theology" Communio 30 (Spring 2003). West is not proposing some aberrant view. And, of course, a major development in "thought" is not a major development in doctrine.

Sex and Mystery

In the middle portion of her presentation of the first theme, Eden goes on to list a series of things that West has said about the body as a source of truth. As is not uncommon in her approach, she never tells us what bothers her about what West has said. She seems to think that simply reciting a set of phrases will offend or shock us into realizing how foolish West's claims are.

I always press my students to comment on all texts cited. They must tell the reader what they are seeing in the text and what they think the reader should conclude from the text. Let's take one of the lines Eden cites: "Sex plunges us headfirst in the Christian mystery" (Good News About Sex and Marriage, 41). She cites this with no introduction or comment (ET, 12). What does West mean? First we must note that John Paul II uses the word "sex" to refer more often than not to gender – and to the fact that we are made both male and female. Thus when we read reference to "sex" in the work of John Paul II and in his interpreters, we need to be careful not to hear him speaking directly of "sexual intercourse." Still, it is true that a great deal of what John Paul II says about gender, has implications for the meaning of sexual intercourse – in fact, that is the purpose of the Theology of the Body: to explain what sexuality reveals about anthropology and what that anthropology can tell us about what "language" the body must speak in the act of sexual intercourse. [Here, I would say is one place where West needs to continue to show caution in explaining how John Paul II uses the term "sex."]

West makes the comment that "Sex plunges us headfirst in the Christian mystery" in response to those who make the claim that "the Church should stick to religion and keep its nose out of my bedroom." Right after the line cited, West refers to Scripture: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?" (1 Cor. 6:15) He says, "The Church isn't intruding into the bedroom. Christian spouses are bringing the Church into the bedroom with them. Sex is sacred. It's holy – more so than our fallen passions sometimes wish it to be. If we think sex is somehow 'better' with God out of the picture, we have it totally backward!" In the context, West is presenting the whole of Catholic morality about sex. We must engage in sex in accord with God's laws; we must not think that "what goes on in the bedroom" is merely physical and does not engage the whole Christian mystery. Those who understand what Scripture tells us about the meaning of our sexuality will have an enhanced understanding of sex. What goes on in the bedroom will be better because it will be more in line with God's plan for sex and because the spouses will understand more what the sign of "complete self-giving" means and possibly even be able to be more selfless in this and in all other realms of their lives.

Maturation in Thinking vs. Doctrinal Development

Eden begins her final paragraph on the first theme with the question: "Why, then, if the TOB is so important, did nearly 2,000 years elapse before a pope articulated its message?" (ET, 12) That question that seems to have a skeptical and even mocking tone. Yet it almost amounts to a paraphrasing of a question West raises: "Why has it taken two thousand years for such a liberating mysticism to be presented by a pope for the whole Church?" (Theology of the Body Explained; 599, hereafter TOBE). Eden then presents West's answer wherein he speaks about the Church maturing through time. And that is how she ends her presentation of the first theme. She comments not at all on the passage cited and thus the reader cannot know what she finds objectionable about it or, of course, if she does find it objectionable. Again, the previous tone of her thesis suggests that she does.

Elsewhere in her thesis, Eden returns to West's claim that the Church is undergoing a maturation (ET, 66). Eden understands West to be claiming that some "doctrinal development" has occurred. But West clearly states that, with the Theology of the Body, the Church is experiencing an "'awakening" of sorts regarding the meaning of the body and the communion of the sexes." (Theology of the Body Explained, 599) Does Eden contest that that is true? Again, the change is not in doctrine but in how we express and understand doctrine. An "awakening of sorts" is not a doctrinal development.

Concepts of the Theology of the Body have made their way into many magisterial documents, including Mulieris Dignitatem and Deus Caritas Est. There is a real development and even a dramatic one going on, but not one that should be called a "doctrinal development." On the very page where Eden found the passage about "maturation," West states, "However, while recognizing that John Paul is presenting a clear development of thinking, we must also recognize that the fundamental message of the Theology of the Body is nothing new" (TOBE, 599). Those who would write scholarly works need to remember to present an author's claims in their context; otherwise one is in danger of distorting their positions.

True Dangers?

A thesis writer should not raise alarm where there is none. Eden warns that "Such an account of doctrinal development is difficult to distinguish from critics of Catholicism who argue that "[t]he church's sexual doctrine is archaic and immature" (ET, 66). (She is citing Paul McHugh who pushes for viewing as moral, premarital sex, mutual masturbation, oral sex, etc.) I would suggest to Eden that her readers (and even West's audiences) would not find it hard to distinguish what West is saying from the views of someone like McHugh. West wants people to return to chastity, to stop fornicating, to stop using pornography and contraception, and to stop engaging in same-sex acts. How are his views hard to distinguish from those who defend fornication, contraception and same-sex acts? A thesis writer should not allow an accidental resemblance of language to lead him or her to sound such false alarms.

A similar preposterous claim appears in her conclusion when she again cites West's comments about the Church "maturing" (I think I am right that she doesn't like that claim): "The memory of the dissent from Humanae Vitae, which was prompted largely by contraception advocates' dashed expectations that the encyclical would alter official teachings, should serve as a warning against suggesting to the faithful that the Church's doctrine keeps pace with changing times" (ET, 77). West has no expectation that Church doctrine will or should change. He is a fierce defender of Church teaching as it is.


Eden repeatedly rejects West's characterization of preconciliar Catholics as "often repressive" and finds that here too West has "set up a hermeneutic of discontinuity." (ET, 64) She does not argue that it is false that there was at one time and may be even now in some places, a tendency to teach the Church's teaching about sexuality in a repressive fashion. I believe it would be difficult to contest that claim. In fact Eden notes West's characterization "no doubt resonates with certain members of his audience." (ET, 63)

Let me note that when some ancient texts and moral theology textbooks were translated into English the portions on sexual morality were left in Latin. (e.g., Chapter 10 of Book II of The Instructor by: Clement of Alexander and Part VI, Chapt III of A Manual of Moral Theology by Rev. Thomas Slater, S.J.). Undoubtedly there were some good reasons for that practice, but it suggests some "repression" to me. I believe it is not only because fewer priests today can read Latin, that passages about sex are no longer written in Latin; certainly a willingness to talk about matters of sexuality more openly today, has also led the Church to stop that practice.

Not all teaching about sexual morality has been marked by repression and certainly such instruction was a misrepresentation of the Church's magisterial teaching. But West is not claiming that magisterial teaching was repressive. Rather, he is speaking about what has been the experience of many in learning about sexuality from their families and communities. We always need to make a distinction between what the Church teaches at the magisterial level and what some of those who teach (parents, educators, etc.) say the Church teaches. West frequently makes this distinction, and it is an important one. I agree with Jimmy Akin (whom Eden cites, ET, 65) who notes that few Catholics could truthfully say that they have heard any priest say the body is shameful or sex is dirty. But I suspect most people haven't heard priests say anything about the body or sex; it is a topic rarely taught or preached in the parishes – often because priests weren't taught well about sexual morality when they were in the seminary. Certainly, repression is likely less of a problem today than in the past – although stories of parents who still refuse to educate their children about sexual morality abound. I suspect parents are unable to provide good instruction because they never received good instruction themselves. Unfortunately currently most Catholics are being formed by a licentious culture rather than the Church and have come to think and live in ways very contrary to Church teaching. West certainly knows that this is now the norm. Whether the "teaching" fails in the direction of repression or in the direction of laxity, it remains a problem that Catholics are not getting sound teaching about sexuality. West's work in promoting the Theology of the Body is doing a lot to redress that problem in a very effective fashion.

Eden faults West with using "frustration" at previous repressive ways of teaching as a "starting point" for catechesis on marriage and sex. (ET, 63) I don't believe she has established that West advises using this as a starting point or that he uses it as a starting point. She notes he expresses his own "frustration" at having received such teaching on p. 69 of his book Good News about Sex and Marriage. (ET, 63, fn. 3) Page 69 is not the "starting point". Eden fears that "using frustration at such 'repression' as a starting point for catechesis" "sets up a hermeneutic of discontinuity, suggesting that to love today's Church is to resent yesterday's Church." (ET, 64) What evidence does Eden have that West's teachings cause people to "resent" yesterday's Church? Does all criticism of "yesterday's Church" foster resentment and is it thus wrong to criticize yesterday's Church? Who would deny that across the board, catechetical teaching in the US for several decades was seriously inadequate if not erroneous? Bishops have lamented how poor catechesis has been (e.g., "Archbishop Hughes outlines Deficiencies and a Plan of Action"). Are they guilty of fostering resentment and setting up a hermeneutic of discontinuity?

Eden maintains that West's claim that the Theology of the Body is causing a "new sexual revolution" "implies discontinuity." (ET, 66) I suppose it might – but not a discontinuity with Church teaching. Eden fails to understand several claims West makes. He is claiming at least these three things, all defensible, in my view: 1) that those who teach Church teaching about sexuality and who use the concepts of the Theology of the Body, will present it in a more positive way than it has often been presented in the past; 2) that the teachings of the Theology of the Body have given us a much deeper understanding of the way that the body reveals truths about man and God; and 3) that if people understand and live by the teachings of the Theology of the Body, there will be a revolution in sexual conduct. None of these claims involve a "hermeneutic of discontinuity".

Yes, West believes that if people live by the TOB there will be a "new sexual revolution". He states, "As more and more people are discovering, John Paul II devoted the first major teaching project of his pontificate – 129 talks delivered between September 1979 and November 1984 – to developing just such a theology: a theology of the body. The end result is a revolution not only for Catholics, but for all Christians, and – if Christians take it up and live it – for the whole world." Here he is clearly not referring to any revolution in Church teaching – he is referring to need for a revolution in behavior. If people accept the Theology of the Body and live it, the world will be radically different. That would indeed be a revolution.

The Importance of Tone

Any academic work that includes remarks that are inappropriate "put-downs" will prevent readers from approaching that work as fair-handed analysis of a subject. In my view, Eden presents her work in such a way that it will dissuade many from taking her work seriously and rightly so.

Refusal to Admit Error

In her speech given at her thesis defense, Eden notes that West has taken a sabbatical to work on his methodology concerning the Theology of the Body. She remarks, "This is noteworthy because it marks the first time West has ever publicly affirmed a willingness to reflect upon his presentation, something that his critics have asked of him for nearly ten years." Eden may not have know of all the changes that West has made in the past but she should have taken into account the West's piece on concupiscence, which he wrote in response to last summer's "dust up" about his work. In it, he says: "I want to thank those of you who offered thoughtful critiques of my work and helpful suggestions on how to improve it. I have taken them to heart. Indeed, I have always weighed my critics' observations carefully and prayerfully. They have helped me refine my approach a great deal over the years and I remain very grateful for that." In her preface to the third edition of her thesis, Eden responds to those who have called her on her false statement that West refuses to reflect on his presentations. She does not admit that she was wrong; rather, she simply says that West needs to make even more corrections. Eden should just admit she was wrong. After all, scholars and presenters occasionally make errors, and there should be no shame in admitting this. It is best simply to admit one's errors and thank one's critics for pointing them out (as West does).

Definitive Interpreter

In her defense speech, Eden states that "Christopher West presents himself as the definitive interpreter of teachings of John Paul II." Certainly, West has never claimed to be such. Furthermore, West lauds the work of Michael Waldstein and others, and he has never published against others' interpretations of the work of John Paul II, as the "definitive interpreter" might be expected to do. Eden herself may not yet be enough of an expert on the Theology of the Body to be publicly critiquing the work of an author whose writings and presentations have been favorably reviewed both by bishops and top scholars.

Teaching Authority

In her defense speech, Eden states: "Until last year, when his then-ordinary Bishop Kevin Rhoades and Cardinal Rigali issued a public endorsement of his work, the main evidence that he offered for his teaching authority was that he was fulfilling an imperative laid out by George Weigel in his 1999 biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope." What purpose does it serve to question West's "teaching authority"? Again, I would caution thesis writers about making implicit accusations that don't bear on the questions at hand: does West interpret the Theology of the Body correctly or not; does he teach anything contrary to the faith? He, like Eden, holds a master's degree in theological studies. Moreover he has taught in seminaries at the invitation of several bishops known for the loyalty to the Magisterium. I would advise those with master's degrees (really anyone) to be very cautious about questioning the judgment of loyal bishops.

To assert that one has found serious errors (Eden's Thesis, 63, "ET") that have escaped the notice of bishops who have a legitimate claim to be judges of the fidelity of an author's work suggests that one is lacking in docility and humility. Certainly, I would have recommended that a thesis critical of episcopal judgment not be made public, but that the findings be sent privately to the bishops for their assessment. I would particularly recommend that the author not make the thesis public in such as way as to suggest that the bishop being criticized would welcome such publication. Some may find that it smacks of real chutzpah that Eden took the opportunity of Cardinal Rigali's address to the Theology of the Body conference calling for promotion of the Theology of the Body to "release" a thesis accusing West of making errors in his presentation of Church teaching.

In fact, if Eden is still confident that her work exposes serious errors in West's work and that he is a danger to others, I believe she has a moral obligation to submit her concerns to bishops (perhaps the committee on catechesis would be a place to start) and they can decide whether they need to challenge the imprimaturs and endorsements that have been given by members of their own rank.

Faulty Evidence

I would definitely caution a thesis writer against citing a questioner at Columbia University who reported that Catholics who "know the Theology of the Body" have some strange ideas about dating, the implication being that West is responsible for such strange ideas. (Eden's Defense Speech) Such comments may be appropriate in advocacy journalism but have no place in a scholarly work.

Too Much Information

Scholars need to respect the intelligence of their readers and not give them information they can be presumed to know. Eden instructs her readers about the endorsement given to West's work by Bishop Rhoades and Cardinal Rigali: "It is important to note what an episcopal blessing is not. Namely, it is not a canonization – the Church does not canonize living people – and neither is it an imprimatur upon everything that a teacher of the Faith articulates." (Preface to ET, no page number provided) It is doubtful that any of Eden's readers are incapable of distinguishing an episcopal blessing from a canonization, or need instruction that living people are not canonized or that an imprimatur does not imply agreement with everything a presenter says. Again, this is not the careful language of a well-written thesis.

Range of a Thesis

Students often attempt to accomplish too much in a thesis. They take upon themselves too many topics and, thus, can treat none thoroughly or well. A thesis that examines ten themes and also assesses a set of critiques definitely takes on too much. Moreover, Eden spends much more of her time discussing what West has said in columns rather than in his books. It would have been best had she confined herself to critiquing West's Theology of the Body Explained. I direct my students to stick to high-level sources; authors generally speak more freely in columns and with less precision. Their most considered thought is to be found in their more formal presentations. If a student wishes to criticize both, I recommend keeping such critiques separate, for such diverse types of publications should be held to different standards.

Moreover, a thesis should just be a thesis. Eden portrays her work as an act of "fraternal correction" ("Dawn Eden releases free copy of Theology of the Body on CNA") That is not an appropriate task for a thesis. I also advise people on how to engage in fraternal correction (this essay is not an exercise in fraternal correction!). I recommend that they give as charitable a reading as possible of everything said or done by the person being corrected (for distortions and misrepresentations are lethal); that they take an irenic and conciliatory tone (for snideness corrodes); and that they approach only those with whom they have a good relationship. But offering such advice is not my task here. I am merely assessing Eden's thesis as a thesis, not as an exercise in fraternal correction.

Clearly, a student who has received the above feedback might say, "All your objections are about 'tone.' What about all the work I did? All the documents I cited? Haven't I shown that X's work is terribly flawed? Isn't that the most important thing?" Of course, substance is more important than tone, but if one takes an aggressive or ad hominem tone, one is less likely to earn a receptive hearing. A bad tone can convey to the reader that the critic has a personal agenda against a particular author; that the critic has produced a polemic rather than a sober scholarly analysis. A critic needs to take care to set up the argument in such a way that he or she earns the reader's trust. Then, the critic must provide sufficient evidence that the objections he or she makes about a work are well substantiated. The critic needs to find suitable sources to demonstrate that the author does, in fact, hold the positions that the critic finds objectionable. Otherwise, the reader concludes that the critic hasn't read closely and is only gathering firewood for burning. If the critic is going into an author's work simply to find material that can be construed to fit a charge, eventually that will emerge and the critic's case will collapse.

Let me go on record as saying that nothing in Eden's thesis, gives me any reason to believe that West is claiming some discontinuity of the TOB with Church teaching (the only criticism I have analyzed in this critique). A great deal of what she does in her defense of this criticism leads me to conclude that Eden cannot be trusted as an evaluator of West's work. Those who are inclined to approve of her work because they like her conclusions are obliged to take a close look at how (or if) she has supported those conclusions.

Those who have concerns with the work of Christopher West should publish in respectable journals so that there is some hope that the work will need to respect standards of fairness. Those who think his work is dangerous to the faithful should take their concerns to the bishops rather than creating a firestorm on the internet that ignites amazingly irresponsible criticism of work that has received imprimaturs and endorsements. That West's work has received such approval does not, of course, mean that it is without flaws and cannot be improved. West has quite considerably changed his approach from his early days and will undoubtedly adjust it in the future. But to assail his work in the way that many are doing on the internet is to do a grave injustice to a man who has been appropriately submissive to the bishops and shown a willingness to learn. Let's us remember that West was among the first if not the first to recognize the great appeal the John Paul II's Theology of the Body has for evangelizing Catholics who know very little about their faith. There was very little scholarship to guide him in his work. More and more scholarship is appearing, more and more popularizers are appearing; they will learn from West and he will learn from them.

In fact, there is one good service that Eden's thesis can provide. If people who seek truth track down her sources to see how faithfully she has presented West's thought, I believe they will encounter some terrific material. They will read some pages of his work and some of his columns and get drawn into reading more of his material. I believe they will learn a great deal.

I am sorry that Eden's academic career has been launched with the publication of this thesis. I believe she is an intelligent and talented person, but to serve the Church well, she will need to do much more careful work than is exhibited in her thesis.


  1. In my initial version of this critique, I critiqued Eden's tone first, simply because as a thesis reader, I work my way through a piece step by step. But I found in presenting the critique publically, readers took my comments on her tone to infer that I focused on the "accidental" features of Eden's work and did not pay enough attention to the substance. The approach also served to display such frustration with her tone that readers were less able to assess fairly my critique of the substance of the work. Indeed, I committed the same offense I accused Eden of: "biasing" the reader before a critique was offered. Mea culpa. I have deleted some portions on tone and added a few general comments. So in this version, I begin with substance, since it is unarguably more important than tone. I do turn to tone at the end, because it, too, is important.




Janet E. Smith. "Engaging Dawn Eden's Thesis." CERC (October 5, 2010).

Offered with permission of the author, Janet Smith.


Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of Life Issues, Medical Choices: Questions and Answers for Catholics, Beginning Apologetics 5: How to Answer Tough Moral Questions–Abortion, Contraception, Euthanasia, Test-Tube Babies, Cloning, & Sexual Ethics, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and the editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right. She has published many articles on ethical and bioethics issues. She has taught at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Dallas. Prof. Smith has received the Haggar Teaching Award from the University of Dallas, the Prolife Person of the Year from the Diocese of Dallas, and the Cardinal Wright Award from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. She is serving a second term as a consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family. Over a million copies of her talk, "Contraception: Why Not" have been distributed. Visit Janet Smith's web page here. See Janet Smith's audio tapes and writing here. Janet Smith is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2010 Janet Smith

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