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The Need to Read Carefully: A Response to Alice von Hildebrand's Critique of Christopher West


One of the benefits of being on the circuit is the opportunity to meet some fascinating and remarkable people, whether they are other speakers, organizers, or attendees.

Janet E. Smith

It has been my privilege to have met both Alice von Hildebrand and Christopher West. I have a great respect and fondness for both. In ways, they are quite similar; they are intense, and passionate, and dedicated to the Truth and the Church.

I wrote a blurb for one of von Hildebrand's books, and I have enjoyed debating with her the merits of Plato over Aristotle. (This disagreement I have with von Hildebrand is not the first; I also disagree with her assessment of Aristotle and Aquinas; it is a friendly disagreement. Such a thing does exist!) I have read many of her late husband's works and have greatly profited from them. I particularly love Transformation in Christ, Christian Ethics, and, of course, In Defense of Purity.

Alice von Hildebrand is a philosopher who has been a tremendous model of courage and perseverance in defending the truth in a very hostile academic environment. She is a true warrior at heart, and, in her fight against erroneous ideas, she takes no prisoners. She is a master at detecting philosophical nonsense and decimating it with fierce argumentation. She is ferociously loyal to those she loves and the ideas she champions. With most audiences, she is a terrific hit. Some, however, observe that she may not fully appreciate what truth there may be in false philosophies or why so many are drawn to error. Those of us who love her, however, wouldn't want to change her a bit.

I have taught three courses for the Theology of the Body Institute, which also promotes the work of Christopher West. I have used his materials and find them to be faithful to the work of John Paul II and pedagogically excellent. West is not so much a warrior against false philosophies as someone who reaches out to those who are sexually wounded and need healing, as well as those who have a deep desire to know the Church's teaching about sexuality. He is full of compassion for those who have bought the lies of our culture, and he reaches out to them, "meeting them on their own turf," so to speak. West does not allow his revulsion at certain acts and practices to prevent him from attempting to understand what draws some people to such actions. This has led some to criticize him for using language and images that, according to his critics, do not show sufficient reverence for sex. Some fail to see that West has made considerable changes in his presentation of the Theology of the Body over the years. Some examples: he rerecorded his DVD/CD series on the Theology of the Body and altered language some have found offensive; he has revised his book Good News about Sex and Marriage to clarify a few matters some found problematic; and he laboriously rewrote his Theology of the Body Explained upon the publication of Michael Waldstein's Man and Woman He Created Them. Those of us who believe that West does wonderful work want him to continue to forge ahead with his terrifically effective style. In our view, he responds well to feedback (which all speakers need) and we are confident that his presentations will continue to improve.

Because I respect von Hildebrand and others who have criticized West's work, I have read their critiques carefully. I have tried to see whether my enthusiasm for his work has led me to overlook flaws or truly objectionable elements (as opposed to matters of taste). Since von Hildebrand is a fellow academic and has enormous influence, it seems appropriate that I respond to her critique of West.

I am moved to make this response not only because I am on record as supporting West, but also because I know individuals who have never read the Theology or the Body or who are not much acquainted with West's work who are using von Hildebrand's essay to obstruct what I believe to be a very important apostolate. I know that von Hildebrand has the noblest of motives; in her desire to lead the culture to a greater reverence for sex, she wants to protect people from the serious errors she believes to be present in West's works. Sadly, von Hildebrand's piece on Christopher West does not exhibit the fairness and charity embodied and championed in the works of both von Hildebrands. Indeed, in a 2009 interview, von Hildebrand admitted that she has not read John Paul II's Theology of the Body. In addition, there is no evidence that that has changed or that she has much firsthand knowledge of West's work. A mark of a good scholar is to make the effort to present the positions one is critiquing in as fair and even charitable fashion a manner as possible, which, of course, requires first hand knowledge of the sources. Furthermore, von Hildebrand's essay in some sections has the unfortunate tone of some of those whom she thanks as her advisors rather than the scholarly tone one typically associates with the von Hildebrands. I personally know how hard it is to strike just the right tone, but portions of her piece read as if they were written by someone other than von Hildebrand.

If West were truly as von Hildebrand portrays him, I, too, would have misgivings about him as a presenter of the Theology of the Body. Yet, many of us who have heard and read West do not find the West we have come to know in von Hildebrand's depiction of him. It puzzles me greatly that von Hildebrand sees West as a danger, as one soft on pornography, sodomy, and evil, as one who is irreverent toward sex; that he values pleasure over morality and doesn't understand the importance of "shame." Zeal to protect Church teaching from distortion and to protect people from such distortions is truly admirable, but great care must be taken not to let that zeal overcome a respect for accuracy and for persons.

Blaming whom?

Von Hildebrand makes the curious charge that West blames others for his sexual sins. She quotes him as saying, "Had I been taught how wonderful and beautiful the Catholic vision of sex and marriage actually is, perhaps I would have thought it something worth holding out for. Perhaps I would have been spared the pain I inflicted on myself and others." And then she comments, "Here, West falls into a contemporary trap. The tua culpa [you are at fault] has replaced the mea culpa [I am at fault]. To assume that those who fall into sexual sin necessarily would have led a pure life, had one's parents or teachers been more 'open' in their approach to the intimate sphere, is pure illusion." Is this the most straightforward and sensible interpretation of West's remarks? Isn't West saying that he was the one who inflicted the pain? During my speaking engagements, I regularly hear people say, "If I had heard what you are saying when I was young, maybe I wouldn't have made all the very sinful mistakes I made." Isn't West simply making a plea that young people be taught the truth about sex so that they can avoid sin. Isn't that one of the reasons Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote his book about purity?

Pornography as Junk Food and Hugh Hefner

Von Hildebrand also doesn't like what West says about pornography. She states: "Another mistake West makes is to assume that pornography is "an understandable if sinful and misguided effort to quench the sexual impulse." She quotes him as having told an interviewer, "God gave us that desire. When we go to pornography to satisfy that desire, it's like eating junk food. It's not going to satisfy the legitimate hunger and need of the human heart." Von Hildebrand takes exception to West's comparison of pornography with junk food by noting that many people "like" junk food (isn't that West's point?). It is difficult to see how this supports the suggestion that West is somehow soft on pornography. I have read and reread this section of her essay, and I have not been able to grasp the difficulty von Hildebrand finds in West's comparison of pornography to junk food. West also speaks of how using pornography is like eating from a dumpster which indicates what he thinks of pornography. Von Hildebrand closes by saying that pornography is "not just unhealthy food" but a "veritable poison." To suggest that West thinks otherwise is, again, not to know the man or his works. Is it really necessary to point out that one of the major purposes of West's whole apostolate is to fight pornography? Let me be as clear as possible on this point: West HATES pornography and, in fact, is doing a terrific job of getting men to have a proper understanding of sex and to stop using pornography.

Von Hildebrand tells us, "I cannot describe what Dietrich thought of pornography; the very word triggered an expression of horror on his noble face. The same thing is true of sodomy." I wish von Hildebrand knew West. I think she would easily detect a similar expression of horror on his face. If she knew West, she would also know that he does not let his revulsion for pornography and sodomy prevent him from attempting to understand, minister to, and convert those who are inclined to use pornography.

West's comments on Hugh Hefner greatly offend von Hildebrand. In her 2009 interview, she stated, "His mere mention of Hugh Hefner is to my mind an abomination." How can she begin to understand what West is doing with his mention of Hefner if this is her a priori? Again, West has committed his life to fighting the effects of those who think and act like Hefner; he is trying to rescue the millions of souls who have been harmed by Hugh Hefner. This does not 1) prevent him from understanding why so many are drawn to Hefner, and 2) seeing that Hefner is a child of God who needs to be understood and prayed for that he is "tarnished gold." (I think that is a lovely phrase, not a misleading one, as von Hildebrand maintains). I believe West's remarks are somewhat like the often quoted statement that the man knocking on a brothel door is really looking for God.

Tragic not Filthy

In recounting the story of David and Bathsheba, von Hildebrand tells us that "Dietrich would call David's sins diabolical temptations.'" Surely West would, too. Von Hildebrand states, "And one should never downplay, or minimize, the gravity of these evils. It is plainly false to claim that such abuses are tragic,' rather than filthy.'" She seems to be suggesting that West downplays the evil because she thinks he would call David's story "tragic" rather than "filthy." (Did he? Where? In what context?) What did he mean by the distinction? Why does von Hildebrand seem to think "tragic" is a weak word? "Tragic" arguably is a much stronger word than "filthy." I came to understand the word "tragedy" through study of Greek tragedy; there, "tragic" connotes that a great man has knowingly performed a very wrong action and deserves to suffer horrible consequences. Or in the more popular parlance, "tragic" means a tsunami-level disaster. On the face of it, calling the story of David and Bathsheba "tragic" does not in the least suggest a downplaying of the evil. Surely that was not West's intent (if he in fact made that distinction), and he would undoubtedly be surprised that he would be understood in such a way.

Von Hildebrand again suggests that West downplays evil when she talks about West's column on the Vagina Monologues. Again she implies that West's response to the play differs from what her husband's presumed reaction would be that Satan was involved in this sphere. Again she charges that West calls the play "tragic" rather than "filthy." Von Hildebrand does give a source for this charge and thus I was able to check the context. Although West does not call the play "filthy," he does call it vulgar (isn't "vulgar" close enough to "filthy"?). Nor does he call the play "tragic." What he calls "tragic" is the fact that so many young people have a false view of sex and haven't heard the message of the Church. The column challenges those who find the play very objectionable (as does he) to consider if a simple condemnation of the play is sufficient, or if we should try to understand why a young generation finds it appealing. The column, in fact, helped me better understand women who are promiscuous and who allow their bodies to be disrespected; it helped me have more love for them and understand a way of approaching them that draws upon the truths of the Theology of the Body. I urge people to read West's column and see if West is in the least soft on evil. (


Von Hildebrand calls West a "sex enthusiast," a strange term to use in a piece that is presented as a philosophical critique. She even seems to suggest that West is akin to Havelock Ellis, that West thinks "pleasure" rather than God should be the "King of the Bedroom." If she had read West, von Hildebrand would know that he absolutely thinks that God is the King of the Bedroom and when He is, spouses experience greater pleasure, the greater pleasure that happens when sexual intercourse is an expression of self-gift rather than an act of self-indulgence.

Von Hildebrand tells us that her husband's key word in his books was "love," not "pleasure." She thus seems to suggest that the key word in West's works is "pleasure." But West stresses that the key to the Theology of the Body is the theme of "self-gift." Why not take him at his word?

Insensitive Language

Von Hildebrand writes against vulgarizing the holy, and mentions objectionable remarks made by some priests. Is she implying that West belongs in their company? Indeed, she concludes that "Christopher West's presentations consistently use language that lacks sensitivity, thereby obscuring the good inherent in marriage and the marital embrace." Again, she does not provide even one instance of such offensive language. If, as she claims, West uses such language consistently, then it should be very easy to find. In reality, he rarely uses language that could be construed as "insensitive," and even then perhaps largely by those who find any references to pop culture to be offensive. This charge ("vulgar speaking") seems to have been perpetuated to the point where it is commonly accepted. Again, West redid his whole talk series precisely in response to feedback about speech; he is more mature; his talks are more mature.

West is a fantastic speaker; he speaks extemporaneously and freely. Such speakers are immensely more enjoyable to listen to than those who read from a script. But there are risks to such a style; the choice of words may not be as precise as desired, and this may lead some in the audience to misunderstand what is really being said. The speaker may choose better words and examples for future events, but it is not wrong to expect that others will at least have a charitable interpretation of a speaker's attempts to convey difficult truths.

I have been on the speaking circuit for many years. Sometimes, I am surprised at the reaction of my audience to the words I choose or the examples I provide. Once when I was speaking to a group of college students about contraception, I kept using the phrase, "having sexual intercourse." One young man raised his hand and said, "You apparently can repeat that phrase with clinical detachment, but I am having a hard time disciplining my thoughts." That put me in a bit of quandary since I couldn't use various phrases such as "marital embrace" or "marital union" because I wasn't talking about married people. I don't think the euphemisms "making love" or "engaging in intimate relations" work either, because I was talking about the unmarried and I don't think their sexual acts are either loving or truly intimate. "Having sex" is a precise description, but I certainly didn't want my choice of words to be an occasion of sin for anyone in my audience. So for the moment I just referred to "that act that they shouldn't have been doing," but the situation drove home to me the distance that can exist between a speaker and an audience, and how words that are not problematic in themselves can cause problems for some.

Only recently, when trying to convey to an audience how much God loves us, I asked them to recall the time when they first fell in love, and how their behavior may have resembled that of stalkers. For emphasis I added "pathological" to "stalkers," which is probably redundant, but even redundancy has its usefulness. When speaking of love and God, hyperbole comes naturally. Lovers want to know everything about their beloved. They want to be with them always; they think of them all the time and want their beloved to do the same. I said that God is a lot like that. What an explosion of outrage on some blogs! I was accused of committing a heresy by attributing disease to God. If this frenzy concerning West and his supporters were not in full swing, my words would likely have received no reaction. After all, Francis Thompson spoke of God as "the hound of heaven," and St. Catherine of Siena spoke about God as a "fool or one drunk with love." How would they fare in today's blogosphere?

A Book Review

Instead of providing any examples of "insensitive" language that West consistently uses, von Hildebrand criticizes him for writing a positive review of Greg Popcak's book Holy Sex , and objects to West's endorsement: "Every engaged and married couple on the planet should have a copy." She thinks he is somehow suggesting that "readers.should feel sorry for married people who, because of their age, had no access to such a treasure when they were young." She believes that West is implying that anyone who hasn't read Popcak's book (such as St. Elizabeth of Hungary) could ever have a happy marriage. It seems to me there is a serious leap between West's endorsement (undoubtedly hyperbolic most positive reviews are) and the conclusion that he thinks no one did have or could have had a happy marriage without reading Popcak's book. Isn't it more reasonable to conclude that he thinks couples today who have received a warped understanding of sex from their culture could be helped by this book? Since von Hildebrand is a sophisticated philosopher, it is difficult to understand why she would use a book review to demonstrate a fault and also hard to understand why she reads the review in an implausible fashion. Von Hildebrand mentions that her husband, instead, would have praised books like St Augustine's Confessions and St Francis De Sales Introduction to the Devout Life. The implication seems to be that West would prefer Popcak to them. But what is the evidence for this implication?

Von Hildebrand then criticizes Popcak's book and seemingly holds West responsible for everything in it. I read Popcak's book and gave it a positive blurb, as did Bishop Conlon of Steubenville, Robert George, Mark Shea, Pia de Solenni, and others; I doubt that any of us agree with everything in it. Talking about sex is always problematic: people have very different comfort levels for what is appropriate speech and action in this area. Clearly Popcak's book is not to Alice von Hildebrand's tastes, but this does not mean the text is not what a different generation needs. I wonder if she has read Dawn Eden's book, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On. (Does von Hildebrand find that title reverent?) The book is remarkably explicit in its treatment of sexuality, but speaking explicitly about sex is not per se irreverent. I am very impressed with and grateful for Eden's book, and I am hoping it will rescue someone I love from a very bad lifestyle. But what does all of this have to do with West as a reliable interpreter of John Paul II's Theology of the Body?


Some readers may want to skip this section. It is not a subject I enjoy discussing, but such a discussion because von Hildebrand's brings it up. She does not approve of the answer West gave in the first edition of his book Good News about Sex and Marriage to the question about what the Church teaches about anal penetration as a part of foreplay. Some seem to believe that West is even wrong to address such a question. While this topic is not part of West's public presentation, he treats it in his book because people have asked about it. It is unfair for West's critics to focus on this issue, as though it were a central part of his work.

Von Hildebrand, rejecting the view that such an act could ever be moral, comes perilously close to accusing West of approving sodomy (which, according the definition of traditional Catholic moralists, involves the completion of the sexual act in the anus) whereas he undeniably he rejects such an act. In the book's first edition, West simply provided the answer about Church teaching about such an action that has often been given in moral theology classes in seminaries and graduate programs (I don't know that it is ever addressed at the undergraduate level). I know a professor of moral theology who received his degree from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family who learned there just what West states in his first edition. Attempting to give the Church's teaching, and not his own view, West stated that "There's nothing inherently wrong with anal penetration [versus actual sodomy] as foreplay to normal intercourse." Nonetheless, he goes on to speak strongly against the use of anal penetration as being detrimental to the dignity of spouses. In the revised edition, he takes an even stronger stance against the act.

The fact is the Church does not have a formal teaching about the morality of such an action. And not because it is an issue that has not been discussed; if it were obviously wrong, one would think it would be easy enough for the Church to say so or at least to stop giving imprimaturs to books that teach what West stated. Moral theologians for centuries have debated the issue, and respected theologians whose books have received imprimaturs have argued both sides of the issue. For instance, in the 1912 edition of Theologia Moralis, Editio Nova by St. Alphonsus Liguori (written in 1748), we read this question: "Whether a man sins mortally by beginning intercourse in the posterior receptacle (the anus), so as to consummate it afterwards in the appropriate receptacle (the vagina)?" The answer given to that question is: "[Various theologians] deny it is a mortal sin as long as there is no danger of pollution [ejaculation outside of the vagina] because all other touches (as they say), even if sexual, are not gravely illicit among spouses. But it is more generally and truly affirmed [to be a mortal sin] by [various theologians], because coitus itself of this kind (even if without insemination) is true sodomy, although not consummated, just as copulation in the natural vessel of another woman is true fornication, even if insemination does not take place."[1] Liguori supports the view of those who argue that anal penetration as foreplay is a mortal sin.

But St. Alphonsus' view did not settle the debate. Over the centuries, theologians continued to teach both opinions. Gerald Kelly, S.J. and John Ford, S.J. who were strong defenders of the Church's teaching on sexual matters, counseled for caution against letting one's own sexual sensitivities determine moral judgment. As Kelly and Ford state: "Practices such as these are repugnant and shocking to a great many people, and intolerable to some, but their morality cannot be decided on the basis of emotional reactions which, though normal, are apparently not universal. People differ very widely in their estimates of what is shameful or disgusting in sexual matters, these differences being the result of differing cultural backgrounds, family attitudes, sexual education, natural temperament, and other factors." [2]

In both editions of his book, West clearly expresses his own disapproval of an action about which the Church has not made a pronouncement and about which the Church has shown tolerance of conflicting views. For my part, on the basis of the principle that when the insertion of one bodily part into a bodily part of another causes pain (I am supposing it does), is unhygienic and probably degrading (seems so to me), it is likely wrong. But I don't know a lot about what might lead some couples to do certain things and I don't think it is right to present my repugnance for such actions as equivalent to Church teaching. Nor, it seems, does West. Again, I think West gets his answer to the question of what the Church teaches about anal penetration right; it doesn't have a formal teaching and has shown a tolerance for permitting it if a part of foreplay. He makes clear that he, on the other hand, thinks it ought not to be done.

Freud and Phallic Symbols

I don't understand what von Hildebrand means when she says that "West follows Freudian thought, looking for understanding in the lower rather than the higher." To what is she referring? West, following John Paul II, believes that the human body, made as it is in the image and likeness of God, reveals something to us both about God and man. Does that mean he is looking for understanding in the lower rather than the higher? Aren't the things of this world (as St. Bonaventure taught) meant to be a step to the world of divinity?

I suspect von Hildebrand misspoke when she said "[it is wrong to believe] that whatever is sexual gives us a spiritual meaning, when in fact the exact opposite is the case." The exact opposite would mean that whatever is spiritual gives us a sexual meaning, and that would make von Hildebrand guilty of the Freudianism of which she accuses West. But, of course, von Hildebrand doesn't mean that. She likely means that the spiritual illuminates the sexual, rather than the sexual illuminates the spiritual. I think John Paul II is saying that both illuminate each other. Moreover, it seems clear that West certainly does not hold that "whatever is sexual gives us a spiritual meaning."

Von Hildebrand and others object to West's reference to the Easter Candle as a phallic symbol again, an issue that is in no way central to his presentations. Nonetheless, this view is held by some respectable liturgists. How are we to understand this claim by Monsignor Nicola Bux, professor of sacramental theology at the University of Bari in Italy, and a consultor of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and the Office for Pontifical Celebrations: "In the baptismal liturgy, the priest, standing before the font, blesses the water singing the prayer: Oh God, through the sacramental signs; while he invokes: Descend, Father, on this water. He can submerge the Paschal candle in the water once or three times. The meaning is profound: the priest is the fertilizing organ of the ecclesial womb, symbolized by the baptismal pool. Truly in the person of Christ Head he engenders children that, as father, he fortifies with the chrism and nourishes with the Eucharist. Also by reason of the marital functions to the Church Bride, the priest must be a man. All the mystical meaning of Easter is manifested in the priestly identity, coming to fullness, the pleroma, as the East says. With him sacramental initiation reaches its culmination and Christian life the center." ( Father Dominic Serra argues that it should not be so considered ("The Blessing of Baptismal Water at the Paschal Vigil: Ancient Texts and Modern Revisions," Worship 64:2 (1990), 142-156.) So as far as I can see, liturgists and historians (such as Father Hugo Rahner) who object to the Easter Candle as a phallic symbol do not say they reject it because the mere proposition is unspeakably vulgar. They argue that the candle represents either the tree of life or a source of light for various liturgical reasons. They do not argue that the phallus is in itself an obscene object and has no place anywhere near the sacred. How could they? Otherwise there would be even more loin cloths in the Sistine Chapel (which John Paul II calls the "Theology of the Body in art"). I leave the liturgists to work this out. In the meantime, I would recommend that West cease to speak of the Easter Candle in this way because it causes such a ruckus.

One more thing: The fact that that analogy is one of the major objections to West corresponds to something I have observed. Many people Catholics included seem to think that the sexual organs are inherently "dirty" and that sexual intercourse is of its very nature "naughty." Augustine, after all, referred to the sexual organs as "pudenda": objects of shame (and not the positive shame of which John Paul II speaks). In his view, we need to be ashamed of them because they lead us to lust. Many people think that although marriage justifies sexual intercourse, it remains largely a naughty, dirty activity. What John Paul II's Theology of the Body seeks to establish, among many other truths, is that "in the beginning" our sexuality was not at all sinful or an object of shame. He also argues that traces of the goodness of our sexuality remain, and that Christ came to restore our sexuality to its original goodness. The "naughtiness" of sex is not inherent in it; it is a result of the Fall (the effects of which have been catastrophic, especially in the sexual sphere) and there are possibilities of redemption that we likely don't fully realize. A reaction to the phallus as something unspeakably obscene shows that the effects of the Fall go very deep.

The Placenta

Von Hildebrand's response to West's likening the birth of his son to the birth of Jesus is curious. She believes it is incorrect to think that Mary may have expelled a bloody placenta. Pregnant wombs have placentas. Did not Mary's? Would it be wrong to think it might have been bloody? Christ's body was covered with blood when he died, was it not? Scripture itself makes reference to Mary's womb and breasts; is the placenta really so objectionable that it could not be mentioned? West has good company in his thinking. St Jerome argued: "Add, if you like, Helvidius, the other humiliations of nature, the womb for nine months growing larger, the sickness, the delivery, the blood, the swaddling-clothes. Picture to yourself the infant in the enveloping membranes. Introduce into your picture the hard manger, the wailing of the infant, the circumcision on the eighth day, the time of purification, We do not blush, we are not put to silence." (St. Jerome, The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary Against Helvidius;

Particular Gifts

Von Hildebrand asserts that "one of the gifts God gave to Dietrich von Hildebrand was to perceive the call of the hour." I have no doubt he would be waging war on the most insidious evils of our time: abortion above all, but also the philosophical assumptions that underlie it, which produce other evils. He would devote all his talents to make people realize that dictatorial relativism, to quote Pope Benedict, and all its wicked offshootsespecially abortion and pornography are manifestations of Satan's attacks on our post-Christian society." How can von Hildbrand not see that West is waging a ferocious battle against these evils? I believe God gave West a tremendous gift that is just what our times need. He was ahead of virtually everyone else in realizing how helpful John Paul II's Theology of the Body is for establishing the theological principles that will best help people avoid and fight the evils of our times and how it could be used to evangelize generations that have not had the Gospel effectively preached to them. He has labored long and hard to produce materials that make John Paul II's work that seems nearly impenetrable to some understandable and he had virtually no scholars or other popularizers to guide him. In the end, West is fighting relativism, abortion, and all the evils related to the sexual revolution by helping people understand that there is an objective truth about human beings, marriage, and spousal relations that must rule their behavior and that failure to respect and reverence that truth leads to heartbreak, abortion, divorce, pornography, and a host of other evils.

A Revolution?

I find it curious that von Hildebrand objects to calling the Theology of the Body a "revolution." Surely West does not mean that there has been a change in dogma or doctrine. And certainly he would allow that elements of the Theology of the Body can be found in previous Church teaching. Nonetheless, John Paul II, in the Theology of the Body, explained Church teachings about marriage in a unique blend of Thomism, phenomenology, personalism, and mysticism that is undoubtedly new and life-changing for many people. Often, it is their first prolonged contact with scripture as a source of fundamental truths; it is the first time they have really grasped the difference between man in his prelapsarian state, his postlapsarian state, and in his eschatological state. For these people the Theology of the Body is truly revolutionary and even a source of profound conversion.

Repeatedly, von Hildebrand asserts that West "puts too much emphasis on the body in a culture in which everything is body-centered." Does he? After all, the Theology of the Body is about the body about the spousal meaning of the body and that is just what West emphasizes. West deals with the issues and topics that John Paul II treats in the Theology of the Body in a balanced way. Others who comment on the Theology of the Body may emphasize different themes since every great author can be examined from many different angles. Some will write about "mysticism" in the Theology of the Body, others about the "procreative good," of "subjectivity," of the influences of Thomism, or asceticism and likely innumerable other topics in the Theology of the Body. These are legitimate as is West's focus on how the Theology of the Body can correct our faulty understandings of man and sexuality that has led to such sins as contraception (which is, of course, what John Paul II identifies as the central focus; see TOB 133).

Alice von Hildebrand states that only West's interpretation of John Paul II's Theology of the Body is controversial; that no one has objected to the Theology of the Body itself. I find it curious that von Hildebrand does not know that John Paul II's Theology of the Body has been seriously questioned by both conservatives and liberals. Liberal Catholics (e.g., Luke Timothy Johnson) have criticized it, as have some conservative Catholics (e.g., one author who wrote a well-received book about the Theology of the Body has since repudiated it). Liberals don't like John Paul II's Theology of the Body because he defends the Church's teaching on contraception; some Thomists don't like it because they don't like anything that involves phenomenology. West's interpretation of the Theology of the Body (and von Hildebrand nowhere shows that he has misinterpreted any text of the Theology of the Body) is not the only point of controversy about the Theology of the Body. As more scholars work on the Theology of the Body, we will find much to disagree about.

Weakness in Church "teaching?"

Von Hildebrand notes that her husband "challenged certain excesses (not fundamental truths) of Catholic teaching regarding marriage." He noted a "weakness" in Church teaching. She is proud that her husband helped the Church adjust its teaching on sexuality, which he believed unduly emphasized the procreative meaning of the sexual act, and helped elevate the meaning of love. She criticizes West for saying that "Church teaching" before the Theology of the Body taught that sex was dirty (again, where, and in what context?) and understands West to mean that the Church in its very teaching was astray, not just in the presentation of that teaching by some people in the Church. This is a serious misreading of what West means. The fact is that although Dietrich von Hildebrand was challenging only an "excess" in Church teaching, his challenge was to the Magisterium itself, whereas West's challenge is only to some who present Church teaching. Prof. Michael Waldstein is writing a book on Dietrich von Hildebrand where he demonstrates that the Magisterium judged that those who held the position of von Hildebrand about the relative merits of "procreation" and "love" were not fully in accord with Church teaching, that their proposals do not pass the test of a hermeneutic of continuity. Von Hildebrand committed no sin in his proposal and in fact it did the Church good by prompting the Church to give new emphasis to a portion of its teaching that the modern world particularly needs to hear.

Viewing Naked Bodies

Von Hildebrand tells us that West recommends we should stand naked in front of a mirror so as to realize that our bodies need not be a source of shame (Where did he say this? What was the context?) Again this is not proposal he regularly makes; if he said it, it was likely said on the spur of the moment. Alice von Hildebrand also tells us that her husband would have "recoiled" at that thought. What is the likely response of looking on our naked bodies that the von Hildebrands think would lead to sin? Would we be filled with lust by looking at our own bodies? Would we become too comfortable with our bodies and thus more inclined to engage in sinful sexual practices? What is her objection? She warns against narcissism. I think looking at their own naked bodies would lead few people to narcissism. In fact, I suspect some narcissists might even become less so. I am sure West would say that those who would be led to sin by looking at themselves naked in the mirror, or who would become narcissists by doing so, ought not to. I am not convinced that von Hildebrand can sustain the argument that most people would be so led.

Two Bishops

While I will let West defend his rendition of the tale of the two bishops, I don't agree that any man who looks upon a prostitute will experience sexual attraction, as von Hildebrand asserts. Many feel compassion and sorrow when looking at a prostitute. They see a wounded person rather than the physicality of a female. They may even see her inner beauty. They become protectors rather than predators. I knew a very holy man in Vancouver who had once been a sex addict but later became an apostle to prostitutes. When he looked upon them he felt deep sorrow over his past life and for the victims so many of them were.

In explaining why some men might not feel sexual attraction to a prostitute, von Hildebrand refers to her husband's remark that some men are "insensitive" to sex. This idea unwittingly plays into the secular view that those who appear to have virtue in respect to sex are simply undersexed.

Von Hildebrand implies that West thinks a saint would say, "I am beyond and above temptations of the flesh." Does he think that? Why does she think so? I can't believe he does, or that anything he says rightfully interpreted means that. St. Thérèse of Lisieux said this about purity in writing about her trip to Rome before entering Carmel: "I prayed Our Lady of Victories to keep far from me everything that could tarnish my purity; I was fully aware that on a voyage such as this into Italy I could easily meet with things capable of troubling me. I was still unacquainted with evil and so was apprehensive about makings its discovery. I had not yet experienced that to the pure all things are pure (Titus 1:15), that the simple and upright soul sees evil in nothing since it resides only in impure hearts, not in inanimate objects." (Story of a Soul, chapter 6, pg. 123, ICS edition). I think Christopher was making this point in his story of the two bishops: "to the pure, all things are pure."

It is certainly true that anyone could experience severe temptations at some time; it is also true that Saints and truly virtuous people as well may be free from sexual and other temptations for a very long time. After all, asceticism and receiving the Sacraments do have a purpose and a good effect, don't they? Virtue is real, isn't it? Or are all attempts to discipline the flesh futile? This concept posed by West critics sounds more akin to Protestant theology's "total depravity" doctrine than it does to Catholic teaching. (For more on this see my discussion on concupiscence and continence at:

Indeed, I have spoken to married people who say that they are not troubled by sexual desires for those who are not their spouses (predictably, the wives say this more often than the husbands, but some husbands do claim this). Their love for their spouse has managed to order and thus quiet those passions. Actually, this should be expected for those who are living a full Catholic life. This is the remedium concupiscentiae that marriage offers; it "remedies" concupiscence by not by simply providing the opportunity to satiate one's desires, but rather by aiding one in rightly ordering one's desires.

Chastity Education in Schools

The end of von Hildebrand's essay is telling. She and her husband both opposed sex education in the schools, and she cites a 1929 encyclical by Pope Pius XI, seemingly to warn people against West's programs for public settings. Let me remind readers that the Holy See has approved education about sexuality in the schools; certainly parents must remain the primary educators, but schools can be helpful in promoting chastity when the programs follow certain guidelines (see, for example, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, by the Pontifical Council for the Family). Many parents have welcomed West's materials as excellent tools for educating their children.

Challenging Bishops' Endorsement

Among those who would not recognize von Hildebrand's depiction of West are Bishop Kevin Rhoades, formerly West's ordinary as Bishop of Harrisburg, and Cardinal Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia, who have given West a very strong, public endorsement. They and other bishops have asked West to come and educate their priests on the Theology of the Body. West's prudence in seeking ecclesial approval for his work indicates his docility to rightful Church authority. Perhaps von Hildebrand went public with her concerns instead of privately contacting the bishops because she is not questioning the orthodoxy of West; she is primarily critiquing his style and tone. Von Hildebrand, however, seems to think that what I consider "accidental" or non-essential elements of West's work disclose deeper problems that raise serious questions about his suitability as an educator on sexual morality. In their endorsement, Bishop Rhoades and Cardinal Rigali tell us they believe that West has a "particular charism" for the mission of promoting the Theology of the Body, and they state explicitly that he does so "with profound reverence for the mystery of human sexuality." Von Hildebrand is questioning their judgment and, it seems, largely based on what she has heard about West's work from others, rather than from direct experience.

I am not, of course, saying that it is impossible for bishops to be wrong, but I do think as a general rule that an evaluation of those who have read an author's work and hear a speaker speak is more trustworthy than evaluations of those who haven't. Moreover, bishops have a special charism for ensuring fidelity in Church teaching and by extension for knowing who teaches reliably. Again, in her interview critiquing West last spring, von Hildebrand acknowledged she had read neither John Paul II's Theology of the Body or West's work on the Theology of the Body; there is virtually no evidence in her present critique that she has done so since. (What would von Hildebrand say about someone who criticized her husband's work without reading the major texts?) It is distressing that some prefer to trust von Hildebrand's assessment of West rather than that of Rhoades and Rigali.

Ridiculing St Therese

Some of von Hildebrand's responses to West are truly puzzling. For instance, von Hildebrand tells a story about St. Therese of Lisieux being grabbed as she was stepping from a train, and of rebuking the man who grabbed her. Von Hildebrand asks "Would West ridicule this great saint for being a prude'?" Why would von Hildebrand ask such a question? I can't believe she really thinks West would do such thing, but in the context of her whole essay, this question has the unfortunate effect of raising doubts not only about West's interpretation of the Theology of the Body but of his character. For the record (and I had hoped this would not be necessary to say), West would never ridicule a woman for being offended at being groped by a stranger. Rather, he would be offended for her. Those familiar with West's work and Christopher himself would know that had he been on the train, he would have severely chastised any man who disrespected any woman. West incessantly teaches that women are not to be the sexual objects of men, but are to be revered and respected. Fundamental to everything he teaches is that we are not to "use" one another.

Did the von Hildebrand I know really ask that question?

I have undertaken this response to von Hildebrand's essay only with reluctance, since I greatly admire her and I know she seeks only to do good. I have looked at the straightforward criticisms and the clear implications of von Hildebrand's essay, since I believe the cumulative effect of many of her statements could easily lead to the impression that West is a very untrustworthy person. Iago's famous statement in Othello comes to mind (Shakespeare sometimes puts wise words in the mouths of villains):

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

I truly think von Hildebrand has been misled by others to focus on fairly tangential works, such as column on a play (which she has misread) and a book review, rather than to do the careful work of critiquing West's more formal material and to adopt a tone toward a fellow faithful Christian apostle that is not characteristically hers. She seems to find what she perceives to be the frosting on the cake so distasteful that she cannot even get to tasting the cake itself. I believe she would have a very different understanding of West had she read his masterful Theology of the Body Explained, which is filled with reverence for human beings and their sexuality.

I am pleased von Hildebrand acknowledges that West has "great oratorical talent" and "does much good." I sincerely hope that those who want to get to know the "real" West will go to his work and read and hear what he says, as Bishop Rhoades and Cardinal Rigali have. I guarantee that they will meet a very different person from the one portrayed in von Hildebrand's essay. Those who read and listen thoughtfully will encounter a man through whom God has touched thousands of persons with authentic Catholic teaching on the true meaning of human love in the divine plan.

Internet Phenomenon

Let me take this occasion to make some observations about what has become an astonishing Internet phenomenon. The tone taken by some involved in the debate over the quality of West's work is truly appalling and has been a sullying and intimidating factor. People who are otherwise civil aren't so civil; people who would love to get involved stay out of the discourse to avoid receiving a vituperative response. Certainly, Christopher West's works are not above criticism, but most of us in this debate have shown that we certainly aren't either. Most of us have said something we wish we hadn't or in a way we wish we hadn't.

Both those defending West and those criticizing West are seriously frustrated. Those of us defending him find that when we carefully go step by step through some critique and show that West did not say what a critic says he said, his critics respond, "Well, just because X has not shown that West is guilty of Y, does not mean he is not guilty of Y." True enough, but how many critiques need to be refuted before it is conceded that most of the critiques are guilty of distorting what he has said and written? The defender of West begins to feel like Hercules faced with the Hydra; for every argument defeated, more erroneous ones pop up.

The critics of West are rightly frustrated because they sense that his defenders will not admit that his work needs any improvement. Unfortunately, the current Internet atmosphere makes it difficult to for West's defenders to offer legitimate recommendations for improvement publicly. I have been trying hard to discern what legitimate basis there may be for criticisms of West's works. I am currently teaching the Theology of the Body and on occasion I consult West's work. This summer I viewed most of his Marriage Preparation Series to see if there was any irreverence in the way he presented the Theology of the Body and was struck by the profound reverence he shows for sexual morality, Church teaching and the couples he instructs. I am sure that those who take that course will be benefit enormously. Upon careful examination of critics' works, I have found the more "global" criticisms of West to be false; such as the view that he violates a "hermeneutic of continuity," or that he doesn't appreciate the power of concupiscence. So to this point, I can't see that West is in any fundamental way guilty of misrepresenting John Paul II's thoughts.

But many of the criticisms aren't about fundamental issues; rather, they are about some elements in the way that West presents his material. There are accusations that he is crude, or that he inappropriately uses pop culture, or that he says things that while in themselves are justifiable too often lead to misinterpretations. But, again, I have no way of tracing down if he actually said what is attributed to him. I have been in the audience at many of his presentations. I have read many of his written works and I have listened to many of his CDs. And from my experience, which is not inconsiderable, it seems to me the concerns with his style are seriously overblown.

The one suggestion I would make is that West continue to attempt to make very clear that when John Paul II speaks about "sex" he is rarely speaking about sexual intercourse; rather, he is speaking about the fact that human beings come in two sexes; he is talking about gender, masculinity and femininity, and more often than not, "the spousal meaning of the body." Certainly, in this day and age, when people hear the word "sex" they hear "sexual intercourse." When they hear that the Theology of the Body is a "Theology of Sex" they think the work is about sexual intercourse. This is what John Paul II says: "The theology of the body, which is linked from the beginning with the creation of man in the image of God, becomes in some way also a theology of sex, or rather a theology of masculinity and femininity" (9:4). West needs to keep in mind that no matter how often he says that John Paul II does not mean "sexual intercourse" when he says "sex," that this is likely what his audience is going to think nonetheless. West will need to find ways to overcome this difficulty. There are, I believe, similar difficulties with the word "continence;" I believe West understands and faithfully presents what John Paul II means but it is not easy to convey that meaning to others.

It is easy when talking about sex to make various missteps, and when one is trying to translate difficult concepts and sometimes misleading terminology into something people can understand (sometimes in talks of only one hour or TV interviews of eight-and-a-half minutes), it is easy to be misunderstood. I am confident that West will take the feedback given him and make any adjustments necessary. I hope his critics will do the same.

See Alice von Hildebrand's essay "Dietrich von Hildebrand, Catholic Philosopher, and
Christopher West, Modern Enthusiast: Two Very Different Approaches to
Love, Marriage and Sex" here



Janet E. Smith. "The Need to Read Carefully: A Response to Alice von Hildebrand's Critique of Christopher West." Catholic Exchange (October 18, 2010).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Janet Smith and Catholic Exchange. The original article is posted here.

The Author

smithasmith1aJanet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same-Sex Attraction, In the Beginning . . .: A Theology of the BodyLife Issues, Medical Choices: Questions and Answers for Catholics, The Right to Privacy (Bioethics & Culture), Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and the editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right. 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 was named Catholic of the Year by Our Sunday Visitor in 2015. 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.

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