‘The Dark Night of the Body’: A Detached But Worthy Read

Deacon Russell - Dark Night

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“It is a joy to praise a great book or author; it is a grief and duty to criticize a bad one.”

These are the words of Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, now in her nineties (and recently invested as a Dame Grand Cross of the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great), from the introduction of her just-published book titled The Dark Night of the Body: Why Reverence Comes First in Intimate Relations (119 pp., Roman Catholic Books).

While my assessment of her new book does not reach the stage of “grief” or involve the word “bad,” her words above resonate somewhat in this review.

But to be clear: Dr. Alice von Hildebrand is not herself in any way personally the focus of the following critique of The Dark Night of the Body. My review and critique are of the book, and not its iconic author. Yet, as she herself recognizes, sometimes our “duty” is to offer somewhat pointed observations that, God willing, still serve the truth.

My encounter with The Dark Night of the Body begins with my online purchase of the book. At the Roman Catholic Books web site, the blurb about the book reads:

 What are we supposed to “do” with the “theology of the body?\” A leading Catholic laywoman outlines the right approach—and the wrong approach.

And the publisher adds that the book “tries to explain how to think about the often-abused new concept John Paul II called the ‘theology of the body.’”

Before placing my order online, I saw nothing at the site that indicated what I later read on the acknowledgments page when I had the book in my hand: “The Dark Night of the Body is a bouquet of articles previously published…”

My hopes for new insights from Dr. von Hildebrand were not to be realized.

Nonetheless, it had been some time since I had read the previously published material, so I began afresh. Once finished (119 pages goes pretty quickly) my thought was that it lived up to the “dark night” motif of “detachment” in two ways: 1) the title is detached from the content, and 2) the content is detached from the Theology of the Body.

Here is what I mean.

First, whatever the enigmatic title The Dark Night of the Body may mean to the author, such a meaning does not, in fact, seem evident in any of the content of the book itself. The phrase is the subject of Chapter 18 of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s Three to Get Married, but it does not appear in the text of Dr. von Hildebrand’s compilation. I could not find a single reference to the “dark night of the body.” But fortunately, the subtitle (Why Reverence Comes First in Intimate Relations) squarely relates to the substance of the book.

Second, and almost amazingly, despite the claims of the publisher blurbs that this book offers a corrective regarding what we “do” with Blessed John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” I could not find a single quote—not a one—from Blessed John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

So, is the book really offering Dr. von Hildebrand’s view of what we should “do” with Theology of the Body, and is she really comparing what Blessed John Paul II wrote to what popular presenters of the “Theology of the Body” (the “TOB movement”) say today?

Apparently not. How can one offer a comparison without directly referencing one of the things compared? There are decidedly few places in which Dr. von Hildebrand actually mentions either John Paul II or Theology of the Body (or both). There are so few that they can be listed here (with page references):

 “John Paul II” & “Theology of the Body”: 6, 47, 49, 92* [total =4]

“John Paul II”: 33, 45, 49, 51 (2 times) [total = 5]

“Theology of the Body”: 6, 39, 41, 43, 51 (4 times), 52, 97* [total = 10]

Keep in mind that these nineteen mentions are merely passing references to the “existence” of Blessed John Paul II, and the TOB corpus, not places in which his writing is actually quoted or commented upon. All but two of these references occur in the first half of the book; in the first of the three recycled essays.

In the second half of the book, she makes mention of Theology of the Body twice, each time suggesting that the word “human” should really be part of the title: “Theology of the [human] Body.” That, in fact, is the only interpretive key Dr. von Hildebrand directly offers in regard to the work of Blessed Pope John Paul II.

Now, it is true that half or more of this book is a response to someone Dr. von Hildebrand does not think is teaching the Theology of the Body authentically—veteran presenter Christopher West. But the attempted refutation of West is not—repeat, not—done by comparing West’s work to the writing of Blessed John Paul II. Rather, the refutation of West is attempted by comparing West’s work to the work of…Dietrich von Hildebrand.

Adding to the mystery of Dr. von Hildebrand’s comparison of her late husband to TOB veteran Christopher West is the unfortunate fact that, not only does the “Christopher West” she describes in the book not resemble Dietrich von Hildebrand, he also does not sufficiently resemble…the real Christopher West.

So what the reader ends up getting is some really wonderful “von-Hildebrandian” reflections on certain themes touched on in the Theology of the Body, but the reflections are fundamentally detached from the TOB corpus itself and from the real work of Christopher West, whose actual beliefs and work are largely presented in mere caricature in the pages of The Dark Night of the Body. Objections to his work are either based upon misinterpretation of substance or disagreement over style.

That said, there is still much that is of value in the book—many of Dr. von Hildebrand\’s responses to The Dark Night of the Body\’s mistaken version of \”Christopher West\” are exactly what they should be if such a version of Christopher West really existed. Her take on her late husband’s work and understanding of the “intimate sphere” is good and valuable reading.

Just don’t expect this book to serve as a referendum on Christopher West, the TOB corpus of Pope John Paul II, or the larger “TOB movement,” however that is defined. Take it instead for what it really is—a compilation of pre-existing works by an iconic Catholic thinker and a glowing tribute to her late husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand.

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10 thoughts on “‘The Dark Night of the Body’: A Detached But Worthy Read”

  1. I just want to point out that I own all or most of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s works on sexuality. They are well reasoned, well written, and poetic. St. John Paul II admitted that he greatly admired him, and obviously has read his material. Pope Benedict expressed once that he considered Dietrich to be a modern Doctor of the Church.

    Christopher West on the other hand turns puritanism into his straw man, painting it as a widespread plague. Yet as Dietrich points out in his books, Catholic marriage prayers far from looking down on the body, actually poetically and reverently approach marriage and sexuality.

    Christopher West also claims that Oral and Anal Sex are morally licit activities, so long as you pull out in time to complete the orgasm in the vagina. In this way he renames these activities oral and anal “stimulation.” Of course we know from St. Augustine and St. Alphonsus Liguori that unnatural acts can never be justified even inside marriage, and that it is always a sin for a man to use his wive’s mouth or anus for his own venereal pleasure. Dietrich and Alice speak of sexual intercourse as an act of mutual self giving, and this description is mutually exclusive with activities that are clearly unnatural and not open to life.

    I don’t think I need to go into Chris West’s comparison of John Paul II to Huge Hefner, or his use of Phallic language to describe the Easter Candle. I personally hear what Alice is saying loud and clear. I suggest young people my age to read all of Dietrich’s books on human sexuality, not to demean John Paul II, but to simply point to the source of John Paul II’s inspiration. For that matter, Chris West himself ought to do himself a favor and read what Dietrich’s works on sexuality.

    1. Christopher West’s work is theologically spot-on. You, too, have chosen to merely caricature it rather than engage it.

    2. No I’ve choosen to point out the errors in his work, which need to be corrected in order for them to be considered “theologically spot-on.” Contradicting what great Doctors of the Church have taught is not what I consider theologically spot-on.

    3. So far, what I have read here is a mere affirmation of West, not a rebuttal of Raguel.

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