Traditionalism and Theology of the Body

Jim Russell Theology of the Body

\"JimWhen you hear the phrase “Theology of the Body” (TOB), what comes to mind? I’m sure it will depend on your background and will vary greatly. Is “TOB” just a vague buzz-word that you—like a majority of Catholics—have heard but have no direct experience with? Have you actually read Blessed Pope John Paul II’s work? Have you read other authors’ works on the Theology of the Body? Are you a catechist who thinks “Theology of the Body” is just another term for “chastity education”? Do you dissent from Church teaching on contraception? Do you consider yourself to be a “traditional” Catholic or among the “traditionalists” found within (or perhaps just schismatically outside) the Church?

If you felt like we just turned a corner by mentioning “traditionalism,” we did. Here’s why: I would assert that, while others in the Church might admit either ignorance, familiarity, or apathy toward the Theology of the Body, those with a “traditionalist” mindset make up the majority of those in the Church who remain openly and energetically critical of Blessed John Paul II and the Theology of the Body.

Making things murky, however, is the fact that, like other big-tent terms like “Christianity” or “Judaism,” the use of “traditionalist” is by no means monolithic—it represents a dizzying array of flavors, from full-blown schismatic sedevacantism to faithful children of the Church who appreciate, support, and at least occasionally attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. Needless to say, such a multi-faceted group will also have varying levels of affinity for someone like the late Blessed Pope John Paul II. Reactions to his papacy among “traditionalists” have ranged from those openly calling him a heretic to those staunchly defending him and his teaching.

In this swirl of opinion, the Theology of the Body has never fared too well. Extreme traditionalist claims of heresy, false teaching, modernism, novelty, and magisterial discontinuity have dogged TOB teachings from the beginning. Particularly, the claims of “discontinuity” and imprudently “oversexualizing” Church teaching on marriage seem dominant themes even among the more kind critiques. Not to point fingers or name names, but online research would yield clear examples. In fact, even before Pope John Paul II’s beatification in 2011, some traditionalists (including some firmly in full communion with the Church) openly petitioned against naming him “Blessed.”

Getting Caught in the Middle

Among those in the traditionalists’ “contra-TOB” crosshairs, veteran Theology of the Body presenter Christopher West has always loomed large. The more extreme traditionalists have consistently viewed West as a thorn in the flesh for successfully popularizing erroneous papal teachings. As we’ll see, in the heady mix of traditionalism, one’s evaluation of West seems dependent upon one’s own traditionalist “narrative.” For the radical schismatic, West is merely accurately presenting the “modernist heresies” of Karol Wojtyla.

But, if one is a not-so-radical traditionalist in full communion with the Church, who wishes to distance one’s self from such troubling claims against the late Holy Father, there is a tempting and maybe slightly unconscious alternative: adopt the view that the “real” problem with the Theology of the Body is West’s presentation of it—not the original work itself. By focusing on West and not Theology of the Body, the faithful traditionalist is able to resolve the tension inherent in the generic traditionalist suspicion toward the Theology of the Body and its papal author. After all, there is one thing that West is guilty of, from the traditionalist view: his presentation style is “culturally incorrect.” West’s willingness to engage secular culture, meet it where it is, and point us to the kernels of truth he finds there along the way? That is an instinct clearly (almost by definition) not found under the rubric of traditionalism.

Keep in mind that such a tension regarding Theology of the Body appears to exist nowhere else in the Catholic community. It’s not there among the uninformed. It’s not there among those dissenting from Humanae Vitae (since they simply disregard TOB as well). It’s not there among those who know the original TOB corpus is both true and is being faithfully expressed by Christopher West. No, this is a tension that is uniquely evident in the stew of traditionalism because, while the stew includes some who accuse the pope of modernist heresies, it also includes those who, while sensitive to issues like the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” and “oversexualization,” do not believe Pope John Paul II is a heretic.

And it is this landscape upon which a particular powder-keg blew back in May 2009, when “Theology of the Body” met “Nightline” on a national stage—via Christopher West. In this case, the secular arm-wrestled with the sacred, and the secular won. The edited “Nightline” visit with West misrepresented his teaching, but became the launchpad for a vivid Catholic in-house and mostly online “debate” about West and the TOB corpus that temporarily caught the attention of a much larger cross-section of Catholics. In this climate, momentum grew for a traditionalist perspective that claimed the problem was with West and not Theology of the Body, despite the numerous assurances to the contrary from bishops and TOB scholars that West’s work was theologically blameless.

Assessing the Status Quo

Now, five years later, where are we with all this?

Thankfully, Christopher West continues his fine work as an expositor of the thought and teaching of Blessed Pope John Paul II. He has continuing episcopal support, and his catechetical work bears the imprimatur and nihil obstat. He also has the support of those in the Catholic academic community who have open-mindedly read his own writings in comparison to the TOB corpus.

Yet, for many with a traditionalist mindset, West likely remains “culturally incorrect.” His style can’t be said to comport with basic traditionalist sensibilities. Further, there continues to be a need within traditionalism for those who are not “anti-Blessed John Paul II” to distinguish their views from the more extreme criticisms of both of the Theology of the Body itself and its original author. Thus such a thread of thinking can still be found in traditionalism today, seeking to distinguish what I’ve seen referred to as “TOB Inc” or “Big TOB” (organized popular efforts to present the Theology of the Body) from what Pope John Paul II supposedly “really” wanted to teach us.

Fortunately, in my view, the Theology of the Body landscape is stabilizing. The very few voices I’ve encountered that vigorously continue to criticize West, for example, are voices from within the general traditionalist sphere. Other Catholics who paid attention to the debate a few years ago seem to have moved on, apparently satisfied that most criticisms of West ultimately devolve to opinions about style and do not really touch on theological substance.

Within traditionalism, however, much more work needs to be done—and not just for West’s sake, though he has a right to an accurate portrayal of his work. Rather, the more daunting work involves rehabilitating the reputation of a pontiff, not a mere presenter. The Theology of the Body will only get a fair hearing from within traditionalism when both West and soon-to-be Pope St. John Paul II are properly understood.

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23 thoughts on “Traditionalism and Theology of the Body”

  1. Thank you for this excellent article; it clarifies a lot for me. From my reading, both JPII and Christopher West seemed to me to be *responding* to the distorted sexual culture of death (as a recently converted atheist, I’ve been there). I understood them as trying to draw the horribly degraded modern world to Christ, rather than being at all dragged down into the mire or even speaking from it (!)…but I guess that if you were always in the Church with little interaction in the secular world you might be shocked. And you’re right, there is nowhere easy to rest our heads on this earth. Faithful trads (as I aspire to be) have to take up their battle against far-right dissent and sour frustration just as faithful conservatives & those who attend the N.O. Mass have their own battles to fight with reverence, commitment to the faith in the congregation, etc. And both groups need to get out there and evangelize much more. Thanks again!

  2. David L Alexander

    This article is less about the Theology of the Body (as I can read the article and still never learn what that means), and more about the conversation about West and the Theology of the Body. Or something.

    1. Hi, David–thanks for the comment. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have about what the Theology of the Body is (though it’s basically JPII’s extensive exegesis of specific passages of Scripture that form an in-depth exploration of “human love in the Divine Plan”). This particular post is more about the reception of this teaching among those Catholics of a “traditionalist” mindset, in which I do propose one rationale for why West was subjected to criticism despite his fidelity to the teaching of JPII. Hope this helps provide some context.

  3. I left this comment on Stacy’s post on Facebook, mostly responding to the comments there, not the original post, but I think it fits here as well. Not perfectly, but enough that I want to add it (all references to above and other comments are to the FB comments, sorry for any confusion):

    Christopher West has been the main source of my instruction in TOB (though all of it after the sabbatical he took a couple of years ago). I do follow the debates and I see the point some of his critics make, mostly because as stated above the snippets and quotes of his that are used are always the ones about sex.

    Additionally, Christopher West pre-sabbatical and post-sabbatical is, from what I can gather a different experience and I found his book “At the Heart of the Gospel” to be one of the most humble books I’ve ever read, as in the footnotes he addressed his critics and most often stated he agreed with them and how he’d changed the way he did things as a result.

    All of this said – I think all of the different voices are important AND as said above also, to read the original text. It’s heavy and thick, but so worth it. So, while I’m most familiar with Christopher, I wouldn’t say I am “camped.”

    And finally, and most importantly for me personally, as a married, infertile woman studying TOB, it can be extremely painful to study the TOB – no matter who is presenting/commenting on it. BUT, through that pain, I’ve learned more about marriage and God and our beautiful, amazing Catholic faith than I ever could have imagined. It has brought so much healing.

  4. As usual, I seem to be a fish out of water. I am a traditionalist who believes that: the vetus ordo is significantly more reverent than the NO; more of the Latin prayers should be reintroduced; communion should be taken in the mouth and while kneeling; the use of bells should be reintroduced; confession hours should be extended; the use of Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers should be curtailed; and, traditional church music should be brought back. Having said that, I think God blessed us by sending us Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis. I also think that TOB is an incredible blessing that could only come from a true friend of God and son of Mother Mary. This “oversexualization” charge is so absurd that the devil must be behind it!

    1. Thanks–great comment! It may feel like you’re swimming upstream, perhaps, but you’re definitely in the right water and heading in the right direction, as I see it!

  5. One of the biggest, yet simplest, mistakes I see made in regards to Christopher West’s approach is that of his seeming obsession with sex. Mr. West is not all about sex. Possibly, the snippets and blurbs end up being all about sex. Possibly, the people who have been sexually destroyed by the culture of lust, use, and objectification DO go home from a TOB conference chanting the praise of redeemed sexuality. Possibly, when someone finds out that there is a deeper, spiritual, and divine intention behind sex, and that it’s not just a tool to get what you want, those notes of good news (gospel!) are on their tongues for a while.

    But, in my experience, it rarely ENDS there. In my experience very few people walk away from TOB thinking they’ve found the latest “toe-curling sex advice”.

    On the contrary, in my experience, the vast majority of people who encounter JPII’s teaching progress from the initial joy of knowing their body is not a personal ATM for someone else’s orgasm, to the deeper joy of knowing their body is a vessel for receiving and giving the love of God.

    In my experience, the progression is much like the difference between the joy of meeting someone who freely gives you an amazing, unwarranted gift, in this case, the body/sex, and then getting to know that person and how much more interesting, complex, and wonderful that person is, apart from what they initially gave you, in this case, learning the heights and depths of Who God is.

    When I say my life was transformed by discovering TOB, it seems a given to me that I mean my life was changed by the encounter with, and openness to, the transforming power of Christ’s death and resurrection that was made evident to me by TOB.

    Christ IS the only way, truth, and life, but the explanations and elucidations that come through JPII’s teaching serve to open all the windows and doors in our hearts to the awareness of what was meant by the Incarnation. As a result, not only am I more open to His Incarnation in my own soul, but I am also readied to become an image and likeness of that same incarnation to the world around me, ultimately (hopefully) resulting in God being glorified.

  6. I was here earlier and left but returned to address Tito’s concerns as much as I can because I respect him and his work, and I completely identify with his opening self-description.

    I respect both von Hildebrand and Eden, but they are a minority among orthodox,
    non-liberal theologians. I say that not to denigrate either lady. This is not to say that there isn’t room for concern regarding a minute number of West’s statements which beg for better clarification. Even less frequent are the handful of instances in which West says something potentially outside Church teaching. The worst accusation of that sort I recall encountering resulted in a serious split among a number of theologians and canon law experts, of which I am neither.

    I know one of the raps against West, also advanced by von Hildebrand, is the notion that he speaks of sex too casually and therefore with insufficient reverence, a view which for centuries was the standard view within Catholicism guiding behavior.

    Tito, I wonder if you may be thinking this with your concern that West focuses on sex. Others have added that TOB is more about the family, and that sex is just a part of TOB – not the whole, as West is alleged to make it in the minds of those receiving his teachings. I say that West offers a visionary explanation of Church teachings on sexuality which emphasizes an uplifting ideal precisely because his target audience IS hung up on sex.

    In that sense you are probably correct, Tito, in referring to some reports of TOB changing lives. I encourage you to be open to Jesus actually engineering such life-changing results through TOB. My own life is but one case in point.

    I may surprise you, but I understand and endorse the traditional Catholic position that in a predominately Christian world proper reverence rather than casualness is necessary in discussing sex. However, we no longer live in a culture which supports orthodox Christian principles and morals. OK, no news flash there, but as a veteran of the sexual revolution who was sucked into that morass of sin for over 31 years I have suspected that most traditionalists who chafe at West’s approach simply do not understand in their hearts how thoroughly disengaged from Christian morality (including reverence for sex in marriage) the overwhelming majority of enthusiastic participants in the hyper-sexualized culture have become.

    If there is a such thing as an interior spiritual life – and Catholics possess a tremendous storehouse of treasures bequeathed to us by so many saints schooling us on our journey into that interior life – then I fear it will be a shock to many that presently what has evolved is an equally corresponding interior corruption which has occurred in the post-Christian anti-Catholic culture in which we live.

    To have a conversation geared towards conversion with those immersed in this hyper-sexual mindset, one must seek or even probe to find evidence of pain, emptiness, frustration, sadness, from repetitive behaviors which produce these experiences – also on an interior level but quite apart from the corresponding corrupt spiritual interior I mentioned. You understand intellectually, I’m sure, that such experiences are the result of defying the Plan of the Father for man and woman; that endlessly repeating one-night stands of the hook-up culture in which even oral sex hasn’t been considered sex ever since it was so pronounced by the highest living authority one could imagine: the president of the United States of America.

    I willing to bet, though, that most of those offended by West’s perceived casual style and over-emphasis on sex haven’t got a clue about the real barriers to authentic evangelization of the culture on sex and sexuality, from the now aging boomers who once were the shock troops of the early assault to the youth culture which “advanced” to hooking-up anonymously. From having read everything I could find on the “Westian” controversy back when one post followed another, I feel safe in alleging that nary a one of West’s critics is continuously interacting with those drowning in this sea of corruption, or at least those not in so deep that they can’t be lured to a TOB seminar to encounter a point of view which penetrates their hearts and begins a process of eventual submission to Church teaching on sex/sexuality. When this occurs it’s because pain has encountered some relief – and hope.

    I have witnessed this in many individuals in over a dozen TOB seminars. I have
    seen couples sleeping together when one of both began to take West’s DVD seminar, only to embrace abstinence by the end of our time with them. Yes, on
    occasion I saw couples quit without comment because by the mid-point they saw
    where it could only go, and they were unwilling to stick around for it. However, mostly we’ve seen a complete turnaround in most folks so that they embraced Church teaching.

    One of Christopher West’s books played a significant role in my eventual liberation from a nearly 50 year addiction to pornography and masturbation. I read his TOB for Beginners, and the vision of the Father’s Plan for man and woman began to make sense in my heart. I was blown away. Sometime during those first few weeks after reading that book, I realized if I authentically loved a woman I could not use another woman to pleasure myself. I became all too aware of the inherent contradiction. Since there was a woman I loved, this conflict was all too real.

    I know this is very long, so I’ll skip further details (there’s so much more what happened), but suffice it to say that I had a subsequent conversation with and initiated by Jesus in which He told me I’d never get any closer to Him unless I gave up all that behavior.

    Long story short, I accepted His challenge but not knowing how He was going to see me through an addiction I had never succeeded in defeating. He surprised me by removing all temptation from me for the next six months, and His Mother gave me personal instruction on how to use prayer to defeat temptation the first two times I encountered it after my “vacation”.

    I understand that sounds crazy, but judging such things by their fruits is all the proof I need. West’s book laid the foundation in my heart; it did NOT free me from slavery to my sin. THAT was Jesus Who spoke to me now that my heart had opened. I know it was Him by the nature of His challenge, and because I had never succeeded on my own power to free myself from what I had regarded as an addiction when I was outside the Church, but in turning it over to Him I was finally able to fully realized my freedom from slavery to sin.

    I want to hammer home the idea that we will not reach those drowning in this cess pool by insisting that the presentation of TOB and sex must not be casual in tone or style. This is a post-Christian world careening into denying God more every day, not the one populated by the pagan theists who at least believed in gods and whom Peter and Paul evangelized.

    I can tell you that there are very few souls evangelizing to the culture on this specific level today. Most of these folks don’t consciously experience a yearning for God, but they are already hurting after a few years of degrading their God-given dignity. Are there risks to West or anyone who meets people where they are? Yes, great care must be taken not to slide into the slime from which we seek to rescue others.

    We will NOT succeed in conversion if we fail to interact with these folks in a manner in which they’re willing to listen. Pronounced reverence must give way to speaking of these things openly, but always respectfully. We can and must re-introduce reverence after necessary foundations have been re-laid, but attempts to evangelize that greater part of the culture will be rebuffed if the approach seems condemning and overly-stuffy. This is a brick by brick approach.

    One may rail at this but it won’t change the reality. Having frank, open discussion will find people willing – even eager – to find answers to the pain they’ve begun to encounter from their life choices. Tactics based on West’s approach have a far better chance of success than anything I’ve seen proposed by many traditionalists (and anyone else), if for no other reason than the best I’ve seen from that camp falls back on Thomist theology.

    I dispute neither Thomist theology not do I believe it has no relevance. However, these folks are so removed from thinking on this level that such moral argumentation falls on deaf ears – and then you’re out of the game. I’ve often wondered what efforts are routinely made by traditionalists to evangelize those people – MY people, in the sense that I identify with their slavery to sin – away from their immersion in the hyper-sexual culture. If it is based on Thomist theology, it won’t work – there’s too much ignorance in the world about the basic premises on which Thomism rests (by the way, progressive Catholics also hate TOB, not only because it strongly supports Church teaching on sexual morality but also because by implication it supports the all-male priesthood and marriage between one man and one woman).

    I don’t believe, however, that such evangelization efforts exist anywhere in the Church, save for TOB evangelists like West, and there is a growing number of those. It appears my fellow traditionalist are living in a fantasy world when all that was necessary for salvation was the decision to submit to the teachings of the Catholic
    Church, and through Her, Jesus Christ. While that remains the ultimate or final requirement, sinners today need to be brought in slowly. Preaching up front to people
    about their sin and their need for salvation does not work any longer, except occasionally, because such an approach is instantly rejected as “judgmental.”

    So, yes, we presently are outnumbered by our adversaries who are the same folks we wish to see freed from their sin, but John Paul II believed condemnation will not lead to conversion – not in this culture. This is at least one reason why Jim is correct when he said that West became a proxy for attacking John Paul II for those unwilling to openly do so. Condemnation seems very much favored by too many self-identified traditionalists, rather than a loving invitation to address pain where it can be found.

    We’re starting from scratch, and that means that such work may appear to some to be an over-emphasis on too much sex talk. What has really been happening is that
    West and others are engaging these folks in a way which draws them into engaging Church teaching more deeply than they realize, at first. They are drawn to the parallels between the Father’s Plan and old story-book romances trumpeting knights in shining armor and damsels in distress. Corny only at first blush, these sentiments still abound in our unconscious spiritual and cultural DNA, and people are summoned to Church teaching by appeals to those desires for true love. John Paul II wrote a whole lot on true love, and the deep desire for that true love has not yet been completely extinguished in our culture, though time is not on our side. Of course, sometimes it ain’t pretty to encounter the resistance such folks can muster, but we continue to win souls the old-fashioned way – one heart at a time.

    After all, hasn’t that always been the way of authentic evangelization?

    1. Phil Steinacker

      Thank you, Jim. I am please you continue to write. I was disappointed when you shuttered your TOB blog. I had just discovered it a month or so earlier. You have an excellent grasp its place in the Church.

      You are also so, so diplomatic. I admire your responses to some of the commentary. It had been painful for me as a traditionalist to separate my identity from that community because I hope the larger, younger traditionalist who don’t carry the burden resentment will eventually replace them in the eyesof most Catholics.

    2. Phil, Bravo! Terrific post. Congratulations on overcoming your own temptations and on this insightful analysis of anger against TOB/West. BTW, could you possibly share our Blessed Mother’s instruction on prayer in the face of temptation? I am fighting several stubborn sins myself. Thanks!

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  8. Sure, I’ll bite.
    I’m a ‘traditionalist’ and I think TOB makes a great door stop.
    I find West’s material to be a Reductio ad Absurdum.
    I think it would be great material to pass time…in purgatory.

    1. Hi, Stephen–thanks for the comment. The work of the papal magisterium of Blessed John Paul II, in my view, doesn’t reduce to a door stop.
      I’m actually looking forward, after his canonization, to being able to count even JPII’s *non-magisterial* works as being among the “writings of the saints”! 🙂

    2. Sorry, read some of it. Just don’t see it.
      I find West to be a cathlo-prenuer who seized an opportunity, with books, tapes, seminars and web pages. I find him to be pushing some type of catholic sexuality envelope and I fail to see why. I am struck with ‘So where are we going with this?’ History will judge the works of JPII.

    3. No worries, Stephen–I wrote my post knowing that a multiplicity of views on this existed among Catholics. Not everything appeals to everyone. Thanks for taking time to share your view.

  9. I’m a traditionalist, I like the Ordinary Form Mass when it is celebrated correctly, which the vast majority of O. F. Masses aren’t. So I gravitate towards the Anglican, Dominican and Traditional Latin Mass where it is significantly more enriching.

    On to my point. . .

    “. . .despite the numerous assurances to the contrary from bishops and TOB scholars that West’s work was theologically blameless.”

    I respectfully disagree with this statement.

    Alice von Hildebrand and Dawn Eden, both well respected theologians have pointed out certain aspects of Christopher West’s TOB that are problematic.

    Deacon, you’ve written a solid and well written article, but the above is difficult to ignore.

    I’ve attended several of Christopher West’s presentations and I like most of what he has done to reach out to those ensnared within the toxic sexualized American culture.

    In my opinion, sedevacantists are not traditionalists, they are simply sedevacantists. But that is minor.

    Maybe what I find more irksome than one theological point that I don’t mind overlooking, is how some TOB enthusiasts say how “life-changing” TOB has been for them. What bothers me is that Jesus Himself is enough to change anyone’s life, but those that claim TOB is “life-changing” look to be hung-up with sex as the main purpose of their life that makes TOB “life-changing”.

    This is something that perturbs me, but if this leads them along the path to Jesus or full acceptance of His love and mercy, then it’s ok–I think. . .

    1. Thanks, Tito, for the reply!
      While I agree that Dr. Von Hildebrand is a well-respected theologian, she misses the mark with Christopher West precisely because her overarching project is the legacy of her late husband, Dietrich. The one contra-West essay she wrote with the aid of several collaborators focuses squarely on making sure no one confuses West for Dietrich, with very little JPII discussed at all.
      And, needless to say, West has had unwavering episcopal support throughout the 20 years of his apostolate.
      As to whether TOB is “life-changing” or should be extolled as such–not sure why this would seem too irksome. I know folks, for example, who extol the works of Chesterton or Lewis as “life-changing” for them. The Holy Spirit moves where He wills!
      In any case, I believe I can be up to the challenge for anyone who might be inspired by this post to ask about things they’ve heard to be theologically “problematic” in West’s presentation of TOB. So, if any specifics need to be addressed, I’ll be happy to do so. Thanks again for the comment!

    2. By “sex,” do you mean *sexuality*? Sexual relations? Being male or female? Of these, if West was “all about sexual relations,” you’d probably have a valid criticism. But he’s not “all about” that. His catechetical content, both spoken and in print, comes from the teaching Church.
      It would seem not very surprising that he speaks and writes consistently about Church teaching on human *sexuality* in an apostolate that seeks to reach into the “secular” realm to help those in our sexually distorted culture. But, like JPII, West covers marriage, celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, our creation as man and woman, our call to communion with God, purity of heart, the nuptiality of Christ and Church, etc.
      And I’d say that those finding healing through this outreach might find that healing “life-changing” precisely because he address some of the deep woundedness in the area of sexuality.
      But even putting West aside, I find it to be an interesting comparison, btw, to consider the connotation associated with “TOB enthusiast” versus, for example, “Chesterton enthusiast.” Seems in my experience that some still have at least a little negative baggage attached to the term “TOB enthusiast”. That’s something I hope we’re moving away from, though. Thanks again for the comments!

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