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Christopher West and the Theology of Looking at Naked People

Here is a post I did in August 16, 2014. I wasn't a traditionalist at the time so I would probably write it a bit differently now. But, it still shows some of the problems with Theology of the Body:

I hadn't thought of writing in over a year until, a some weeks ago, I read Alice von Hildebrand's new book "The Dark Night of the Body" which is on the problems with Christopher West's Theology of the Body (TOB) and how it misrepresents the Pope John Paul II's teaching in some areas. 
The book is excellent, but it and all the articles, I read, on this subject seemed flawed because they didn't use quotes from TOB refuting West's misunderstandings.

I felt called to write an article that remedied this deficiency.
 PS-Below is the article and scholar Thomas Howard's email commenting on my article. (Mr. Howard wrote a blurb for the back cover of von Hildebrand's"The Dark Night of the Body.")     

Dear Mr. Martinez:

I think your piece on Chris West does touch on the crux of the difficulty that he poses for those (including me) who want to remain faithful to biblical and catholic teaching on sexual morality. It certainly has seemed to a lot of us that Chris sails far too near the wind, and that some of his statements grant too much to us mortals, e.g., "looking" without "lusting." Show me the man who lives that way!

I should think Dr. von Hildebrand would appreciate your contribution to the discussion!

Best regards,

Tom Howard

Is Christopher West the Next Fr. Corapi?

 "If [Christopher West is] saying that unavoidable near occasions of sin present an opportunity to practice virtue, he's right. If he's saying this does not at least begin with keeping custody of the eyes, he wrong. Very wrong. Stupidly wrong. ... If he's advising [this] he should be stripped of his EWTN Rock Star status as Fr. Corapi” according to Thomas Leith.

["’Smoking Guns’ of West's Theology” by Wade St. Onge,]

This piece is not about knocking down West’s general body of work, or even for that matter Corapi’s, they have brought thousands of souls back to the faith. My niece says of them:

“I credit Christopher West teachings, in large part, for bringing me and my husband back to the faith.  I pray that he is not the next Fr.Corapi, as I was so heartbroken in watching how things played out with him. Along with Theology of the Body, I owe Father much credit for reeling me back to the Church.” 

I hope that West will not become the next fallen EWTN Rock Star.

His general body of work seems sound, but he makes two mistakes that have sent him on a path of teaching incorrectly some aspects of the total and true meaning of Theology of the Body (TOB) of Pope John Paul ll.

 In a Protestant fashion he appears to be a sola-Theology of the Body and therefore ignores critics who don’t quote TOB, but quote past Popes or Doctors of the Church.

As did Martin Luther with the Bible phrase “justified by faith apart from works,” he is taking a certain passage of the Pope’s TOB teachings which he makes all important while ignoring other passages in that body of work that bring out the full meaning of that passage.
West's “justified by faith apart from works” phrase from John Paul II is:

“In mature purity, man enjoys the fruits of victory over concupiscence.”

On the set of a TV interview, he showed how his total focus on this phrase has lead him to deep error:

 “During a university TV interview of Christopher West [actually, a panel discussion on “Franciscan University Presents”] a professor [Dr. Scott Hahn] told West that if he were to see a friend’s wife [the friend being fellow panellist Dr. Regis Martin] naked, it would be his responsibility to look away.”
“West responded, ‘No, it would be to not lust.’ [Hahn] and West took turns repeating themselves until the moderator called for a break in the program.” [1] Drawing upon other accounts, this exchange began when West began speaking about his doctrine of “mature purity”, whereby when we grow enough in chastity, we should dispense with practicing “custody of the eyes” which is merely an initial “negative” step for those in the “purgative stage” of purity, and should instead look upon women and their God-given beauty with the ‘pure gaze of love.’”
  “Considering how contrary this is to the Catholic Tradition (as will be shown later), Hahn objected and told West we could never be sure we were in that state and that we would remain in that state if we gazed."
 Pope Puis Xll, St. Francis de Sales and other Doctors of the Church teach that “custody of the eyes can’t be dispensed.
Wade St. Onge says West and his supporters claim Doctors of the Church are “tainted by Manichaeism... something West's editor Sr. Lorraine explicitly stated about St. Francis de Sales. (See comment #25, at:”
[Wade St. Onge comment after “Christopher West is Anti-Purity” article posted by Paul Stilwell]
Luther similarly had problems with Catholic Tradition and he ignored other parts of the bible such as St. Jame's "Faith without works is dead" which went against “justified by faith apart from works.”

Likewise, West ignores the Pope’s TOB phrases that are a sharp rejection his explanation of the “mature purity” phrase:
"[T]he Sermon on the Mount Christ did not invite man to return to the state of original innocence, because humanity has irrevocably left it behind ...The ethos of redemption contains in every area—and directly in the sphere of the lust of the flesh—the imperative of self-control, the necessity of immediate continence and of habitual temperance." [, Christ Calls Us to Rediscover the Living Forms of the New Man, GENERAL AUDIENCE OF 3 DECEMBER  1980]
 Looking at a friend’s naked wife instead of turning away is the opposite of the Catholic definition of immediate continence which is to control unruly movements of sexual desire; and habitual temperance which is to moderate sex desires of body emotions.
Pope John Paul ll expert Fr. Gregory Gresko explains in what way West is wrong in his understanding of the “mature purity” phrase.

First, he misunderstands that the TOB is talking about spouse's seeing the other spouse’s body. When the Pope speaks of the virtue of chastity in seeing or looking at bodies he is not talking about the "attempt to look at any body with the hope of seeing the other with pure eyes, West’s theological presentation is under serious threat of becoming an apologia for pornography.”
Next, he is reducing persons to no more than bodies."

What West "is missing from the discussion is the greatest need to love other persons most, encountering them as integrated bodies and souls."

Here is Fr. Greskois full discussion on West's misinterpretation of the “mature purity” phrase:

"Such purity involves one spouse’s ability to see the other spouse’s body in purity.  Spouses certainly should not be seeking to look at other persons’ naked bodies (except when necessary to care for their children or when medically required, with the obvious complete respect for human dignity that is due).”

“However, West argues that mature purity at a virtuous level signifies being able to look at any body and maintaining perfect chastity; if he has to look away, West states that he is merely continent but not virtuous, although admitting that the vast majority of persons would find themselves in such a position.  If discussions on the virtue of chastity, or “mature purity”, attempt to look at any body with the hope of seeing the other with pure eyes, West’s theological presentation is under serious threat of becoming an apologia for pornography, which is precisely the separation of the body from the person.” 
 “West spends much time talking about the importance of loving others’ bodies properly, but what is missing from the discussion is the greatest need to love other persons most, encountering them as integrated bodies and souls, with virginal innocence.  Loving persons accordingly is consonant with Karol Cardinal Wojtyla’s articulation of the personalistic norm in Love and Responsibility, without reducing the person to mere bodiliness."[]

Is this misinterpretation of the Pope’s TOB an apology for pornography?

 Inside the Vatican writer Simcha Fisher’s book review of West ‘s At the Heart of the Gospel claims the author support pornography:

“A generous reading of West’s claim that evil is to be suffered rather than thrown out is that he would never intend his words to be used to support pornography. However, he uses those very same words in a January 2012 online audio interview promoting At the Heart of the Gospel—and this time there is no question about what he means:”
“There’s always something good behind the evil that we have to reclaim, that we have to take back. On this topic, we could look at pornography, for example. Pornography is a great evil. It is destroying marriages, it is destroying families, it is wreaking havoc in our culture. And yet, we must not overreact. There is  something good behind it. What is good behind it? The human body in its nakedness. Behold, it is very good!”
I would rather say it is possible his teaching is a “serious threat of becoming an apologia for pornography.” It is possible he means the human body in its nakedness behind closed doors between two spouses is very good. However, his support of looking at a friend’s naked wife as a general norm from his misinterpretation of the “mature purity” weights against this interpretation
A main argument the author of At the Heart of the Gospel uses in his defense of his misinterpretation of “mature purity” is his story of “two bishops.”
Dawn Eden says West claims it is “adapted from the story of Bishop St. Nonnus of Edessa and the harlot Pelagia.”  Here is West’s distorted version of story of St. Nonnus as recorded by Eden:  
“The following story illustrates what mature Christian purity looks like. Two bishops walked out of a cathedral just as a scantily clad prostitute passed by. One bishop immediately turned away. The other bishop looked at her intently. The bishop who turned away exclaimed, ‘Brother bishop, what are you doing? Turn your eyes!’”
 “When the bishop turned around, he lamented with tears streaming down his face, ‘How tragic that such beauty is being sold to the lusts of men.’ Which one of those bishops was vivified with the ethos of redemption? Which one had passed over from merely meeting the demands of the law to a superabounding fulfillment of the law?”
“West explains that ‘the bishop who looked away was continent, but the bishop who saw rightly was virtuous.’”]
Below is the true story of St. Nonnus:
“While Bishop of Heliopolis, St. Nonnus went with his deacon to Antioch for a synod with the Archbishop of Antioch and six other bishops. While there, St. Nonnus was asked to preach on the steps of the church one day after Divine Liturgy. Just then, Pelagia, the most notorious prostitute in Antioch, passed by with a crowd of foolish young men. The seven other bishops averted their gaze as to not be tempted by her appearance, but St. Nonnus stared intently at her, weeping that such great beauty was being wasted on such great sin and that she cares for her body even more than he cares for his soul.”
“He spent that night in tears praying for her conversion saying, ‘O Lord, suffer not the work of Thy hands to perish, and permit not such beauty to remain in subjection to the demons. But do Thou turn her to Thyself, that Thy holy name may be glorified in her, for all things are possible for Thee.’"
“During the course of this night, he had a vision that he was at the altar during the Divine Liturgy. A black dove flew in, circled his head, and smelled so foul that he could not abide the stench. When the deacon cried out ‘Catechumens depart’, the dove left. After Divine Liturgy, the dove returned, still filthy, and St. Nonnus plunged it into the baptismal font. The dove emerged pure white and flew away.”

“The next morning, a Sunday, after Divine Liturgy, St. Nonnus was again asked to preach. St. Pelagia again happened by and was moved to tears by his sermon. She wrote with her own hand, ‘To Christ’s holy disciple from the devil’s disciple, a sinful woman. I have heard that your God has bowed the heavens and come down to earth, not to save the righteous but sinners.’”
The West story is a distortion in the same way it would be a distortion to tell the story of Jesus’ mercy in saving the adulteress from being stoned if one left out Jesus’ parting words to her. “Go now and sin no more.”
In one sense West is right it could be Christ like to look intently at another person who happened to be scantily clad or naked if ones consuming concern were her soul; if West’s story were told like this it could possibly not be distortion of the true story.
But even considering all the above Eden adds:
“Most significantly, when Pelagia then writes to the bishop and asks to see him, he agrees only on the condition that there be other bishops present. ‘[S]eek not to tempt my weakness,’ he writes.’ Eden explains: ‘It is not surprising that West omits that last detail, as, by his own definition, it would mean Bishop St. Nonnus was insufficiently virtuous.”
My advice to West is to stop telling a distorted even false story of Bishop St. Nonnus. If he is to tell the story, tell the total true story.
The tragedy of the story is not that such a beautiful body should be sold to the lusts of men instead of that men who are of “mature purity” should look upon that woman’s scantily clad or naked body with her “God-given beautiful body” with the “pure gaze of love.”

 The tragedy of Pelagia is “that she cares for her body even more than he cares for his soul.”

It would be a tragedy if Christopher West cared more for his misinterpretation of “mature purity” than the true teachings of the Pope’s Theology of the Body.
Pope John Paul ll specifically teaches in his TOB section on “the privacy of one's own body:”
“The person of developed sensitivity overcomes the limit of that shame with difficulty and interior resistance. This is seen clearly even in situations which justify the necessity of undressing the body, such as in the case of medical examinations or operations. Mention should also be made especially of other circumstances, such as those of concentration camps or places of extermination, where the violation of bodily shame is a method used deliberately to destroy personal sensitivity and the sense of human dignity. “
“The same rule is confirmed everywhere—though in different ways. Following personal sensitivity, man does not wish to become an object for others through his own anonymous nakedness. Nor does he wish the other to become an object for him in a similar way.
[, Reflections on the Ethos of the Human Body in Works of Artistic Culture, April 22, 1981]

Another  tragedy besides  West teaching  the opposite of the Pope’s TOB teachings would be that the great beauty of most of West’s work which have brought so many back to the Church and away from sin might be wasted.

Following the example of St. Nonnus, I pray daily for Christopher West not to waste his great God-given talent and work on the pride of one mistake.
I, also, pray daily for Fr. Corapi not waste he great God-given talent and work.
Please Christopher West don’t break more hearts.

Please Fr. Corapi help to heal the broken hearts of those like who my niece who love your work. Return to the Church.

Pray an Our Father now that God give you the grace to do what He is calling you to do and for the conversion of those resisting God.


Fr. John said…
An Orthodox perspective on this issue can be found here:

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