Sex and the Sinner
Dr. Mark S. Latkovic
February 15, 2014
I thought of titling this blog entry the “Theology of the Body,” then changed my mind. The fact that you’re reading this right now probably shows the wisdom of this move. I’m not sure you’d have double-clicked your mouse to check it out if I hadn’t changed the title! Sorry for any deception!
But don’t get me wrong. Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” [hereafter TOB] is a topic that has rightly fascinated those familiar with it. So, yes, “Theology of the Body” is a perfectly good title! Be that as it may, I haven’t lied to you, dear reader. I’m still going to address the topic of sex, but from the much more narrow perspective of the controversy over the proper interpretation of the TOB. There is, you might say, to borrow a phrase from philosopher Paul Ricoeur, a “conflict of interpretations.”
In the spring of 2010, I attended the fine defense of a Master’s thesis at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where I teach, that was written by a former student of mine on the TOB as it is understood by its most prominent popular and, as it turns out, controversial interpreter, Christopher West. The thesis took up some of the critical responses to West’s work, along with an evaluation of them. The student ably defended West’s interpretation of the TOB in my opinion.
One thing that has struck me about the debate over the TOB in general, and West’s interpretation of it in particular, is the concern of some on the Catholic far right that the TOB – whether of the John Paul II or Christopher West variety – is a fatally misconceived project. Many of these Catholics, otherwise sympathetic to John Paul on many fronts, find in the TOB (as well as Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae, and the 1983 Code of Canon Law – quite a bit of authoritative magisterial Church teaching here!), a blurring, if not an outright denial, of the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church as it is found in St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the 1917 Code of Canon Law, that procreation is the “primary end” or “purpose” of marriage. The TOB, in their view, substitutes an understanding of sex it turns out, as slippery as a greased pig, for the crystal-clear “hierarchy of ends.”
The far right traditionalists, as well as some followers of the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), also seem to think that all this frank and open talk about sexual pleasure in the way that West and other fans of TOB speak of it is akin to inviting the writers of television’s Sex and the City to Rome and letting them rewrite Church teaching!
It’s ironic that those on the progressive side of Catholicism find themselves in bed (sorry for the expression in this context) with the Catholic far right on the issue of how to evaluate the TOB. They both dislike it, but for very different reasons! The TOB makes strange bedfellows indeed! Rather than find in the TOB a credible and convincing modern Catholic sexual ethic – the kind the progressives are always claiming like a “broken record” we need to articulate in order to be relevant – the Catholic left accuses the late pope of not giving enough attention to sexual pleasure and the lived experience of couples! If there were an award for “failing friend and foe alike,” Blessed John Paul II might win it!
Now, you see, the left has not been able to get over its long love affair with contraception: The pope opposed contraception and therefore the TOB is not credible! Case closed! If only, they say, the pope would have been more consistent and followed the “personalist” principles of his own TOB, he then would have seen the light, i.e. “blessed” rather than “banned” contraception and other assorted sexual acts not in conformity with the “inseparability principle” formulated by his predecessors, Paul VI and Pius XII.
There also seems to be a well-founded suspicion among these same folks that because John Paul II’s TOB strongly emphasized the complementarity of the sexes, male and female, his catechesis on human love would not give moral support to those clamoring for same-sex marriage. Alas, another reason to “bag” the TOB in their view.
Of course, we can’t reduce the controversy over the TOB to a specific issue. Nor can we reduce it to mere differences in theological or emotional “temperament.” But there is surely something to be said for temperament, e.g. in the reticence of the Catholic far right to address, at least in a public and popular way sexual issues, lest the Church come across sounding like a Catholic version of The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). After all, isn’t that term, “responsible parenthood,” used at the Second Vatican Council II (1962-1965), awfully close to “Planned Parenthood”?
Or, we have the exact opposite case: the lack of reticence (and sanity!) about all things sexual on the part of the Catholic far left, witnessed in the long-standing desire to “align” Church teaching with modern cultural trends, as one of the usual suspects, the dissenting moral theologian Fr. Charles Curran, spoke recently of trying to do throughout his long career in a June 1, 2010 “Newsweek” column (http://www.newsweek.com/authors/charles-e-curran.html).
One question we might ask is this: Is there a particular theological-philosophical “model” or “mind” that tends to either celebrate or denigrate the TOB? Since the close of the Council, we have had revisionist Catholic thinkers inform us, Zeus-like, of the contrast between the “classically-minded” thinkers and the “historically-minded” thinkers in the Church. Guess which one is to their liking? Because the “classical mind” is perceived as stuck in the past and the “historical mind” in tune with the future, it’s not even a close call!
But many thinkers associated with each of these two “minds” reject the TOB, while many others accept it. Is there another overarching reason to explain the rejection or acceptance of the TOB, at least as it is filtered through Christopher West’s writing and speaking? That is, can we bundle together those who either like or dislike the TOB under two contrasting (and opposing) ideological monikers? I’m not so sure that we can.
A further irony is in play: The philosopher Alice von Hildebrand, the widow of Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), has been highly critical of West, without it seems, being truly familiar with either his work or the TOB. Yet, her own husband was a thinker not dissimilar to West in that he too went “out on a limb” to discuss ideas regarding marriage and sex that appeared to “push the envelope” (sorry for the mixed metaphor) in the eyes of many Catholics during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s (See his wonderful book, Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love). He also played a key role, however, in developing the Tradition’s thinking about these realities. Unlike other “personalists” of his day, Von Hildebrand never lost sight of or downgraded the procreative end as he went about the work of showing how, as he put it, conjugal love is the “meaning” of marriage and procreation its “purpose.”
While Hildebrand wrote provocatively, but also beautifully – even poetically – about sex, he defended Humanae vitae with a passion, when to do so was not the fashion! Would it be too much to ask, then, for critics such as Dr. Alice Von Hildebrand, who I admire immensely, to “cut” West “some slack”? The same question can be addressed to author Dawn Eden, who in a recent Master’s thesis, is highly critical of West – and unfairly so, as my colleague Janet E. Smith has shown (http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/sexuality/se0207.htm).
What West is really doing, it seems to me, is the work of the “New Evangelization” via the TOB. One of the “new” things in the “New Evangelization” is the sorry state of all matters sexual in our post-modern (really post-reason and post-reality) culture. West, and others who take John Paul II’s TOB seriously as a source of thought and inspiration, are finding new avenues to reach those who have been scarred by sinful sex (Memo to sex-saturated secular culture: There is such a thing!). Like St. Paul who became “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22) without watering down the Gospel, West is “talking the talk” after having “walked the walk” of those who might never hear the Gospel were it not for a celibate male cleric’s creative, yet faithful, rethinking of the Catholic sexual ethic more than a half century ago in Poland, of all places!
Look, by all means, we need to continue reading such Fathers of the Church as St. Augustine. Why? Well, their sober rhetoric (and experience!) reminds us of the misuses of the gift of sex that we are all so constantly prone to after the Fall. In other words, concupiscence in all its forms is a reality, not a Catholic guilt trip! But we need to supplement this reading with the likes of the TOB for the vision it gives us of a sexuality not only fallen, but redeemed by Christ – the God-man through whom his Father created sex – and therefore livable in Christ.