Monday, July 26, 2010

The Revolution Against Modesty

The conclusion of Dr. von Hildebrand's remarks on the intimate sphere:
Part 4:  The Work of Christopher West and Its Relation to that of Dietrich von Hildebrand
Since Vatican II, the Church has  undergone a severe, manifold crisis: a crisis of faith, a crisis of authority, an intellectual crisis (confusion is widespread), a moral crisis. We should be grateful for any "soldier" who enters the arena and is offering his services to the King. We should be grateful for any written or oral testimony that help people who find their way back to the fold.  As St. Paul writes, we have different gifts, different talents, and use them for God's glory (Romans 12:6-8).

1. “Revolution” or Development of Doctrine?
However, no “soldier” in the service of the Church is ever called to be a “revolutionary”. As previously mentioned, Dietrich von Hildebrand was conscious that he had shed light on one very important truth that had often been obscured, not in Catholic doctrine, but in Catholic practice. He would call it—referring to his revered Cardinal Newman—a possible development of doctrine, but never a “revolution.”  There is no revolution in the Catholic Church. Divine revelation ended with the death of the  Apostles. The mission of the Church is to spread the Divine Message, and to clarify and re-clarify it over the years.

Christopher West is fond of quoting George Weigel’s provocative statement that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is a “theological time bomb.” But what does that mean? Does it mean that “Christians must complete what the sexual revolution began,” as West told Nightline? Even the highly influential Weigel himself, to his credit, wrote in a foreword to one of Christopher West’s  books: “A sex-saturated culture imagines that the sexual revolution has been liberating. The opposite is the truth.” (Theology of the Body Explained, 2003, p. XVI).

Words such as "revolution” and similar bombastic expressions are appealing—but irresponsible. Inflated words and phrases are like a psychological massage—used throughout the ages by people who know the power of words. Most people live in such a state of spiritual and intellectual somnolence that such expressions might be useful to shake them out of their lethargy. But they are misleading. As stated, there is no revolution in the Church: the one great tsunami was the Incarnation.

2. The Calamity of Discipleship

The purpose of this paper was to compare Dietrich von Hildebrand's approach to the "intimate sphere", and that of Christopher West.  Let me be clear and state that West—to my knowledge-- has never explicitly claimed to be a disciple of Dietrich von Hildebrand; nevertheless, I know from his personal testimony that West has a deep appreciation for the work of my husband, and I know he has publicly praised it. The question is whether West can therefore, in any real sense, at least by implication, be considered my husband’s disciple. For the many reasons outlined in this essay, I don’t believe he can.

Let us leave aside the incontestable fact that Christopher West has great oratorical talent, and does much good. I am sure that he  wants to work for God’s glory.

God can use any "tool" that He pleases to bring souls back to him.  The point I would like to emphasize is that Dietrich von Hildebrand's approach is widely different from the one of Christopher West, and that therefore it would be misleading to call West  a disciple of my husband. To be a disciple is not an easy task: a superficial knowledge of the history of philosophy teaches us that innumerable thinkers consider themselves to be disciples of Aristotle, but  whether "the master of those who know" (to quote Dante) would give the prize to any of them (that is, whether Averroes, Avicenna, St. Thomas Aquinas or Siger of Brabant deserve this honor)  is something we shall find out in another world, when the question will have lost all interest.
Kant repudiated Fichte who claimed to be his disciple. The latter in turn refused to recognize Schelling as a valid interpreter of his message. Kierkegaard wrote "to have a disciple is the worst of calamities".  It does happen that people call themselves (or act as if they are) “disciples” of a great thinker when in fact they can, on some issues, seriously deviate from their mentor’s views. Whether Christopher West, however well-intentioned,  is a true disciple of John Paul II is at least questionable-- as  are many aspects  of his presentations. The question must be asked: Why is it that John Paul II’s presentation of the Theology of the Body was never seriously challenged, whereas Christopher West’s interpretation of it has unleashed enormous controversy? Could it be that West has misrepresented it in fundamental respects, and worse, employed his own offensive language and “pop culture” ideas to vulgarize it?

Noli Me Tangere

Here, I would like to reflect on an incident in the life of the Little Flower, St Therese of Lisieux. When a student grabbed her as she was stepping out of the train, she responded as a proper female should.  She recommended herself to the Holy Virgin, and looked at him so severely that he immediately let her loose (Deposition of her sister Genevieve). Would West ridicule this great saint for being a “prude”? If he did, he would be wrong, for St. Therese’s response was thoroughly Catholic, and the only right one: she was responding with noli me tangere [Don’t touch me]. This attitude has nothing to do with an unhealthy fear of the body, or bodily contact, but a very healthy modesty and self-respect.

This "noli me tangere" is a key expression regarding the mystery of the supernatural. This is why, Dietrich von Hildebrand, who came from a privileged cultural and artistic background, and had been acquainted with holy paintings since his earliest youth, would never have made remarks about the size of the Holy Virgin’s bosom, as West has, repeating with praise an exhortation for Catholics to “rediscover” Mary’s “abundant breasts” (Crisis magazine, March , 2002) To Dietrich’s mind, this would be an act of irreverence. Her breasts were sacred and the response to the sacred is awe and not a critical approach to the size of "the blessed breasts that sucked thee". True religious art has always understood this.

Blessed by an exceptional artistic background, Dietrich was, from his earliest youth, trained to appreciate works of art according to their artistic perfection. One of the requirements of sacred art is that the artist succeeds in creating, through visible means, an atmosphere of sacredness. When Mary is represented, the crucial element is that the image inspires in the viewer a feeling of reverence; whether she is painted with “abundant breasts” is totally irrelevant—otherwise, most other icons would have to be discarded. It suffices for the faithful  believer  to be inspired by a work of art; he or she should never be titillated by it.

2. Differences of Christopher West From Dietrich von Hildebrand

As Dietrich von Hildebrand's wife, I can state the following, as a matter of summary, regarding the differences between my husband and Christopher West:

1. My husband would not refer to the Theology of the Body as “a revolution”: Dietrich knew that revolutions aim at destroying the past, and starting anew. An authentic development of doctrine, however, is something completely different: it takes from our sacred deposit of faith, and helps it blossom into a flower, but it does not invent, or contradict it. When the Theology of the Body is presented as a radical revolution, and twisted into something John Paul II never intended, Catholics should immediately stop, and pull back, and ask themselves: “What am I being fed?” One cannot be too cautious about protecting one’s soul. But, to the extent the Theology of the Body might be "a development of doctrine,” Dietrich would have welcomed it—provided such a claim remained faithful to John Paul’s original intent, and was made in a reverent and orthodox way. Each age in the Church sheds particular light on some facets of the divine message, and the Theology of the Body, properly interpreted, and consistent with historic Catholic teaching, can be seen as an example of that.  But Dietrich would never have regarded it as a  radical “innovation.”

2. In contrast to the loose language used by Christopher West, Dietrich von Hildebrand carefully chose the words he used when referring to the mysteries of our faith, or to things that are intimate and sacred. Words such as "crap" and "crapola" would jar his spiritual hearing. He knew, as did Kierkegaard, that “vulgarity is always popular,” but nonetheless never resorted to it, for, as St. Francis de Sales wrote: “Our words are a faithful index to the state of our souls.” (Introduction to the Devout Life, part III, chapter 26).

When referring to mysteries (such as the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Eucharist) Dietrich’s choice of words invited his listeners to a trembling reverence and adoration. Christopher West's aforementioned remarks, in contrast,-- however well intended-- about the "bloodied membrane" that the Holy Virgin ejected after Christ's birth would strike Dietrich as close to blasphemy. Were he with us today, Dietrich would have surely quoted the Holy Office’s warning to West: “Theological works are being published in which the delicate question of Mary’s virginity ‘in partu’ is treated with a deplorable crudeness of expression and, what is more serious, in flagrant contradiction to the doctrinal tradition of the Church and to the sense of respect the faithful have.” (From the Holy Office monitum, July , 1960, reprinted  in  A Short Treatise on the Virgin Mary by Rene Laurentin, AMI Press, 1991, , pp. 318-329)

In closing, let me repeat that I do not wish to take away any good Christopher West has accomplished, only caution him and his followers about errors I believe he has committed, and which my husband, whom Pope Pius XII called a “twentieth century Doctor of the Church,” would, I am certain, have been the first to point out.  With his many talents, Christopher West has much to offer the Church; but I believe he will only fulfill his potential if he presents the Theology of the Body according to the traditions of our Church--  reverently, with humility—and liberate himself from  the wayward “enthusiasms” of our time.

Postscript: Earlier this year, and after this paper was begun, Christopher West announced that he would be taking a six-month sabbatical from his usual work.  It is my sincere and prayerful hope that he will use this valuable time, of “personal and professional renewal,” to consider the many concerns that have been raised about his work-- and thereby “renew” his approach as well.

I submit this reflection on the philosophy of Dietrich von Hildebrand in the hopes that it redirects Christopher West’s thinking. I further remind the reader that the West website continues to offer West’s programs, including courses for youth in public settings. My husband has written extensively on sex education in the schools, standing firmly behind the great encyclical, Christian Education for Youth, by Pope Pius XI, 1929. There, His Holiness roundly condemns sex education classes. Dietrich von Hildebrand’s booklet, Sex Education: The Basic Issues, can be read and ordered at the Veil of Innocence website,
This article (for which mistakes, inaccuracies and imperfections I carry full responsibility for) is in fact a work of collaboration with several thinkers I admire and respect. Let me mention, among others, Father Brian Mullady, OP; Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger, F.I., Fr. Anthony Mastroeni and James Likoudis. They have read the manuscript. Their comments and criticisms have been highly appreciated and most helpful. 
Dawn Eden also deserves notable mention: her in-depth knowledge of the work of Christopher West has been crucial to me. Through her scholarship, I made the acquaintance of several texts I had not read. I owe her a special thanks.
Last, but not least, this article was truly done in collaboration with my friend, William Doino. His knowledge of history , his intelligence, and  endless patience with the changes I kept introducing, was of such value to me, that I do not hesitate to say that without him, this manuscript never would have been published. Thank you to all these dear friends. May it all be ad majorem Dei gloriam.
Alice von Hildebrand.


Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, my goodness! Another thing I hadn't known about was West's comment on Mary's breasts. I don't know if that was meant to be a joke or not (and I certainly hope it wasn't!!!), but the fact that he could even think such a thing--think of Our Lady in those terms--makes me feel sorry for all the women in his life!

And even if he meant absolutely nothing crass by it, Alice Von Hildebrand is right that anyone talking of Mary and of the sexual sphere should use reverent rather than titillating language--not just in his choice of words, but also in his choice of imagery.

And basically, West is someone who juxtaposes John Paul II and Hugh Hefner, calls pornography mere junk food, and makes a crack about Our Lady's breasts.

Terry Nelson said...

What a great scholar and lady in her own right. I too need to heed her counsel as regards language. Thanks again for posting the entire essay.

(I had no idea West was so calous in speaking about Our Lady.)

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, E. and Terry! The way Mr. West discusses the Most Holy Virgin Mary is utterly sacrilegious. What away to talk about someone's mother, especially Our Lord's Mother! If someone spoke about Mr. West's mother that way, how would he like it?

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