Sexual Salvation without Repression and Condemnation

by James Likoudis


This article raises questions about the problematic interpretation of Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body by Christopher West and others who distort authentic education in chastity.

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Christian Order

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Christian Order, April 2009

One of the great tragedies of the Post-Conciliar period recognized by all orthodox Catholics has been the distortions, and one could say, perversions of the Church’s understanding of human sexuality. This has resulted in the assault on “Humanae Vitae” by moral theologians rebelling against the Successor of Peter upholding the perennial teaching of the Church on the intrinsic evil of contraception. They were assisted by many University and College professors of theology, teachers in Catholic schools, journalists demanding “change” in Church teachings and structures, and even Bishops and priests who had succumbed to the siren song of “freedom” and “relevance” and “openness tot the modern mind” preached by contemporary Liberalism .

The assault on “Humanae Vitae” led inexorably to rejection of the Church’s teaching on abortion, homosexuality, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research, and euthanasia.

Sex ed Mk II

Another major factor in the undermining of Catholic morality for millions in the Church was the impact of the Comprehensive Classroom Sex Education phenomenon that quickly won its way into both public and parochial schools as Planned Parenthood and organizations like the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS) cunningly won the confidence of naïve parents and even Catholic educators. Little matter that such scientific and Comprehensive “Sex Education” was soon exposed as largely and deliberately secular humanist in character, being rather clinical, graphic, explicit, sometimes bordering on the pornographic, and riddled with “Situation Ethics” and moral relativism. It represented a serious undermining of Parental and Church Authority with its “morality of options” and glorification of the “autonomous individual conscience”.

There is no need here to expound further on a “Sex Education” that was an integral part of the Sexual Revolution of the ‘60’s and which denied an objective and universal morality, was starkly clinical and explicit in its treatment of sexual acts, disturbed the latency period of young children, and destroyed their innocence of soul with a barrage of sexual images located in their classroom “Health” and “Religon” texts. Now, a new problem has emerged for parents and Catholic educators, however, with the emergence of a particular kind of Sex Education being presented by “Theology of the Body “(TOB) Lecturers and teachers whose pedagogic materials are found in books, pamphlets, and DVD’s geared to teenagers and young adults, engaged couples as well as to married adults and said to be authentically Catholic because based on the teaching of Pope John Paul II on human sexuality and marriage.

Beauty and Pitfalls of sexual love

From September 5, 1979 and extending over 4 years Pope John Paul the Great had given a series of 130 philosophical and theological meditations on the fact that God had created humanity male and female and as “embodied persons”. It is this “embodiedness” with its sexual differentiation that permits that mutual self-giving in sexual love which Christ elevated into a Sacrament which gives graces to overcome sin and the sinful inclinations of fallen human nature with its disordered passions. As George Weigel observed, marriage is not only an image of Christ’s love for His Bride the Church, but “a school in which we become fitted for life in the Kingdom of God by learning to make a complete gift of self to another”.

Sexual love in the marital embrace is a good (no Manichean or Jansenist or Puritan contempt for the body in Catholic doctrine) and was designed to promote human happiness if lived “chastely”, that is, in accordance with the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance., and the theological virtue of charity.

The body in the Pope’s thought has a nuptial meaning because it reveals man and woman’s call to become a gift for the other in holy marriage. Neither man nor woman in marriage is to be treated as an “object” of lust, but to grow in maturity as a communion of loving persons involving legitimate sexual expression. There is also constant need for a certain sexual asceticism to obtain self-mastery. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh (i.e., man in his totality of body and soul) take no thought of its lusts.” (Rom. 13:14). Furthermore, it is a fact of human nature that in the words of Vatican II, “man is split within himself. As a result, all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness.” (“Church in the Modern World”, 13).

The danger of succumbing to sensuality and lust resulting from the fierce strength of concupiscence (the inclination to sin in fallen human nature that is pervasive in human actions) is a simple fact of life, calling for spiritual struggle. In Catholic teaching concupiscence is not sin, but it comes from sin and leads to sin. For Catholic educators intent on instructing others on the subject of human sexuality and marriage, to ignore the Church’s doctrine on Original Sin and the need for spiritual struggle against the frenzy of disordered sexual desire would be folly.

Another folly would be to distort Pope John Paul II’s rich “Theology of the Body” and its teaching on sexual intimacy and teach falsely that the fullest expression of married love consists in the maximization of sexual intercourse and its pleasures. It is even worse folly to ignore the spiritual consequences of sexual sin which endanger our salvation. It will be seen if Christopher West has avoided all these pitfalls as he speaks of his “mission” to spread the Pope’s “vision of erotic love”. “I came to learn from Pope John Paul II that the sexual embrace is meant to be a foreshadowing of the eternal union of heaven.”

Something also needs to be said regarding the reverence in which the sexual sphere must be approached and the possibility of its desecration. As Dietrich von Hildebrand pointed out in his classic work “In Defense of Purity”,

“Every abuse of sex is a desecration: it further involves a specific defilement. There are aspects of sex which are displayed immediately when it is isolated and no longer ‘formed’ from within by wedded love and the consciousness of God’s sanction- namely, the siren-song of sensual attraction with its poisonous sweetness, and diabolic evil lust, both displaying a peculiar power to corrode and defile the soul. The moment any man in his employment of sex ‘wills’ one of these two aspects, and gives himself up to it, he incurs a mysterious defilement and separates himself in an altogether unique fashion from God….We are face to face with the mystery of sex…Whenever sex is indulged for the sake of its sensuous appeal, and whenever it is withdrawn from its place in marriage and separated from its function as the expression of reverent and lawful wedded love, whereby, as we have seen, its quality is completely changed, the person concerned is defiled, his soul is made captive to the flesh, and a mysterious apostasy from God takes place, unmatched for its particular enigmatic quality by any other sin.” (pp. 22)

Christopher West: visionary or vulgarian?

As noted, one of the leading contemporary Lecturers on the “Theology of the Body” is Christopher West who in the words of a recent writer, is regarded as quite a celebrity by his admirers, “the best thing since sliced bread”. His oral and written expositions of the “Theology of the Body” are reflected in such books as “Theology of the Body for Beginners”; “Good News About Sex & Marriage”; “Theology of the Body Explained: A Commentary on John Paul II’s Gospel of the Body”; and “Heaven’s Song: Sexual Love As It Was Meant to Be”, together with many articles, Videos, and DVDs that have made him one of the most popular speakers attempting to bring to Catholic audiences the Pope’s profound reflections on the meaning of love and sex in human life. He has taken his message of “biblical sexuality” to four continents, nine countries, and 150 U.S. cities.

In his addresses constituting what has been termed a “Theology of the Body”, Pope John Paul II had proceeded to stress the social nature of the human person even more than St. Thomas Aquinas and in his profound analysis of the Book of Genesis he showed how the human person (Adam) even before Original Sin overcame his initial solitude by becoming a self-gift for the other person (Eve) in holy marriage, fully open to each other’s body and a corresponding openness to the gift of fertility. Christopher West has claimed that the Pope’s teaching has helped contribute to a much needed reclamation of the Christian ethic and that his own popularization of the Pope’s teaching constitutes a “bold, biblical vision that demonstrates the beauty of God’s plan for human sexuality and the joy of living it.” As a herald of a “revolutionary” and “authentic sexual liberation”, he hopes that his books and materials “will help kick that revolution into high gear”.

Though Mr. West’s TOB presentations have been widely applauded, he has not been without some critics who have taken exception to his presentations, finding, for example, his TV programs (geared to teenagers or older students or the young/engaged) crude and vulgar and verbally explicit in dealing with sexual matters. This is hardly in conformity with the seminal Vatican document “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality” (TMHS) which has established the exact guidelines for the manner in which sexuality content is to be presented.

There is also the problem of his ranting “style” and use of jarring street-language in the effort to relate to audiences already “sexually educated beyond their years” by a decadent culture. Some will sense a serious lack of modesty or shame or even a deliberate effort at desensitizaition of the “prudes” in his audiences by West with his being “cool, and with it” and his too comfortable use of sexual terminology.

There is need for the utmost caution in the rash use of sexual language which can seriously diminish the sense of sin and shame and what philosophers Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand have termed “holy bashfulness” in youth and adults. There are priests and lay people who find his presentations offensive for their earthy, “brutally honest” (his own words) language. He does no justice to Pope John Paul II’s TOB with his crass, indelicate, foul (“getting laid”) irreverent language characterizing what he himself has termed a “pornified” society. West’s “deliberate provocation” of audiences and not hesitating, in the words of another observer, “to get down in the muck to speak to today’s youth” have led his detractors to refer to West’s “Theology of the Bawdy”.

Perverting morality and doctrine

Certainly, Catholics cannot win the Culture War by using the same foul language that constitutes part of the Devil’s plan to undermine the virtues of modesty and purity of mind and soul sought for His disciples by Christ. The person possessing reverent awe towards the sexual sphere shrinks from any violation of the mystery and intimacy of sex, and it shrinks from any public display or exhibition of the brutal aspects of sex..

There is the grave problem of his teaching on Sodomy as found in his book “Good News About Sex & Marriage- Answers to Your Honest Questions About Catholic Teachings”. There he wrote, incredibly : “There’s nothing inherently wrong with anal penetration as foreplay to normal intercourse.” Because of objections made by critics, he rewrote the passage for a revised edition as follows: “Perhaps in some abstract, objective sense, there is nothing to condemn mere penetration of the anus as absolutely and in every case immoral. But subjectively speaking…it is very difficult to justify anal penetration as a loving act of foreplay to the marital embrace. It is an act that seems to stem much more from the disorder of lust than a genuine desire to symbolize and renew the marriage covenant.”

There results the Question inevitably raised by his critics: Can one who so mitigates the sin of Sodomy be regarded as a fit sex educator in TOB for Catholics or anyone else?

In the St. Louis Review, November 7, 2008 West did a column “Where Aquinas Meets Dr. Ruth” where he reviewed the book by Gregory Popcak entitled : “Holy Sex: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving”. This was a book summed up by National Catholic Reporter journalist John Allen as “Thomas Aquinas meets Dr. Ruth, and enjoy!” West praised the book for infusing marital love “with a passion that reaches biblical proportions. Literally”, adding, “Give it a prayerful read”.

West is indeed “earthy” and ready to offend the “squeamish” and he does so even in his description of the virginal birth of Christ. He had viewed the birth of his son Isaac where the midwife examined the placenta:

She very casually opened up this bloodied membrane, pointed inside and said, ‘Here is where Isaac lived for nine months’…Hit like a ton of bricks, while I was gazing wide-eyed and jaw-dropped into this precious mammalian ‘sac of life’- ‘in the fullness of time, God sent his son born of a woman’ (Gal. 4:4) I believe- or at least I claim to believe, that the Most High God lived for nine months in a bloody mammalian sac like this. What? This may sound strange to some, but right there as the midwife was holding this membrane open and all of the above was flooding my mind and heart, I felt like the curtain to the holy of holies had just been pulled back. I was gazing into the tabernacle…” (article in the Colorado Catholic Herald, 2-22-08).

This simply does not conform to the teaching of the Catholic Church on the Virgin Birth of Christ whose mother did not undergo labor pains and a bloody delivery!

Original Sin and concupiscence marginalized

Running through all his writing is a TOB that dangerously minimizes the Church’s doctrine on Original Sin and concupiscence. It is not that he ignores the “power of lust” and is not aware of the “effects of sin” and that Christ’s Gospel of grace entailed a “liberation from lust”. His own past personal experiences have cried out for such liberation. But he nevertheless betrays an excessively optimistic view of fallen and wounded human nature, one which remains wounded even after the recovery of grace in Baptism. He does not pay sufficient attention to the truth that sex in the human person and the marital act itself are not exempt from the consequences of the Fall.

It would appear for West as for Popcak, Sex is Holy and married couples are to engage in an “unabashed celebration of erotic love”, as seen in the biblical “Song of Songs”. As West explains, “In the Catholic view of things, the body is good and the joining of man and woman in ‘one flesh’ (sexual union) is a sacred foreshadowing of the eternal union that awaits us in heaven”.

Much of his approach focuses on explaining to people that they “have been erroneously trained to think of their bodies and of sexuality as an obstacle to the ‘spiritual life’ and to ‘the joy of sex’, while he overlooks the reality of the human condition with its always threatening tendency of bodily sexual passion overpowering the spirit.

It is understandable that some of his readers would draw the conclusion that his books praise the kind of “Joy of Sex” life-style found in the Adult sections of book stores, but now sanctified with Catholic holy water. After all, has he not written that “The Pope has a vision of erotic love far more glorious than anything beyond Sigmund Freud, Dr. Ruth or Howard Stein could dream or imagine”? This cannot be entirely explained away in terms of Christian love versus demonic lust, for it is the goal of mind-blowing “Sexual Ecstasy” that he constantly holds before his Catholic and other readers.

Sex is not “holy”

There appears to be a certain confusion in his writing between sexuality and sex, and a tendency to write in the same ambiguous and obfuscatory vein as secular humanist sex educators. Thus, he writes, “So many ask, will there be sex in heaven? It depends on what we mean by the term. Sex is not first what people do. It’s who people are as male and female. Pope John Paul insisted many times in his reflections on the resurrection that we will be raised as male and female. So, in this sense, yes, there will be sex in heaven.” (!)

As already indicated, there is a kind of neo-Pelagianism reflected in West’s version of TOB with its exaggerated idyllic optimism concerning the goodness of sex and the goodness and beauty of the body and the holiness and sacrality of sex, and the endless repetition of the mantra: “since Creation is holy, sex is holy”. The truth is that Pelagianism is Naturalism in disguise, and sex in itself is not holy. As Archbishop Robert J. Dwyer of Portland noted many years ago with regards to “the modern gospel of Sexual Optimism”:

“Sex is not holy. Macauley’s veriest school boy could tell you that, or could at least until the new theologians had finished brainwashing him. Sex is a natural function, neither holy or evil in itself. One might say with equal justice that breathing is holy, or eating cornflakes for breakfast is holy…Sex is a good; it was implanted in our nature for specific purposes, just as he endowed the human race with gifts of intellect and free will. There is nothing holy about these gifts ; in themselves they are neutral. Sex may be made an instrument of God’s grace, as when it is used in accordance with His divine will, or it may also be an instrument of sin, when it is abused in defiance of that will….For Pelagius, inasmuch as man, fresh from the hand of God, is innately good, and grace, being only the knowledge man has of Christ, is therefore only an auxiliary in the process of salvation, sex could very well be holy, since all creation is holy. When you erase the line between what is natural and what is supernatural, then natural goodness and holiness become interchangeable terms, or, more precisely, they lose their meaning altogether. It is this very failure to hold to this distinction which lies at the root of so much of the theological confusion of our day…So Pelagius lives again. Watch for him in the next theological treatise or article you read; the chances are you will meet him on page one, smiling and debonnaire as ever.”

West so emphasizes the goodness of man and creation and the body that the carnal and egoistic and selfish “sexual person” is given a rather free reign to lust against the spirit. This is very dangerous. The French theologian Jean Mouroux wrote many years ago: “The human body is not the body that God willed; it is a body that has fallen, along with the man in his entirety. Something that God did not create has had its way with it; and that something is sin. The human body was made by God, but its actual state is the work of man. Mystery of the fall of man! The body is too much of a burden, too tyrannical, too much fraught with peril, to enable us to think of its state as natural, but then, precisely, it is not natural. God’s work has been spoiled, and the lost equilibrium, the body’s revolt against the soul, is the sign and the fruit of another revolt: that of the spirit against its God. At the bottom of all our miseries lies human sin, and this it is that has changed our human condition.” (The Meaning of Man, Image Book, 1961d, pp. 78-79) West’s critics have seen Pelagius’ enthusiasm and exuberance and infectious smile and grin reflected in West’s decrying a “censorious approach to sex and sex talk” and condemning the “Old Church” as oppressive, repressive, and unduly restrictive as a result of the residues of Manicheanism found in the much-maligned St. Augustine!

Exalting carnal over spiritual

Not only is sexuality (i.e., masculinity and femininity) somewhat confused with sex in West/s writings (everyone knows “sex” has reference to sexual activity) but the sexual embrace and the “joy of sex” receive emphasis as the pronounced characteristic of spousal or wedded love. In West’s understanding, love and sex appear so fused that a carnal and sexual element intrudes upon the understanding of “spiritual union”, and it is misleading for West to so stress the sensual side of earthly affection that it appears to be the dominant factor in true human love. Moreover, “We come to see that the sexual embrace, the deep intimate erotic love of husband and wife, as a passage way into deep transforming intimate union with God”.

The conjugal union of Christian spouses is indeed both carnal and spiritual, and indeed reflects the mystery of Christ’s spousal love for His Church, but the heavenly Bridegroom’s love for His Church is spiritual and not carnal involving physical intercourse.

West decries past manuals of moral theology for their prudishness and repression of sexual passion and notes rightly that “negativity for the body and sex is foreign to authentic Christian belief and practice”, but there is found in his writings such an exaltation of “true erotic love” and the joy of sexual love in a manner that ill befits a realistic understanding of the sacrificial love which he admits is demanded of spouses beset by their many trials and difficulties. West himself notes, “Christian marriage is a messy, painful business”, and may involve much suffering (the suffering of the Cross), even as regards the sexual intimacy desired by the spouses. He asked, “The love that never fades or dies…Isn’t this the love that housewives are desperate for?”

It is doubtful, however, that the sexual ecstasy and the fulfillment of sexual desire which he promises couples in the name of Christianity as the natural accompaniment of “the goodness and beauty of sex” will be achieved in those many cases where the force of concupiscence is troubling.

Sin and salvation diminished

Something should also be said concerning what lies behind the crude, sometimes street language West uses manifesting a coarse and naturalistic irreverence towards the sexual sphere, namely, a diminishing of the malice of sin itself which is not communicated well to his audiences.

He certainly highlights in abundance the temporal physical misfortunes and ruining of “relationships” accruing to those misusing sex but the eternal consequences of impurity are glossed over. This is not surprising among sex educators contaminated by secular humanism but it is certainly surprising among those presuming to implement Pope John Paul II’s TOB with its strong defense of moral norms and the need to take strong measures for the salvation of one’s soul. There is need to incorporate the truths of Catholic eschatology concerning the gravity of sin and the supernatural destiny of sinners.

There are grounds for believing that West misconstrues the body-soul relationship. He pays much more attention to the body and its sexual desires than to the work of grace in the soul. It is interesting that one observer of West’s presentation in a Church wrote:

“He discussed private and intimate matters in front of the Blessed Sacrament. He had a young man stand up and told the congregation: ‘Look at Jim’s body’. When people (men and women, married and single) began to giggle and look uncomfortable, West said this was the wrong response, for they should be perfectly comfortable with the idea of looking at someone’s body. Jim was actually blushing and Mr. West said those who were laughing uncomfortably were being basically prudish in the bad Jansenist/Manichean sense”.

False divinization

Even more interesting is West’s notion of divinization of the human person. He writes that “Christ has divinized the human body”. True, there is the divinization of the human person by sanctifying grace (begun in baptism) and there is a consequent effect of grace on the body but it is the soul which is the direct recipient of deifying grace.

Grace puts something in the soul, i.e., new supernatural life. Grace is “the life of the soul” and it is the soul which is mysteriously transformed and made holy, therefore like God. Grace results in the renovation of the “interior man” and not any “divinization of the body” in such wise that it is rendered immune from the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”(1 Jn. 2:16). It is the loss of integrity because of Original Sin, even in man’s restored state, that has created the problem of the sexual appetite in man , like all other human desires, being disturbed by concupiscence and tending to deviate from its proper use as willed by the Creator.

The strength of sexual concupiscence is not eliminated by divinization or deification for it remains felt most tangibly in its bodily appetite. As St. Augustine noted, sin occurs when the will turns to a created good, but to none more readily and vehemently than sexual gratification.

Hedonistic distortion of married love

Lastly, it is difficult to exempt West’s writings from furthering the notion that the supreme expression of marriage is bodily sexual intercourse. To the contrary, the supreme expression of marriage exists in the spiritual union of love and fidelity in the bond which binds the spouses, and that union is to be strengthened in true love through the years while sexual intercourse usually wanes by its very nature. The perfection and continuance of love as couples age results from becoming more deeply mature and spiritual, not from more physical and sensual coupling and culminating in “Sexual Ecstasy” as a way of life.

Too much of West’s approach is hedonistic and tends to mislead people into thinking sexual intercourse is the highest expression of love and an entitlement to “Sexual Ecstasy”. The sexual and erotic element in marriage is given an importance that can be terribly misleading. In West’s TOB there is not that presentation of the Church’s doctrine of love in all reverence and delicacy and appreciation of the supernatural working of God’s grace wherein the natural stresses of the libido in fallen man become subject to a spiritual love and communion of the wedded spouses with Christ and a deeper friendship and companionship between husband and wife.

Unbalanced: irreverent: unchaste

In conclusion, Christopher West’s TOB does not appear to be a balanced spirituality or even a reverential and chaste presentation of the Pope’s “Theology of the Body”. His Sexual Optimism (opposed to what he would regard as Augustinian Pessimism) leads him to ignore in a serious measure what Pope John Paul II wrote concerning the continued tension between flesh and spirit in fallen man- a tension that is not automatically resolved by man’s divinization. The Pope reminded us that

“The body, which is not subordinated to the spirit is not the state of original innocence, and bears within it a constant center of resistance to the spirit, and threatens in a way, the unity of the man-person., that is, of the moral nature, which is firmly rooted in the very constitution of the person. Lust, and in particular, the lust of the body, is a specific threat to the structure of self-control and self-mastery…The lust of the flesh directs desires to the satisfaction of the body, often at a cost of a real and full communion of the persons.” (Blessed are the Pure in Heart, pp. 51, 78).

There is reason to believe that a false exuberant “sexual mysticism” (found in both medieval and modern “mystics” seeking sexual liberation) underlies West’s fascination with “Sexual Ecstasy” as the culmination of his meditations on the bodily union of the sexes foreshadowing the joy of heaven. Here too, he overlooks the import of the cautions he himself has quoted from Pope John Paul II: “An intoxicated and undisciplined eros is not an ascent in ‘ecstacy’ towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man.”

Beware TOB popularizers

There are other popularizers of TOB on the American and world circuit who need similar scrutiny. The Dominican theologian Fr. Brian Mullady has well summed up a key danger in the erroneous interpretations being made of Pope John Paul II’s teaching.

“Some proponents of the theology of the body have made the illogical leap from the fact that the body is good and expresses this communion of hearts to the conclusion that by grace man returns to a kind of original justice in which he need not worry about the enticements of pleasure or concupiscence of the flesh. The Pope is clear that one can never return to this state, that the scriptural condemnation of lust refers not to the body or the passions as such, but to the will. One can never act as though one can be free from temptation in this life. Though spousal love is an important part of the healing of the spirit in this regard, it does not entirely do away with our weakness. A proper understanding of the body and marriage gives us hope but not presumption.” (New Oxford Review, March 2009, p. 28).

In short, West’s TOB, whatever its fidelity to various aspects of Catholic moral teaching for which he should be commended, reveals serious problematic issues resulting in distortions of an authentic Education in Chastity.

The above article appeared in Christian Order, April 2009, edited by Rod Pead and published in London, England (Editorial Office: P.O.Box 14754, London SE 19 2ZJ, UK)

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