Theology of the Body and Alice Von Hildenbrand

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I was surprised (shocked, really) to get an email from a reader when I first started discussing the video series my Bible study worked through on Christopher West’s presentation of Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. One KS community member had mentioned on Facebook that Alice Von Hildenbrand has some opposing viewpoints and another way to look at the Theology of the Body. I put that idea on the back burner as something I might look into but was quite content presenting the amazing insights I was learning in my Bible study.

When the reader emailed, she included a few news articles that not only called into question Christopher West, but seemed to disagree heartily with the Holy Father. I stopped reading. I’ve never seen a Catholic source willing to say that John Paul II was wrong and outside the path the Catholic Church has set for its people.

In many scholars’ estimation, John Paul is quite on his way to being John Paul the Great, and in fact he was beatified last Spring.

I was curious what von Hildebrand, wife of Dietrich von Hildebrand, the late Catholic scholar, had to say about the issue.

I’m going to try to simply share quotes without leaking my opinion too much, because I’m tired of getting worked up about things.

Summarized and with quotes from Catholic News Agency:

[Christopher West’s] approach has become too self-assured. Alice von Hildebrand criticized his presentations as irreverent and insensitive to the “tremendous dangers” of concupiscence.

This is “very troubling” because what she calls the “intimate sphere” is something “very mysterious, very profound, something that has a direct relationship with God.”

“My feeling is that his vocabulary and his way of approaching it totally lacks reverence.”

While one can lead a holy life in marriage, she said to become a saint is “a long and difficult process that calls for a spirit of penance, a readiness to sacrifice.”

Christopher West’s approach makes him forget that sex is “an extreme danger.” Though sex can be sanctified, that sanctification implies “a humility, a spirit of reverence, and totally avoiding the vulgarity that he uses in his language.”

“I’m shocked and horrified by the words that he uses. His mere mention of Hugh Hefner is to my mind an abomination.”

Mary Shivanandan, a theologian who authored the book “Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II’s Anthropology,” was also critical of West’s remarks.

“The sublime teaching of John Paul II’s theology of sexuality is not well served by West’s comparison to Hugh Hefner and his playboy bunnies,” she told CNA in a Monday e-mail. “The late pope had a profound reverence for God’s plan for human love, which such a comparison, no matter how well intentioned, can only diminish and degrade.”

Again from the Catholic News Agency:

West’s interview with ABC misinterpreted and misrepresented – they listed Hefner and John Paul II as his two HEROES, even though he sets them as opposites in the sexual revolution.

From a response from Janet Smith, speaker on NFP, from EWTN:

“Von Hildebrand tells us that her husband’s key word in his books was ‘love,’ not ‘pleasure.’ She thus seems to suggest that the key word in West’s works is ‘pleasure.’ But West stresses that the key to the Theology of the Body is the theme of ’self-gift.’ Why not take him at his word?”

In her closing remarks, Smith said “I have undertaken this response to von Hildebrand’s essay only with reluctance, since I greatly admire her and I know she seeks only to do good.”

More from Janet Smith on the Catholic Exchange:

One of the benefits of being “on the circuit” is the opportunity to meet some fascinating and remarkable people, whether they are other speakers, organizers, or attendees. It has been my privilege to have met both Alice von Hildebrand and Christopher West. I have a great respect and fondness for both. In ways, they are quite similar; they are intense, and passionate, and dedicated to the Truth and the Church.

Some fail to see that West has made considerable changes in his presentation of the Theology of the Body over the years.  Some examples: he rerecorded his DVD/CD series on the Theology of the Body and altered language some have found offensive; he has revised his book Good News about Sex and Marriage to clarify a few matters some found problematic; and he laboriously rewrote his Theology of the Body Explained upon the publication of Michael Waldstein’s Man and Woman He Created Them. Those of us who believe that West does wonderful work want him to continue to forge ahead with his terrifically effective style.  In our view, he responds well to feedback (which all speakers need) and we are confident that his presentations will continue to improve.

Indeed, in a 2009 interview, von Hildebrand admitted that she has not read John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. In addition, there is no evidence that that has changed or that she has much firsthand knowledge of West’s work.

There are some other great points in this article, starting with the section “Blaming whom?”

It seems like there’s always controversy about something, doesn’t it? I’ll be glad when Blessed Pope John Paul II is declared a saint, because that will mean every last word he ever wrote was combed through and found to have nothing in opposition with the Catholic Church’s magisterium (on faith and morals, yes?). UPDATE: Apparently I misquoted Catholic tradition. We are free to disagree even with saints and sainthood, but I’m still excited about JPII being beatified and hopefully canonized, simply because I’ve always admired and truly loved the man. He is an icon of holiness from my youth. If the Vatican is speeding up the process, they should not, if only to avoid controversy. To take something as good as the life of JPII and as beautiful as sainthood and embroil it with questions and negativity is just not something I want to participate in. In this ugly world, I need some beauty that I don’t have to question, so I choose not to in this case. Blessed John Paul II, pray for us! At least then I can easily brush off those “catholic” sources who choose to denigrate our former pope and claim that he was departing from Catholicism and writing something totally new and out of line.

As for von Hildebrand, since she hasn’t read the Theology of the Body and seems to be discussing West’s treatment of it via hearsay and news articles instead of experiencing it herself, I am not going to worry my little head about it.

West presents John Paul II’s work in an accessible, modern style that is 110% reverent toward human sexuality, marriage, and celibacy. He is putting his neck on the line on this ever-controversial subject (sex, NFP, marriage, etc.) and does a wonderful, humble job of it. I absolutely cannot WAIT to share the last four sessions with you! They are rich with beauty and inspiration.

May you have a blessed and holy Divine Mercy Sunday – pray your Chaplet today!

If you’d like to follow the events in Rome this week, Lisa Hendey, founder of CatholicMom.com, is attending and will be tweeting HERE and updating at CatholicMom all week long. Check it out!

UPDATE: To make sure I’m presenting a balanced report, here are the links to the articles from my reader. But honestly, anything that attacks my beloved Holy Father, the pope of my entire childhood and young adult years, is not worth my reading.

Copyright 2012 Katie Kimball

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5 Comments

  1. Hi Katie, Excellent article here! It’s really an odd coincidence – yesterday I was googling (or swagbucking? ha, ha) Dietrich von Hildebrand because I was trying to find where he wrote about Communism and Fascism being close cousins (something I’d listened to on a tape many years ago). Well, I came across a blogger who was discussing this whole schpiel and I also got really perturbed. I chose to leave the blog and stop looking because it bothered me.

    So now I’m glad you wrote this because your article was much more pleasant to read and gave me more insight as to what was going on…and I agree with your assessment. I also think that perhaps West is being a bit overly criticized because he uses more “base” language in an effort to show the youth of today that he is not speaking on behalf of a Church which is old-fashioned and stodgy, but one that truly understands what is happening in the culture and STILL has the answers they are seeking. I think he was brave for doing so and applaud him if he has been able to take criticism so gracefully….and nope, he’s not my favorite speaker on Theology of the Body, but I used to have a copy of that book and I’ve listened to his tapes as well. Thanks for sharing, Katie!

  2. …I’m not calling Alice von Hildebrand (awesome lady I’d love to meet!) stodgy or anything. She just has more class than our current culture 🙂

  3. Christopher O. Landreneau on

    C. West’s method does cross the line of proper decorum in talking about the wonder gift of our sexuality. I side with Alice Von Hildebrand. I have read “Love & Responsibility.” PJPII presents the whole topic with reverence and dignity. We don’t the “modern” twist of pseudo-sexual terms to understand PJPII’s L & R.

  4. I agree…I guess I was just saying I think that was his intent (my guess; I can’t say for sure, obviously). You’re right – the subject doesn’t need to be dumbed-down or removed from decorum to be taught correctly. Maybe I’ve not read it recently enough to know exactly what was being referenced.

  5. THANK YOU for posting. I have been trying to figure this out recently. I like Christopher West, but I was reluctant to read anything of his because he is so flashy and commercialized. When I read that Alice von Hildebrand took issues with his approach I really wanted to know why.

    It seems to me that she is very much from the older generation, and West speaks the language of today’s youth. He reaches a much bigger audience than she can. His words are not “vulgar” as she seems to think. He expresses TOB, in less of an intellectual way, and more of an entertaining way to keep his audience. I appreciate that, or else many Americans would not know JPII teachings at all.

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