Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Sacredness of Sexuality

There is an interesting discussion going on that you may have caught wind of...

Christopher West has done wonderful, God-ordained work in "translating" John Paul IIs Theology of the Body to make it more understandable for the less... theologically-inclined... among us. The Theology of the Body truly has been one of the Holy Spirit's greatest gifts to Christians in this age, presenting an integrated vision of the human person--body, soul, and spirit--and showing how the physical human body has a specific meaning and reveals answers regarding fundamental questions about us and our lives. It's also a highly challenging read, and Christopher West provides a helpful, exciting annotation and explanation of it.

However, I'll admit to being scandalized by the vulgarity with which sexuality--specifically sex--is discussed, and by the intimate explanation of the excitement of the marital act. I don't think I'm a prude, but Catholic formation has sensitized me to the sacredness and wholeness of human sexuality and has instilled a modesty and reverence for the entire sphere. Also, I'm adult enough to know that chastity is the hardest personal battle that many Christians face today.

My husband and I laughingly recall attending a Christopher West presentation with a good female friend of ours who was engaged at the time of the presentation. Her first comment when we exited the room after the presentation was something to the effect of: "I'm leaving to go take a cold shower, because I'm a living, breathing near occasion of sin for my fiance right now."

There's GREAT value in conveying the excitement that we should feel to participate in God's divine plan through our bodies, especially when we're seeking to appeal to those who never have heard this good news. But there's equally great value in discretion and modesty, in guarding the purity of our minds and hearts and imaginations. What a challenge for all of us to strike this balance in our sexually-charged culture, and a worthy prayer intention: to be able to show the world both the beauty and the sacredness of God's design for human sexuality.


tobwife said...

The beauty of TOB is the love that is behind the sensuality. JPII speaks clearly about climax and other such topics in Love and Responsibility. It's not about being vulgar it's about helping married couples to use their sexuality to fully complete their marital vows. In fact, he has concern for women becoming "frigid" if their husbands don't fulfill their wives needs as well. I understand why your friend needed a cold shower. And that is one line that is hard to gauge...what should be said only to married couples and what can be said in preparation for marriage. I am saddened when we are afraid to talk about sex, yet time and time again I hear friends say they endure it to have children. That is not the only thing it's about. I commend Christopher West for helping us understand that we don't need to hide our sexuality. It is sacred and should be held with esteem but that doesn't mean we have to hide it. The Mass is also sacred and yet we can talk about it...and so forth...

Kathleen said...

Juris Mater, You and I are on the exact same page about this!! You articulated very well my reservations about recommending Christopher West's talks or books to anyone who is not married or getting married very very soon.

Anonymous said...

My now-husband and I started listening to Christopher West talks together when we were dating, and had to call it quits after the first one or two for the sake of our chastity! However, now that we are married, I can understand the beauty and truth to the intimate details he spoke of.

TOBwife-- one thing my husb and I have recently discussed is how much to talk about sex with other people. a few of our married and CAtholic male friends recently started talking about details of their sex lives around my husband (in a respectful way), which prompted our discussion about how much to share with other people. Neither of us feel comfortable talking about sex with our other married friends--- are you saying that we should be more open about these conversations? How much is too much and how much is healthy?

We have a christian book about sex (Sheet Music, i forget the author) which we recently lent to another catholic couple after an honest discussion of Catholic-married sex. Now I feel embarrassed to ask for it back!

THanks for the discussion, JM!

tobwife said...

I think it's your comfort level. And if a conversation gets too personal say so. I find that my conversations occur mostly one on one with another wife who is struggling with something. We are not all Christopher West and that is okay. He is doing such good for marriages in talking about the "unmentionables."

Maybe having a bunch of kids has made me more of a magnet for such conversations. For this reason, I created a forum to address such things. You may or may not like it but I know it's necessary. My desire for all married couples is to have holy, successful relationships in and out of the bedroom.
Come visit at

Right Said Red said...


Great link. I have heard about this debate and think it quite interesting. I agree that West can be somewhat cavalier about sex and intimacy. When I saw him speak, this was my only complaint about his talk. He is an incredibly gifted speaker, but at times he went a little too far with his language.

That being said, his work is relevant and engaging of our modern culture. Relevance is an extremely important and often overlooked quality. Ms. Von Hildebrand is hardly engaging the culture, so in that respect, I find her criticisms a bit frustrating. While I think it important that our church keep Christopher West in check, it would be nice to at least acknowledge the importance of his work, and how he is actually able to speak to a modern generation--unlike some others.

As a final note, I will add that the Hugh Hefner thing was taken completely out of context. It was an 8 hour interview, edited down into a small segment.

Blair said...

(I think this is my first comment here, Howdy!)

I agree with you on this. I've always had a difficult time with West's analogies. It started when I went to one of his talks soon after the 9/11 attacks and he compared it to rape (the airplane representing the male body part). I think this analogy, as well as the one comparing our late Holy Father to Hugh Heffner, border on the scandalous and lack a certain respect.

I would like to learn more about the Theology of the Body but have been somewhat turned off by his presentation of it. But I appreciate all the work and study that West and others have done on these teachings. I hope they can be seen and presented in a more pure light.

MargaretJDMom said...

So sad, I just lost a long comment.

Anyway, I think there's no doubt that Christopher West has done some great good in engaging people with the church's teachings, but I think there are some problems in the way he presents JP2's Theology of the Body.

My issues:
1. He seems to discount concupisence. He suggests naming sexy models on the billboards so as not to objectify them. I say, bad idea, especially for guys. What about good old fashioned custody of the eyes??

2.Graphic language. Not cool. The ends don't justify the means when it comes to teaching chastity.

3.In trying to raise the dignity of sex (the exact opposite of our culture's approach) he seems to go too far. It is almost as though things get overblown. You can see how someone could get confused and start to see sexual pleasure as the #1 thing, thereby putting unrealistic expecations on a couple's sexual experiences.

4. If you've read his book "Good news" I disagree with some of his thought in the "I-doing it" chapter. But, at the risk of getting unwanted traffic on this blog, I won't write that stuff here.

Anyway, TOB is meant, as a dear friend of mine (and genius) wrote, is meant to inform and bolster tradidtional church teaching on chastity. It isn't anything new. DIdn't St. Athanasius write about this stuff too?

Long story short, we don't want to do the lace curtain irish aproach to sex, "We don't talk about that!" but we don't necessarily have to be as graphic as West. I liked my mom's approach! : ) She kept telling us how great and good and fun sex was in marriage and then went on to give very specific chastity tips!

Juris Mater said...

TOBwife, do you think comfort level with discussing marital seduction, sex, etc is really just a personality thing? My husband and I have seen flyers for these "Song of Songs" Catholic couples "heat up your love life" retreats. I've gotta say I'm not so sure... a lot of these ministries focus super heavily on sexual pleasure, taking it out of balance and out of context with the wholeness of our sexuality, as you pointed out MargaretJDMom. Is that a good idea?

Red, I don't agree that Alice von Hildebrand isn't engaging culture. She's not out there titillating large audiences of unmarried twenty-somethings; but she's tackled feminism and Christian feminity as a secular university professor. She stands for many as an example of lovely, strong, intelligent femininity. Her book "By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride" certainly spoke to my heart like no other, beginning years before I was married. Her style is different from West's... more graceful.

MargaretJDMom, what a blessing to have a mother who struck such a perfect balance. I pray I can do the same for my children!

Right Said Red said...


Let me clarify a bit, I don't think Von Hildebrand is relevant on this topic--she has some very relevant things to say about femininity. However, most college students, or people of normal intelligence (you are smarter than most!) wouldn't give her work the time of day. There is absolutely NO WAY I could get couples in my NFP course to read her (or JP for that matter), but West presents the basic teachings in a way that these couples can understand and relate to (same with Janet Smith). Von Hildebrand seems to take the Irish Approach, of "Sex?, that's too sacred to talk about." She even admits in one of the essays that I read that her sex education consisted of knowing her mother suffering while giving birth--and she feels that alone is enough--I'm serious here! With a personality or two, women who were raised right and have a great approach to chastity, her work can be inspiring, but otherwise, I'm not so sure this approach is effective at reaching our sex driven young culture. I think sometimes having a little edge is important in this area, and that usually isn't the gift of a theologian, which is why I think West plays such an important role and I find her comments frustrating.

But Von Hildebrand is grace filled--I will give you that!

tobwife said...

Juris Mater- I agree that retreats on heating up your love life are questionable. There is a point that privacy in the bedroom is needed in marriage. We also don't know what material is presented and how material is presented during those retreats.

What I think we forget is that if we have a great sex life and are content in our marriage that doesn't mean that everyone else is too. This cannot be farther from the truth; many couples are ashamed to talk about their sex not being all it's cracked up to be. I think it's very important for couples to figure out why. Most of initmacy starts before getting into the bedroom and if it doesn't that experience tears at the root of their union. JPII encourages couples to seek help and to communicate with each other to make their union a pleasurable one. Sometimes couples cannot solve this problem alone- we need to reach out and help them.

Red, I find your words to be right on. West fills a need in our culture- and is in part trying to create a new one. JPII started this vision. West speaks to a group that wonders what's allowed and what's not. He's speaking to guys that are being constantly be taunted by pornography. He is challenging them to see the human body in a different light. And part of the challenge is to see the women on billboards as a person-not some erotic playtoy. West telling guys to name the billboard woman is putting humanity into them. Men who have had addictions to porn have found this method to be significantly more healing than averting the eyes. Church art for centuries have had nude women in them. It wasn't scandalous because we saw the beauty of the person. West is trying to get men (and women) to do the same. It's about appreciating the beauty that God created without being lustful and wanting ownership of that person. I'm not saying for men to look at porn and put names on the faces. I'm saying that if encountered by a V-Secret ad say, "that woman is really beautiful" and move on.

What a great discussion! If West is too much to handle, I would recommend Mary Shivanandan's book Crossing the Threshold of Love. She's more graceful.

margaretjdmom said...

I tried to respond again earlier this morning but blogger ate two different attempts at commentary. Argh. BLogger hates me. So..3rd time.

Red, I worry that the "little bit of edge" you talk about is sending the wrong message. To put it best, I think he's mixing the truth (TOB) with some distortions and it can cause people to get confused and go a bit astray.

No doubt he's doing good, but I think his approach is a little off. I know there are good solid priests, hearing lots of confessions, who aren't super enthused. Anyway, I just want to argue that TOB is indeed great, but I think it is worthwhile to question West's approach. From what I can gather, this criticism has been stewing in TOB intellectual circles for a while but out of charity and the need to get TOB out to people has often been put off. I think its time to reexamine the issue.

Juris Mater said...

You all make SUCH good points... the level of this discussion, the modesty and charity, is very uplifting!

TOBwife, I see what you're saying... to whatever extent the Catholic Church has a reputation for being prudish about sex or against sex, West is showing to a certain segment in a certain way, without shame, that that's not the case. That's a good thing! And also this public discussion prompted by Alice von Hildebrand's comments surely will bless his ministry. During his possible runaway train moments, he'll probably be more likely to question himself.

Right Said Red said...


You may be right that West has too much of an edge--as I agree that he can make me uncomfortable at times. My main argument is that Von Hildebrand has NO EDGE, and her criticisms frustrate me a bit because she doesn't seem to give him any credit for what he is doing. From reading her comments, you would think he was Martin Luther ;-) His ability to relate to a younger generation and a modern culture is important, but Von Hildebrand almost uses this alone against him (she says he has gotten too popular?)

But you are right, West might be too edgy and therefore distorting the some of the truth he tries to communicate. I think he needs to be kept in line, but it is important to recognize the great good he achieved and nudge him slightly in the other direction.

Right Said Red said...

Oh, no offense intended by the use of Martin Luther. My apologies to our non-catholic readers. I was using a Catholic analogy.

South Paw said...

My comment also disappeared into the mist... [A big hullo to B-mama from the 'Niffs'.]

Thank you Juris Mater for bringing this issue to the fore! Thank you all for your insights--I appreciate them very much.

West has brought many I'm sure to see the profound Love of Christ for His Church and likewise the love between spouses. Though Christopher West's TOB has become an integral part of Catholic college groups and young adult study groups, most of whom are unmarried, without the prudent guidance of a chaste priest to help them study TOB. Especially visually-minded 'light switch' young men, the unmarried would seem to benefit more from a practical, well-formed, young priest guiding them through JPII's 'TOB'.

MargaretJDMom said...

I doubt anyone will see this....but here's a West critique from a very prominent TOB theologian, Dr. Schindler.

I highly recommend it!