Theology of the Body
From David Bowie to Spiderman to Christopher West

Michael J. Matt
Editor, The Remnant

DEAR REMNANT EDITOR: Theology of the Body (TOB) and Christopher West are often on my mind, and not without causing me stress!  Monica Ashour, MTS (a teacher of the Theology of the Body) writes (see of the Fourth National Theology of the Body Forum in Dallas, Texas, October 26, 2007: “Think about Mass.  We use our bodies to glorify God and be in a deeper union and communion with Him and the whole Church”;  Pope John Paul II says “marital intercourse, next to the Mass, is the most powerful way to combat the devil”. Huh?

What is all this? What are those of us who are not married to do now that we are forever “unable” to engage in this “most powerful way to combat the devil”?  What happens to us?  What about the perpetual virgins, the brides of Christ, the consecrated souls—by living lives dedicated totally to God, through work and constant prayer, were they really “bringing up the rear” behind married people in the war against the devil?

The whole concept of the Theology of the Body, as presented by the latest sex-ed gurus, most especially Christopher West, seems to do little more than promote the sacramentalization of sex.  It’s ludicrous! Again, it would be good if those who espouse the Theology of the Body (as it is now presented by some “teachers” in today’s Catholic Church) could be more virtuous in both speech and in their writings. Perhaps they could also delve more deeply into TOS -- the “Theology of the Soul”.

Nancy Evers,

Tucson, AZ

Michael J. Matt’s Response

Many thanks for your letter. Though I’m certainly no expert on Theology of the Body (TOB), I do share your general misgivings about the phenomenon, even though I don’t deny that TOB may provide a port in the storm for some sadly disoriented refugees from our sex-addicted culture of death. During a universal crisis of faith and morals such as this, and to whatever extent TOB proponents drape their novelties in traditional Church teaching on fidelity in marriage, even leaky lifeboats can be promising to drowning victims.

Still, it is difficult to see how TOB’s inordinate preoccupation with all things sexual (within marriage) can be seen as anything less than a radical departure from traditional moral theology. I remember an old Jesuit from my college days counseling his students that the pursuit of sanctity within the married state must inevitably lead to a weaning away from the marital privilege, the idea being that spiritual pursuits must take precedence over all else as we age and prepare to face the judgment of the Almighty. This may not wash with the pathetic spectacle of old Bob Dole hawking Viagra years ago when he was decrepit enough to be shilling for Depends, but it does have a decidedly Catholic ring to it, wouldn’t you say?

I’ve yet to see how such common sense and time honored teachings can be reconciled with the sex-from-cradle-to-grave attitude of some TOB proponents, one of whom recently went so far as to claim that the spiritual benefits of receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist are fully realized only after one has taken full advantage of the marital privilege. I don’t remember reading anything quite like that in any of the old catechisms, the Imitation of Christ, or My Catholic Faith. Do you?  Has such a thing ever been heard of in the history of the Church?  After all, it was none other than the great doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila, who noted that “those seeking the life of the spirit should be cheerful and free, and not neglect recreation. Married people must act in conformity with their vocation—but their progress will of necessity be but the pace of a hen.” I don’t suppose that would go over too well with our friends from TOB.

“What else is prohibited by the ninth commandment?”, asks the Douay Catechism.  “Not only deliberate desire or consent, but likewise all voluntary delight or complacency in covetous or impure thoughts and motions of the flesh.” 

When single men and women, gathered together with married couples (as is often the case in TOB classes) are subjected to lessons on the great spiritual benefits of various manifestation of those “motions of the flesh”, albeit within the confines of marriage, they are (according to eye witnesses) often reduced to tittering over this or that bit of titillation once considered utterly unfit for public discussion. Its daytime talkshow tackiness aside for a moment, is there not at least the potential for TOB classes to become an occasion of sin for some people? One letter writer recently recounted to me how TOB’s lay “theologian”, Christopher West, took it upon himself to discuss these private and intimate matters in her church and in front of the Blessed Sacrament!  She writes:

Right there in front of the Blessed Sacrament, Christopher West had a young man stand up, and he said: “Look at Jim’s body.” When the audience (men and women, married and single)  started to giggle and get uncomfortable, he said that this was the wrong response. Mr. West felt that we should be perfectly comfortable with the idea of looking at someone’s body. I disagreed wholeheartedly because I felt this was our natural modesty calling on us to protect ourselves and the person standing before us. The guy who was standing there was actually blushing! Mr. West said that if someone says “look at Jim”, no one would laugh, and so we were basically being prudish (in the bad Jansenist/Manichean sense) when we laugh at his suggestion to look at the body.

To carry on this way in any setting is troublesome at best, but in church and before the Blessed Sacrament? Who oversees these “experts”?  Who reigns them in when they cross the line and begin scandalizing Catholics, intentionally or otherwise, with their novel theories and crass approach? 

I have in my files plenty of letters from Catholics with obviously well-formed consciences who’ve been similarly scandalized by the approach of Christopher West—a man who evidently sees little merit in the Church’s traditional prohibition against discussing some subjects—i.e., sexual intimacy—in mixed company. Mr. West has but one retort, it would seem: “This is Pope John Paul!”  But Pope John Paul is dead. So how far does Mr. West get to go in the name of Pope John Paul? Is anyone actually monitoring this fellow?

Can one even imagine Bishop Fulton Sheen discussing the ins and outs of sexual intimacy with men and women in any public venue, let alone his sanctuary? How about Padre Pio? Don Bosco?  Even Mother Teresa? Are we to believe, then, that modern Catholics have become so “enlightened”, so impervious to the temptations of the flesh, that these matters can now be discussed openly and in mixed company with no affront to dignity, purity or modesty? Please! Have we learned nothing from the tsunami of sex scandals that has rocked the Church over the past forty years?

Perhaps a warning from St. John Chrysostom would here be apropos: “Are you perhaps of stone or of iron? No, you are a man subject to the common weakness of nature. Do you think that you will not be burnt if you take fire into your hand?  How else could this be? Put a burning light into the hay and then say that there will be no blaze!  Like hay is this nature of ours.”

In a recent column entitled “Redemption of Rock Music,” Christopher West actually blames the “prudery and repressiveness” of the old days for the sexual revolution of the 1960s—and, again, he uses John Paul as his source:

John Paul II warned that if chastity is lived in a repressive way, it’s only a matter of time before sexual desires explode (see Love and Responsibility, pp. 170-171). I think we find here a key for understanding the sexual revolution of the 20th century. It was a ticking time bomb waiting to detonate in response to the prudery and repressiveness of the previous era. 

So, one wonders, were St. Therese of the Child Jesus and St. Maria Goretti—practitioners of the same “repressive chastity” of the previous era— mere prudes waiting to be freed from the chains of sexual repression by Christopher West’s interpretation of John Paul’s Theology of the Body? Did Alfred Kinsey have a point? All that was needed was a little sex and rock ‘n’ roll to free those tormented souls?

Mr. West is not only a ‘big fan’ of rock music, by the way, he’s also a proud rock drummer. Yes, Christopher West is evidently a bit of a rock star:

As a rock drummer, myself, I can’t tell you the number of times I have pounded those skins as a form of therapy. We’ve all got bottled up “stuff” that needs an outlet. Drumming has been a great one for me. A good, driving beat not only rattles the walls; it shakes-up the soul as well. “Gimme the beat boys and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock ‘n roll and drift away”…

I’m sure Mr. West means well, but his sensus catholicus has evidently become so numbed by faulty catechesis and watered-down theology that it doesn’t even occur to him that such a juvenile display of “Cool Dude Catholicism” just might render his status as Catholic “theologian” a little suspect.

He is reveling in the very thing Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict has repeatedly warned Catholics against—rock’s diabolical ability to “free the soul” from the burdens of consciousness.  No place is this more clearly spelled out than in Ratzinger’s famous 1985 address to the International Church Music Congress in Rome:

In many forms of religion, music is associated with frenzy and ecstasy. The free expansion of human existence, toward which man’s own hunger for the Infinite is directed, is supposed to be achieved through sacred delirium induced by frenzied instrumental rhythms. Such music lowers the barriers of individuality and personality, and in it man liberates himself from the burden of consciousness.

Music becomes ecstasy, liberation from the ego, amalgamation with the universe. Today we experience the secularized variation of this type in rock and pop music, whose festivals are an anti-cult with the same tendency: desire for destruction, repealing the limitations of the everyday, and the illusion of salvation in liberation from the ego, in the wild ecstasy of a tumultuous crowd. These are measures which involve a form of release related to that achieved through drugs. It is the complete antithesis of Christian faith in the Redemption.

In a way which we could not imagine thirty years ago, music has become the decisive vehicle of a counter-religion and thus calls for a parting of the ways. Since rock music seeks release through liberation from the personality and its responsibility, it can be on the one hand precisely classified among the anarchic ideas of freedom which today predominate more openly in the West than in the East. But that is precisely why rock music is so completely antithetical to the Christian concept of redemption and freedom, indeed its exact opposite. [My emphasis]

Just this past month, Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist, augmented this perceptive observation when he acknowledged the Church’s growing concern over worldwide interest in Satanism and the occult, which, according to Fr. Amorth, is making inroads with young people through the aegis of  rock music.

But West likes rock music, he’s a big fan!  In the same article (Redemption of Rock Music) he writes:

I’m actually writing as a fan of rock music — a big fan (of much of it, anyway). It’s in my blood. It’s “my” music. I can still remember my first “favorite song” from the radio. “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes . . .” by David Bowie. It was 1972 and I wasn’t even 3 years old.

Christopher West was listening to “Ziggy Stardust” at two years old? That explains a thing or two! Here’s a would-be theologian cheerily acknowledging an early childhood influence by none other than rock music’s foremost gender-bending king of glam-rock, whose androgynous stage persona was often too controversial even for the raunchy 1970s rock scene.  Come to think of it, David Bowie’s song “Sex and the Church” off the Buddha of Suburbia album may even be relevant to this discussion.  Here is the lyric:

Though the idea of convulsion/confession?
Is said to be  the union of christ and his bride
The christian
It’s all very puzzling
Sex and the church (x3)
And the church...and the church
All the great mystic religions
Put strong emphasis, on
The redeeming spiritual qualities
Of sex...of sex
Has been pretty modern
About sex
Of sex (x4)
I think there is a union
Between the flesh and the spirit
Sex and the church (x2)
All religions’ mother (spoken)
Give me the freedom of spirit
And the joys of the flesh
Sex and the church
Sex and the church (x3)
And the church...and the church
Sex , Sex
Sex and the church (x3)

Sex, sex and the church (x3)

It’s TOB according to Ziggy Stardust! 

I don’t fault Christopher West for his disorientation nor do I question his good will. Like most of us, he’s a struggling product of the age-- another casualty of the war against the Church that was raging even before he was born. I appreciate his earnest desire to turn men away from pornography and adultery. But, it must be said, he still lacks the sound catechesis and formation required for the job. He needs a traditional priest and moral theologian to guide him before he can guide others. At this point, I would caution my son against having anything to do with Mr. West or his “theology” after such puerile demonstrations of an alarming lack of Catholic sense.

Of Christopher West's "teaching" on pornography, another letter writer recently wrote:

I happened to be listening to Relevant Radio when he [West] was a guest (perhaps 2-3 months ago).  I caught only a few minutes, but he had this to say to those struggling to overcome pornography.  When the images resurface in the mind, one should not repress them because they’ll only pop out somewhere else No, what one should realize is that pornography is a lie and that all lies have some truth.  One needs to discover the truth in the image and redeem it.

In the parlance of popular culture, I think we have witnessed Christopher West “jumping the shark.”

From rock ‘n’ roll to the movies, TOB’s chief spokesman has a little something for everyone.  He’s now dispensing moral advice gleaned from, if you can believe it, Spider-Man 3!  This, from the man’s own website:

I took my two older boys to see Spiderman 3 this past weekend. Watching all that jam-packed action had the same effect on them as would a 2-liter bottle of Coke. After their “sugar-high” subsided and they could actually speak, we had some great father-son chats about the movie’s many moral lessons.

I’ve been milking the moral lessons from Spiderman 2 for almost three years now. Doc Oc, the eight-armed supervillain from that installment, was an image of the passions gone wild. When our passions are out of control, humanity – as the movie memorably demonstrated – is on a train bound for destruction. Only Spiderman, here a Christ-figure sacrificing himself in cruciform, can save us.

Christopher West, a frequent guest on EWTN and a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute in West Chester, PA (which he founded), is considered an authority on John Paul’s Theology of the Body. But for all of Mr. West’s good intentions, what does it say about TOB when one of its foremost experts—the man who understands it best!—is a “big fan” of rock ‘n’ roll who spent three years siphoning moral lessons from Spider-Man 2 and likes to ‘bang on the drum all day’?

How long, O Lord, how long!