Glad to see that Alice von Hildebrand has revisited the West issue. She has written a lengthy critique of his presentation of Theology of the Body (TOB, henceforth). You can find it here.
Old School Crotchety Verses New Wave Cool
First of all I want to say that Hildebrand is more right than wrong in her presentation of the Catholic Faith. She has raised some concerns about the Christopher West thing that I have had myself over the years.
Of course, none of this stops her from being a reactionary of an earlier time, and making the error of confusing cultural norms and objective moral norms (the very thing she accuses West of doing).
Even better than Mrs. von Hildebrand's essay is Dr. David L. Schindler's from a few months back. Read it here. But it's all relative: Schindler's genius is to Mrs. Hildebrand's as Mrs. Hildebrand's is to West's. (I don't know which rung of the ladder I fit it. Since Schindler is one of the greatest theologians alive today, certainly well south of him.)
Okay, so I said that in this fight von Hildebrand is mostly right. But it's not really a fight since West has not responded in any contentious way. In fact, he's decided to study the issue for six months. Always a good course of action.
She is substantively right, but she still has to realize that this is not 1920, for starters. All the blessed and good women I associate with now would be categorized as major whores were it 1920. Shorts, I don't care if they are to the knees or not, were considered lewd if you go back far enough. Likewise, bathing suits, even the most modest ones of today, etc. There is a certain dimension of relativity running through here, despite how much we'd like to think it otherwise. A topless women in deepest Africa is neither here nor there for people used to it. Here it is another story, and must remain so, of course. God started with naked people, remember. So, this is to go to some length to say that Mrs. von Hildebrand must realize that mores do change somewhat, and that is no fault. Yet, she is dead right to say that our problem is not prudery (as West would have it), but crudeness. This is the age of rampant pornography. There can be no other interpretation. Yet she misses the fact that even if this is the case in general, West's audience might be more afflicted with prudery than your average sort of audience. Is doesn't matter how common one error is, the opposite error is still an error, and still should be pointed out as error. I have a tendency to think that I know a few prudes. I am not one. I tend towards the opposite error - yes, error. My prude acquaintances should learn about the error of prudery, as I should grow up and stop being crude.
What is prudery? What does it come down to? I don't know when it comes to all the specifics: like the perpetual problem of 'the beach': what is a modest bathing suit? Is there such a thing? As Alice tells us (sorry it's shorter than Mrs. von Hildebrand, maybe I'll just write H. for now, and W for West), as H tells us, there is good shame and bad shame. Shame is not overall good because it's a response to a present evil. But it is always a good reaction when evil is present - even if it is true that evil should not be present. Prudery is responding to goods as if they were evils, whereas shame in the good sense is an emotionally reactive disdain for present evil. In this sense, shame is good, prudery bad. But we good Catholics treat it as one of those 'forgivable' bads because we know that the big problem today is shamelessness. But don't mistake it for a good: there should be no shame of body between husband and wife, for instance. I firmly believe that when there is, there is a problem. It's not virtue; it's lack of integration.
The John Paul II Factor
I'm just going to say this now in passing, because it'll provoke people, and I enjoy doing that. H makes a glaring error when she says, "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?"
She is right to point out the problem of offensive language, but the reasoning here is so flawed it cannot be salvaged. The thing I want to challenge, though, is that it does not go without saying that the problem lies completely with West and not at all with JPII's TOB itself.
Provocative enough for ya? Stay tuned.