Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hildebrand versus West, Part Two

The Wojtylan Connection

I've probably strung you along long enough. Now to fill out my contentious assertion. No, it's not an assertion, it's an hypothesis.

Long before West came on the scene to popularize it, TOB was already contentious, quite to the contrary of H's assertion. But, quite to the contrary of W's suggestion, it was not because before TOB every Catholic was a prude or enslaved to a world of prudery. People don't have 10+ children because they are prudes. Let's be honest here. Catholic lovin' is and has always been good stuff.

But, of course, this is not to eliminate the element of asceticism strongly present in our spiritual tradition. And this is what H seems to think W is missing. She is probably correct. Does he leave any place for it? The reductio of sex to

one rule"--that married couples “may do whatever they wish,” as long as they don’t use contraception, “both feel loved and respected,” and the marital act culminates within the woman.

is about as foreign to the thought of John Paul II as it is to the Catholic Tradition as a whole.

The problem begins with "whatever they wish." Why do they wish, is the key question here. It is the key question of the Catholic spiritual and psychological life. It is left in abeyance. That is a big problem. I know West wants to simplify things for his audience, and that is an important thing. Not everyone can think through the complexities involved, and so little sound-bites are quite helpful sometimes. But they can lead to distortion. Once the 'one rule' has been grasped, I would hope it's problems come to be addressed as well.

In one sense this is an accurate picture of JPII's teaching, if you could strip the spirit away from the letter and still be considered to be faithfully reflecting an author's intention. You cannot, of course. But piecemeal JPII says all those things:

1) May do whatever they wish - as long as their wishes are not being fuelled what JPII would otherwise call fetishism and a distorted sense of sexuality. Yes, it seems that certain 'non-traditional' sex acts are included in JPII's "whatever." But that is hardly a real 'whatever.'

2) No contraception - no arguments here. But it is really strange, as I pointed out last time, that H would ever say that "John Paul II’s presentation of the Theology of the Body was never seriously challenged." Even if she means by "Catholic Theologians", and not just "Catholics" or "the world", she is dearly mistaken. She must have been asleep for the last 30 years. But contra W, what is it about contraception that excludes it from the "whatever I wish" mentality? Seems arbitrary without some explanation.

3) Both feel loved and respected - is about as Wojtylan as it gets, but don't forget, we have static natures, some acts are intrinsically debasing because of this: anal sex being the most obvious instance of this.

4) The marital act culminates inside the woman - again, yes, accurate, but two seemingly identical acts may be radically different in moral worth. This seems way too physical, just an empty acknowledgement of a responsibility that is otherwise onerous and without spiritual value. Kind of like going to Sunday mass just to get it out of the way, in order to get to the golf links as quickly as possible, or rhyming off the rosary in five minutes to pay a divine debt. As if. In other words, there is something intrinsically beautiful and apt about genital copulation that cannot be realized with the "as long as" attitude. That's how I treat the veggies on my plate. I'm there for the meat and potatoes. Imagine treating the divinely intended organs as if it were the mere vegetables!

So is this one rule Wojtylan or not? No. But this is still not to say that JPII's TOB did not in some way constitute a change in the Catholic Tradition. I say change here, acknowledging H's good point that revolution is not a good word in Catholic dogmatics. Let me pinpoint a problem. Our tradition has been almost unanimously opposed to oral sex. JPII seems not to be. That is a significant difference.

For as much as I want to agree with H that we have lost an appropriate level of respectful silence in regard to some of these matters, people need to discuss certain raw issues at times. Never without respect too, though. But how to keep things respectful when the topic is oral sex? Would I let my kids read this post? No. If my child was engaged to be married would I? Yes. Have I spoken to teenagers about oral sex before? Yes, but only because they had unfortunately already learned about it elsewhere.

This leads me to another observation: as much as Knox's Enthusiasm sounds like a great book, and I so want to read it, H is wrong to imply that excitement is a vice. I am glad that W is getting people excited about the beauty of human sexuality. Now, there is such a thing as glamorizing it too. And I've seen this happen to more than one (usually female) admirer of TOB. They hear so much about how great marriage is that they rush into it with too many ideals and are ill prepared for its hard realities, that when they encounter these realities assume that something must be wrong with them and/or their spouse (other than the fact that they are human!), which leads to a great number of problems that wouldn't be there if they simply had a more realistic expectation. Is this TOB's fault. No. Could it be W's fault? Possibly. I'm not sure. Is the word 'revolution' intrinsically erroneous? No, not if he means a revolution from worldly thinking, but yes, if he means in the Church's thinking.

More to come.


  1. All excellent points, Colin. I also struggle with West's Garden-of-Eden image of the potential of marriage. Nevertheless, as our marriage prep is based on TOB, we go to great lengths to present TOB within the context of our own marriage so that people know that it is no bed of roses, that lots of abstinence is required and that our humanity dictates that we will hit major road blocks that make us feel like we are failing at this marriage endeavour. I think we have to be so careful not to try and sell NFP as natural birth control. It isn't. It is part of the aesthetic in which married couples can become holy. And, to culminate, I think that TOB can only be lived if evangelisation and conversion come first - why else would anyone do it? Hopefully some of this makes sense; I remind you of my distinctly TOB 'condition'. (And I think it's versus not verses unless H and W are in some sort of poetry faceoff.)

  2. Your distinctly TOB condition? That you are pregnant?

    Thanks for the bit of editing.