Alice von Hildebrand Critiques Christopher West

If the above title sounds a little "inside baseball" to you, a (very, very, very brief) explanation.  Alice von Hildebrand is a Catholic philosopher and theologian, and also the widow of Dietrich von Hildebrand, a prominent philosopher and moral theologian active in the anti-Nazi resistance, whose ethical analysis was greatly admired by Pope John Paul II.  Christopher West is an American writer and popular lecturer known mainly for his exegesis of John Paul's "Theology of the Body," a look a human sexuality and sexual morality.  Thus a critique by the redoubtable Alice von Hildebrand, even a polite one, is noteworthy.  A sample:

Christopher West is convinced that prior to Theology of the Body—which he terms a “revolution”—Catholic teaching had presented "sex" as essentially dirty, betraying the true Christian understanding of sex.  This is a thought Dietrich von Hildebrand would have strongly rejected.  Accidental errors should never be identified with the Church’s essential teaching. Every epoch has its dangers, which need to be addressed, but always in a way which remains faithful to Catholic tradition.

Dietrich understood this principle well, when he challenged certain excesses (notfundamental truths) of Catholic teaching regarding marriage. Early in his days as a Catholic, he noticed a weakness: the whole emphasis was on procreation; the unitive dimension of marriage was either not mentioned, or not properly highlighted. Procreation was often given too much prominence because, in paganism, sensual pleasure had absolute and complete priority. Dietrich’s work on marriage helped redress the balance, by acknowledging (and fully supporting) the traditional teaching on procreation, while rediscovering the importance of love between spouses. This is an example of what we might call the “pedagogical” mission of the Church. She must constantly “sense” what Catholic truth needs to be highlighted, at a given time, and adjust the emphasis on Her holy teaching accordingly, but never fall prey to the fashions of the times, and remain faithful to the sacred deposit of faith.

Fixated, as he is, on the supposed plague of “Puritanism,” West promotes defective ideas to fight it. He recommends, for example, that we should stand naked in front of a mirror until we truly liberate ourselves from any feelings of “shame.”  This is a piece of advice at which Dietrich von Hildebrand would have recoiled. Let me mention some reasons....

Read the entire essay here.

James Martin, SJ

Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 8 months ago
Oh my gosh, Alice von Hildebrand gets it so right!  How much we need voices like hers to interpret and articulate a truly Catholic reverence for human sexuality.  THIS is what will counter the sexual abuse and abortion that plague our culture.
John Stehn
6 years 8 months ago
Naturally, Dr. Von Hildebrand is right about West and his approach to sexual morality.  Clearly, he has never heard of "concupiscence"!  St. Thomas taught that the temptations to certain sins should be fought head on, while others should be dealt with by fleeing from the occasion.  Lust was one of those which fell in with the latter category.  Dietrich Von Hildebrand wasn’t alone in his attempts to expand on and develop a more vigorous concept of the vocation of marriage, with particular emphasis on the “secondary ends” of marriage.  See “Contemporary Moral Theology, Vol. II” by the august team of John C. Ford, SJ and Gerald Kelly, SJ.  No priest should be without a copy.
SHAWN O'NEAL
6 years 8 months ago
I await both Mr. West's response and whether or not his calendar of events changes as a result.

I would like to know how much private correspondence occurred between von Hildebrand and West.  Obviously, her essay is not a slight reproach.  I would like to know if attempts had been made by her in the past to recommend the honing of both message and method before she chose to chastise West in this essay.  It speaks either of a lack of dialogue on his part or an outright desire to humiliate on her part, and I hope that von Hildebrand had the charity to act as a result of the former rather than the latter.  If she attempted to consult him before and a lack of response on his part led to this moment, then, perhaps, it is a fair critique.

I admire von Hildebrand for her message.  I am curious to see how she and anyone with whom she works plan to implement Dietrich's thoughts so that it can be made accessible to people in places that would not seem at first glance to seem so academic.  One might accuse West of dumbing down, but perhaps he considered such a move better than talking over heads.
david power
6 years 8 months ago
The previous commentator nails it towards the end. I have met Christopher West and think that  he is a lovely guy and a genuine person not to mention a very inspired speaker.I have read a few books by Von Hildebrand and although he is very correct he would put most people to sleep.It is a stiff and rigid writing style that is often guilty of not seeing the woods from the trees.The wood of course is Christ and the trees is morality and thomistic thinking etc.West is a little over the top but to imagine that he is not fighting against the demon of moralism within the catholic church is not to be in touch with reality.West is for the poor souls trying to find meaning with their desires,those who have a surplus of passion and need a different lexicon.David Schindler also criticised West and I am sure that both he and Alice Von Hildebrand will have St Thomas nodding in agreement while I am sure that Jesus will be backing West. West is in the trenches and the others are merely Armchair generals.        
David Cruz-Uribe
6 years 8 months ago
I was only able to read a fraction of Alice von Hildebrand's essay before I gave up.  I am not deeply familiar with Christopher West's work, but I can say that I did not recognize very much of my own married life in her pallid descriptions of sexual relations.  Even as she denied it, I heard most clearly  the prudery and puritanism which Mr. West seems to be fighting against.   Nowhere in what I read did I find anything that resembled that passion, the joys and occasional sorrows, or, as one author in America put it, "God in the tangled sheets" that has marked my 20+ years of Catholic marriage. 

We live in a hyper-sexualized age; but we cannot fight it by cloaking human sexuality in a veil of "mystery" and "reverence" which seems to be little more than an attempt to hide from its sweaty reality. 
Leo Zanchettin
6 years 8 months ago
It's good to see Christopher West receiving a bit of fraternal correction from the likes of von Hildebrand and Schindler. He has long enjoyed an uncritical, carte-blanche endorsement from key conservative Catholics, both lay and ordained. And why not? He's an attractive, young theologian who delivers passionate defenses of Humane Vitae. And that's enough to earn him an automatic nihil obstat in some folks' eyes.

I don't doubt his sincerity, but speaking in the echo chambers that he tends to inhabit has resulted in the kind of overstatement and bastardization for which he is finally being criticized. Add to that the pressure to keep producing original and marketable books and CDs, and you can understand how he has come to this point. He might do well to break out of the narrow confines of the NFP cottage industry he has built for himself and start reading and thinking more broadly-and entering into dialogue with a wider set of people. He has obvious talents that shouldn't be wasted.

I also found Alice von Hildebrand's essay (of which I read only about 1/2 before I gave up) hard going. She raises some valid and stinging criticisms of both West and Popcack. (Sodomy? Really? A phallic Easter candle?) But she spent so much time talking about her late husband, whom she clearly adores, that the essay sounded more like a defense of Dietrich than a critique of West. Who was attacking von Hildebrand in the first place that she felt the need to stand up for him?

Finally, I agree with much of what David Cruz-Uribe wrote above. As is the case in so many disputes, in this one the truth lies somewhere between West's hyper-sexualization and von Hildebrand's overly pious reflections.
SHAWN O'NEAL
6 years 8 months ago
I forgot to listen to Popcak's show on The Catholic Channel tonight.  I await his response, too.   
Brendan McGrath
6 years 8 months ago
From von Hildebrand's essay: "Christopher West also believes that after the Holy Virgin gave birth to our Savior, she ejected a bleeding placenta, just as his wife had done after delivering their son ...  He assumes that these details magnify the mystery of Bethlehem.  Dietrich von Hildebrand would have absolutely opposed such ideas. ... When talking about the Annunciation or the Nativity, he made his hearers realize that we were entering a 'holy zone,' which called for silent adoration."

Is there something unholy about a bleeding placenta?  If we can't talk about a bleeding placenta, does that mean we can't talk about God bleeding on a cross?  You know, there's a LOT in medieval times that many might find shocking today; I wonder what von Hildebrand would say about it - for example, the infant Christ was at times depicted naked, with genitalia depicted; there was a greater focus on Jesus's circumcision, and even a devotion to Christ's foreskin (I think St. Catherine of Siena spoke of it as like a wedding ring - and she's a doctor of the Church) - I think there was even a votive Mass for Christ's foreskin.  Didn't Michaelangelo also depict the resurrected Christ naked or something?
6 years 8 months ago
I haven't read anything by West, but after reading just some of what von Hildebrand wrote, I'd side with him.   I found what she wrote pretty disturbing, actually.



Winifred Holloway
6 years 8 months ago
Oh, my.  Theologians should tread carefully when they pontificate about sexuality.   All that airy abstraction.   Sex between loving, committed couples is both sacred and quite a lot of fun.  Ms. Von Hildebrand makes it sound dreary.  Like other commentators, I found it difficult to get through the whole piece.
James Lindsay
6 years 8 months ago
Of late, I have been writing about how attitudes about sex reflect attitudes about God, making them true theological questions.  For example, believing that sexual ethics is about avoiding sin and pleasing God often goes hand in hand with an image of God as one  who required the death of Jesus as a blood offering for our sinfulness.  Other attitudes are possible.  I would aver that a healthier attitude is that sexual morality is promulgated to help people love one another more fully by a loving God who has no personal interest in the matter except the love of His creation, with the crucifixion being a vision quest by which Jesus, as God, was able to experience human despair and thus be the channel for the escape from that despair.  The theology and the morality are very intertwined and they impact both how the Church operates and the kind of society it promotes.
RUTH ANN PILNEY
6 years 8 months ago
I read Alice von Hildebrand's entire essay.  Every sentence and paragraph resonated positively with me.  Afterwords I twittered the following: ''This essay is a work of intellectual art!''

About a month ago on my Facebook profile I asked, ''Does anyone blush any more?''  The responses were interesting.  Actually more responded ''yes'' than I had expected.  That pleased me, because, although I've been married more than 30 years, I still blush from time to time.  It happens when what I see or hear trespasses on or violates my sense of intimacy. I deny that I am a prude. 
James Lindsay
6 years 8 months ago
I've become much more conservative about the input I will tolerate in my house as far as the TV - at least while my daughter is awake.  My wife has become much more conservative in this area as well.  I think this comes with age and parenthood and may be more biological than moral.  Exploring and recognizing that fact is actually liberating, since looking at how we develop morally in light of our biology can help us put shame and sin in their proper perspective - especially when we concern ourselves with the activities of others.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 8 months ago
Whenever you attempt to speak of human sexuality, you are delving into dark, unknown and wild territory.  I would dare to say that you are entering the realm of Mystery.  This is what I found exceptional in Alice von Hildebrand's essay.  She goes there.  I don't know Christopher West's work at all, so I don't know if he does or not.  Sexuality can't be reduced to *just* biology or all-about-me and pleasure/fun.  At some point in a mature sexual relationship, you surrender your entire being to the other.  If you ask me, this is entering into the Mystery of God.  I'm as anti-piety as they come, and I didn't get the sense that Alice von Hildebrand was hiding behind piety.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

How unfortunate that the arts are caught in the cross-hairs of a ruptured and increasingly misguided political system.
Mark Bosco, S.J. March 28, 2017
The education plan for deportees represents one of the first attempts by the Mexican government to pushback against the policies of the new occupant of the White House.
Jan-Albert HootsenMarch 28, 2017
Me wanting a gang member to have a different life would never be the same as that gang member wanting to have one.
Greg Boyle, S.J.March 28, 2017
President Donald J. Trump’s executive order to repeal key policies meant to curb global warming is a direct contradiction of Catholic social teaching on caring for the environment.
Wyatt MasseyMarch 28, 2017