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Christopher West Refines His Answers, But Questions Remain

At the Heart of the Gospel, the new book by Christopher West, is the fruit of West’s sabbatical from speaking after controversy broke following a television interview. West’s new book is primarily two things. First, it’s a summary of the main points of West’s lectures and writings over the years. West takes a deep breath, slows down, and lays out his argument step by step. West also marshals plenty of quotations from old and new authorities to back him up. There are plenty of quotes from the Catechism, Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Scola, the saints, and of course Pope John Paul II and his Theology of the Body.

The second aspect of the book is West’s response to his critics. In the appendices West addresses two big points of contention. The first is the controversy that has swirled around West’s treatment of the delicate question of sodomy in the context of marital foreplay. The second appendix deals with West’s claims about spousal analogies in the Church’s liturgies — especially the ceremony of blessing the baptismal font. West doesn’t back off of his positions here, but he adds additional explanations and clarification. West also admits that he has made mistakes in his presentations in the past. But he mostly sticks to his guns. And at least on some issues, he certainly should.

The Nuptial Mystery

The heart of West’s thinking is the ‘great mystery’, the spousal analogy that is found explicitly formulated by Saint Paul in Ephesians 5. This is where Paul says that the ‘one flesh’ union of man and woman found in Genesis is a mystery of Christ and the church. Paul is basically saying that the union of spouses in the sacrament of marriage is an allegory of the mystery of the Church.

Just as sex is the most intimate sign of the spouses love for each other, so the Eucharist is the most intimate sign of the love Christ has for his church. Hence there is a certain analogous relationship between these two forms of becoming ‘one body’. In a sense, making love is the spouses’ Eucharist. And likewise the Eucharist manifests God’s eros towards mankind. This analogy is like a ray of light that illuminates both mysteries in and through each other. This is what West is getting at when he says that the spousal analogy ‘works both ways’.

The implications of this fundamental analogy for the theology of marriage have not always been given very much attention. Revelation does indeed have something to say to spouses even in this most intimate part of their lives. And God intended this relationship in creation from the beginning. The spousal relationship foreshadows in some way the Incarnation. There isn’t any human reality more profound than spousal love to image the love God has for humanity. If there were, Saint Paul would have used that and not the ‘one flesh’ of husband and wife. On the other hand, it’s only the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ that fully reveals this spousal reality and makes of it a ‘sign’.

I believe that West is standing on firm ground here. In so far as West’s critics are attacking the spousal analogy and its implications, they are off base. West is certainly correct to see some Catholics reacting to something perfectly traditional as though it were unorthodox. I’ve seen it myself. But that’s not the whole story.

A Problem of Language

It can’t be discounted that there are a good number of people who find something ‘off’ to West’s writings and talks. I have also found this to be the case. It’s clear from what West writes in this book that he doesn’t intend to present a reductive vision of sexuality, but nonetheless his words do at times give that impression. Why does his writing seem off to many of his critics? Well, here’s my theory.

What’s the difference between these two sentences?

  1. At the heart of the gospel is sex. 
  2. At the heart of the gospel is love.

Most people would immediately reject the first statement. The second statement nearly everyone would agree with. What kind of love is at the heart of the gospel? The spousal kind of love. Most people would likely understand that the reference to a spousal kind of love is an analogy. God is not literally male or female. The marriage in the book of Revelation is not a literal human marriage (the form of which is passing away). Sexuality too is implicit in understanding of spousal love. 

‘Spousal love’ necessarily connotes sexuality as part of its meaning, because spousal love is ordered toward the fruitfulness of procreation. But the word ‘sex’, or ‘sexuality’, does not necessarily connote love (or at least if it does, the ‘love’ it connotes is much less than ‘spousal love’).Therefore to use the word ‘sex’ or ‘sexuality’ is to lose the spousal context. That’s why no one would accept the statement that sex is the heart of the gospel, no matter how you qualified it. But many would accept that a spousal kind of love is at the heart of the gospel. It matters what words you use.

West says that he wants to rehabilitate words like ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’ the same way that the Church Fathers rehabilitated the word ‘eros’. It would be an interesting study to see how the Fathers did this with ‘eros’, but West has so far not succeeded in elevating the word ‘sex’ to include a spousal meaning. Consequently if West uses words that do not connote a holistic understanding of love and sexuality, his readers or listeners will understand him to be saying something much more reductive than he intends.

This might be a source of the confusion and hostility of many of West’s critics. His critics have cause for concern, not necessarily because West is thinking wrongly but because he is sometimes using language wrongly. This isn’t just West’s problem. I recently saw a headline for an interview with West as part of his book publicity that read “The Saving Power of Sex”. Sex, of course, doesn’t have any saving power. It would be much truer to speak of the power of Christ to save sex. It’s inappropriate to equate sex with the redemptive power of Christ. Here’s another example.

In Chapter 2, “The Wound of Puritanism”, the very first sentence says: “Pope Benedict XVI observes that a hallmark of Christian faith genuinely lived is ‘the attitude of joy in, and affirmation of the body, of sexuality’. The pope doesn’t use the word ‘hallmark’. Yes, a hallmark of Christian faith is affirmation of the body, but to specify sexuality here puts too fine a point on it. St. Paul wrote about hallmarks of Christian faith genuinely lived. His hallmarks were justice, peace, and the joy that comes from the Holy Spirit. West’s use of the pope’s words makes it seem like Paul forgot to include sexuality. Yes, genuine faith affirms the body and sexuality, but genuine Christians don’t go around celebrating sexuality all the time. West seems to put things out of place or over-emphasize things.

I’ve noticed this dis-integrating effect of West’s language when speaking of the body as well. Paradoxically, when you emphasize the body too much you end up separating it from the person.

Admittedly, this business of trying to elevate language is extremely tricky. West alludes to the problem in his book. It’s a problem that we Catholics should work together to solve. Philosophers, writers, theologians, no one man or woman can tackle this thorny problem alone. 

I don’t know how satisfied West’s critics will be with this new book. I have a feeling that they will not be pacified. This book is an apology (as in ‘defense’) for all the positions that have been the most controversial. At least it’s an advancement of the debate because West takes pains to explain as best and as comprehensively as he can those positions that are such a sore spot for his critics. Overall, West has made a stronger case for himself, with plenty of arguments from authority. If West’s critics are still certain of West’s unorthodoxy, the ball is now back in their court.


Brian Killian is a Catholic writer. He currently resides with his wife and children in Nova Scotia, Canada. He writes about ‘theology of the body’ related themes and other Catholic stuff too.


  • Genevieve Kineke

    “In a sense, making love is the spouses’ Eucharist.”

    Mr Killian, you are more than correct in saying that West’s is a problem of language, and you intimated the exact problem with this book in saying that he isn’t careful with his definitions. Whether he’s deliberately vague in some areas in order to leave open various meanings is impossible to gauge, but the result is painful confusion.

    Sex and sexuality are open to many meanings (especially in our sex-saturation world) and yet reducing spousal love to the marital embrace is a disservice to the generosity and self-sacrifice of couples everywhere. By the statement above, it would seem as though the need to postpone intimacy for the sake of prudence or illness or separation (or any number of valid reasons over the decades of marriage) means that the couple is unable to tap the motherlode of grace they need to be strong. Nonsense!

    Conversely, those who mistakenly engage in intimacy without marriage (but welcome the children) seem to have tapped into the Great Mystery by this sloppy standard.

    To be honest, I don’t grant him the “firm ground” that you insist exists concerning the “one flesh” union according to his explanation. In the book, it seems that he says that Christ’s Incarnation (taking flesh) and the marriage of Christ and his Church together elevate sex to the level of the Great Mystery. It simply doesn’t follow.

    There is too much more to contest in a single comment, but I must caution people before offering this book to those who are not well-formed in the faith. The only sin left, it would seem, would be prudishness, of which (by his standard) I’m quite culpable.

  • noelfitz

    I read here:
    “The first is the controversy that has swirled around West’s treatment of the delicate question of sodomy in the context of marital foreplay.”

    I am not familiar with West’s ideas. Would anyone like to explain and defend West’s views and compare and contrast these with Catholic teaching?

    • http://viralcatholic.com/ Brian Killian

      noelfitz, you might Google it and find some discussions about it. West is against it, and he says that his view is similar to St. Alphonus Liguori. What is odd to me, is that West and Janet Smith insist on including contrary opinions whenever they talk about it as if these contrary opinions constituted some kind of authoritative tradition that they simply could not, for the sake of objectivity, exclude from the discussion.

      And I find it ironic that people who are evangelists for the personalist theology of PJPII, whose personalist theology was developed in part to deal with the inadequacies of just such ‘manualist’ theologians, are invoking them on this point as if they were sacred authorities.

  • http://viralcatholic.com/ Brian Killian

    Genevieve, I get your concern about reducing spousal love to sex. This seems to be another conflict of thinking of sex exclusively vs. sex as a part of spousal life/love.

    By using the Eucharist as a metaphor for lovemaking, I don’t mean that it’s a source of grace the same way that the Eucharist is, such that when the spouses are not making love they have no access to grace. What is meant is that the *kind* of love that sex ought to express between a baptized man and woman in the sacrament of marriage, *given that they are having sex*, is a Eucharistic kind of love. What does that mean? First of all, It is a thanksgiving to God for the gift of such loving intimacy and for the gift of the spouses themselves.

    And it’s eucharistic in form because it is meant to express the total self-emptying of the spouses for and in each other. Christ’s kenosis on the cross is a visible model of what should be the hidden soul of the spouses’ sexual love. And it’s eucharistic because it bears fruit in the form of new life. It’s this that makes it a unique concrete sign of spousal love. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only sign, or the only aspect of married life that qualifies as ‘spousal’.

    You wrote:

    “Conversely, those who mistakenly engage in intimacy without marriage (but welcome the children) seem to have tapped into the Great Mystery by this sloppy standard.”

    It’s not automatically a eucharistic kind of love. It must be intended that way, and it must be an authentic human act, which is to say a moral one.

    You wrote:

    “In the book, it seems that he says that Christ’s Incarnation (taking flesh) and the marriage of Christ and his Church together elevate sex to the level of the Great Mystery. It simply doesn’t follow.”

    Would it help to say that it elevates spousal love to the level of the Great Mystery? Then we must allow sex to be part of the picture. The other alternative is to exclude sex itself from having any relation to love. I don’t think you would want to say that right?

    And it seems that it’s St. Paul that’s saying that, not just Christopher West. I mean he uses the words ‘one flesh’. He uses the same phrase when talking about when a man joins himself to a prostitute. In canon law, the ‘one flesh’ language also is a reference to sexual intercourse when the spouses consumate their marriage. Is St. Paul guilty of reducing spousal love to just sex?

    No, because sex relates to the rest of married life the same way ‘one flesh’ acts as a metaphor for the whole unity of married life and love. When we read St. Paul saying ‘one flesh’ we understand that he is talking about the whole unity of life and love. But, it only can symbolize that to the extent that the metaphor is based on a literal sexual union.

    Again, sex is to spousal love as consummation is to the vows taken at the wedding. It’s the unique sign–in the flesh–of the love formally given and expressed when they made their vows. Their love pre-exists the sexual activity and precedes it, but when they come together there’s a completion and fullness of that love symbolized in their flesh.

    We might only receive the Eucharist once a week or once a month or once a year, but we are always living a eucharistic life. Sex makes no sense as a symbol if weren’t necessarily related to a ‘before’ and a ‘after’ of the actual love-making. If it were only related to itself, just one sexual atom floating in a vacuum, it could not signify the indissolubility and the fidelity of the spouses.

    For spouses, it’s all a continuity of meaning.

  • Kevin M. Tierney

    I think we need to look at it a little different. In a certain sense, the marital embrace certainly is “eucharistic”, but not in the way West is thinking.

    And it all comes from the phrase that the Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” When two become one flesh in the marital embrace, there is indeed a “thanksgiving.” Indeed, one could even say they are doing a “thanksgiving offering.”

    Now before anyone thinks my “westian” girlfriend has corrupted me (honestly, she’s probably one of West’s biggest fans), hear me out. In the Old Testament, the “thanksgiving” offering was a “memorial” of something. Yet through the offering, that memorial was made present. Hence why at Mass, every Mass, we “make present” the Cross of Christ.

    Now, in the ideal, every time husband and wife come together, there should be a “making present” of the fidelity pledged in their wedding vows. In that sense, the marital embrace certainly is “eucharistic.”

    Yet not all thank offerings are created equal, and they don’t neccessarily translate into each other. In truth, every act of a spouse to another should be “Eucharistic” in that sense. And all must be formed by the Cross. Yet the marital embrace is not neccessarily the most powerful. If such were the case, marriage would lose its “strongest bond” as the years are added to a marriage.

  • Kevin M. Tierney

    I think in the end, the problem is because there is the statement:

    “Just as sex is the most intimate sign of the spouses love for each other, so the Eucharist is the most intimate sign of the love Christ has for his church.”

    This is a statement often made but never actually thought through. Did Mary and Joseph have a lesser intimate union because they did not engage in relations? Do those who are advanced in age (and hence having less sex) any less in intimacy? Is a crippled man rendered unable to engage in the marital embrace deprived for the rest of his marriage of “the most intimate sign” that he loves his wife?

    It isn’t the most intimate sign. It certainly is the most visible sign. And it certainly is the sign that best signifies God’s creative love.

    Instead, the greatest sign of intimacy for husband and wife is the same as the sign of Christ and His Church: a love which causes one to abandon themselves totally for the sake of the other. Their joys are your joys, their sufferings are your sufferings. Not out of obligation, but out of true agape, true love. Does this include the marital embrace? Yes. Yet is the marital embrace the be all end all of intimacy? Certainly not. Is it the most powerful form of intimacy? Not neccessarily.

    That’s why West’s thinking about the comparisons between the liturgy and the marital embrace are so wrong, and simply proves he doesn’t understand the beauty of either. We aren’t attacking the “spousal analogy.” What we are attacking is West’s (and whether or not you intend it, this articles) reduction of the spousal analogy. For West, the most powerful and profound part of a marriage is what goes on in the bedroom. That’s not “at the heart of the gospel”

    • fishman

      @Kevin — the problem with your argument is that ‘love’ is not a ‘sign’.
      A ‘sign’ has to be something with a substantially physical element.

      The Eucharist is a physical act ,
      Baptism again physical,

      so the analogy that ‘love’ is a sign doesn’t work.

      The most intimate ‘sign’ of God’s love might well be ‘the cross’ as opposed the ‘the Eucharist’ , but the two are so integrated as to make them almost inseparable.

      To answer some of your questions.
      A man who cannot physically have sex , is not allowed to be married in the catholic church, nor is he allowed to be a priest. Specifically because he is unable to ‘consummate’ marriage.

      So in the case of a man who no longer can or the couple who no longer does ‘consummate’ it can be said they have indeed lost something of the natural sign of marriage.

      The case of the Josephite marriage is something different. Just as ‘priestly’ celibacy is oriented towards the heavenly union, so the intimacy of Joseph and Mary ( who did have a true marriage) is a sign that Marriage is passing away for something that is greater , but not fully attainable in this world. The church still does allow josephite marriages, but they are closer to a form of consecrated celibacy then they are to what the ‘common man’ means when he says marriage.

      I think the article gets it quite right when it pinpoints the problem of language.

      I think west’s problem is that his ‘presentation’ and choice of words is intended for an audience of secularized 16 – 30 year olds. NOT theologians, it should not be assumed to be theologically rigorous.

      The problem is this theologians ( as most professionals) used a lot of specialized
      jargon that gives them more precision in their speech then you can have when speaking common English.

      For instance in physics the word work means mass times velocity.

      However , most people would not say, having spent 12 hours on their computer that the did less work then in the 15 min when they got up and brushed their teeth.

      If West is restricted to theological terms , his presentation will be completely lost on his primary audience.

      so what does the word ‘sex’ mean, and what can the word ‘sex’ mean, more Over how does west use it. I think west tries very hard to make it clear that when he uses the term ‘sex’ he is talking about “the real thing” not “the counterfeit our society pushes” as this is a substantial part of his introductory material.

      • Kevin M. Tierney

        A few things:

        1.) The only way one loves another through action is through their bodies. When Joseph, out of love, protected the Holy Family in Egypt, that indeed was a visible sign of his love. Likewise, when a spouse does something, it is a visible sign of love.

        Indeed baptism and the Eucharist are “physical acts” (and one cannot separate the Cross from the Eucharist, for they are one and the same)

        As for the questions about marriage, I was referring to one who was lost that ability, not one who never had it to begin with. But to say it was “lost”, would imply that someone like Joseph had “lost” the strongest way to love his wife.

        You can say “well that’s different”, but that doesn’t really help you. We celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family because the Holy Family should be what we model our families off of. Now does that mean we model them 100%? No, we all have different stations in our life. A Josephite marriage is no less a marriage.

        As far as West’s “audience” being 16-30 year olds, I prefer not to insult my age audience by saying they aren’t going to be smart enough to get it. One doesn’t need to use a bunch of Latin and theological jargon. In that statement I made above, I used no more jargon than one could fine in books like TOB Explained.

        Yet extra precision is required. I’ve done jobs providing technical instruction through written documentation for people. Now would it be permissible for me to write those instructions with the assumption that my audience has the technical background where I can skip a few steps? Or rather, should my instructions be clear and concise, leaving nothing to assumption?

  • noelfitz

    Brian,

    many thanks for your reply to me.

    I did as you suggested and Googled. I see “He (West) teaches that sodomy can be good in certain circumstances”(http://catholicforum.fisheaters.com/index.php?topic=3425768.10;wap2). However all sites are not reliable.

    I would be sympathetic to the views of Janet Smith as both of us were members of the same group some time ago.

  • fishman

    Noel, I’d have to see some actual quotes from west to ascribe ‘sodomy can be good’ to him.

    I would suspect , from his other writing etc, he is more in the camp of ‘that which is not expressly forbidden is should not be’ , so if by sodomy you mean some kind of contact that does not spill seed, and makes both members of the couple feel more loved , ( which is very much not what the normal word means). I would suspect he would state it is not outside the acceptable range of behavior morally.

    Even that would seem to be a neglecting of the health aspects, but again, if you are communicating to people in the american culture, you have to start with what is morally wrong and why.

    • noelfitz

      Fishman,
      many thanks for your reply to me. It is always great to hear from you.

      I agree direct quotes would be needed.
      I see
      ‘as Christopher West has noted in his book, Good News About Sex and Marriage, there is nothing technically forbidding a couple from engaging” in sodomy (provided the husband culminates the normal sex act within his wife); and that, while he discourages the practice of marital sodomy, “nevertheless, following Augustine’s dictum and in the absence of greater clarification from the Church, couples are free to exercise prudential judgment” in this regard.’ http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/sexuality/se0210.htm.

      But this is not a direct clear quote from West.

  • fishman

    For those goggling the controversy.

    ( Christopher West’s Work is “Completely Sound,” says Dr. Janet Smith)

    She goes into detail about he sodomy charge.

    http://catholicexchange.com/2009/05/28/118937/

    Alice von hildebrand so you can read it yourself what she thinks and why.

    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/christopher_wests_ideas_on_sexuality_ignore_tremendous_dangers_alice_von_hildebrand_says/

  • wadestonge

    More serious than the controversy about sodomy (which I think was overblown) and the overanalogizing (which, like Brian, I think he isn’t as over the top as some think) is his belief that one who achieves a state of “mature purity” should dispense with practicing “custody of the eyes”, which is merely an initial “negative” step for those in the “purgative stage” of purity, and should instead look upon women and their God-given beauty with the “pure gaze of love”.
    .
    On Kevin O’Brien’s blog, I just concluded a debate carried out over two articles with a deacon who was defending and giving an “apologia” for West’s position on this matter. I cited him Pius XII’s “Sacra Virginitas” (paragraphs 54 and 55) and Church Doctor (and the greatest moral theologian in Church history) St. Alphonsus Liguori’s chapter on “mortification of the eyes” in his book, “The True Spouse of Jesus Christ”. The contradiction between West and these two sources is astonishing, but not as astonishing as the mental gymnastics the deacon went through to try to show how West was in line with the Tradition.
    .
    Among West’s followers, this is where the immodesty comes in. Believing they have achieved “mature purity”, they dispense with “custody of the eyes” and instead choose to look upon women with the “pure gaze of love”.
    .
    When West was on sabbatical and we were debating this, all of his followers espoused this same “doctrine”. The evidence is on my blog. Brian, I don’t suppose there was any mention of this in West’s book? There ought to be, because that is his achilles’ heel.

  • http://www.casorosendi.com/ Carlos Caso-Rosendi

    Without any intention to contradict any of those immersed in this issues, I have a few questions.

    (1) I know that “seed” (spermatozoa) is emitted from the male sexual organs from the beginning of the sexual act. It is true that the largest amount of “seed” is emitted at the moment of climax but that does not preclude that minute amounts of spermatozoa are emitted before that moment.

    (2) The practice of that kind of intercourse normally described as “sodomy” is actually unhealthy since (a) microorganisms can “travel” from the body’s sewer system to the reproductive organs thus infecting the later (b) there is always the risk of an involuntary ejaculation in the wrong place.

    (3) If I remember well, our bodies are temples where God is worshiped and more so a woman’s body is the place where God creates life and it is considered by many to be a physical metaphor for the Temple of God. I may be abusing that metaphor here but let me ask: who would consider to pass in holy procession through the parish’s loo? Wouldn’t that be offensive?

    I believe the problem here is that some have lost sight of the difference between SACRED and PROFANE.
    Regardless of what each of us practice in the privacy of his own home I think we should all meditate why the sacred vessels are separated from those destined to profane purposes.

  • http://viralcatholic.com/ Brian Killian

    Does HTML work in these comments?

  • http://viralcatholic.com/ Brian Killian

    Fr. Landry has just said something similar to my issue with West’s and Janet Smiths approach to the sodomy question. He says:

    “West’s treatment of conjugal sodomy is particularly troubling. After emphasizing that the patron of moral theology St. Alphonsus Ligouri and he himself, based on Pope John Paul’s personalist principles, strongly condemn the practice, West still argues that the opinion of relatively obscure moral theologians — employing a clearly inadequate, canonical definition of sodomy as a premise to conclude that it’s licit provided that the conjugal act is completed in the natural way — constitutes a “theological consensus” he has no authority to contradict. This not only misunderstands what constitutes theological consensus and its authority, but injudiciously leaves those spouses who might be so disoriented as to have to seek guidance on the matter with basically a yellow light rather than a red one they obviously need.” [emphasis added by me]

    The effect of this is that a couple who needs to be steered clear of this is instead given a loophole to find approval instead.

  • http://viralcatholic.com/ Brian Killian

    That quote was from a review of West’s book at OSV.

    http://www.osv.com/tabid/7621/itemid/9034/Christopher-Wests-comeback.aspx

  • http://d-rium.blogspot.com Kevin Symonds

    I have a question.

    Does anyone know whether or not West addresses ascesis and concupiscence in relation to the “Simul lapsus et redemptus” question in “At the Heart of the Gospel”?