By Genevieve Pollock
EXTON, Pennsylvania, NOV. 24, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Christopher West and his work at the Theology of the Body Institute have been a topic of debate since a controversial misrepresentation of his views on ABC's Nightline last May.
This prompted Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to issue a statement in August expressing support for the organization's work and West's "particular charism" to carry out its mission.
Last month, the popular writer and speaker issued his own response to his critics, titled "The Theology of the Body Discussion: The Pivotal Question."
Now, in this exclusive interview with ZENIT, West reveals how the criticisms have affected his work, the lessons learned from the media misrepresentations, and why talking about sex can spark such passionate debate.
Part 2 of this interview will appear Wednesday.
ZENIT: In your response and explanation of your position, you say you are thankful for the various critiques of your work. Have these critiques led you to think differently on anything?
West: Certainly. There is always room for improvement and more clarity.
I have had the comments of various critics on my mind in virtually every lecture I've given since the debate of last summer. It's already changing the way I express various things.
This is the journey of any presenter of the faith -- we must always be open to change and refinement.
Putting John Paul II's dense theology into layman's terms was virtually uncharted territory when I started this work in the mid-90s. Finding the right language, images, and anecdotes has been a process of trial and error. Those who have followed my work over the years often comment to me about how it has changed and developed.
I owe many of the positive developments to those who have provided constructive criticism.
ZENIT: What insights have you gained from this experience?
West: There certainly have been some hard learned lessons for me in all of this, and I'm praying that I don't miss any of them. For one, I think I was naive to believe that such a sensitive topic could be properly represented by a mainstream news show.
Of course, I knew there was risk going into it, but I never imagined the piece would come out claiming that I consider Hugh Hefner a "hero" of mine alongside John Paul II, which of course is outlandish; I don't.
This caused a lot of consternation in some Catholic circles -- which is understandable if you take what ABC aired at face value.
I certainly regret the way my own naïveté contributed to the consternation. Various ecclesial mentors who counseled me through this have shared some of their difficult experiences with the mainstream media. Their stories and wisdom really helped open my eyes.
If I accept similar interviews in the future, it will be with much more care and discernment.
ZENIT: You say much of your work has been misrepresented. Why do you think that happened?
West: Perhaps it's because sex is such a sensitive topic.
Our views about our bodies and our sexuality are so closely tied to our sense of self, to our identity. This, it seems to me, is why talk about sexuality tends to stir up a hornets' nest.
When emotions get heated, perhaps we're not as inclined to do the fact finding. Perhaps we hear things that get us riled up and, in that state, we may be quick to assume to be true things that are not, or we can be more willing to exaggerate things, take things out of context, or even misrepresent someone. I can understand why that happens. It's not fun when it's aimed at you, but I can understand it.
I also think it could have something to do with the impersonal and disembodied nature of the Internet. It seems we're willing to say and do things online for some reason that we wouldn't say or do in other contexts.
ZENIT: You say the pivotal question of the debate has to do with whether or not God's grace effectively redeems us in this life from disordered sexual tendencies? Why is it so important to answer this question correctly? What is at stake in this issue?
West: Actually, an important nuance is lacking in the wording of the above. You say that I believe the pivotal question "has to do with whether or not God's grace effectively redeems us in this life from disordered sexual tendencies."
I would not use this kind of wording because it is too definitive. No one on earth can say "God has redeemed me from my disordered sexual tendencies."
Redemption is never complete on this side of heaven. All one can say is "I am on the journey of redemption from my disordered sexual tendencies."
As I wrote in my response, in a very real way, debates about what we are capable of in the battle with concupiscence take us to the crux of the Gospel itself.
"This is what is at stake," John Paul II maintained, "the reality of Christ's redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence" (Veritatis Splendor 103).
Christ's victory is definitive, but we take up that victory as a task, as a journey.
Christ calls us out of the boat. And if (big if!) we keep our eyes fixed on him, we can walk on water. In other words, we can do that which seems humanly impossible.
On our own, overcoming our disordered sexual tendencies is impossible, but with God all things are possible (see Matthew 19:26).
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On the Net:
Theology of the Body Institute: http://www.tobinstitute.org/