Christopher West is a popular exponent of Pope John Paul II's "Theology of the Body," which teaches a positive view to spousal intimacy as a reflection of God's love.1 Over the years I've heard untoward rumors about some questionable sexual practices that West is supposed to have advocated. In the absence of any solid evidence, I've discounted them as Jansenistic misunderstandings.
But now a friend sends me this ABC Nightline article. Here's the core of contention:
The seeming paradox of West's position is captured in the unlikely pairing of his two big heroes -- his muses, you might say. They are Pope John Paul II, and Hugh Hefner. A saint and a sinner.
"I actually see very profound historical connections between Hugh Hefner and John Paul II," said West.... Each man in his own way, West insisted, rescued sex from prudish Victorian morality....2
"I love Hugh Hefner," said West. "I really do. Why? Because I think I understand his ache. I think I understand his longing because I feel it myself. There is this yearning, this ache, this longing we all have for love, for union, for intimacy."
Pornography is a longing for intimacy...? Right. "Honey, I log into that website as an expression of my longing for intimacy," I can hear some husband trying to justify his porn addiction. Rather a remote reflection of any longing for intimacy!
Either West has been taken out of context, or else he needs to read more by Pope John Paul II and about Hefner, or both.
The Pope specifically condemns pornography in Love and Responsibility as a failure of real intimacy:
Pornography is a marked tendency to accentuate the sexual element when reproducing the human body or human love in a work of art, with the object of inducing the reader or viewer to believe that sexual values are the only real values of the person, and that love is nothing more than the experience, individual or shared, of those values alone. This tendency is harmful for.... the truth about human love consists always in reproducing the interpersonal relationship, however large sexual values may loom in that relationship.3 (192-3, emphasis added)
From what I know about Playboy, it's not exactly a complete interpersonal relationship that's being represented in its pages. That this is Hefner's schtick is grossly apparent in an article that West would be profitably familiar with, "The Cultural Victory of Hugh Hefner": "Sandy Bentley, the Playboy cover girl and former Hefner girlfriend (along with her twin sister Mandy), describes Hugh Hefner's current sexual practices in just enough detail to give you a good long pause." That Hefner's public persona includes two girlfriends at once is a big enough statement that the man doesn't represent a "longing for intimacy"—does anyone (outside of West) suffer from the illusion that playboys do? I won't reproduce the key passage on Hefner's practices, but here is the upshot:
Yes, you read that right. There it is, attributed to someone who ought to know, the stated fact on the public record. It may seem shocking or it may seem trivial, but it amounts to a significant confirmation that Hugh Hefner embodies what his detractors have been saying for years: All pornography is ultimately homosexual. All pornography stifles the development of genuine human relationships. All pornography is a manifestation of arrested development. All pornography reduces spiritual desire to Newtonian mechanics. All pornography, indulged long enough, hollows out sex to the point where even the horniest old Viagra-stoked goat is unable to physically enjoy the bodies of nubile young females.
(The entire article is well worth reading.)
Pornography is a serious problem in our society. Greedy businessmen hijack a God-given human desire and enslave a large fraction of the population for their own selfish gain.4 No one should trivialize the problem by proposing Hefner as any source of inspiration.
I vaguely recall from one of West's talks that he may have been involved in pornography before his (re)conversion. Perhaps his statements are part of such a recollection. Still, I can't understand why he would parallel Hefner with JP2. (On his website West rightly evaluates pornography.) On the other hand, it is easy to see how the MSM would magnify any misspoken word.5 At worst, this is an idiotic rhetorical move by Christopher West. At best this is West trying to appeal to more people and thinking rather naively that he can handle the media beast: West doesn't realize how easily attention-grabbing statements that work in a talk are taken out of context in today's slice-and-dice media culture... and thanks to ABC he's now learning really, really fast.
Either way, it is a genuine scandal. Christopher West should publicly clarify his position specifically in response to this article. Unfortunately whatever new statement he makes will not have nearly the reach of the old one.
1. I highly recommend Michael Waldstein's excellent introduction to his new translation of the work, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology Of The Body.
2. As if "prudish Victorian morality" were the demon to flee. Love and Responsibility actually says that such morality and today's pornographic culture have much more in common with each other than with authentic sexuality:
If any one of the above-mentioned purposes of marriage is considered without reference to the personalistic norm—that is to say, without taking into account of the fact that man and woman are persons—this is bound to lead to some form of utilitarianism in the first or second meaning of the word 'use'. To regard procreation in this way leads to the rigorist distortion, while the 'libidinistic' distortion is rooted in a similar attitude to the tertiary end of marriage—remedium concupiscentiae. (67)
The two meanings of 'use': (1) employ as a means to an end, the end being procreation, and (2) enjoy. Thus both "prudish Victorian morality" and hedonism ignore the full reality of the person in favor of using the person either merely for procreation or merely for pleasure. Maybe West's invocation of "prudish Victorian morality" is rhetorical?
3. Extended quotation:
The human body is an authentic part of the truth about man, just as its sensual and sexual aspects are an authentic part of the truth about human love. But it would be wrong to let this part obscure the whole—and this is what often happens in art.
However, the essence of what we call pornography in art is further to seek. Pornography is a marked tendency to accentuate the sexual element when reproducing the human body or human love in a work of art, with the object of inducing the reader or viewer to believe that sexual values are the only real values of the person, and that love is nothing more than the experience, individual or shared, of those values alone. This tendency is harmful, for it destroys the integral image of that important fragment of human reality which is love between man and woman. For the truth about human love consists always in reproducing the interpersonal relationship, however large sexual values may loom in that relationship. Just as the truth about man is that he is a person, however conspicuous sexual values are in his or her physical appearance.
A work of art must get at this truth, no matter how deeply it has to go into sexual matters. If it shows a tendency to distort this it can only give a distorted picture of reality. But pornography is not just a lapse or an error. It is a deliberate trend. If a distorted image is endowed with the power and prestige of artistic beauty there is a still greater likelihood that it will take root and establish itself in the mind and the will of those who contemplate it. For the human will often shows a great susceptibility to deformed images of reality. But for this very reason, when we condemn pornography we should often put the blame on immaturity and impurity, the absence of 'emotional shame' in those responsible for it. (192-3)
4. Funny how silent liberals largely are about this manifestation of "evil capitalism."
5. On yet another hand, ABC seems to have faithfully transmitted West's nuanced stances on oral sex, etc. So one wonders where the fault lies.
David Wright and Ely Brown, "Sex Sermonist's Heroes: Pope John Paul II and Hugh Hefner: Devout Catholic Christopher West Lays Out Unexpected Vision of What Sex Can Mean for Christians," ABC News Nightline (May 7, 2009).
Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).
Read Mercer Schuchardt, "The Cultural Victory of Hugh Hefner," GodSpy (October 1, 2003), originally published as "Play Boy! The Cultural Victory of Hugh Hefner" in re:generation quarterly (July 1, 2001). The quotation I've omitted is from the June 2001 issue of Philadelphia magazine.