Friday, May 29, 2009

The Continuing West Controversy

Christopher West has published a clarification of his ABC interview. Not exactly satisfying, but good enough. Needless to say, West does not endorse Hefner or pornography.

Jimmy Akin has some well thought-out criticisms of both Christopher West and ABC's treatment of him. For whatever it's worth, I think Akin is spot-on.

Then David Schindler, head of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, published an article criticizing West in general. Schindler is an extremely learned man; I suspect there's something to his criticism of West, but I wish he would have unpacked some of the compact technical formulations he uses.

Michael Waldstein, translator of the latest edition of John Paul II's Theology of the Body responded, defending West from Schindler's criticisms. I was a little disappointed by this article, as it suffers from the vagueness he (rightly) attributes to Schindler; but it needs to be kept in mind that Waldstein is not in the best of health these days. However, Janet Smith's response to Schindler (at greater length) is much better—excellent and even-handed.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Naivete or Stupidity? West on Hefner

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.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

News Flash: Women Are Different than Men

A couple recent examples of our willful blindness of the unique nature of women.

There's a provocative article in The Atlantic on "The Case Against Breast-Feeding." Hanna Rosin argues that studies showing the benefits of breast-feeding are exaggerated. It's a challenge to design a study that isolates breast-feeding from other factors accidentally correlated to it.

Nearly all the researchers I talked to pointed me to a series of studies designed by Kramer, published starting in 2001. Kramer followed 17,000 infants born in Belarus throughout their childhoods. He came up with a clever way to randomize his study, at least somewhat, without doing anything unethical. He took mothers who had already started nursing, and then subjected half of them to an intervention strongly encouraging them to nurse exclusively for several months. The intervention worked: many women nursed longer as a result. And extended breast-feeding did reduce the risk of a gastrointestinal infection by 40 percent. This result seems to be consistent with the protection that sIgA provides; in real life, it adds up to about four out of 100 babies having one less incident of diarrhea or vomiting. Kramer also noted some reduction in infant rashes. Otherwise, his studies found very few significant differences: none, for instance, in weight, blood pressure, ear infections, or allergies—some of the most commonly cited benefits in the breast-feeding literature.

Both the Kramer study and the sibling study did turn up one interesting finding: a bump in “cognitive ability” among breast-fed children. But intelligence is tricky to measure, because it’s subjective and affected by so many factors. Other recent studies, particularly those that have factored out the mother’s IQ, have found no difference at all between breast-fed and formula-fed babies. In Kramer’s study, the mean scores varied widely and mysteriously from clinic to clinic. What’s more, the connection he found “could be banal,” he told me—simply the result of “breast-feeding mothers’ interacting more with their babies, rather than of anything in the milk.”

The IQ studies run into the central problem of breast-feeding research: it is impossible to separate a mother’s decision to breast-feed—and everything that goes along with it—from the breast-feeding itself. (68)

What I want to know: why does nature have to be backed-up by science? Why isn't the presumption in favor of nature? Infant formula is the alternative. But why do we think we can synthesize a breast-milk alternative? Assuming we can even know all the components adequately, what makes us think we can put them together in exactly the way that nature has arranged?

Why are we talking about whatever we put in the infant's stomach as if it in itself has got to be the magic elixir? Isn't the whole culture of breast-feeding what should be under consideration? This would mean that benefits of a mother's interaction with her child in breast-feeding would be a legitimate benefit of breast-feeding.

This is human life we're talking about. It has a wholeness whose depths we can only guess at. As members of a consumeristic society, we think we can pick and choose elements of it as would the color of an automobile or the flavor of ice cream.

The underlying agenda becomes clear near the end of the article:

About seven years ago, I met a woman from Montreal, the sister-in-law of a friend, who was young and healthy and normal in every way, except that she refused to breast-feed her children. She wasn’t working at the time. She just felt that breast-feeding would set up an unequal dynamic in her marriage—one in which the mother, who was responsible for the very sustenance of the infant, would naturally become responsible for everything else as well. (69-70, emphasis added)

Again, perhaps the natural dynamic of motherhood is for the one responsible for the infant's sustenance to be closest to the child. But we all know that inequality is the greatest evil in the world. If we don't, we of course need to take more sensitivity courses. So, let's make a point of using our screwdrivers as hammers and vice versa.

The Columbia University alumni magazine has an article about the very real problem women in the military being sexually harassed.

Spranger’s experience [of harassment] is hardly unusual among military women. According to several recent surveys conducted by researchers at veterans centers, nearly a third of female troops are raped by their comrades, while some three-quarters are sexually assaulted, and 90 percent are sexually harassed. “The harassment got to be so commonplace that I didn’t even think it was wrong,” Spranger says. “Anyway, it went up so high in the ranks there was nobody to tell.” (14)

It comes as a big surprise only to those wearing ideological blinders that men treat women differently. They treat women differently because they are different. Simply awarding them a different "role" doesn't change their essence. Why did we need a study to tell us this? Look around at the world. From time immemorial, armies have been followed by prostitutes. Sex and war have a natural tendency to go together.

It's well-known that the male hormone, testosterone, increases aggression, and that aggression increases testosterone.1 So why would we ever think that men in combat would behave any better than men in civilian life? Certainly harassment is wrong and the men doing it are wrong. But what else would we expect? These guys are put into extremely tense, life-threatening situations. Men in bad situations have a pronounced tendency to act badly. Can't we consider this an empirical fact without commissioning a study to "scientifically" access it?

In the military, curbing sexual harassment has about as much chance of success as curbing profanity. No matter how many sensitivity courses you force men into, they have natural tendencies (for good or bad) that no one will ever eliminate except by denaturing or killing the patient.

Instead of banging at the square peg to get it into the round hole, perhaps we should look for a square hole.

But putting women in the military is more than just a problem of misunderstanding men. Much more importantly it's a problem of misunderstanding women. A couple later paragraphs are remarkable on this score:

Sergeant Marti Ribeiro, a wife and mother who entered the Air Force to follow family tradition [!], was relentlessly harassed throughout her deployment in 2003. So when she was redeployed in 2006 and sent to Afghanistan as a combat correspondent with the Army’s all-male 10th Mountain Division, she resolved that this time would be different.

“Excuse my language,” says Ribeiro, “but I decided to be a bitch. So I stepped off the plane into my own personal hell. Yes, I was able to put up a wall, but at a price. My wall became thicker and thicker. I’m normally a very bubbly person, but that disappeared behind the wall, and to this day I don’t know if I’ve ever regained that part of my personality.” (15)

We learn later (17) that Ribeiro was trying to follow in the footsteps of her father and grandfather, both officers. I can only wonder how the tradition-minded men in her family could imagine letting a woman fight in combat. Further, why would a mother, with any sense of responsibility to her children voluntarily put herself in harm's way? Out of a sense of family tradition? (Strange family that has a tradition of mothers abandoning their children.) The mind boggles.

In the second paragraph, we see how a woman in the military has to change herself to suit her new role. It would be interesting to compare this to the experience of how men adjust to the military, but it's clear it wouldn't be nearly the same transformation, if only for the reason that very few men aptly describe themselves in terms like "bubbly."

Sexual harassment in the military is a very real problem. But the real question this publication's ideological commitments2 don't allow it to ask: why are we putting women in these situations in the first place? It's as if we feel obliged to deny that there are distinct natures in the world by proving that women have no essential nature.

The politically correct orthodoxy assumes that everyone should be able to step in to any role they want, and then forces everyone else to conform to that choice. The problem, this orthodoxy tells us, is not the institution of women in the military, but with the men who won't accept them.

In our egalitarian, individualistic society, an abundance of choices is held to indicate our freedom. But what if most of those choices lead not to our happiness, but to our misery? Wouldn't elimination of those bad possibilities better enable us to thrive? Highway guardrails are not restrictions on freedom, but better enable us to get where we're going safely.

It is only in acknowledging the distinct natures of men and women that we can help them to excel in the respective roles for which they are naturally suited and that are their natural glory.


1. It seems wisest for children's primary caregivers not to be pumped up with testosterone whether by nature or by profession.

2. Whenever I feel guilty about not donating to my alma mater, a quick look at the alumni magazine cures me.

Helen Benedict, "Betrayal in the Field," Columbia (Spring 2009), 12-17.

Hanna Rosin, "The Case Against Breast-Feeding" The Atlantic (April 2009), 64-70.