That following school year, my women's group at Catholic University listened to the entire set of lectures (it was 9 hours long) over the course of four months. The results were electric. I know West made personal for me what had unti lthen been an impersonal commitment to the Church's teaching on contraception. I knew one girl who had been on birth control pills for "medical reasons," who went home one night and flushed every last pill. Others were inspired by the pope's reflections on celibacy to seriously discern religion life. All of those with whom I've stayed in touch are still deeply committed to the Catholic understanding of the image of God--"male and female he created them," our desire for our origins--"from the beginning it was not so," and to the permanency of marriage--"what God has joined, let no man separate." Such fruits.
The controversy erupted--it began the minute West made it his mission to popularize John Paul II's lectures on the theology of the body--over West's appearance on Dateline. The first thing you should do, out of respect for West, is watch the piece. Then read West's own corrections.
There cannot be anything we Christians find it easier to forget than Christ's maxim, "Whoever is not against us is for us." If we are going to discuss the theology of the body (TOTB) and West's interpretation of it, let it be with charity. West's language may be problematic in places, but please remember that, as Jimmy Akin put it, he's on the "side of the angels."
There are sort of two levels of critique going on against West. The first is a theological argument over whether or not he "gets" John Paul II's theology. Most prominently, David Schindler, dean/provost of the John Paul II Institute at Catholic University, has criticized West's understanding of the effects of original sin on our sexual desires. He thinks West underestimates the scars left by concupiscience, places too much importance on sexual love as an image of God, and that these misunderstandings (as well as several others) lead West to be too free with his language when discussing sex. I'm finding it impossible to really evaluate Schindler's claims, since he cites only personal anecdotes. Not one article or book chapter written by West is ever mentioned--always red flag.
The second level of controversy, then, comes from the first. Does West's sunny view of our sexual desires result in vulgarity? Is explicit sexual language and even "street language," such as "getting laid," ever appropriate for Catholic speakers addressing contemporary audeinces? Alice von Hildebrand said, "NO!" As did James Likoudis. Janet Smith, who I'll link you to further down, is not so quick to pull the trigger:
'I think it is important to keep in mind, as Akin does, who West’s audience is. It is largely the sexually wounded and confused who have been shaped by our promiscuous and licentious culture. People need to think long and hard about the appropriate pedagogy for that group. Yet, as West himself knows, his approach is not for everyone. An analogy that pushes the envelope may be "offensive" to one person and may be just the hook that draws another person in. West has adopted a style that appeals to a large segment of that population—and even to some who are “pure and innocent.”'
Now, I have never heard Christopher West in person, though most of my friends and acquaintances have. I have never read his best-seller, The Good News About Sex and Marriage. But I have seen lives changed by it--from an 18-year-old girl struggling with the Church's perceived "injustices" to women to a 55-year-old man who repented of his vasectomy. And, with all due respect to academics (heck! I'm one of them!), these people were not about to read either the original lectures given by the pope or any academic articles from the John Paul II Institute's esteemed graduates.
I also have two witnesses with whose work I am very familiar (I wrote one of my theses on the concept of "nature" in Humanae Vitae) who have endorsed West's work. Neither Janet Smith nor Michael Waldstein give West a blanket "seal of approval"--both call for careful reading, prayerful reflection, and further study--but they at least give the other side of the story. As Smith puts it:
"West has been giving his presentations for over a decade now; he has shown spectacular docility and humility in reworking them in response to criticisms. I suspect that as a result of this recent dust-up West may want to adjust some of his approach (or he may not!), but I also am confident that onlookers will find that many of the criticisms against West are without foundation. Some are erroneous because the critics are not sufficiently acquainted with West’s work. Others are not sufficiently acquainted with John Paul II’s work. Sometimes differences are not about substance but about emphasis or semantics. When dealing with a subject as fraught with distortions and sensitivities as sexuality there are surely going to be differences between people of good will."
The last point there, "differences between people of good will," is key to keep in mind. I cannot take seriously any claim that West has been either vicious or stupid. Glib, perhaps, but undeniably engaging. I am fairly certain that more people watching that Dateline special, however egregiously ABC or West violated decency, were moved to investigate this "Catholic sex therapy" then to open up the latest issue of Playboy.
I am remembering, too, that C.S. Lewis took endless loads of criticism from his high church friends for speaking "the bluff, common language of bluff, common men." I'm so glad he did. The sexual revolution is not going away quietly into the night; I'd rather men like West were out there using words such as (gasp!) "ovaries," "holy sex," and "getting laid" than not.