Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Semantics and Sense

[This is a rewrite of this post from a few hours ago].

After I banished a certain commenter from my comboxes for the second time, Wade St. Onge writes ...


Someone who will go unnamed private messaged me with the following quote from JP2's TOB: "In mature purity, man enjoys the fruits of victory over concupiscence". I was asked, "Wade, what do you think this means?"

The implication he was trying to make was clear: "JP2 is saying the man who has achieved mature purity need not practice custody of the eyes because he can look at naked women and not lust".

Of course, there was no attempt to engage what St. Alphonsus said, although that did not surprise me.

Thanks to one non-contextualized quotation from John Paul II, we can not only dispense with everything that all of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church taught with regards to custody of the eyes, but we can re-define the scriptural and patristic notion of "spiritual warfare" to mean that we continue to look upon scantily-clad women rather than looking away because the latter can in no way be classified as "fighting temptation".

When will this TOB madness end?


At first it seemd to me that this was not "one non-contextualized quotation from John Paul II", but a mis-quotation from John Paul II, for EWTN, which carries the full text of JP2's so-called "theology of the body" (TOB) lectures (general audiences), quotes the Holy Father thus ...

"In mature purity man enjoys the fruits of the victory won over lust ..."

This at first looked to me like a huge difference.

But a friend of mine, trained in theology noted, "The problem here is this: the words 'lust' and 'concupiscence' are sometimes theologically interchangeable, and you can't really make the distinctions you try to make in your post on the level of semantics."

So that being the case, I think we need to fall back on context. What is the context of this quote? The simple context, meaning the few sentences surrounding it?

The Holy Father continues in context ...

In mature purity man enjoys the fruits of the victory won over lust, a victory which St. Paul writes of, exhorting man to "control his own body in holiness and honor" (1 Th 4:4). The efficacy of the gift of the Holy Spirit, whose "temple" the human body is (cf. 1 Cor 6:19), is partly manifested precisely in such mature purity. This gift is above all that of piety (donum pietatis) ...

So even within a very narrow context, we can see that this Victory over Lust of which John Paul speaks is a victory of a man who controls his own body in holiness and honor by way of the grace of piety, or reverence toward God.

This is a far cry from what West and the Westians are tyring to make of this phrase.

EWTN publishes the "Theology of the Body" in Bl. John Paul's own words here.


dcs said...

I would think too that part of this victory over lust includes the grace to look away when one sees (for example) a scantily-clad young lady. Controlling oneself isn't limited to controlling the response to an occasion of sin. It's more than just control of the passions. What man hasn't experienced the struggle in simply turning away from a fetching young woman?

dcs said...

It doesn't appear to be a misquotation. Rather, it is taken from the new translation done by Dr. Waldstein rather than the older translation found on EWTN's web site. According to Waldstein, "lust" is often used in that older translation to translate "concupiscenza."

And in the Italian version on, "concupiscenza" is used in that passage:

"Nella purezza matura l’uomo gode dei frutti della vittoria riportata sulla concupiscenza, vittoria di cui scrive san Paolo, esortando a "mantenere il proprio corpo con santità e rispetto"."

Of course, that raises the question of whether this particular occurrence of "concupiscenza" is best translated as "concupiscence" ... that is something for which I don't have an answer. Nevertheless I think we ought to take "concupiscence" as authoritative (at least as authoritative as "lust") and deal with the passage on that basis.

Tom Leith said...

Meaning and Sense?

There are substantial differences between "see", "look at", "behold" and "leer".

Anyone who thinks "that's just semantics is missing the point.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Tom, you're right.

But the banned commenter was faced with what Wade and I had asserted: that Christopher West is making a case not merely for those with "mature purity" to "look at" or "see" or even "gaze" at a pretty woman, but to "look at" or "see" or "gaze" at a naked woman. And that ends up as "leering", at least with human nature as it is on this earth.

The case we asserted was, "West is arguing that engaging a near occasion of sin is more spiritually mature than avoiding a near occasion of sin." West is, in fact, quite explicit in arguing this point - it's one of the few things he does not equivocate about.

And the commenter's response was not to say, "Wait a minute! West is only arguing that it's not a big deal to look at pretty women." On the contrary, the commenter's response was (in so many words), "Indeed, the spiritually mature may look at, gaze, or stare upon naked ladies as much as they'd like for God will give them the grace not to lust the same way God will give an EMT the grace not to lust when treating a naked burn victim."

This is not only an insipid arugment, it's downright offensive.

Semantics may be an issue with "concupiscenza", but context isn't, which is why the context of this passage is crucial. Also, as another reader pointed out to me, JP2 refers to St. Paul, who is giving us a "a foretaste of the eschatological victory" in the passage quoted by him.

jvc said...

So, tell us, Tom, which verb would you prefer and which verb is appropriate for describing the proper way to look at naked woman? Is it okay if I "behold" rather than "leer"?

jvc said...

How does one get ahold of the older translation of TOB? I know Steve Kellmeyer has discussed this, and this seems to be yet another instance of possibly manipulating the text by Waldstein.

Is there a physical book / printing that has the original text, that I can get ahold of?

Kevin O'Brien said...

DCS, EWTN has published the talks here: . Talk 58, at least, was the original translation. I'm assuming that's their source for all the talks.

Tom Leith said...

I don't know what West says or how he qualifies it so I'm not going to get involved in this mess.

To Mr. JVC: the proper term depends on what's being done, and the proper way to look at a naked person is "with pure intent". By the time it gets to "leer" I'd say pure intent is gone.

Kevin said...

Once again....

What "pure intent" is there to gaze at a naked woman not your wife? No theological jargon. No bull. No nonsense. Just a straight answer. What "pure intent" is there in looking at a naked woman not your wife?

And don't give me the whole "what about artists who draw nude paintings" schtick. John Paul II already spoke about that, and while not condemning the practice, says there is a serious danger in it.

Can someone answer this one simple freakin question! I promise I'll shut up when someone does.

Kevin said...

Nevertheless, I don't have a problem saying one can achieve "victory over concupisence."

One can achieve "victory over alcoholism" for example. Yet that doesn't mean he can go back to drinking. Alcoholism may no longer dominate the mans life.

We can (and should) reach a point where concupisence no longer dominates and controlls our lives. We should learn self-control and self-mastery so that even when that concupisence flares up, it is mitigated, or squashed (for the moment) outright.

That doesn't mean it will no longer be there. Indeed, West himself admits in TOB Explained "complete victory over concupisence is not possible this side of the eschaton."

My problem is that West seems to equivocate. Even worse are some of his followers, who seriously think a proper understanding of TOB allows them to "reclaim Eden." West himself advocated a lot of this nonsense in the past, but he at least thought out the implications of it, and explicitly rejects it.

Only problem is he equivocates. As OSV's review of his book demonstrates, that equivocation doesn't go away, if anything, it gets worse.

He's back to defending Heffner, and he's abck to claiming there's something sexual about the Paschal liturgy on Holy Saturday.

Tom Leith said...

Kevin I guess you're talking to me. With some trepidation:

I can think of only one circumstance under which one might "gaze" at a woman not one's wife with pure intent: when the gaze moves one to form the intent to marry the girl in the full meaning of the word. She'll probably be a friend already, and the gaze will fall upon a person rather than a felicitous assemblage of girlie bits. Upon forming the intent, I'd advise averting one's eyes lest some thought other than admiration spring to mind. If marrying her is impossible or very improbable, I'd advise averting one's eyes immediately upon seeing for reasons I leave it to the reader to deduce. Note this admonition also disposes entirely of random, unknown scantily-clad young ladies on the beach or at Osceola & Broadway, and (practically) every photograph or painting of a naked woman that exists.

If this isn't a straight enough answer for you, sufficiently free of theological jargon, bull, equivocation and nonsense I'm afraid I can't satisfy you.

My understanding is West already gave this answer. You evidently think this is simply impossible, so I think you're going to call it nonsense and bull. Maybe for you it is impossible, but you are one data-point and I think you are giving the fallen state of the world more power than it really has. I fully agree though that the full meaning of "marriage" is lost on most North Americans. I know it was on me.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Tom, "felicitous assemblage of girlie bits" has to be a phrase for the ages!

You're on the same page with Kevin and me, Tom. What West does is he takes the problem of sex out of its proper context, which is marriage - a context that you admit must be present in any gander at nakedness, with the exception of medical utility or artistic depiction. This is just common sense.

It is a challenge enough for a married man to cooperate with grace for the redemption of his lust even when dealing with the marital act and his wife. To seek to overcome concupiscene in the marriage so that lust gives way to charity is a necessary challenge, and one that West should confine himself to.

West's "equivocations" as Kevin calls them, however, imply that overcoming lust in occasions that might give rise to lust is a project not confined to marriage. And that observation is true in so far as a man must learn to deal with women in general without thinking of them as mere "felicitous assemblages of girlie bits". But West goes further.

West deals with this question - is it necessary or advisable to encounter sexually provocative situaions (near occasions of sin) outside of marriage in order for one's lust to be "redeemed"? With very few exceptions, such as medicine and possibly art, the Catholic and the common sense answer is always no.

West, however, says that not only should one encounter such sexually provocative situations outside of marriage, he says that to do so is a sign of spiritual maturity and to avoid doing so is refusing to redeem lust, is keeping lust alive. And so, parodoxically, custody of the eyes becomes for West a refusal to redeem lust.

This is bunk.

But try pointing it out to people, even otherwise devout Catholics, and you'll find that both West's EWTN Rock Star status as well as the seduction of his errors will lead these devout Catholics (in my case) threatening to destroy you and your ministry because you have the temerity to question Christopher West and because you take a stand with St. Alphonsus Ligouri and Catholic tradition against such oversexualization of everyday life.

Tom Leith said...

If West is advising people to seek out near occasions of sin, or if he's telling people that near occasions of sin are not near occasions of sin, he should be stripped of his EWTN Rock Star status as Fr. Corapi was and denounced as a heretic; then every bit of media he ever produced should be consigned to the Memory Hole.

If he's saying that unavoidable near occasions of sin present an opportunity to practice virtue, he's right. If he's saying this does not at least begin with keeping custody of the eyes, he wrong. Very wrong. Stupidly wrong. Deserving of a rebuke from Mrs. von Hildebrand and implicitly at least from Archbishop Chaput. Oh, wait...

And this is reason enough for me not to want to bother with Christopher West.

Kevin O'Brien said...

[sound of me trying to push the "like" button on Tom's comment]