St. Austin Review - The Dark Night of the Body

Review of "The Dark Night of the Body"

I am posting the following book review by J. Frank Pate from the most recent article of the StAR.

As an Evangelical convert to Catholicism (revert, in fact), I find that mining the gems (and coal) of current Catholic theology, biography, and fiction inevitably leads me to comparisons—favorable and unfavorable—with their Evangelical cultural counterparts. The Dark Night of the Body by esteemed philosopher Alice von Hildebrand first drew my thoughts to Tim and Beverly LaHaye’s The Act of Marriage. That husband (who, with Jerry Jenkins, later penned the Left Behind series) and wife presented a “Christian” Kama Sutra, dealing graphically with matters belonging to one’s priest or physician. I also recalled a book written, I believe, by a Pentecostal minister (title and author now mercifully forgotten) who adjured his Christian brothers to lust after their wives. Christian culture suffers rampant confusion—confusion between lust and desire, and between physical pleasure and the joy (but self-donation and self-sacrifice) of marriage.

I find in The Dark Night a great tonic for this distorted thinking. Alice von Hildebrand speaks not just of modesty in dress or demeanor, but also more radically of modesty in proclamation and theology. Carlo Cardinal Caffarra, Archbishop of Bologna, notes in his preface to The Dark Night that “the essential link between sexuality and intimacy is modesty”. He explains the cause of the present confusion (Dr. von Hildebrand would say “perversion”) as a threefold divorce—the person from her sexuality, Eros from love, and procreation from the marital embrace. Scientists can examine the consequences of that latter divorce, but the former two belong to the philosopher and the theologian.

In her introduction, Dr. von Hildebrand states her aim in the book as analyzing Christopher West’s “hyper-sexualized approach” to St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, with particular reference to the differences between West’s teaching and that of her late husband, Dietrich. The nonagenarian professor accomplishes this without rancor, and with perfect clarity. To teach correctly, one must first learn to think correctly; to think correctly, one must first learn to think. West’s presentation suffers from philosophical errors, which Alice von Hildebrand addresses charitably, while affirming his service to the Church. I suggest a further subtitle for the book: A Philosophy of the Body.

Dr. von Hildebrand calls the faithful back to an understanding of asceticism. Noting that Plato saw teaching youths to achieve victory over pleasure as one of the main aims of education, she concludes, “[T]he great task of a truly Christian education is to baptize pleasure, to receive it gratefully as a gift, and not to claim it as a right.” Against a Puritanical view of sex as “dirty”, she presents the intimate realm as something deserving the greatest reverence, a view Christopher West “does not seem to grasp”. Whereas West’s materials remain available for group youth education, Dietrich von Hildebrand rejected sex-education programs, echoing their condemnation by Pope Pius XI in 1929 (Divini illius Magistri).

As a young Evangelical Christian, I frequently heard talk about “remaining pure until marriage”, as though God blessed impurity inside of marriage—ignoring that He tells us to “keep the marriage bed pure” (Hebrews 13:4). This sub-Catholic idea rears its head in Gregory Popcak’s “one rule” about marital intimacy (championed by West), namely that couples may practice any behavior in the marriage bed as long as the consummated act remains open to life. Alice von Hildebrand leaves no doubt as to the anathema her husband Dietrich would place on this view:

Degrading and perverse sexual behavior—even if it is done by a married couple who do not practice contraception—should be condemned as an assault on human dignity. The ‘pornification’ of marriage should be resisted as vigorously as the ‘pornification’ of our culture.

It cannot escape the reader’s attention that these words come not just from Dietrich von Hildebrand’s greatest protégé, but also from his very helpmate.

Dr. von Hildebrand challenges Christopher West’s language of “revolution” concerning the Theology of the Body: “[T]here is no revolution in the Church; the one great tsunami was the Incarnation.” She understands well (as did her husband) Blessed John Henry Newman’s idea of development of doctrine, and even applies this idea to St. Augustine. While frequently praising St. Augustine’s philosophy of love, she notes his error (corrected by the centuries and the magisterial teaching of the Church) that the serpent approached Eve first as the “weaker” sex. Dr. von Hildebrand beautifully draws the connection between Eve (the mother of all the living), Mary (the Mother of Life Himself), and the maternity of all women. The adversary does not despise Woman, but rather fears her.

Certainly, Dietrich von Hildebrand and Christopher West would agree concerning the absolute moral evil of pornography. Yet even on this subject Alice von Hildebrand judges West’s teaching wanting, occasioned by various remarks about Hugh Hefner. While she urges compassion for Hefner in the form of prayers for his eternal salvation, Dr. von Hildebrand points out West’s confusion in seeking “the good behind” Hefner’s life work. She takes St. Augustine’s “interficere errorem, diligere errantem” as her motto: “The intensity and purity of our love for the [sinner] can be measured by our abomination of his sin”.

As a “bouquet of articles” previously published elsewhere (Catholic News Agency, and the periodicals Inside the Vatican and The Wanderer), The Dark Night contains understandable redundancies, though several curiously occur within the same chapter. I wanted more development of Dr. von Hildebrand’s idea of the “unholy trinity” of pornography, moral relativism, and abortion. Only after considerable reflection did I understand these as the perversions of the divine attributes of beauty, truth, and goodness. She does not address this explicitly, whether by design or by editorial keystroke.   However, these technical concerns do not greatly diminish the impact of this work.

In no small irony to me, while I read The Dark Night a young Catholic man asked me which book he should read “about the Theology of the Body”. I responded, “The Theology of the Body”. I explained (he did not know) that we take the phrase “Theology of the Body” from a series of 129 talks given by St. John Paul II at his Wednesday audiences—not from any invention by Christopher West. Yet apart from going to the source (as well as John Paul’s prepapal Love and Responsibility), I would now quickly add, “anything by Dietrich or Alice von Hildebrand”, most especially this volume. Saint John Paul the Great, pray for us. Thank you for the Theology of the Body—a gift not of “revolution”, but of renewal.

J. Frank Pate, OFS lives in Tallahassee, FL, where he belongs to Our Lady of Guadalupe Secular Franciscan Fraternity and Blessed Sacrament Parish. He works in administrative medicine

View the original text here.

Published November 25, 2015