What Do Pope John Paul II and Hugh Hefner Have in Common?

An intense debate erupts over Catholic sexuality.

It is not every day that you find conservative Catholic theologians arguing about the moral propriety of anal sex. But in an exchange of articles being published on the Knights of Columbus’ Web site “Headline Bistro,” sodomy has become a hot topic. It’s part of a larger discussion about the work of Christopher West, a Catholic layman who has made a career out of propagating his interpretation of Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” a series of speeches from 1979 through 1984. In them, the late pope tried to reconcile contemporary insights into human sexuality with broader theological anthropology and to alter the image of the church as the source of finger-wagging condemnations of sex, presenting instead a view of sexual relations that was at once positive, orthodox, and modern.

West’s approach to human sexuality is, well, unique. In seminars, he has blessed women’s ovaries and recommends that couples pray over each other’s genitalia as a means of overcoming shame. He has objected to flat-chested portrayals of the Blessed Virgin Mary: In a 2002 letter to the editor in Crisis magazine, he encouraged Catholics to “rediscover Mary’s … abundant breasts.”* He encouraged seminarians to look at their naked bodies in the mirror every day to overcome their sense of shame (though if my memories of seminary are accurate, such an exercise might have the reverse effect). And in the first edition of his book, Good News About Sex and Marriage, he opined that there was nothing “inherently” wrong with anal sex so long as it was foreplay leading to traditional intercourse.

The recent focus on West stems from a May Nightline story about him and his work. Among other gems, West said, “I actually see very profound historical connections between Hugh Hefner and John Paul II.” West argues that Victorian prudishness and its antecedent Puritanism caused Christians to see sexuality as a source of shame. He believes that, in different ways, both Hefner and the pope challenged this attitude. Hefner’s career needs no elaboration, but Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” is still permeating its way into Catholic consciousness. Courses at Catholic universities examine this theology, but West has brought the teachings to a wider audience of lay Catholics.

West saw immediately that the Nightline interview might cause trouble and issued a statement clarifying his on-air statements, starting with his linkage of Hefner and Pope John Paul II, a connection he has frequently made in his seminars. He also dialed back a description of the Bible as the “ultimate sex guide,” though he continues to call “The Song of Songs” the Bible’s “centerfold.” West’s defenders argue that the Nightline segment “sensationalized” his views, as is the media’s wont. “The salacious spin Nightline put on West’s work (suggesting West is a fan of Hefner’s Playboy Magazine) did not come from West, but from ABC, which knows that ‘sex sells,’ ” commented Michael Waldstein of Catholic Ave Maria University. Professor Janet Smith of Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit wrote, “Those of us who work with the media know that potential martyrdom awaits us at the hands of an editor.” Blaming the media might work if it weren’t for the fact that West’s most vocal critic did not rely on the interview itself. Instead, David Schindler, provost of the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, based his critique on a long association with West, who was his student 10 years ago. Schindler is a leading expert in interpreting the writings of Pope John Paul II, especially his “Theology of the Body.” His differences with West are not the result of media “sensationalization.”

Schindler objected to West’s take on the relationship between the porn king and the pontiff. “For both Puritanism and Hefner, the body is merely a tool, thought to be manipulated differently: by the former exclusively for reproducing children and by Hefner for pleasure,” writes Schindler. “It is not only Puritanism but also Hefner that fails to understand properly the body and bodily desires in their natural meaning as good.”

Catholic theology regarding sexual matters has been a flash point in recent decades. In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which dealt with new issues posed by sociobiology. Most commentators in 1968, however, reduced Paul’s dense theological treatise to the headline “Pope Bans Pill.” Of course, the sexual revolution of the 1960s was challenging traditional ideas about sexuality across the denominational spectrum. “Thou shalt not” was always an uneasy fit in America’s highly individualistic culture. In the face of the direct challenge from the counterculture and the widespread availability of artificial contraception, the fixation on sexual purity that had characterized the dominant Irish spirituality of the American Catholic Church’s first 200 years were as matchsticks in a raging fire.

The maelstrom engulfed the faith of many Catholics who ignored the teaching on birth control or simply left the church altogether. The Vatican saw orthodoxy on sexual matters as especially important and refused to promote bishops who were wishy-washy on Humanae Vitae.The most famous showdown between the Vatican and an American theologian came in 1986, when the Rev. Charles Curran was removed from the faculty of the Catholic University of America because of his dissent on issues such as birth control and homosexuality.

Pope John Paul II, who had influenced Paul’s writings in Humanae Vitae, was committed profoundly to revivifying Catholic sexual ethics. As early as the 1950s, he was writing about human sexuality as a good thing, a gift from God, and as Pope he had the authority to give his views a wider hearing. Always alert to the danger of reducing religion to ethics, the pope saw the need to root all ethics in Christian anthropology, a complex theme that has kept theologians busy ever since.

West’s work will continue, no doubt. His Web site contains products for sale, a free audio presentation, podcasts, and directions on how to arrange a speaking engagement. He has sold more than 300,000 books and 500,000 DVDs (which makes him something of a rock star—the average theology book doesn’t sell anywhere near that). In the next month alone, his schedule lists appearances in Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Washington state. Participants at a weeklong immersion course will pay $1,045 to hear West and others at the Theology of the Body Institute teach them his ways.

The scandal of West may not, in the end, be his salaciousness regarding sex but his willingness to titillate in the interest of earning a profit. Not since the Renaissance papacy have sex, religion, and money combined in such an explosive and vulgar way. West produces videos telling us to pray over our beloved’s genitals. At least the Renaissance popes built great works of art and architecture.

Correction, June 10, 2009: This article originally referred to a letter to the editor in Crisis magazine as an article. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)