We live in a technological age that poses new challenges to the preaching of Gospel values. An American teenager spends perhaps one hour a week in church, if at all, and many more hours playing video games, surfing the Internet, using social media, watching TV, and listening to music on a phone or iPod. Parents, working full-time, are rarely home. So when the day comes to make big decisions about relationships and sex, choices which may affect the rest of one's life, is it any wonder that a Christian teen will sooner look for guidance from pop culture than from parents or pastors?
Sex is one area where Catholicism often seems either unable or unwilling to say anything coherent to young people. While some Catholic teachers in religious education and theology classes promote laxity regarding the body, others promote shame. Many Catholic teachers nowadays, fearing controversy either way, say nothing at all.
A number of Catholics who seek a middle ground on sexual morality point to the Theology of the Body, a notoriously difficult book in which St. John Paul II grounds romantic love in the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ for human beings. But the recently-canonized pope's deeply learned insights on love are not easily translatable into terms which are meaningful for youths today. In his lifetime, John Paul II may have been the pope of the young, but what can he say from beyond the grave to the heirs of a post-digital world?
Five years ago, I set out to answer this question by reading the entire Theology of the Body, hoping to pull something from it that I might use one day in my pastoral work as a Jesuit. Rather than writing a theological tome on JPII's view of human relationships, I wanted to see if there was anything in the book that resonated with average people. It wasn't easy reading, but here is what I learned.
Rooted in Scripture, the central insight of St. John Paul II is that God intends for sex to express the mutual self-giving of a man and woman joined in marriage. Rather than use others for mutual gratification alone, he points out that the Bible exhorts us to experience the joys of physical union as a sign of the deeper spiritual union of marriage. In the Biblical view, human love is not a lifelong search for someone to gratify one's personal needs, but a genuine friendship that may find physical expression in a sacramental commitment respecting the dignity of both partners.
It's tough to unpack or impart these ideas publicly. Popular culture often portrays Catholic sexual morality as a set of inflexible rules to be obeyed without question, distorting Catholicism's real identity as a religion of love rooted in the love of Christ. In this age of new atheism popularized by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and of the amusing anti-religiosity of TV shows like South Park, the Catholic perspective on sex is frequently demonized because it is an easy target. For lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics alike, there may be some comfort in viewing the church as out of touch.
But the church itself, rather than speaking words of real comfort rooted in the love of Christ, makes things worse by habitually saying nothing about sex at all.
St. John Paul II was not afraid to talk about it. In his first assignment as a priest in Poland, he went on camping trips with the youth in his parish, engaging in frank conversations about sex with them. His young friends respected and loved their young Father Karol. Because of this pastoral experience, we would be hasty to dismiss the Theology of the Body as outdated. Indeed, it might contain some insights that help us rescue the spirit of the Gospels from the letter of the moral law.
In any event, we in the church must face the reality that sex is now one of the areas where Catholics are least likely to look to the church for advice.
When I first sat down to read the Theology of the Body in a Chicago coffee shop five years ago, I knew it would be a difficult experience. It ended up taking me several weeks to get through the whole book, reflecting on the English-from-Italian prose at a leisurely pace over the course of weekends and free afternoons. I must admit I did not at first enjoy reading the text, which consists of a series of Wednesday audiences that Pope John Paul II delivered between 1979 and 1984. His talks explain the biblical view of human love in a way that initially struck me as dense and wordy. Friends who had read the book before me often said they liked what John Paul II was getting at without fully understanding it. My initial reaction was the same: As I began reading, I admired the spirit of the pope’s words while sometimes wondering if he could not have stated them more succinctly. I found coffee essential to staying awake.
It was also an embarrassing book to read. At the coffee shop where many of my fellow graduate students congregated, I was chagrined to discover that my big pink-and-white paperback with male-female symbols and a smiling photo of the pope did not look like the books others were reading, and it certainly did not resemble the computers and electronic readers that many students were using. One day, the girl at the counter jokingly asked whether I was doing a little “light reading.” Sitting in the coffee shop for weeks on end, I often tucked it under my arm or laid it face-down to avoid unwelcome attention.
As the weeks wore on, though, I gradually came to appreciate the pope’s talks on love, particularly an underlying theme that St. John Paul II emphasizes repeatedly: God does not view human love primarily from the standpoint of accusation, but from the perspective of invitation. Love is an invitation to mutual self-giving.
Contrary to popular images of Catholic teaching on sexuality, this insight into the divine essence of sacrificial love frames sex in an essentially positive light. At its most fundamental level, Catholicism views love as a “yes” to God and others rather than as a “no” to sex. Love and sex are not mutually exclusive. Love in the biblical view implies a “no” to selfishness, but only as a consequence of first saying “yes” to God.
As the pope put it at the end of one audience, the human person “is always essentially called and not merely accused” (February 9, 1983) and this invitation takes place precisely because of the human temptation toward selfishness. It is not that God wants to punish us for lapses of purity, but that God primarily wants to invite us to love one another as persons rather than as mere objects of self-gratification.
I found these words comforting to read. This deeply Catholic view of sex rejects all fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, which tend to be rooted in Calvinistic contempt for the human body. Fundamentalist contempt for embodied humanness can unconsciously influence young people into fearing God and avoiding church because they feel they cannot measure up to angelic standards of purity. For St. John Paul II, sex is fundamentally good, a gift from God that like all things can be used well or badly.
But the late pope's theology of sex also rejects the secular moral laxity whereby people follow only their impulses and instincts when it comes to physical relationships. The Bible does not say “you shall not do it,” with God simply watching to punish human beings for violations of bodily purity, as popular stereotypes suggest. However, it likewise does not tell young people to "do whatever you want."
Some people might refuse to hear what the church says about sex because they fear it will simply be one thunderous and suffocating no. John Paul II insists that the Bible does not support this negative interpretation. His text illuminates how the Catholic tradition interprets Scripture's vision of human relationships, seeing God as essentially inviting human beings into relationships which are mutually rewarding and which orient us toward a communion of souls that is deeper than physical love. Sex and the human body are good, but must be used responsibly. Rather than saying no to pleasure and yes to self-contempt, the Catholic view of love says no to selfishness and yes to self-giving.
This difference between the Catholic view of sex and fundamentalist self-loathing is more than a superficial one. In the Catholic view, any relationship whereby “one of the two persons exists only as the subject of the satisfaction of the sexual need, and the other becomes exclusively the object of this satisfaction” (September 24, 1980) violates the divine plan for human love. In other words, God invites young people to reject any relationship that is co-dependent or rooted in the absolute power of one over the other, and to embrace by contrast any relationship that is rooted in the self-sacrifice of each person for the whole. St. John Paul II notes here that the Bible rejects pointedly the fundamentalist idea that the man is ultimately in charge of the woman, which is a perversion of the complementary aspects of a healthy relationship.
The late pope also addresses the sexuality of those who choose to remain unmarried, including priests. Priestly celibacy “for the kingdom of heaven,” as St. Paul viewed it, is superior to marriage only insofar as it represents a greater weakness, a more radical personal commitment rooted in the example of Christ’s own celibacy. It is not for everyone, but is good for those who can accept it. Celibacy represents a different kind of love that by its nature cannot be compared on the same level with marital love, because it is directed to all people rather than to a single spouse. St. John Paul II adds that celibacy affirms marriage by pointing to the next world, where Jesus says our resurrected bodies “will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Mk 12:25). In other words, marriage is not an end in itself, but the joyful sign of a deeper union to be accomplished through the whole human race in God’s own time.
Our world is polarized by issues of sex abuse, marriage, contraception and divorce. Like Jesus, Pope Francis speaks little about sexual morality and focuses more on pressing social concerns like global poverty. But St. John Paul II reminds us that we cannot ignore sex altogether. If we learn to stop devaluing our bodies, but to respect them out of our desire for one another's good, then Catholicism might have something to say about sex after all.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer 2014 intern serving as associate editor at America.