The Theology of the Body Reconsidered

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.

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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.

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Michael Barberi
3 years 5 months ago
I agree with Fr. Salai that it takes much patience and energy to read JP II's Theology of the Body (TOB) cover to cover. It is a theory based on JP II's philosophical anthropology, personalism and symbolism. Nevertheless there are some good thoughts for reflection, especially that conjugal love should be an expression of self-giving love between spouses. As such, pre-martial sex and conjugal love in a few marriages have more to do with a utilitarian attitude, meaning that the partners treat each other as objects of pleasure and do not love each other as subjects, as two-in-one flesh in a loving marriage. However, for the majority of married Catholics this is not the case. The issue here is whether it is a metaphoric leap that unless there is a "total" self-giving and openness to procreation under "all" circumstances, and in "every" act of coitus, spouses are expressing a false, evil and destructive love. Karol Wojtyla/JP II had a creative moral imagination, but “imagination enables theology to resist the constant temptation towards absolutisation…. In recognizing the priority of image over intellect, theology has an important role to play in ensuring that the image does not become the only word, or the last word, as happens in some forms of contemporary culture.” This means we must resist the temptation of proclaiming we know God’s procreative plan with moral certainty based on symbolic speculation. We also must balance assertions with existential reality when we find no evidence whatsoever that Natural Family Planning couples treat each other as loving subjects, while couples that use artificial birth control have a utilitarian attitude and a diabolical love grounded in concupiscence.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 5 months ago
I'm very glad that you worked your way through this work, Sean. I love the notion of a Theology of the Body, and really wish that we could talk about it more in the Church. My body is my home (temple) in this world and the only way I have to touch God or another person (the presence of God in the other) I do not understand why it is assumed that bodily love outside of a procreative act is assumed to be "using" the other for selfish pleasure. I think that if we are ever going to get over all of this body-shame (did it start with Eve?) we are going to need some deep, lived theology. I have only met a few people in my life who appear to have gotten to this place of (spiritual) comfort in their bodies, and healthy sexuality was very much a part of it.
3 years 5 months ago
Now can I take a breath? I hope so. Having read St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body (the same pink and white paperback), followed Christopher West's attempts at expounding on it, appreciating George Weigel's claim that it will revolutionize Catholic theology I'm trying to come up for air. Now I'm being introduced, thanks to America, to James Alison and his gay perspectives, Rene Girard and Girardian insights. In all of this there is an underlying theme of "adequate anthropology" (JPII) and a crying need to do just that. Let's come up with an adequate, convincing, inspiring and motivating sense of what it means to be a human being. Couple that with redemption, salvation and the overwhelming love of God and we've got a plan.
Robert Lewis
3 years 3 months ago
Although the anthropology of the Enlightenment, which is the basis of modern "liberalism" is, indeed "inadequate," as John Paul II many times insisted, so is his, because his, as it is most extensively adumbrated in the so-called "Theology of the Body," is overly romantic and almost completely uninformed by modern science--particularly modern scientific research regarding the effects of genetics on gender-formation. This research reduces the late pope's notions of "complementarity" to something approaching voodoo. Scientific and, particularly, psychiatric research indicates that there's more to "complementarity" than the plumbing of the human body. If the Catholic Church is going to create a theory of human sexualilty that is more Christ-centred, rather than being centred on some kind of idolatry of the bourgeois family (which would entail a re-configuration of the chaste celibacy of its Founder as the ideal, rather than the connubial state), then it's going to have to take into greater consideration the extraordinarily great number of people who, in the modern period, have woken up to the fact that their God-given affectional natures are not conformable to what the Church preaches as the "ideal" (in contradiction of Early Christianity) without doing violence to their natures.
Luis Gutierrez
3 years 4 months ago
The polarization on issues of human sexuality is as evident in the church as much as in society at large. It is timely to reconsider the "Theology of the Body" from many different angles, as it may provide a solid foundation to resolve the most crucial issues of human sexuality and human ecology, including the ordination of women to the priesthood: http://www.pelicanweb.org/solisustv10n07page1.html#tob http://www.pelicanweb.org/solisustv10n08page1.html#tob The exclusively male priesthood is a choice, not a dogma (CIC 1024, CCC 1598). Needless to say, this is a visceral issue that cannot be resolved by reasoning alone. Let us pray that all the Christian churches will be able to discern the difference between patriarchal ideology and revealed truths, and act accordingly.
Roberto Blum
3 years 4 months ago
The emphasis on sex and love of JPII's "Theology of the Body", although a much needed correction to the mistaken dualism held by most Christians, including many Catholics, is probably not enough to change the Church's otherworldly dominant position to a more evangelical here and now practical vision. However, Pope Francis seems to me is laboring hard to make the gospels and the Church more relevant to the problems mankind encounters everyday. If the Church is to survive, it must consider the concrete man and not some philosophical entelechy constructed to serve an ideology.
Robert Lewis
3 years 3 months ago
"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." What, then, is the way of “mutual self-giving” for the “same-sex-attracted”? "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." If someone who is “same-sex-attracted,” HAD said “’yes’ to God, ” and had conformed himself to the Church’s teachings in the so-called “Theology of the Body,” WHY does the Church frown on public avowals of it, rather than openly celebrating it as an example of “heroic sanctity? "God primarily wants to invite us to love one another as persons rather than as mere objects of self-gratification." Does the Catholic Church ACTUALLY affirm that ALL “celebrations” of homosexual sex are acts of “self-gratification” and that there is NO mutual self-giving in them for anyone, ever? "Some people might refuse to hear what the church says about sex because they fear it will simply be one thunderous and suffocating no." Well, isn’t it, for the group I am referring to?
Marie Rehbein
3 years 3 months ago
Speaking of not saying anything coherent to young people: http://lobocatholic.org/bulletins/20140803.pdf New priest at University of New Mexico Newman Center decimates parish and institutes ritual discrimination theoretically based on Theology of the Body.
Robert Lewis
3 years 3 months ago
There is not an "O.P." after that "new priest's" name. I assume that means that the extremely reactionary Archbishop of Santa Fe, Michael J. Sheehan (who is known to have presided over a major abuse scandal in a Texas seminary, and is, therefore, wary of Catholic "traditionalists" in his diocese who exert pressure on him for doctrinal conformity), has, doubtless, booted the Dominicans from the Newman Centre on the University's campus on account of their "liberalism." When I taught in his Archdiocesan high school in Albuquerque, he rode roughshod over the school's theology department for, among other things, conducting "interfaith dialogue" with clergy of other religions. The Archbishop there is a typical John Paul II conformist-appointee; the Catholic episcopacy in America is now riddled with such unimaginative, uninspiring and, basically, paranoid hierarchs.
Marie Rehbein
3 years 3 months ago
Yes, just before turning in his resignation the Archbishop booted the Dominicans out of the parish where they had served for decades. Ostensibly, the lack of vocations originating in the parish was the reason, while the fact that many vocations to priesthood were influenced by the existence of Catholic high schools did not prevent the closure of those schools, as you must know. The fact that this was a thriving parish with many active members was irrelevant, and the comments of a few neocon students, who did not show up for Mass and claimed this was due to feeling uncomfortable instead of their own laziness, was given more weight than the engagement of those students who were active.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 3 months ago
It seem clear (to me, at least) that spirituality and sexuality (body and spirit?) are intimately connected at some very deep level of our consciousness. If you try to separate them, either through lust (all sex, no spirit) or some supposedly spiritual aesthetic (all spirit, no sex), you seriously fracture the human psyche. Research is now showing how messed up, sexually, the marriages are of those who pledge themselves to virginity or purity before marriage. It takes most of us a lifetime of fumbled mistakes and awkward but daring attempts at intimacy to even get close to this deep well of energy that is held in our bodies and relationships. And it's still too hot to touch, much less talk about. I'm sure that is why there are so many cultural "rules" surrounding sex. You can truly make of mess of things if/when you get off track. But all of us are attracted, in one form or another. They don't call it Passion for nothing.
Damon Owens
2 years 10 months ago
Thank you, Sean, for your open and well-written reflection on your journey to Theology of the Body. I would only offer my witness to the powerful personal transformations of those who infuse Theology of the Body in their walk with the Lord. Here at the Theology of the Body Institute (www.tobinstitute.org), we welcome 500-600 students each year to our "head and heart immersion" retreat courses in TOB. As you experienced, it is most difficult to "do" this theology on your own. It can be a bit easier in an academic program. But it is personally transformative when the academic study is infused with expert instruction, the Sacraments, spiritual direction, and fellowship with laity, clergy, and religious from around the world. The zeal of those who teach and promote Theology of the Body is rooted in that transformative encounter with the Lord that gives us eyes to see the body (and all of creation!) in its truth, goodness, and beauty. This enkindles an awe, wonder, and fascination of God and Man even as it smashes the idols of hedonism, individualism, and legalism.

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