Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What is Theology of the Body according to St. John Paul II? (Hint: It's Not What Christopher West Keeps Yammering About)

After 129 lectures spanning nearly a five year period, Pope John Paul II gave a summation of his "Theology of the Body" in his final lecture.

I'm going to emphasize here some of the main points JP2 makes in summing up these sometimes abstruse and difficult talks.

  • He notes at one point that the term "Theology of the Body" is a "working term", and he says that while these lectures focused on "the redemption of the body and the sacramentality of marriage," he was presenting only a portion of the full Theology of the Body.  What he was leaving out in focusing on the significance of the body from the point of view of sex and marriage was "the problem of suffering and death, so important in the biblical message".  

(Perhaps young eager theologians can get to work on that side of the Theology of the Body).

But while he was not touching upon the body's experience of suffering and death, he was placing "the redemption of the body and the sacramentality of marriage" in the context of the cross - of discipline and self-denial.  Indeed, though it may surprise fans of the hyper-sexual misreading of the Theology of the Body as peddled by Christopher West and the Westians, all of JP2's lectures are, in some sense, a commentary on Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae.

In a certain sense we can even say that all the reflections that deal with the redemption of the body and the sacramentality of marriage seem to constitute an ample commentary on the doctrine contained in the Encyclical Humanae Vitae.

The Wednesday Audiences, then, are ultimately about the virtue of chastity and mutual self-sacrifice within marriage.  Who would have thunk it?

It's not about staring at naked ladies who aren't your wife because you have "mature purity".  It's not about you yourself being naked without shame.  It's not about the Paschal Candle as a phallic symbol.  It's not about staring at Our Lady's breasts.  It's not about sexual desire somehow being a desire for God.  It's not about the great deed of West's hero pornographer Hugh Hefner.  It's about the following .(take a deep breath, but this is my attempt to distill over 300 pages of material) ...

  • From the moment of the creation of man, our bodies (male and female) point toward the communion of persons: which is a love that is both unitive and procreative, establishing the life of the family.  Christ emphasized this in his teachings on marriage, and the redemption of the Body made manifest by His incarnation, death and resurrection.  St. Paul expands upon the mystery as analogous to the Second Coming, and the Old Testament affirms in many ways this "theology" that the body itself, by its very design and by the longing of our hearts, conveys.  The body is both a reality and a sign that points toward a coming reality that is not yet fully present.  We are called to re-read and understand anew the language of this sign, a language built into the body at creation and made perfect in redemption.  And while in the life to come, communion of persons is achieved and expressed through a virginal purity, in this life communion of persons finds its perfect fulfillment on earth in the sacrament of Matrimony.  Within this sacrament, and by the grace of God conveyed through prayer and by means of the other sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession) the married coupled are called to dominate concupiscence (i.e. lust and the tendency to lust), which is the one major thing that stands in the way of the very end for which God has designed husband and wife, male and female.  In seeking to dominate and overcome concupiscence, the married couple struggle with periodic continence from the marital act, not merely for biological reasons ("responsible parenting"), but also for deeply spiritual reasons; for chasitity is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and is the sine qua non for honoring the dignity of your spouse and the mutual gift of a life of love.

That's it in a nutshell.  But that doesn't sell the way pop music and titillation in the sanctuary sells.


Anonymous said...

I have spent some time over the years reading John Paul II Wednesday audience talks which form the basis (but not only source)of what is later collectively referred to as "Theology of the Body". I certainly have not mastered these as they are very rich and dense. I have also attended 2 or 3 lectures by West and purchased and read one of his books and listened to much of a Lecture series he put out on audio tape.

Nowhere have I seen a disconnect between what John Paul II has written and West's interpretation. In fact I have heard him say explicitly what you quote above, ie That this must be understood in the context of Humanae Vitae and its rejection by so many. That is, it's an attempt at a new theological approach to explain why Humanae Vitae is true and contraception is a denial of the meaning of the body. Can you point to where you see a disconnect?

Also, with the possible exception of pointing out that "dominating concupiscience" is merely the beginning stage of developing the Virtue of Chastity and not the end, I think West would agree with your very good summary.

So much more could be said. Maybe we should meet to have a long conversation about thus topic. It's very interesting.
Joe Griesemer

Kevin O'Brien said...

Joe, West has publicly and repeatedly said that one who achieves "mature purity" can dispense with "custody of the eyes" - as if perfect sanctity were ever something completely attainable in this life. West and his followers are lately pushing a kind of sex magic, and some of his followers argue that one must sin in order to achieve the height of salvation. The Westians view heaven as a place of unlimited indulgence. The Westian view of desire is becoming increasingly Gnostic. His followers treat those outside the Westian camp with haughty contempt, with a bemused smirk that such people cannot understand the spiritual profundities of sexual desire.

Read Dawn Eden on West, read Alice von Hildebrand on West, read Prof. David Schindler on West. Much of what West says is good and comports with JPII, much of it doesn't and, indeed, points in a dangerous direction.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response. I am obviously new to this debate and all of the contested issues regarding West, so I will read more as you suggest before commenting on this further. However, as I investigate further I will keep in mind that no author/speaker is responsible for every crazy idea of his or her audience unless it can be clearly shown that the source is the author/speaker. Misunderstandings are frequent on this topic in my experience.