(In the last few years, Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body has become an important part of the Church’s efforts to educate people on marriage and sexuality. Our marriage preparation program has been presenting this teaching to engaged couples, and the message is also making its way into the schools, religious education programs, and adult faith formation initiatives.
The Theology of the Body is still a bit controversial in some circles, however, and we occasionally get negative feedback about it. I recently received an email from a friend with some criticism of the Theology of the Body, in particular focusing on the approach of Christopher West and some others. I thought it would be useful to share my (adapted) response, which follows.)
In discussing the Theology of the Body, one has to distinguish between (a) the doctrines of the Church, (b) Pope John Paul II’s teaching, and (c) the presentations given by teachers like Christopher West and others. It would also be helpful to see the Theology of the Body in the proper context.
One always has to remember that the Theology of the Body is a theological explanation of the teachings of the Church, and is not a new doctrine in and of itself. It is part of an effort by Popes John Paul and Benedict and others to propose a Christian anthropology of love that will provide a modern and accessible theological and philosophical explanation for the teachings of the Church. You have to view the Theology of the Body in that context.
While some popular presentations of the Theology of the Body may seem to focus exclusively on sex, the reality is that the Theology of the Body actually involves a much larger discussion of the nature of the human person and the nature of human love, all in the light of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. To get a sense of this broader project, I would suggest that people read Pope John Paul’s presentation of the Theology of the Body in Part Three of Mulieris Dignitatem, and Benedict’s discussion of the nature of love in Part One of Deus Caritas Est. An excellent book that puts it all in context is Men, Women and the Mystery of Love by Dr. Edward Sri.
A legitimate discussion can be had about the prudence of the way that various speakers present the Theology of the Body. But one thing to remember is that most of those who are out there doing it are trying to convey the teachings of the Church to largely un-catechized and skeptical audiences. The undeniable fact is that the main attack on the truth right now is on sexual matters, which is why so many have fought it out on that front line. Others may choose instead to fight it out in the area of philosophical anthropology, which is also necessary. I am loath to second-guess the tactical decisions of soldiers and commanders in the field.
As for fidelity to the doctrines of the Church, there can be no doubt that Pope John Paul’s teaching on this subject, and the theological framework he used, are faithful to the traditional doctrines of the Church. There have been some criticisms of West’s presentation on this score, mainly on fairly arcane points about human freedom and concupiscence (there have also been critiques on matters of style and prudence of presentation, but those are irrelevant to this discussion). West and others have replied to those critiques. These arguments have not been settled one way or the other, in any definitive way. I think it’s valuable to note, however, that several bishops have affirmed the orthodoxy of West’s approach. For those who are interested in this kind of intramural theological debate among loyal Catholics, check out the various articles here.
The Theology of the Body isn’t for everyone. West’s presentation of it isn’t for everyone. I’m sure that my presentation of it isn’t for everyone. For that matter, even St. Augustine’s or St. Thomas Aquinas’ approach to love and sex isn’t for everyone. As with all theological propositions, the goal is to help faith seek understanding. If it doesn’t work for some people, then they can try another approach, so long as it leads them to the truth — to God’s will, as presented in the authentic teaching of the Church.
The old saying is, “In essential things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”