Archive for the ‘Theology of the Body’ Category

Reflections on the Theology of the Body

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

(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.”

The Battle Plan

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

There is a silent war going on, in the hearts of millions of men and women.  The visible battlefield can be found in lots of places — on our computer screens, on TV, in magazines, in music, and on the streets.

But the real battle is taking place right inside of us, in our hearts and souls.

The battle I’m talking about is the struggle for freedom from the slavery of pornography.

Most people have a sense that the problem of pornography has gotten worse in recent years.  The proliferation of porn sites on the Internet and the “normalization” of porn as a form of entertainment are undeniable, and unavoidable.  But I expect that most people have no idea of how bad it really is:

  • The porn industry is estimated to earn almost $100 billion worldwide — that’s billion, with a b — each year.  And that’s a conservative estimate — the actual number is probably much higher.  The child porn industry itself generates about $3 billion in revenue.
  • In the United States alone, porn generates over $13 billion in revenue — more than the major broadcast networks combined.
  • There are over 244 million porn web pages hosted in the United States, and over 400 million worldwide.
  • 80% of teens report having been exposed to porn online.
  • 20% of men report viewing porn from work.
  • 40 million American adults say that they regularly visit porn sites — including an increasing number of women.
  • 10% of adults admit to having an internet porn addiction.
  • These numbers are horrifying, but they really don’t capture the human reality of this problem.  Think of the marriages that are damaged by the secret lives of men and women who are using porn (single, married, and clergy), the dehumanizing and desensitizing effect that it has on normal human relationships, the theft of innocence of the young, and the exploitation of the people depicted in porn.  The human cost is catastrophic.

    There are millions of people, primarily men like myself, who have struggled with this problem for years, and who have seen the negative effects on their lives, and who are discouraged about whether they can ever get free of it.  It weighs on our hearts and souls.

    But there is hope of liberation from this slavery.

    Last week, and again this week, the Safe Environment Office hosted a day for all the clergy in the Archdiocese, to present this problem to our priests and deacons.  The staff of the Family Life/Respect Life Office prepared outstanding materials, and a very experienced counselor, Peter Kleponis, Ph.D., gave an excellent talk about how to recover from a compulsion or addiction to porn.

    If you’re interested in the resources that were made available to the clergy that day, check out the website of the Family Life Office’s anti-porn initiative, True Freedom.  At the heart of that effort is the Battle Plan to win the struggle against porn:

  • Throw out  or delete  ALL pornographic materials.   Install computer software program that blocks all pornographic websites.
  • No late night computer use.  Don’t surf the Internet when you’re lonely, tired, bored, or upset.
  • Don’t let boredom take over.  Integrate wholesome, positive fun into your life.
  • Be accountable!  Find someone you can trust and speak with him openly and honestly about the problem you have.
  • Seek professional help.  Pray daily.
  • Receive the Sacraments as frequently as you can or need, especially the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.
  • Make the sign of the cross when impure thoughts come to mind.  Repeat a short prayer like “Jesus, I trust in You.”  “Jesus, I love You.”  “Jesus, help me.”
  • Remember that every woman is some man’s daughter.
  • Do not lose heart.  You are not alone.
  • Listen to the voice of experience.  The key thing to remember here is that I cannot do this by myself, or by my efforts alone.  I need to be a warrior, but I can only get back in the battle and win if God is with me.

    Maybe the best way to get this message is to see it.  Check out this image, which is on one of the cards we gave to the clergy, and listen to St. Paul, who struggled with his own thorn in the flesh:

    What We’ve Learned

    Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

    In addition to the work I do with the Respect Life Office, I am also the Director of the Safe Environment Program here at the Archdiocese.  That means that I’m responsible for overseeing the implementation of some of the key provisions of the Bishops Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, particularly the sections that are aimed at preventing child sexual abuse in our institutions, and in responding appropriately to any incidents that do occur.

    It’s a terrible task, because you have to talk to people about the unspeakable, and you have to prepare for the worst.  And, you have to face the fact that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, or how diligently we work, no system of child protection is 100% effective.

    But it has taught me some things that I think are relevant to the current media frenzy about child sexual abuse in the Church.  Much ink has been spilled, and many electronic pixels have been created, in the last few weeks about this dreadful issue.  Much heat, but really very, very little light.

    Let me offer a few ideas about what we have learned in the actual work of dealing with, and preventing, child sexual abuse:

    • The media is incompetent and biased against the Church.  Well, we knew that already, but this latest flare-up reminded us of how poorly journalists understand (or care to) the way the Church is structured and how it works in reality.  It’s funny that political reporters love to write “inside baseball” stories about how campaigns and legislatures work, but never seem interested in learning how the Church actually operates.  Of course, the media is not the ultimate problem, and we have to get over that.
    • The vast majority of our priests and bishops are good, holy men.  Well, we knew that already, too, but it can’t be emphasized enough.  The “bad apples” amounted to a tiny percentage of our clergy.  It is grossly unjust and iniquitous that all priests and bishops have been lumped into the same category as the offenders.  We need to be very careful about how we speak about our clergy, especially to make sure that they know how much we love and respect them.  We also need to be sure to understand that our priests are an essential part of the solution to this issue — their leadership and example is indispensable.
    • The problem is not limited to the Church.  Yes, the vast majority of sexual abuse takes place not in Church institutions, but in other places — particularly in schools and in homes.  But, in the end, that doesn’t matter.  We can’t get hung up on pointing fingers at others.  We have to look in the mirror at ourselves, and make sure that we’re doing whatever we can to make our institutions safe.
    • The problem is not celibacy.  Just to clarify our terms, in the Roman Catholic Church, priests undertake two obligations — celibacy and continence.  Celibacy means that they will remain unmarried, continence means that they will not engage in any kind of sexual activity.  To suggest that marriage is a cure-all for sexual abuse, or that being single and continent is a cause of sexual abuse, is absurd.
    • The victims are not the enemy.  One of the worst things that the Church — and law enforcement officials — did in the past was to treat the victims of sexual abuse in an adversarial way.  Too often, they were ignored, disbelieved, and treated as potential litigants to be kept at arms’ length.  You will recall the disgusting comment by former-Archbishop Weakland that “Not all adolescent victims are so innocent.  Some can be sexually very active and aggressive and often quite streetwise.”  If we’ve learned anything, it’s that victims are to be healed, not blamed.
    • The problem is not  “homosexuality” or “gay” priests.  These terms are thrown around very loosely, and we have to be careful about what we’re saying.  As used in ordinary speech, the term “homosexuality” refers to a settled affectional and sexual preference for members of the same sex, which one accepts as an organizing principle of one’s life.  The word “gay”, which is primarily a political term that means not just accepting “homosexuality” but celebrating it as the equal of heterosexuality, is not helpful to the discussion.  It is unfair and unjust to allege or imply that child sexual abuse can be blamed exclusively or primarily on homosexual persons.
    • Nevertheless, we would be deluding ourselves if we didn’t admit that same-sex attraction has been a factor here.  All we have to do is look at the profile of victims of priestly sexual abuse (about 80% have been adolescent males), and we see that reality.  This is not true of sexual abuse in society as a whole, but we can’t address the problem in our Church unless we acknowledge it.
    • The sexual abuse of children is primarily the result of disordered psycho-sexual development.  If there’s one thing that everyone should agree upon, it’s that a normal adult should not be sexually attracted to children or adolescents, and that such feelings are a symptom of a problem in the person’s psycho-sexual development.  Good sexual development has to be an essential part of the formation of priests.  But we lay people have to recognize that we bear a considerable burden here too.  We cannot expect our priests to have good sexual development if we aren’t doing our share to create a culture of virtue in our Church.
    • The problem can’t be dealt with by therapy alone.  In many, many cases, our bishops, acting in good faith, trusted the word of therapists who assured them that offending priests could be returned to ministry because they were in treatment, or had completed a course of therapy.  This proved to be a disastrous mistake.  Therapy can certainly help those with problems in their psycho-sexual development.  But some people just cannot be allowed to be around young people, and strong steps have to be taken to ensure that they are not.
    • A key answer to the problem involves life-long training in sexual virtue — in chastity.  All persons — married, single, clergy — are called to live a life of  chastity (see the Catechism, no. 2348).  This means that we must integrate our feelings into a healthy adult sexuality, and live according to our state in life.   We all experience difficulties in this, as the result of original sin, the temptations of the Evil One, and the sex-saturated culture that we swim in.  We are sinners, and we sin.  But chastity is possible, even if it is difficult, with the help of God.  Everybody, including those with seriously disordered sexual feelings, and those who experience same-sex attraction, can still live chaste lives.  Good spiritual development, and the formation of healthy chaste relationships, are essential in this task.  This is where the Theology of the Body can be a powerful tool — it is a wonderful way to foster sexual virtue, no matter what one’s state in life.

    Much of what we’ve learned from the problem of child sexual abuse in the Church comes down to two words — virtue and vigilance.  We have to be vigilant in screening all those who deal with children, training them as to the proper ways to behave with minors and in how to recognize potential dangers, supervising them, and responding properly to any incident.

    But we must also foster a culture of virtue — especially chastity and prudence.  That’s the most important lesson we’ve learned.

    The March for Life and Real Feminism

    Monday, January 25th, 2010

    On the morning of January 22, the day of the March for Life, the odd publication that has taken over the name “Newsweek” published a piece online, asking “Who’s Missing” from the March, and coming to a most implausible conclusion — that it’s young women.

    Anyone who has ever been at the March, or who has seen photographs of it, can only shake their head at the level of self-delusion behind such a thought.  One of the most remarkable things about the March is the number of young people there, and the joy that they have in proclaiming their faith in the Gospel of Life.

    The folks at Newsweek, though, don’t see that, because it doesn’t fit into their narrative and they’re trapped by ideology.  According to the tenets of what passes for modern “feminism”, pro-lifers are mostly angry old white men, and a few angry old white women who have been oppressed by the evil heteropatriarchy.  That’s because modern “feminism” is rooted in a denial of authentic femininity, in particular a rejection of — and even fear and resentment of — fertility and motherhood.  They have traded authentic feminism for an illusory “freedom” that amounts to little more than the slavery of sexual license, and which requires adherence to the tragic “right” to destroy their own children.

    When you look at the world that way, you don’t have to bother to go out to the Washington Mall to see the tens of thousands of young women who were having a great time at the March.  Or to the Verizon Center to see the thousands of young women who were rejoicing at the Youth Rally.  You don’t even have to get up early to see the 50 young ladies from St. Barnabas High School, and the dozen more from Mt. St. Ursula Academy and St. Michael’s Academy, who took the bus to the March from my parish that morning.

    In many ways, the real message of the March is an affirmation of authentic feminism.  Real feminism recognizes that God made man and women equal, but complementary.  It understands the awesome meaning of the female body — a meaning that affirms fertility, that welcomes and nurtures new life, and that literally embodies an actively receptive love that is a model of our relationship with God Himself.  Real feminism is not afraid, or resentful, of fertility and parenthood, but understands that they part of the meaning of life — not just for women, but for men as well.

    If the reporter from Newsweek broke out of her ideological prison and came to the Mall, she could have seen this.  I saw it very clearly as I trudged up Constitution Avenue, all around me.  In particular, I saw it in three young women who were walking in my vicinity, near the Archdiocese banner.  To me, Annie, Lauren and Genevieve are perfect examples of what the March really means.  These smart, attractive young women, two of whom were there with their sleepy babies, have embraced their femininity, their fertility, and their faith with joy, and were joining the March to celebrate the miracle of life.

    Who’s missing from the March?  Not young people, and not young women either.  It’s modern feminists, who haven’t yet awakened to beauty of how God made them.

    The Priest, the Sister, the Playboy Playmate and Me

    Sunday, October 18th, 2009

    This is going to sound like the beginning of a strange joke, but here goes anyway.

    A priest, a sister, a married man and a Playboy Playmate got on the elevator the other day… and I wound up learning a lesson about the theology of the body.

    Allow me to explain.

    Last week, Sr. Lucy of the Sisters of Life and I were invited to appear on a radio show that is broadcast on the Catholic Channel of Sirius Satellite Radio. The show is called Word of Life, and it’s hosted by Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P., a very accomplished Dominican priest. We were being invited on his show so that Sister Lucy could talk about some of the activities of Respect Life Month, and I was going to give people an overview of public policy advocacy and the health care reform issue.

    When we arrived at the building where the radio station is located, Sr. Lucy and I were greeted by Fr. Aquinas, and while we were standing at the security checkpoint, we encountered a very glamorous, shapely young woman who looked like a model.

    One couldn’t help but notice that her health was in very grave risk, because her blouse was suffering from a serious shortage of fabric. That’s putting it mildly. But she was dressed for the occasion, since she was a Playboy Playmate, on her way to appear on a radio show run by a “men’s magazine”. Being a normal male human being, I found this all very, very distracting. Every other man in the vicinity certainly did, too, because she was the center of attention, to say the least.

    What happened next taught me the lesson.

    We went to the elevator to go upstairs to the studio, and all got on the same car. Sr. Lucy and Fr. Aquinas were standing on either side of the young lady. So here we were: a priest, a sister, a Playboy Playmate, and a married man who was struggling to maintain custody of his eyes and thoughts, and who was thinking about what an odd collection of people he was with. The elevator stopped, and a man got on. He was taken aback by this scene, and immediately remarked, “You’re not going to the same place”. One of those classic “only in New York” kind of remarks.

    But in a way, this all made sense thanks to the theology of the body. Our bodies have a deep meaning, which Pope John Paul called its “nuptial meaning”. The natural physical complementarity of man and woman reveals to us that we are meant to enter into the loving, faithful union of marriage. Our natural sexual desire for the opposite sex is a call to that union of persons, and is not all about using others for personal pleasure. It is a call to be a gift of self.

    And each person in the elevator illustrated something important about this. A priest, a man who has been sacramentally conformed to Christ, and gives us the Body of Christ in Communion, so that we could see in vivid reality that true love is a total gift of self. A sister, a woman who gives herself fully to Christ and His Church as a powerful living sign of the mutual gift in the heavenly marriage of the Lamb and His bride. A married man, who is committed to his life-long faithful and fruitful covenant with his wife, and who is struggling to see this beautiful woman not just as a body to be coveted for my pleasure, but to regard her instead as a person. And the Playboy Playmate, whose body is being displayed by our debased culture as an object to be lusted after, a commodity to be used so that money can be made from the weakness of men.

    This didn’t come to me all at once, but only later, as I reflected on my own feelings and reactions to that elevator ride. But now, I wish I could go back to that time. I wish I had the courage to tell her that her body is beautiful not because it gives men pleasure but because it’s a sign that she is a person made in the image of God. I wish I could introduce her to my wife, or some of the other women I know who are trying to put all of this into practice in real life.

    I wish I could get her, and all the men she encountered that day, to see the deeper meaning of the priest, the sister and the married man on that elevator.

    In Defense of Christopher West

    Friday, May 29th, 2009

    There’s a kerfuffle going on in certain precincts of the Catholic blogosphere over Christopher West, the very popular promoter of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

    Christopher’s specialty, in many ways, is his use of popular culture references to illustrate the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. He does this to illustrate the inadequacies of the culture’s views, and to engage the attention of his audience so that they might be open to the positive view offered by the Theology of the Body. Some of his references and language are out there, and it’s not for everyone. But that’s his style, and it seems to work pretty well.

    All well and good. Recently, though, he gave a long interview to some television producers, which they naturally cut and pasted to fit their own agenda, and then sensationalized it in order to get good ratings. Big surprise.

    A controversy arose because Christopher made some comments about Hugh Hefner having been motivated to help liberate people from an excessively prudish outlook on sex. In the full context, these comments made perfect sense, but in the interview that aired, they didn’t look good.

    This led to a minor flap. Christopher managed to explain the situation, and most people of good will gave him the benefit of the doubt, thanks to his obvious sincerity and his record of promoting Church teaching.

    Unfortunately, that didn’t end things. The theologians have gotten involved, and poor Christopher is now in the dock over whether his presentation of the Theology of the Body is faithful to Pope John Paul II’s original vision, and even to Church teaching in general.

    I’m not going to go into all that, because it resembles what one of my friends calls “a circular firing squad” — all the good guys are shooting at each other. Talk about no prophet being without honor, except in his home country.

    You have to remember what Christopher is doing, and what his audience is. He is like a paramedic, responding to the scene of an accident, trying to stanch the wounds and get people on the road to healing. His audience is the mass of modern men and women who have been sold a bill of goods — a collection of lies, really — about sexuality, and whose lives have been scarred by contraception, pornography, promiscuity, serial cohabitation, using others and being used by them for momentary sexual pleasure. He’s dealing with an entire generation with broken hearts and crushed hopes.

    Yes, his approach would not have been used by Pope John Paul. Yes, his language and imagery are pretty edgy at times. Yes, he could probably use to refine his presentations so that there are no theological ambiguities. And yes, if you’re squeamish about sex talk, Christopher is going to be hard for you to take.

    But you can’t expect a paramedic to use the same subtle methods as a massage therapist.

    The reality is that Christopher’s presentations have changed many lives. There are lots of people whose understanding of their sexuality and of their vocation to marriage or single life have been transformed by his work, and have been given hope for their ability to live God’s plan.

    I’m one of them.

    I like to think of Christopher as a modern-day version of St. Paul in the Areopagus, as recounted in Acts 17. He’s going in to talk to those who have been propagandized by our sexually damaged and distorted culture, but who are curious about a God who is unknown to them, yet Whose voice still echoes in their hearts. People want to hear more about this God, and some will come to a conversion of their hearts and lives once they know Him.

    Of all times, Pentecost season is not time to be getting in the way of the Holy Spirit as He tries to bring the truth to the world. Christopher is doing some hard work for the Holy Spirit, and he’s reaping a harvest for the Lord.

    Keep it up.

    Happy Groundhog Day

    Monday, February 2nd, 2009

    Well, today is Groundhog Day. I personally couldn’t care less what the groundhog himself does — whether he sees his shadow or not. What I do care about is that people go to see the movie “Groundhog Day”, and learn an important lesson about love from it.

    That’s right, I’m recommending that people see a Bill Murray movie to learn a lesson. Actually, that movie has a very deep message — whether the screenwriter/director intended it or not. In fact, the movie is great illustration of the true nature of love, and a perfect example of what Pope Benedict was writing about in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Here’s what I mean.

    In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict’s point of departure is a distinction between two different meanings of the word “love”. Of course, in the English language we only have the one word, “love”, and we use it for all sorts of different things — I love my wife, I love my children, I love the Yankees, I love chocolate, etc. But in Greek, there are a number of different words for love, each of which has a specialized meaning. The Holy Father asks us to look at two of these kinds of love — eros and agape.

    Eros is essentially a passion for another, a desire to have them, to own them. In it’s sexual form, eros by itself becomes fixated on the body alone, not on the person, and treats the other as an object for use. Eros is basically all about me. Agape, in contrast, is love that focuses on the other, and seeks ways in which I may be a gift to them. Agape doesn’t treat you as an object, or a mere body, but looks beyond the physical to the fully personal. Agape isn’t all about me, and what I can get — it’s about you, and how I can give myself to you.

    Both of these forms of love are good — God created us with the capacity and need for both — but they must be kept in balance. As Pope Benedict says, “The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized”.

    Here’s where the movie “Groundhog Day” comes in, and why it’s such a good example of the true nature of love. At the beginning of the movie, Phil Connors is a selfish, vain, fool who only cares about himself. All other people are there for him to use for his pleasure and his status. Phil is eros out of control.

    Well, Phil goes to Punxsatawney, PA to do a report on the festivities, and he gets stuck on Groundhog Day. He repeats the day over and over, but only he can remember that it’s a repeat — everyone else is living the day for the first time. At first, Phil thinks this is great, and indulges his eros — eating, drinking, seducing, etc. But after a while, Phil realizes that he’s desperately unhappy, and that his unbalanced eros has left him in a hell of his own selfishness.

    There’s a turning point in the movie and a happy ending, which I won’t spoil. But suffice it to say that the road out of hell for Phil is when he starts to realize that he’s missing agape in his life, and he starts to balance it — marry it — to his eros.

    And that’s the point. All too often, we go through our lives stuck in our own selfishness, with our eros out of balance. We keep trying to find new ways to be happy, but typically it’s just different brands of eros — using people in all sorts of ways (for sex, or power), anesthetizing ourselves with chemicals or entertainment, chasing material wealth or success, all that.

    But the true path to happiness, as Phil and Pope Benedict teach us, is to become a gift of self to others — to make it all about them, and not all about me.

    The Second Vatican Council said it best: “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

    In other words, don’t get stuck on Groundhog Day.