Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sleeping with the anomie
Common misunderstandings of the Theology of the Body

A guest post by STEVE KELLMEYER

During the past five years, Catholic catechists have fallen in love with Pope John Paul II's teachings on human sexuality, popularly known as the Theology of the Body. In many areas of parish education, including RCIA and marriage prep, teaching of the Theology of the Body has superseded or even replaced traditional catechesis.

Because the papal writings that comprise the Theology of the Body are lengthy, complex, and highly philosophical, and there is no "official" shorter version of them as there is for the Catechism, catechists are left to pick and choose from various distillations of the teachings. As a result, many people have begun to teach what they call "Theology of the Body" even though they do not fully understand what it is about. Basic theological principles are sometimes distorted or entirely lost, creating confusion among the faithful. It’s time to clear away the myths and study the facts.

Myth #1: The Theology of the Body is a new teaching.

Fact: The Theology of the Body is the oldest teaching in Christendom. Strictly speaking, the theology of the body tells us (1) God took flesh and (2) this event is extremely important. In fact, God-in-the-flesh fully reveals God to man and man to himself. Thus, a complete teaching on the theology of the body necessarily encapsulates every aspect of Catholic Faith. Once we understand this, we can see that Pope John Paul II did not give us a new teaching, rather, he simply synthesized and presented once more the ancient understanding of the Church concerning mankind, albeit using modern language and a modern perspective.

Myth #2: The full "Theology of the Body" consists of 129 Wednesday audiences.

Fact: As has already been pointed out, that isn’t possible. As even a cursory examination of those Wednesday audiences show, the theology presented therein is incomplete. For instance, if we restrict ourselves to studying just the 129 audiences, we will never examine the role of suffering in human existence, for the Pope said not a word about the subject in those audiences. Yet how can anything claiming to be a theology of the body leave out this literally crucial, that is, this literally Cross-filled experience of the body? In fact, the Wednesday audiences were never meant to be a complete catechesis. Instead, they were meant to introduce the world to the constant and ancient teaching of the Church.

All John Paul II did was change the starting point for catechesis. Traditionally, catechists teach the Catholic Faith by first teaching about the Trinity, then the creation of angels, of the world and man, of the Fall, the incarnation, the Church, the sacraments, etc. The Wednesday audiences simply moved the catechetical starting point from Trinity to the sacraments. Specifically, it begins by discussing the primal origins of the sacrament of marriage and it unfolds the content of Catholic Faith from that perspective. The shift in starting position helps clarify certain aspects of Catholic teaching that the modern world no longer understood. This is the "bombshell" aspect of the teaching – because Christ is Bridegroom, we can start with this common human experience, examine it in every detail, and come to understand who God is and who we are.

Myth #3: The Church is only now beginning to fully understand human sexuality.

Fact: The Church has always understood human sexuality. She stood against the Albigensians a thousand years ago when they insisted sex was evil. She stood against the Gnostics two thousand years ago when they said the same thing. She stood against the pagans who insisted that sex was primarily about physical pleasure or that temple prostitution was the way to connect with divinity. The Catholic Church has always understood the central truths concerning human sexuality. Unfortunately, throughout the centuries many of her members have not. This is especially true in the modern era, which is why John Paul II decided to start the discussion of God and man where he did.

Still, the mistaken idea that the Church never fully grasped human sexuality until John Paul II is hard to shake. There are even some benighted TOB speakers who will say something like, "If the Church is a person, then when it comes to sexuality, She is about at the level of an adolescent in terms of her understanding of the subject." Such a remark tells us quite a lot more about the arrogance of the speaker than it does about the historical reality. Any speaker who says this thereby implies that he knows much more about sex than the Church and is qualified to stand as the judge over the Church and two millennia of teaching. Such a statement also implies the Church really knows nothing about sex, since no one has ever met an adolescent that is mature or knowledgeable on the subject.

In fact, the situation is precisely the reverse. Everything we know about the truth and meaning of human sexuality comes to us from the Church. We are the students here; we are certainly not the judges! Speakers who make judgements like this are promoting themselves, not the Church or Her teaching.

Myth #4: The Theology of the Body teaches that "pain is good."

Fact: As noted above, the Wednesday audiences say not a word about suffering. To learn more about that, we must go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or better yet, to Salvific Doloris, John Paul II's apostolic exhortation on human suffering. Once we study the actual documents, we instantly discover that the Church teaches exactly the opposite. Pain is most definitely not good. Rather, it is morally neutral and a natural evil.

When we say pain is morally neutral, we mean it is a natural phenomenon with no moral repercussions. Pain can be experienced after a good workout or terrible torture session. It may be inflicted by a surgeon who is trying to cut out your cancer or by a sadist who is trying to cut out your heart. In a moral sense, pain is neither good nor bad. Instead, it is what we do with pain that establishes the morality of the painful situation. If we unite our own pain to the suffering of the Cross it can be sanctified. If we do not, it will not be sanctified. Instead, it will remain a natural evil.

Evil is a hole in reality. Remember, God created everything good, He created everything out of nothing, and no one else has the power to create anything at all. So evil is not, strictly speaking, a created thing. Rather, every evil is a twisting or removal of something good. A natural evil is the lack of a good thing that should be in the universe but is no longer there. So, pain is the sign that tells us something good is missing from our lives. In fact, it is a terrible reminder of the fallen human condition.

Myth #5: The Theology of the Body teaches that we can overcome our struggles with sins of the flesh, that is, it teaches we can overcome concupiscence.

Fact: Even baptism does not remove concupiscence, so simply "changing our attitude" by studying the Theology of the Body isn’t going to do it either. The curious concept expressed in this myth seems to come from a serious misunderstanding of holiness. Specifically, many people are under the mistaken assumption that the holier you become, the less you struggle with sin.

In fact, exactly the opposite is the case. The holier you become, the more you struggle with sin. After all, as C.S. Lewis points out, who fights harder – the soldier who surrenders to the enemy or the soldier who keeps fighting even when the odds seem overwhelming? Clearly the latter. As a quick perusal of any saints’ biography will show, every person who grows in sanctity becomes aware of all his faults to greater and greater degrees. Every canonized saint considered himself the worst of sinners.

The saints were not deluded – as they grew in sanctity, they simply got a more and more clear understanding of exactly how bad their own sinfulness was. Indeed, the greatest saints all experienced intense struggles to protect their holiness, especially their chastity – nearly all testify to the fierce temptations they experienced to engage in improper sexual relations. Anyone who grows in holiness can expect temptations of the flesh to get worse, not lessen.

Remember, one main result of the Fall is that we are blinded to the reality of our own shortcomings. Sanctity, on the other hand, is a clear understanding of reality. Thus, anyone who thinks they can overcome temptations to sins of the flesh is deluding themselves. This idea is a "white-knuckled heresy" that holds tightly to a distorted understanding of sanctity.

Myth #6: Saints who accepted self-mortification, e.g., throwing themselves in thorn bushes, etc., showed a distorted understanding of the human body.

Fact: As we can now see, this idea grows from a failure to understand Incarnational theology and sanctity. Christ Himself tells us this. After all, Christ essentially tells Pontius Pilate that He will be crucified only because He permits it; He could have brought legions of angels to defend Him from any human attempt to inflict pain or death on His person.

But He didn’t. He allowed His flesh to be mortified even unto death so that the world might be saved. Thus, the saints who scourged themselves, who threw themselves into thorn bushes or underwent similar bodily sufferings were doing two things at once. First, they were emulating Christ. Second, they were fighting a most fierce battle with their own concupiscence, their own tendency towards sins of the flesh. This level of battle can be waged only by those who have a very good grasp of reality, that is, it can only be waged by those who have a very good understanding of God. If you and I are the infantry in the Church Militant, the saints who undertake such mortifications are the elite special forces.

For this reason, the Church requires that extraordinary mortifications be undertaken only by those who are under the very close spiritual supervision of experienced, holy men and women. Most of us are simply not ready to live at that level of spiritual combat because most of us do not have the secure grasp of reality necessary to undertake it.


As we can see, these six myths above do not combine to create a theology of the body, that is, they do not constitute a theology of the Incarnation. Rather, they create a theology of pleasure. The Catholic Faith is many things, but as Pope Benedict XVI has said, "He who is looking to be comfortable has come to the wrong address."

Steve Kellmeyer is the author of Sex and the Sacred City.