Theology of the Body as Apologetics
I’m back from the parish mission in Hobart, and looking forward to six consecutive weeks in Melbourne. The mission gave me plenty of food for thought, much of which may well end up here in one way or another.
As I mentioned in the previous post, the mission began with a Q and A style talk in a pub. About 80 people showed up on a bitterly cold evening (it had been snowing for much of the day) for the conversation. I really enjoyed the evening, although there were a couple of questions that I would have dearly loved another go at because I wasn’t all that happy with my answers! The night was billed as “Reasons to Believe, Questions of Faith”, and it was very interesting to hear the questions that emerged in the light of the promotional material and my introductory remarks about trying to offer some intellectual credibility for what we believe.
The last question remained with me, partly because it was the last question, and partly because it was one that always comes up in these sorts of events. The young woman who asked it grouped together a number of issues that might be more or less summarized as ‘the Church’s teaching on sexuality’. Rather than go into sex before marriage, same-sex attraction and contraception point by point (I had five minutes before the scheduled conclusion of the evening), I tried to quickly and simply outline the two foundational principles for the Church’s teaching on all matters sexual.
I began by explaining that as human beings all our means of communication take place through our bodies. Every form of communication is, in some sense ‘body language’. And that especially includes sex. When a human being has sex with someone else they are saying with their bodies that they love the other person, totally and completely. And if the rest of their lives backs up that statement, then that sexual action is not only good, but holy. It actually mirrors to us what God is like: full, total and complete self-giving love.
If, however, someone through sexual intercourse says ‘I love you’ with their body but has not completely committed themselves to the other person with the rest of their life (this involves things like living together, publicly vowing that they freely choose this person forever, that they will be faithful to that person, sharing every aspect of their lives: in other words being married), then in the act of intercourse they are telling a lie with their bodies. They are saying ‘I love you freely, totally, and completely’ with their actions, but not with the rest of their lives.
The second principle is this: that love must always be life-giving. The very nature of love demands this. And if an act is claimed to be loving but its life-giving potential is frustrated from the outset or is actually impossible, then it cannot be an authentic expression of our capacity to love.
There’s a lot at stake here. Our sexuality is integral to our humanity, so it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the future of the species is caught up in these questions. I’d also like to point out that getting sexuality right will mean we get God right too, or to put it more accurately, getting sexuality wrong inevitably means that our image of God will be distorted. That’s because the intimacy and fruitfulness of marriage is an icon, a window into God. The deepest and richest analogue for God is the life-giving love between spouses.
Those who have studied or heard popular presentations of Blessed John Paul II’s ‘Theology of the Body’ will know that this is a very truncated presentation of his seminal ideas. And that was really all I had time for at the pub that night. What I noticed was the chord that it struck with the young people present. John Paul II’s depiction of sex as a language makes sense to young people. Young people often say to me that they also find it beautiful.
Of course, the Theology of the Body is not the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And my little description above does not even come close to doing justice to Theology of the Body in its entirety. I sometimes wonder if the Theology of the Body gets overdone with young people and in so doing we unwittingly play into our culture’s fixation with sex. At the same time, my conversation with the young people in the pub reminded me that to fail to present the Church’s teaching on sexuality in a way that young people can understand it and find it attractive will inevitably mean that a young person dismisses the Church as outdated and repressive.
While not denying its catechetical or moral function, Blessed John Paul II’s remarkable Theology of the Body thus serves a really important apologetic function: by providing young people with a credible and beautiful account of why we believe what we believe about human sexuality, it removes a potential roadblock to faith. If what we teach in this area is both beautiful and true, then a young person may conclude that the Church may have a few other things right too. The fact that the question came up on this particular evening reminded me that credible explanations of why we believe what we believe not only educate people who have faith, they also play a crucial role in evangelizing those who do not yet believe.