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.

Posted on July 19, 2011, in Catechesis, Culture, Evangelisation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Thanks Fr Chris. You’re awesome. Thank you for your faithful service to building the Kingdom.

  2. I thought your answer was excellent, particularly given the limited amount of time.

  3. I love the compassion and strength of your convictions Father Chris. I have to say, as a mother of three older children and a married woman for 26 years, I don’t agree. I have a real problem with the Catholic church on this topic. Unfortunately, I know many married people, both men and women, who do not have total love or respect for their partners, but still have sex. And the statement that the future of our race depends on giving life through all sex, is not true. Well maybe it is, I believe we will destroy the earth and each other if we continue to overpopulate. Especially in countries where people are starving and being raped. There are many forms of avoiding pregnancy other than the pill that Catholic couples have been using for years. Some of which the Catholic Church approves, even though it is still avoiding the making of a new life.

    I also have a problem that you and the Church speak a lot of the women’s role in sex and pregnancy, while the church as a whole is guilty of leaving the men and their equal responsibility out of this discussion. I find that the responsibility is always the women’s, which is wrong. I would like a perfect world where sex was absolute true love and that we could afford, i.e.; financially, physiologically, emotionally, environmentally and economically, to have many children. But sadly that is unrealistic or even dangerous for some people.

    And are you saying that sex cannot ever be for pure enjoyment, even between a loving married couple?

    With respect, as a woman who has lived through pregnancies, financial difficulties, bringing up a disabled child and others through sickness etc, etc, I have to say that the clergy of the church do not understand these matters fully.

    I know God is loving and wonderful, I love him deeply and I know he loves me. I believe at times the church does not follow what he had in mind for his people and even underestimates his acceptance and love.

    Father Chris, I am glad I met you during WYD and I respect your opinions, but I do have the right to disagree. I hope you don’t mind me commenting on this matter.

    Kind Regards,

  4. Having just come across this post (and this excellent blogsite), I thought as a married person that I might offer a few thoughts to Cate.

    I certainly don’t think Fr Chris, or JP2, ever suggested maried people shouldn’t enjoy sex. St Thomas Aquinas even makes the rather startling comment that Adam and Eve in the garden would have enjoyed it more because their desires weren’t corrupted by sin. Lust is an attitude that seeks to dominate and use people as instruments for our own pleasure, rather than an affirmation of love.

    Second, JP2 said quite explicitly that we are not obliged to have as many children as possible – we need to be responsible. But Malthusian phobia about population is motivated more by a selfish desire to maintain our two-fisted Western consumption habits, and our inabilty to build real communities that will support people. ‘Live simply so that others may simply live’, and throw the ridculous American ‘prosperity gospel’ in the bin while we’re at it.

    I’m not sure what you meant by ‘Unfortunately, I know many married people, both men and women, who do not have total love or respect for their partners, but still have sex.’ It’s perfectly normal that people don’t live up to the ideals they espouse or the commitments they’ve made That’s simply the tragic flaw in our human nature – which Catholics understood as well as anyone before it became fashionable to sneer at the doctrine of Original Sin. (As an aside, I’ve met quite a few celibate clergy who are very good guides to marriage and far too many married peole who are utterly clueless!)

    But the more I see of life, the more I’m convinced that the worst possible response is to lower the ideal standards we aim for. Aim lower, and we’ll shoot even lower still and it just gets worse and worse. (Just look where that approach to celibacy got some of our priests and religious.) I’d srtongly comend Fr Chris’s excellent post on Balthasar on the risk of aiming too low.

  5. Thank you for your comment Peter. I strongly agree that the prosperity bible is rubbish and I have not lowered any of my standards either. I am happily married for 26 years now with three beautiful grown children. While I still have very high ideals, I find I clash with some of the exclusiveness of our religion at times. I am pleased to hear that the church realises that we must be responsible with the amount of children we have, because I really thought it still felt that we should have as many as possible.

    I also find Father Chris quite inspiring, but I don’t agree with all he says. I also think the Catholic Church and others need to make men take more responsibility for their actions, especially when it comes to creating life. Once they have created a new life, especially out of marriage, they should take on that responsibility fully as the woman is expected to. As it stands now, they generally don’t have to give up what a woman does and I don’t hear the church speaking about their responsibilities when discussing pregnancy out of marriage.

    Anyway, we will continue to have high ideals and try to be non-judgmental towards others, but always supportive. We all have a lot to live up to!

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