Noodling the Theology of the Body

A lot of people seem to think that the Church functions according to the principle, “That which is not forbidden is compulsory.” So many folk seem to be under the impression that there is a black and white magisterial answer to everything, and that “You’re with us or agin’ us” is the watchword for all disputes in the life of the Church.

I don’t know why this is, since the intellectual life of the Church has been chockablock with enormous diversity of opinion since the start. And yet, so it is — especially in our uber-polarized culture of politicized discourse here in the United States.

 

Case in point: the recent alarums and discursions concerning the Theology of the Body (TOB). It seems like every time I turn around, somebody is talking about it with vehemence, and often the discourse on the topic seems to devolve into sundry tribalisms in which one’s commitment to God, love, truth, and puppies is measured by Which Side you are on. Are you a godless Westian libertine bent on perverting the Faith with your pagan sex cult? Or are you a wizened prude who does not grasp the fact that Pope John Paul II’s brilliant insights are a golden opportunity to evangelize the culture?


Me: I have the great advantage of a more or less benign indifference about the Theology of the Body and so feel free to butt into the discussion and make everybody mad at me with a few casual remarks directed to the partisans of both sides of the argument. Sound fun? Let’s don our flame-retardant underwear and take a look.

 

The first thing we all need to know about the Theology of the Body is that, while interesting, it is not magisterial teaching. In short, the whole argument is about a fascinating and potentially useful constellation of ideas that do not form part of the essential teaching of the Faith. John Paul articulated the TOB in the early 1980s in a series of audiences. What is notable about this is that, having done so, he never returned to the subject in his magisterial teaching. There is no encyclical on the TOB. That should command our attention, because it means that the quarrel is about something that, while interesting, is not particularly binding on anybody as a Catholic.

Now, I don’t believe in Minimum Daily Adult Catholicism, so I don’t think we have to play the game of “If it’s not magisterial, we should just ignore it.” I think the late Holy Father has some interesting and profound things to say in his teaching on the TOB and that we can profit from it. But precisely because it is not magisterial, I also think we can dial back the rhetoric about Who’s a Bad Catholic if there is controversy and ferment concerning this teaching. It could be (and I think obviously is) the case that people on all sides of the argument about TOB are typically good Catholics, all trying to live and practice the Faith.

So what does the TOB say? An excellent question, and one that pertains directly to the passionate partisanship of the arguments, since (ahem) very few of the people who are zealous proponents and opponents of the TOB in the comboxes of St. Blog’s have actually read John Paul II. What they’ve read (or heard about) is Christopher West’s presentation of the TOB.

That’s the first big problem. If we haven’t read John Paul’s description of a boojum and have never seen a boojum ourselves, we are powerless to know if Christopher West is accurately describing a boojum. The most we can do is say, “I like that boojum Christopher West describes,” or “I hate that boojum Christopher West describes.” Or, we can say, as I do, “I’m largely indifferent to that boojum Christopher West describes, though West seems to be trying to serve the Church, albeit imperfectly, as do we all.”

The TOB, as near as I can tell, made no impact on Catholics for nearly two decades after it was articulated by the pope. What seems to have brought it to people’s attention was the enthusiasm of George Weigel, who described the TOB in his biography Witness to Hope as “one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in centuries,” declared it a “kind of theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church,” and prophesied that it had barely begun to “shape the Church’s theology, preaching, and religious education,” but that when it does, “it will compel a dramatic development of thinking about virtually every major theme in the Creed.”

That’s heady stuff. And he may be right for all I know. But here’s the thing: Once again, we are looking at the opinion of a layman. And it’s that opinion, reverberating through the world of Catholic media after the publication of Witness to Hope — not some magisterial teaching of the Church — that largely accounts for the fact that a lot of Catholics began to get interested in the TOB early in the third millennium.

Once again, I’m not a minimalist who reduces all Catholic faith to magisterial documents. So I don’t have a big problem with the notion that a layperson can get people excited about a new idea. Lots of movements in the Church have been the fruit of a layperson who got all het up about a cool new thing. Sometimes those lay movements have been very fruitful. Sometimes they have been as ephemeral as sea foam. Some personalities tend to seize on the Latest Thing as a Brilliant Revolution. Some tend to be wary of new stuff as always and eternally doomed to perish like mayflies. And so, before you ever get to hearing about the New Thing, people are offering prophecies about its future fortunes. I’m really bad at prophecy, so I have to look at what the thing is, rather than what it will be.

 

As far as I can tell, and speaking as a total non-expert, the TOB is John Paul’s attempt to direct us to a discussion of the Blessed Trinity and our relationship with Him via our current cultural obsessions with sex. Like a good disciple of Paul, John Paul chose to be all things to all and said to our sex-obsessed, sex-marinated, sex-soaked, sex-fixated, sex-demented culture, “You wanna talk about sex? Okay. Then let’s really talk about sex. Let’s take a good long look at the meaning of sex, pursue where that meaning takes us, and discover man and woman, made in the image and likeness of God.”

Well and good. It’s an insight as old as the sacrament of marriage, and I’m foursquare in favor of trying to articulate that. I figure the culture is going to obsess about sex no matter what, so there should be a Catholic voice in that discussion.

The danger is that it’s fatally easy to get things turned around, as the pagans incessantly did. Pagans, after all, recognized that there was something sacred about sex, too. But the mistake they made was to see sex not as sacramental, but as a sort of god. The very essence of paganism is to worship the creature as the Creator. And sex, being all about the creation of new life, is particularly easy to confuse with the Lord, the Giver of Life. So while John Paul avoided the pitfall, I’m not stunned when the TOB discussions I have seen sometimes wind up making the subtle mistake of ceasing to use sex as a doorway into talking about God and instead use God as a doorway into talking about sex.

Now, there is a place for talking about sex as Catholics. But it seems to me we have to be cautious, and that incautiousness can be a particularly high-yield explosive here, as West himself discovered in his unfortunate imbroglio after ABC interviewed him. I pretty much share Jimmy Akin’s take on this in that I regard West as, quite obviously, seeking to serve the Church — and as having flubbed things with his praises of Hugh Hefner. But “flubbed” is the operative word: He clearly is trying to think with the Church but faces the danger of all pioneers: He doesn’t quite know where he’s going and can make missteps sometimes.

For this reason, those who direct their dementia and hatred at West (and at all who do not share their dementia and hatred of West) seem to me to be wildly out of touch with reality in their hysterical tendency to treat West as the incarnation of evil in the universe, and in their tendency to see the TOB fans as an evil cabal. It seems clear that Christopher West, like most of the exponents of the TOB, is excitedly exploring a new region of thought opened up for us by the late Holy Father, and that they are faithfully attempting to apply these ideas to life in a spirit of fidelity to the Church. They may make mistakes sometimes (as who does not?), but they are obviously trying to be as docile as they know how to the Church.

 

But, by the same token, those who regard the TOB as the Greatest Thing Ever or who treat it or its exponents as beyond question also make me feel leery. I once talked to somebody who tended to say things like, “The Theology of the Body has the answer for Everything!” He was a marvelously gifted exponent and explorer of this school of theology. I owe him a great debt for giving me quite a number of wise, healing, and profound insights about the place of gender in our theology. But at the end of the day, I can’t agree that the Theology of the Body has an answer for Everything. That’s because I don’t believe three things necessary in order to sign off on that claim.

First, I don’t believe that even the fullness of revelation of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Faith has an answer for Everything. It is ideology, not the mystery of Faith, that claims to be able to explain Everything. The Faith presents us with mystery, not with the answer to every question. It tells us what we need to know to be saved; it tells us very little about the average airspeed of an unladen European swallow, or what we should do about auditing the Fed, or about a million other facets of Everything.

Second, even if the Faith did have an answer for Everything (which it doesn’t), it would be the only candidate for fulfilling that claim, since it alone is the full revelation of Almighty God. The only way the TOB could therefore have an answer for Everything would be if a) the Faith had an answer for Everything, and b) the TOB were identical to and coterminous with the Catholic Faith. But it’s not. Indeed, no mere school of theology is. That’s a claim nobody would dare make even for Thomism, which has a much greater claim to be identified with the Catholic faith than the TOB does.

Third, if the TOB were really identical to and coterminous with the Faith itself, that would mean that questioning or rejecting it would be tantamount to questioning or rejecting the Catholic Faith itself. This is simply not so.

I recognize that such language about “having an answer for Everything” is just an expression of enthusiasm for a way of looking at the Faith that can be and is very fruitful. When I pointed out the problems with the statement, my friend quickly ratcheted back his rhetoric, because he saw the justice of my point. I merely mention it here to illustrate that, in talking about something that is rightly and properly a subject for legitimate diversity of opinion, people need to remember that enthusiastic love, like enthusiastic hatred, can bring more heat than light to a discussion sometimes. And it can give frenzied and irrational haters of the TOB another excuse to become more frenzied and irrational, just as frenzied and irrational hatred of the TOB or West causes their defenders to become more wildly and intractably defensive. As C. S. Lewis says, “Opposite evils, so far from balancing, aggravate each other.”

Of course, not everybody finds it impossible to discuss the matter rationally. West himself seems to me to be largely level-headed, as do such critics as David Schindler and Dawn Eden, or the TOB defenders such as Dr. Janet Smith and Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouve. It is notable that the main thing to pay attention to here is that the quarrel is primarily (at present) not so much about the TOB as about Christopher West, since he is the main conduit through which the TOB is being articulated to the English-speaking world. What we know of the TOB we know largely because of him. That will remain the case, whether for good or ill, till John Paul is more widely read or till more voices articulating the TOB become prominent and give us other portraits of the late Holy Father’s thought on the matter.

 

The TOB is, I believe, a classic example of healthy intellectual ferment in the life of the Church. Some people are dismayed by the fuss over the question — as though it bespeaks a “lack of unity” in the life of the Church. But never was G. K. Chesterton more accurate when he said that Catholics agree about everything, and that it is only everything else they disagree about. Most of the parties arguing about the TOB are arguing, so far as I can see, out of a desire to be faithful to the Church. All they are quarreling about is how to be faithful, not whether to be faithful. And, with the exception of some extreme voices out at the end of the bell curve, they seem to be arguing charitably — assuming the best and not the worst about those with whom they differ. That’s how Catholics should argue. And we should pray for the few extremists who refuse to extend charity.

As for how those of us who are largely on the outside of the argument looking in should proceed, I think a few practical questions are in order.

First, is this something that you need to bother your head with? In my case, I’ve mostly opted for “No” since I am a married man, living in fidelity to the Church’s moral teaching. When you are living the theology of the body, there is often not a burning need to know more about it, though it would be good to learn if you are going to be entrusted with teaching it.

If you decide that you do want to know about the TOB and are baffled by the quarrels, then what? Well, the obvious thing is to go get John Paul’s talks and learn straight from the horse’s mouth. The upside: You won’t have to get it filtered through interpreters (except, of course, for the interpreter known as the Translator). The downside: Get ready for John Paul’s less-than-accessible style, which is why people often turn to interpreters like West in the first place. John Paul is not an easy read.

If you are inclined to despair at this point, don’t. You rely on interpreters every time you read some premodern, non-English text such as the Bible. And West, while he is the predominant interpreter, is not alone. Enough people are now writing and talking about the TOB who, while they may not be as famous as West, still give you data whereby you can build up a picture of this (still growing) school of theology as you might build up a picture of Thomism without necessarily knowing Latin or reading Thomas in the original.

Most of all, a sane way to approach the matter is not so much to spend all your time reading the quarrels about the TOB — especially those in cyberspace, which tend more toward heat than light — but to immerse yourself in the whole Tradition, of which the TOB is an extremely small part. People who are jittery about getting counterfeit money are wasting their time if they do nothing but contemplate all the possible permutations of a counterfeit. Instead, look at genuine money and you will spot the bad bills quickly. There’s a lot more to the Tradition than the TOB, whether genuine or imitation. Learn that Tradition, and you will be able to smell if something is amiss in somebody’s exposition of the TOB.

If you do smell something amiss, don’t panic or declare it to be the fruit of somebody’s monstrous will to subvert and destroy the Faith. Assume “blunder” before “diabolical plot.” Conversely, if you find something fruitful, good, and beautiful in the TOB, don’t run off and declare it a revolution in Catholic thought that will provide an All-Explaining Paradigm of Everything in Time, Space, and Eternity. It’s a human school of thought, not the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith.

In a word, relax. It’s just somebody’s opinion, not the End of the World or the Consummation of All Things.

Mark P. Shea

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Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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