Theology of the Body part one: An Education in Being Human

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This spring my Moms’ Bible Study used a short video series by Christopher West on the Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II’s 129 talks given near the beginning of his pontificate. I’m happy to share my notes with you, as West does a great job breaking down the Theology of the Body into simple, modern terms. I like to connect the Holy Father’s teaching to the modern world and my life as a mother as much as I possibly can, so that humble attempt is what I’ll be offering you.

The Foundation of Life and Culture: Rediscovering the Meaning of Life

The foundation of the Theology of the Body (TOB from here on out) is a philosophical and practical exploration of the Scriptural and traditional teachings about the human body as male and female, that we are a reflection of the person of God in our bodies, and that the two becoming “one flesh” is a manifestation of the love of the Trinity. “It is crucial to realize that the TOB is not only meant for married people.”**

**Anything in quotes that is not otherwise credited is from Christopher West, either the text of the study guide or loosely transcribed from his talk.

Why talk about sex? Without sexual union, without man and woman coming together in love to cocreate another human being with God, we would not only have no society but no human existence. “The fundamental cell of civilization is the family. The nucleus of the family is the mom and dad,” which depends upon sexual union! “In short, as sex goes, so go marriage and the family. As marriage and the family go, so goes the world.”

The family and society are collapsing because we no longer understand the meaning of sexual union and communion.” Namely, that sex must encapsulate both union and communion, not a passing fling in the night or a loss of self-discipline that results in regrets. (Lent, by the way, is the perfect time to practice self-discipline. As I discussed in “I Don’t Believe in Giving Up Pizza for Lent,” when you practice self-denial often with something like food, you develop stronger self-discipline in all areas. Men who can abstain from sweets or soda or eating between meals are more well-equipped to practice natural family planning and respect their wives as sacred mysteries, not as objects.)

Christopher West really got my attention when he threw out the question, “Why isn’t the pro-life movement working?” Back in college I came across a list written by Mother Teresa of Calcutta which detailed the solution to the problem of abortion. She worked through about ten points that went something like this (pardon my poor memory after 10 years; I’m missing half the points, and these are truly my own words):

  1. We will not eradicate abortion by making laws against it, but by changing the hearts of the people to believe that life in the womb (and all life) is sacred.
  2. We cannot convince people that life in the womb is sacred until we demonstrate that all life is sacred (euthanasia has to go, for example).
  3. We don’t demonstrate the life is sacred without eradicating artificial contraception, which is anti-life and anti-child.
  4. We will not succeed in eradicating artificial contraception until we understand the sacred meaning of our marriage vows.
  5. We cannot understand or live out the sacred marriage vows until we live them out in the bedroom and in all of life, the husband loving his wife as Christ loved the Church (to die for her!). (Ephesians 5)
  6. Therefore, the solution to the problem of abortion does not lie in legislating, protesting, or even praying for abortion to end. The key is to pray for a deep understanding of the Sacrament of marriage, for husbands and wives to love one another as Christ loved the Church, and to teach this love and sanctity of life and marriage to our children. Only then will the pro-life movement be successful.

Clearly I’m missing a bunch of the points in Mother T’s progression, but Christopher West also nailed the point that human life is based in human sexuality and sacred union.

The pro-life movement cannot succeed in a world where contraception results in a distorted view of human sexuality. We must get beyond “Don’t!” and “How far is okay?” and the attitudes behind those questions. Love, physical and spiritual, consists of “What can I do to serve the other person?” not “What’s in it for me?”

“If the task of secular ideologies in the 20th century was to rid that century of the Christian sexual ethic, the task of the Church in the 21st century must be to reclaim it. We need a fresh approach [not the repression of previous generations], that reveals the beauty of God’s plan for man and woman and the joy of living it. God grants the Church what she needs when she needs it,” hence the TOB, the perfect ìantidote to the sexual revolution and loose moralsî of our day.

What Makes the Human Body “Theological”?

The fact that the heart of Christianity is Christ, and He is the Word made flesh, is a clear sign that to deepen our faith, we need not push aside our physicality for merely spirituality. God and the body are not separate, any more than we are separate from our bodies. Our “bodies are sacramental and reveal a great spiritual mystery.”

“Man is a person in the unity of his body and his spirit. The body can never be reduced to mere matter: it is a spiritualized body, just as man’s spirit is so closely united to the body that he can be described as an embodied spirit.” (John Paul II’s 1994 Letter to Families)
“As a being at once body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church 1146)

The Body as “Sacrament”

What do we see when we look at a person? As important as their spirit is, we see their body. It’s the only choice we have. The body can be understood as “sacrament” meaning ìmaking visible of the invisible, much like God does with the gifts of the seven Sacraments and sacramentals in the Church – He allows us to experience Him through our bodies.

‘In the body of Jesus ‘we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 477).

God’s mystery has been revealed in human flesh. For in Christ, ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).

Theology of the body,” therefore represents the very logic of Christianity.

“Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh, the body entered theology…through the main door” (Theology of the Body 23:4).

We encounter Christ through our bodies and Christ’s bodies; there is no other way.

“The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it” (Theology of the Body 19:4).

Takeaway Points

  1. The body is part of the mystery of being human.
  2. We cannot build a culture of life without reclaiming the true meaning of human sexuality ñ union and communion.
  3. Since God revealed Himself through flesh, He made the body holy. We can look at our bodies to see the image of God (remember, not the other way around ñ God is not made in our image, but we in His). Our bodies are the mystery of the spiritual made visible.

Questions to Ponder

  1. How does this idea of the body being theological, good, holy go against some of the ways many churches teach about the body?
  2. How does the cultural view of the body distort the holiness of the true meaning of our physicality and sexuality?
  3. What would have happened if our country/world had accepted the contraceptive mentality in the 18th century rather than the 20th century?
  4. What is necessary for us to make sure that the future is as holy as possible?
  5. Many natural family planning practicing Catholics are often presented with uncomfortable questions like, “Are you done now?” (having kids) and “Phew! X number of kids! You must be busy!” (in a negative tone). How can we respond in love to personal questions that are clearly a manifestation of an anti-life attitude, one that believes that children are a burden and we should be completely in control of our family size?

Copyright 2011 Katie Kimball

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1 Comment

  1. Katie thanks so much for this thoughtful series and for raising so many great topics for conversation. Your last question makes me think of the opposite too – for families who are impacted by infertility, or secondary infertility, why some Catholics sometimes wrongly assume that the family has made a choice to have no more children. It all boils down to folks who spend too much time judging others for their situations. I will spend some additional time pondering your questions but I wanted to immediately thank you for sharing on this important subject.

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