Monday, December 12, 2011

Whose Theology of the Body?

A few weeks ago in the Criterion there was an article about a 'Theology of the Body' workshop for college students. I am a huge fan of the 'Theology of the Body', but it is important to remember that the 'Theology of the Body' is a very specific set of teachings and reflections by the late Pope John Paul II. The 'Theology of the Body' is a collection of 129 talks given by JP II over the course of several years on very specific themes dealing with the interplay of spirituality and sexuality.

The 'Theology of the Body' continues to grow in demand and notoriety, and 'Theology of the Body' speakers are highly sought after for youth groups, high schools, college groups, Theology on Tap meetings and so on. The problem that I've noticed throughout the past few years is that sometimes someone brands themselves as a 'Theology of the Body' speaker when in fact they proceed to simply offer up their version of a chastity/sex talk.

An example of this is the speaker that the Criterion interviewed. About her recent 'Theology of the Body' talk, the Criterion noted that "Rather than discuss the specifics of Blessed John Paul II's teachings, she shared stories about her own experiences in high school and college." I found that to be pretty telling.

I remember one time hearing a famous presenter on the Theology of the Body (who, overall, was faithful to the themes of the 'Theology of the Body') who talked about how guys should, when they are tempted sexually, extend their arms out in the form of the cross. That is a great idea, but it isn't anywhere in the 'Theology of the Body.'

I have no problem with chastity/sexuality talks, and in fact I think they ought to happen often for young people, but we just can't be calling them 'Theology of the Body' talks. Sometimes speakers will attempt to add an aura of authority to their talk so they trace their ideas back to John Paul II when in fact what the speaker talks about isn't really mentioned in the 'Theology of the Body.'

I think we also do a disservice to our Catholic faithful if we say the 'Theology of the Body' can be understood in an hour or two. The book form of all of the talks put together is 500+ pages and every page is VERY deep. I think those who pretend to help someone grasp it all in an hour give the impression to those who've never explored it in greater detail that they now have the gist of the Theology of the Body when in reality it is something that would bear fruitful reading, or at least reading a faithful summary.

If someone told you that they've summarized the 'Theology of the Body' in a talk, then I hope you at some point go back to a more in-depth analysis of the talks, or, if you're feeling really adventurous, the speeches themselves.

Click here for a good summary

Click here to order a copy of a book that I have all of the couples that I prepare for marriage read through that brings in several themes from the 'Theology of the Body'

is a website that coordinates lots of resources for the 'Theology of the Body'


  1. I donated a copy of the compete Theology of the Body talks by John Paul II and a companion book that explains them quite well to our youth room library so that they would have a great source to go to if they have any questions. Next I am going to donate the Christopher West 13 hour Talks on Cd with companion handout booklet. I agree with you, if someone is going to talk about Theology of the Body, that is the message, and the only message they should give. Otherwise it should be called a tslk on Chastity.

  2. As I read your blog I can’t help but wonder if you overstate your claim. I understand your desire to protect what you see as authentic “Theology of the Body” material from pseudo-material which would diminish the powerful insights of John Paul II. I question a few of your assumptions. First, you want to strictly limit the teachings of “Theology of the Body” to one account but is this presumption correct? After all this would limit how John Paul II’s writings fit within a wider tradition and context. Much of what he says was already considered by or was contemporaneous with some Thomists who were also personalists. The late pope was both a Thomist (in a wider sense of the word than some strict Thomists would permit) and a personalist.

    Secondly you say, “the 'Theology of the Body' is a very specific set of teachings and reflections by the late Pope John Paul II. The 'Theology of the Body' is a collection of 129 talks given by JP II over the course of several years on very specific themes dealing with the interplay of spirituality and sexuality.” While this may be true, this claim neglects the very development of John Paul II’s thoughts. After all, are the writings contained in the “Theology of the Body” radically different from his earlier reflections in “Love and Responsibility?” His own “Theology of the Body” is not only contained in his papal reflections but in his other writings as well since I read them as forming a unity.

    Thirdly, “Theology of the Body” is a general category much like “Theology of the Church” or “Theology of Creation” or “Theology of the Priesthood” and cannot be restricted to merely one authentic account. We have numerous theologies of the priesthood contained in writings by St. John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Augustine of Hippo, and Benedict XVI and each of these reveals something about the dignity of the priesthood and each of these fails to express the complete mystery revealed to us in Christ. I understand your concern about alternative approaches being misunderstood as John Paul II’s teachings but if this is true then his own account should be distinguished with a qualifier such as “John Paul II’s Theology of the Body” or something of the sort.

    I must admit that I have read his account but would agree with other Thomists who are also personalists that many of the “insights” are already in Aquinas. You also mentioned a girl who shared stories of her own experiences and presented them as “Theology of the Body.” While these experiences may not be contained in John Paul II’s writings, it seems that the phenomenology of lived experiences better fits with his method than Aquinas’s. This is why I believe his own theology of the body can be more readily accommodated to a liberal agenda (which I would usually profess allegiance to) than Aquinas’s own account since it is phenomenological all while affirming the necessity of revelation for genuine insight.

  3. What I'm saying is "Don't say you are summarizing or presenting on John Paul II's 'Theology of the Body' if you are presenting something that is not specifically contained in JP II's work."

    I give chastity talks and sex talks. If they are on the themes found in JP II's Theology of the Body, I say so at the outset. If the topics I'm presenting on (which are still very important) aren't readily discerned in JP II's Theology of the Body then I don't call my talk "A Summary of JP II's Theology of the Body."

    I am asking that those speaking on the subject simply be honest and not try to gain credibility by clinging to the coat tails of JP II's work - have the guts to say "Today I'm talking about sexuality through the tradition of the Church and/or through the lens of my lived experience" - and again those talks (and the humility to rightly title them) are still VERY important. In fact, depending on the age group the former may be more appropriate than a "Theology of the Body" talk anyway.

  4. I know my comment here will be woefully small, but I have to agree and disagree with both Anonymous and Fr. John. Could this be like the difference between catholic and Catholic. Such as "a talk on the theology of the body" compared to "a talk on The Theology of the Body"? Just my thoughts...

  5. The problem is that the term 'theology of the body' has become a catch-phrase for the Church's teaching on marriage, sexual morality, the meaning of sexuality, etc.

    From a marketing perspective, if you want people to know that you're doing something having to do with these themes, if you say it's about Theology of the Body, it's like instant recognition. This is unfortunate in some ways, but it's reality. TOB now has 'brand recognition'.

    IMO, we should not be trying to teach people these advanced reflections of the philosopher-pope, but instead we should be imitating what he did, which was to return to the scriptures for theological context for human sexuality and the church's doctrinal teachings. I find the value more in doing this, than in zooming in on his own specific reflections. After all, what TOB referred to in JPII's writings was not his own reflections, but a biblical theological anthropology.

    If we were to literally teach the pope's TOB, it would be like trying to introduce people to trinitarian theology by teaching them Augustine's De Trinitate! Not too smart pedagogically.

    So, I think what I'm trying to say is that anything which can be described as a theological anthropology as it relates to sexuality, could be called a Theology of the Body, and that people should indeed contribute to TOB through their own contributions and reflections.

  6. Everyone wins when we are intellectually honest

  7. Fr. John, I would again disagree with you and I side more with Brian’s comments. Before I speak about my area of agreement with Brian, I want to express why I disagree with your response. Fr. John you state: “What I'm saying is "Don't say you are summarizing or presenting on John Paul II's 'Theology of the Body' if you are presenting something that is not specifically contained in JP II's work." I question this assumption for several reasons including the notion of doctrinal development. Is TOB that which the pope wrote so that it is dogmatic and fixed, or can TOB be expanded to include other thoughts that are consistent with its teachings? After all, JP II’s account cannot cover everything nor is it intended too. As technology complicates reproductive issues, Theology of the Body has nothing to say or add to the discussion since these issues “would not be specifically contained in JP II’s work” as you say. It seems that TOB could easily be discarded if you limit its ability to grow and develop like other doctrines or dogmas do which would be fine with me since I am not impressed with its teachings anyway since I can get them in other systems. I doubt that you really want to accept these conclusions so you should revise your premises.
    Moreover, TOB’s teachings are not systematic or comprehensive since they take place in the context of papal addresses. Having read these teachings I see how repetitive they are since they summarized what he spoke about last week, gives a small insight, and then looks forward to the next week’s teaching. The very medium by which he delivered these makes it difficult to use TOB as a definitive set of teachings.
    It is this difficulty which also makes me agree with Brian’s assessment that “ IMO, we should not be trying to teach people these advanced reflections of the philosopher-pope, but instead we should be imitating what he did, which was to return to the scriptures for theological context for human sexuality and the church's doctrinal teachings. I find the value more in doing this, than in zooming in on his own specific reflections.” I also agree that it is not the appropriate pedagogy to undertake. In addition, I would affirm that TOB has name brand recognition. To be honest with you, I am completely appalled with what I see being passed on as Theology of the Body. I have had friends attend Christopher West’s seminars and what they come back with does not seem to be the pope’s own teaching despite how much he praises the pope. Perhaps this colors my own distaste of TOB and you want to preserve TOB from this kind of distortion. If so, then I commend you Fr. John but I would also say that “Theology of the Body” is a generic term that could easily apply to a wide variety of theological anthropology. Just because there is bad theological anthropology does not mean that it ceases being theological anthropology, it is just bad theological anthropology.
    Lastly Fr. John states, “Everyone wins when we are intellectually honest” but I have also read many of the Fathers. I do not see them cite where they received their ideas. What of people who wrote under the names of others including people who wrote letters under the name of Paul or John or Peter? If you want intellectual honesty then it needs to go all the way down and then you would have to accept some radical changes in theology, scripture, and the liturgy. I don’t think you want to go down this road either. I am glad that someone claimed to be Dionysius (Dennis) the convert of St. Paul and inspired people with his beautiful writings that combine the best of Platonism with the best that Christianity offers even if it isn’t “intellectually honest.”

  8. Look, I think we are on the same page. My original motivation for posting this was also having attended West's 'Theology of the Body'
    talk that he gave at the National Seminarian Conference. West did mention the Theology of the Body points and elaborated on them, but he also went on for 5-10 minutes about how he encourages young men, when they are tempted with masturbating, to extend their hands out in the form of a cross and pray. That's good advice, but it isn't really Theology of the Body, and I think most people that would listen to that talk are going to remember comments like that as opposed to the fine points of JP II's Theology of the Body.

    Then, when I read in our diocesan newspaper, (to paraphrase the college speakers who were quoted), 'we don't really talk about the Theology of the Body, we tell stories from high school and college.' That's bull, and frankly, it angers me. Don't draw people in to your talk by saying "I'm going to talk about JP II's Theology of the Body" if you aren't going to. That's what I'm saying.

    If I present at the National Catholic Educator's Conference and I tell everyone my presentation is on "Pope Benedict's Encyclical Spe Salvi" but I tell stories from high school and college instead, I'd have some really angry people in the room at the end of my talk. Even if my talk was important, well-done, and something they needed to hear, it wouldn't matter if I was intellectually dishonest in getting them in the door.

    As far as development of doctrine I find your comments off base for two reasons. A) The Theology of the Body does address reproductive issues in the talks that JP II gave at the end of the Theology of the Body on Humanae Vitae. B) As issues arise that are not in the Theology of the Body I plan to speak on those issues from this blog, from the pulpit, etc. I believe in the development of doctrine, it's just that when those new issues arise, I'm not going to be telling people I'm talking on JP II's Theology of the Body. I will say, as I say now when talking on similar issues, that I'm speaking from the heart of the Church's tradition.

    JP II shined a very effective and eloquent light on some of the relevant sexual/theological issues facing the world. There's good stuff there, it's not all new, some of it has been around for millennia. Regardless, people have heard about it, and want to know about it and have a hunger for it. I'm simply saying to speakers "if you are going to hook people into your chastity talk by saying that you are talking about the Tehology of the Body, but you give them your own chastity talk instead, STOP!!!"

    I think I hear you agreeing with that last statement, but I'm not sure.

  9. Fr. John, thank you for your honesty and your candid comments because I am disappointed in Christopher West’s presentation as well. I have not attended his talks but friends of mine returned with some strange ideas. I know West spoke highly of John Paul II and tried to explain some of his views but I also saw that he promoted other views that do not fit with Theology of the Body. I also agree with your statement that “I think most people that would listen to that talk are going to remember comments like that as opposed to the fine points of JP II's Theology of the Body.” I think if you were more upfront about what you want to critique then it will be more effective. After all Aquinas often names his opponent, expresses the best version of their view, and then explains the logical fallacies or errors found in their reasoning. I think you have a good catechetical opportunity here by contrasting John Paul II’s teachings side by side with Christopher West’s own approaches. I think the two differ quite radically in some places despite West’s claim that he is merely a spokesperson of JP II’s teachings. From what I see coming from West is his lack of adequately understanding how JP II fits within a larger tradition results in West misreads certain aspects and also failing to realize the larger tradition of theological anthropology that was important in so many of the fathers from Origen to Gregory of Nyssa to Augustine to Aquinas. Of course this be my own faulty understanding of what West is doing since I am only aware of him through a couple of books but most especially from what others who do like him tell me about their own experiences at his summer program. Perhaps they misunderstand what West was trying to do since often disciples betray their masters more than opponents can.
    An interesting question may be this: does West use TOB as a springboard for his own views and purposes? I would be interested in your own views about that. I like the analogy that you use about false advertising. I remember attending a lecture a few years ago by Dr. Matthew Levering and the topic advertised was not the topic discussed. There was a mistake and miscommunication and I was deeply disappointed but his talk was quite informative and I am glad that I attended (which I probably would not have done if I had known the topic he was going to discuss). Despite my own dislike of West, I also see a good in his work since it can get people thinking about these issues. I once remember speaking to a Protestant who loved what the Catholic Church does for taking moral stances on issues in health care and reproductive science. As a liberal I never thought too much about these and was usually ashamed of these teachings but that experience also opened my eyes to recognize that if we don’t talk about these issues then no one else will. Even if I cannot fully agree with every view, I can deeply respect what the Church is trying to promote and her voice is too important to merely ignore.

  10. I appreciate your comments. To your comment about naming opponents you will find that in the original post I laid out the incident of West's talk and the incident of the college girls telling stories from high school from my very first post on this topic.