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By Christopher West, BeliefNet
What does Pope John Paul II think about sex? Quite a lot–and papal biographer George Weigel has called his complex thoughts on the subject a “theological time bomb” that will reshape Christianity. Author and lecturer Christopher West has popularized the pope’s “Theology of the Body” in the U.S. and beyond. West spoke with Beliefnet recently about Catholic sexual teaching and what he sees as a dawning “sexual counter-revolution.”
What is the “Theology of the Body”?
“Theology of the Body” is the working title that John Paul II gave to the first major teaching project of his pontificate. He delivered it in 129 short talks between 1979 and 1984. It’s a biblical reflection on the meaning of human embodiment, particularly as it concerns human sexuality, marital love and erotic desire.
The teaching is divided into two main sections: one, what does it mean to be human? Two, how do I live my life in a way that will bring true happiness? So the pope’s theology of the body is a reflection on the universal questions about life-why do I exist? Why did God make us male and female? How do I find happiness? What is my ultimate destiny? Why is there evil in the world? How do I overcome it? All of those universal questions.
How can this understanding of our bodies help us find happiness?
In the language of the pope, the body reveals the mystery of God. And that mystery, which has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ, is that God is love. God is love in the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The theology of the body means that our bodies somehow reveal the mystery of divine love in the world. How so? Precisely through the mystery of sexual difference and the call of the two to become one flesh.
So you’re saying God is revealed in the relationship between couples?
In the mystery of marital union we have a sign here on earth of the eternal mystery of love found in the Trinity. A sign that reveals the eternal plan of God for humanity. That plan, to go along with this analogy, is that God wants to marry us. This is the reason he created us.
That’s really intense. Can you talk more about that?
It’s very intense. If you look at the Scriptures from beginning to end we have a story about marriage. Genesis begins with the creation of man and woman and their call to marriage. Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets speak of God’s love as the love of a husband for his bride. In the New Testament, the love of the eternal bridegroom is literally embodied when the word is made flesh. Skipping to the end of the story, the Book of Revelation describes heaven as an eternal marriage-a marriage of Christ and the Church.
The Pope has said something to the effect that although all of the human images, the analogies that we can use to describe God’s love are inadequate, the spousal analogy is the least inadequate. It helps us to penetrate the mystery of God’s love. To put it simply, what we learn through this paradigm is that God wants to marry us.
What would it be like to be married to God?
It’s called heaven. We can push this analogy even further and recognize that not only does he want to marry us, but in a mystical way, he wants to impregnate our humanity with his divine life.
If God’s eternal plan is to marry and to impregnate us with his divine life, he wanted this eternal plan to be so obvious to us that he stamped an image of it right in our bodies by making us male and female and calling us to become one flesh. This is the theology of the body. We see the mystery of God’s love revealed in the sexes and their call to union.
Sexual love is an icon, or earthly image, of the inner life and love of the Trinity. This does not mean that God is sexual. Our sexuality reflects God, but that does not mean that we go the other direction and say therefore God’s love is sexual. God is infinitely beyond any difference between the sexes.
If you have any question about sexual morality, it comes down to one very simple question: “Does this image Christ’s love for the Church or does it not?”
The theme of self-donation comes up again and again in the teaching of the Holy Father. We discover ourselves by giving ourselves away. Christ restores the original meaning of the body by giving his body for his bride: “This is my body given for you.” Jesus makes no conditions, holds nothing back. He gives himself totally.
So how do you see this theology permeating American society? It is about turning back birth control or does extend beyond that?
It extends beyond, but that’s one immediate implication. But it’s not just a matter of throwing away our diaphragms and condoms and pills. That’s not going to solve the problem per se. What is needed is a deep change of heart.
What is the problem with sex in the world today?What’s wrong with the world today is we no longer understand what it means to love. So often what we call love in our culture is nothing but a man and woman or two men or whoever using one another for our own selfish pleasure.The opposite of love, for the Pope, is not hatred. The opposite of love is to use someone as a means to my own selfish end. This is not some abstract theology-we know this to be true. When somebody uses us, treats us as a thing rather than as a person, we feel violated.How would you respond to people who say that they are in deeply love with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and are not trying to use them, but for whatever reason their physical expression of love is not in marriage?We can rationalize our behavior any way we want to. There may very well be genuine elements of love, even in a sexually active, premarital relationship.
But the question is not “do I love my boyfriend or girlfriend” in some general sense, but “is this act an act of love?” Love is not just the sharing of mutual pleasure. The answer the Pope gives is “Sexual love is only authentic to the degree that it images God’s love for us.”
And because Jesus was faithful to humanity, men and women today should be faithful to only one person?
If we are to discover the love we really long for, then Christ is that love. And when it comes to expressing sexual love, it must be free, total, faithful and fruitful. That kind of love is marriage.Sexual intercourse is where the words of the wedding vows are made flesh. We are meant to speak with our bodies, the love we committed to at the altar. And if you’re not doing that, then you’re lying to one another.
In your book, you use the words “truth” and “lying” and “telling lies with the body.” You quote the pope as saying, “Our expressions of love have to be subject to the demands of truth.” In the world today, how are people lying with their bodies?
I will be lying if I am having sex with someone to whom I am not married because my body is saying, “I give myself to you freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully–that’s wedding vows–but I haven’t committed to that. I don’t mean that in my heart.” I’m saying something with my body that isn’t true.
What are some other ways people are speaking these untruths?
Contraception. It changes the language of the body altogether. It says that God is not life-giving love. And from the Christian perspective that is blasphemy.
In the introduction to your book, George Weigel says that “responses to this theology, especially among women, may be surprising.” What reactions have you been getting?
Overwhelmingly positive. For the most part if there’s agitation or anger, the anger is, “I’ve been raised in the Catholic Church and never heard this, why not?” Now that’s not to say that there aren’t those who are resisting the conclusions.
What are people resisting?
They are resisting the fact that this is a call to embrace our dignity and upon our dignity rests responsibility. We are called to a great deal of sacrifice. Love is difficult.
Unfortunately, because of poor teachers, the Church’s teaching has been presented as a long list of prudish prohibitions. What this theology helps us to understand is that this is a liberating sexual ethic. It is the truth that sets us free. Why is the Theology of the Body sounding such a chord?It is sounding such a chord because we have been wounded by the sexual revolution and we are crying out for love. I’ll just speak from my own experience. Ten, eleven years ago when I discovered this theology, I was absolutely amazed at how this old, celibate man in Rome was able to put his finger on the deepest stirrings, longings, and questions of my heart and help me make sense of them. And as I read it, I kept saying to myself, “This makes sense. This is the love I’m looking for.” What response have you been getting specifically from women?
I do seminars specifically for women and I begin these seminars with an apology for the lusts of men and for the way that male lust has wounded the female heart. I am sure that really moves many of them.
There is rarely a dry eye. Women have been deeply wounded by male lust, and most of them have never heard a man say, “I am sorry.” Then I lay out, according to the great wisdom of John Paul II and some of my own experience and insights, this beautiful biblical vision of woman’s greatness and her dignity and her place in God’s plan of salvation. Overwhelmingly women are responding. “Why haven’t I ever heard this? Where was this when I was growing up in the Catholic Church?”
I wonder about the woman who perhaps is married and wants to have this sort of relationship with her husband, but she already has, say, four kids. She’s completely exhausted, and she’s wondering especially about the birth control angle.
I would refer them to any of my books or tapes on the issue. But in short, the church does not teach that you are obligated to have as many children as is physically possible.
You’re referring to Natural Family Planning?
Here’s the point-we are free to choose whether or not to engage in sex. But if we choose to engage in sex, we are not free to change its meaning. So for a couple who has a serious reason to avoid a child, the church has always taught that the only form of “birth control” that is in keeping with human dignity is self-control. Modern methods of Natural Family Planning are not your grandmother’s rhythm method–it is 98 to 99 percent effective in helping couples determine the period of fertility. With that information, they choose how to proceed.People will often say “Oh, come on. What is the big difference between rendering the act sterile yourself, and just waiting until it’s naturally infertile? The end result is the same. Both couples are avoiding children.” To which I respond, if you can understand the difference between killing grandma and waiting until she dies naturally, you can understand the difference between contraception and Natural Family Planning. What about the single person who perhaps does not want to be single, but remains so? They aren’t called to celibacy, they’re not called to be a priest or what have you.
Sexual love or marital love is a paradigm for all human love. Every way that we serve others, rather than ourselves, we are living the nuptial meaning of the body. Every way that we become a gift to others, in the workplace, in the home, in community service, or with friends, with extended family. No one, regardless of your state in life, is outside the scope of this vision. Given that our culture is described as sex-saturated, what do you think the world would be like if everyone followed this?
If we knew how valuable sex was, we would have a world of men and women who are willing to make all the sacrifices necessary to love rightly.If men and women lived this vision, it would be a world of peace, a world of harmony. Not without difficulties, because living this vision is very difficult. But if men and women really took it up despite the challenges, there would be no such thing as war, divorce, AIDS… The world would be a culture of life, a civilization of love.
This theology has begun a sexual counter-revolution. It is spreading and it’s going to play a major role in renewing the world.