“The light of the Gospel, which is a clear but at times painful light, can illumine human sexuality to its very depth in order to transform it and bring it to its full beauty. Here lies the great strength of Blessed John Paul II’sTheology of the Body. In this peaceful and positive response to critics, Christopher West proves once again that he is a faithful and inspiring interpreter and communicator of this great pope’s teaching, a teaching so urgently needed for an effective proclamation of the Gospel.”
- Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, cardinal archbishop of Vienna; general editor, Catechism of the Catholic Church; and grand chancellor, International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family
"Christopher West is to be commended for the courage and strength of conviction with which he proclaims, upholds, and defends the spousal vision of the Church, particularly as it’s articulated in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. It’s with great enthusiasm as his diocesan bishop that I endorse this magnificent book and recommend it to a wide, wide readership."
- Most Reverend Joseph P. McFadden, Bishop of Harrisburg, Chairman, USCCB Committee on Catholic Education
"Inspiring, compelling, faithful and compassionate – At the Heart of the Gospel invites us to follow in the footsteps of Blessed John Paul II as authentic witnesses of the truth and beauty of the Gospel amid the many challenges of contemporary culture. A must read for everyone involved in the new evangelization!"
- Most Reverend Kevin C. Rhoades, Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Chairman, USCCB Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth
"Christopher West has gone to the desert … and come back stronger than ever. Those who may previously have thought his work was one-sided in its celebration of the body and sexuality will find here, brought out more clearly than ever, the deep balance and integration that has always been the foundation of his work."
- Most Reverend Robert J. Carlson, Archbishop of Saint Louis, Chairman, USCCB Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations
"As a former professor of West’s, I may be biased in his favor, but I can honestly say that he has taught me a great deal through this magnificently developed and theologically sound work. His balanced and insightful analyses make it clear that West has immersed himself in the great mystics, Fathers, and doctors of the Church. His treatment of a delicate question of foreplay by married couples is perhaps the finest I have ever read. In short, this is a magnificent theological work that ought to be widely read by all interested in the Theology of the Body and the new evangelization."
- William E. May, Emeritus Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America.
"West’s highly anticipated work At the Heart of the Gospel is in keeping with the man I have come to know and respect since our close collaboration on the new English translation of TOB. In short, this balanced and judicious work demonstrates what I have long understood: West knows John Paul II’s TOB as few others do and he shows great theological skill in presenting, explaining, and upholding the late Pope’s teaching. He grasps its letter with remarkable completeness and is led faithfully by its spirit. He is to be commended for his courage in defending John Paul II’s teaching (and the theological tradition upon which it’s based) in the face of strong opposition."
- Michael Waldstein, Max Seckler Professor of Theology, Ave Maria University
"The beatification of Pope John Paul II is more than the Church’s official recognition of his sanctity. John Paul II’s teaching is now bequeathed to the Church in a new way – not only by his authority as Pope, but also by his personal experience of sanctity. Christopher West is an authentic witness to the transformative power of John Paul II’s teaching and this book accurately captures the meaning of his Theology of the Body and its critical importance for the new evangelization."
- Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, Theologian, Author, and Founding Professor of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Washington D.C.
"Why should you read this book? Because Christopher West is the “translator” of Pope John Paul the Great’s Theology of the Body into clear, simple, popular language; and the Theology of the Body is the Church’s answer to the great heresy of our time, the “Sexual Revolution”; and the Sexual Revolution is the main cause of the corruption and decline of marriage and the family; and the family is the primary key to the health of any civilization; and our civilization is already half way to “Brave New World.” At the Heart of the Gospel provides the alternative."
- Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy, Boston College
"If complacency in the Church is a sleeping lion, then one can expect many swipes of the paw at the work of Christopher West. At the Heart of the Gospel compellingly demonstrates the truth of the matter: West is bringing fresh grace to both the Church and the wider culture. With the wisdom born of trial and the humble acceptance of his own poverty, West targets our aching need and directs us to healing with surgical precision. His proclamation of the Gospel is joyous, contemporary, and contagious! Onward Christopher, we are listening!"
- Anne, a lay apostle Direction for Our Times; Author, Lessons in Love
"At the Heart of the Gospel presents the wisdom and knowledge of an evangelist who’s been on the front lines for nearly twenty years. With great humility, clarity and charity, Christopher West unpacks the life-giving teachings of the Catholic Church on what Blessed John Paul II considered the most pressing issue of our day – what it means to be a person made in God’s image as male and female – and teaches us how to communicate this life-saving truth to a world starving for love."
- Matthew Pinto, President, Ascension Press
"Christopher West is a pioneer in reaching today’s culture with the Gospel."
- Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R.
By making us male and female in the divine image, God established a set purpose for our sexuality, ordering us to the intimate sharing of our very being with another person that’s open to participating in the creative power of God in bringing about new life. To proclaim this truth today requires courage and strength. And few have dared to engage the culture with Catholic teaching on human sexuality as Christopher West does. For this we can be grateful.
When I was named a bishop, I took as my Episcopal motto, “Mary the Model, Jesus the Center.” Mary is the model of openness to Jesus. She is the one who shows us how to bear Christ to others. True to his name, Christopher West is an authentic “Christ-bearer,” effective as a teacher and an evangelist. Through an understanding of Pope John Paul II’s teaching on the human person, made popular and taught throughout the globe by Christopher West, persons have come back to the practice of their faith, marriages have been strengthened and saved, and vocations to the priesthood and religious life have been fostered and renewed.
Through nearly twenty years of service to the Church, Christopher West has gained a hard-earned wisdom born of a constant “confrontation of doctrine with life,” as John Paul II put it (LR, p. 15). In his latest work, At the Heart of the Gospel, West shares that hard-earned wisdom with the rest of us, mapping a path toward an effective and “new” evangelization.
In our efforts to share Christ with the world, much is at stake in the way we understand (or fail to understand) the meaning of our bodies. Ours is a faith of “incarnation,” in which spiritual truths are revealed in the ? esh. Indeed, it is the human body “in all its materiality,” as Blessed John Paul II wrote, that reveals “who man is (and who he ought to be)” (TOB 7:2). It is in the body, in all its beauty as male and female, that we see a sign of the ultimate vocation of every human being to become “one body, one spirit with Christ.” In Jesus, the Word made flesh, God has revealed that man and woman’s future is not limited to this world but that we have an eternal destiny in the Marriage of the Lamb (Rev 19:7).
In this way, as Christopher West illuminates so beautifully for us, John Paul II’s Theology of the Body takes us to the heart of the Gospel itself. The “great mystery” of spousal love frames the entire biblical story. As theCatechism of the Catholic Church observes, “Sacred Scripture begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God and concludes with a vision of ‘the wedding-feast of the Lamb’ ” (CCC 1602). Christ is the ultimate Bridegroom and the Church is his Bride. In turn, the “entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist” (CCC 1617).
This means we must allow John Paul II’s Theology of the Body to inform our understanding not only of the sacrament of marriage, but of all of the sacraments, and of every state of life. We must allow this beautiful theology of spousal love to inform our understanding of the liturgy, the tenets of the Creed, our personal prayer life, our works of charity, and our hope in heaven.
Scholars will explore, expound, and penetrate the ?ner points of John Paul II’s theology for centuries. However, if we are to become authentic witnesses to Blessed John Paul II’s teaching, we must take it up not only as a project of academic study, but also (and even more so) as a “project of the heart.” At its deepest level, the Theology of the Body offers a mystical kind of wisdom. And this means that a merely academic approach can only take a person so far.
As Saint Bonaventure wrote, if one wishes to receive “mystical wisdom,” he should “ask grace, not instruction; desire, not understanding; the groaning of prayer, not diligent reading; the Spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness, not clarity; not light, but the ?re that totally in?ames and carries us into God by ecstatic unctions and burning affections” (The Soul’s Journey into God ).
In Jesus Christ, God comes to us in a way that we can relate to and understand: through a human body, through human love, and through human language. Similarly, if the treasures of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body are to become accessible to those who need them most, they must be put in a language that average men and women can relate to and understand.
Christopher West has been a pioneer in this task. As he himself admits, ?nding the right approach and successfully navigating it has been a challenging process. West’s determination to persevere is our gain. West’s teaching helps the Church to “reclaim the body for the new evangelization.” With great clarity and great charity, At the Heart of the Gospel shows us how.
At the Heart of the Gospel is the work of a theological mind, but also the fruit of a contemplative heart. Far from a super?cial glance, we bene?t, as Christopher West has, from prayerfully “receiving” John Paul II’s teaching and pondering it deeply. As West makes clear, if we are to live the full truth of our sexuality according to our particular state in life, we must persevere on the interior journey: we must learn to embrace God’s purifying ?re, ?nd divine strength in our weaknesses, and boast of nothing but the cross of Christ.
Christopher West is an authentic witness to this journey. He is to be commended for the courage and strength of conviction with which he proclaims, upholds, and defends the spousal vision of the Church, particularly as it’s articulated in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. It’s with great enthusiasm as his diocesan bishop that I endorse this magni?cent book and recommend it to a wide, wide readership.
Most Reverend Joseph P. McFadden
Bishop of Harrisburg Chairman, USCCB Committee on Catholic Education
I remember the ?rst time I read John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB) in the early 1990s. I was convinced that if this glorious vision of human life and divine love were delivered to people in a comprehensible and engaging way, it could change the world dramatically for the good, even rescue us from the downward spiral of the “culture of death.” In short, I was convinced I was holding a revolution in my hands and I knew I would spend the rest of my life studying it and sharing it with others as part of the “new evangelization.”
While the late pope’s teaching does present some bold theological developments, we must af?rm, of course, that “revolutions” do not occur in Catholic teaching itself. That would imply a fundamental change and, although our understanding of the Gospel can and does deepen with time (see CCC 66, 94), the essential witness of the Church is the same yesterday, today, and forever (see TOBE, pp. 599, 601). Yet, in responding to the particular crises of their times, the saints bring “new impulses into the world,” observes Pope Benedict XVI; and through these new impulses, he says, the saints bring about “revolutions”—“revolutions for the good” (LW, p. 158). Blessed John Paul II’s TOB is just such a revolution: it’s bringing “new impulses” into the world, making the often hidden glories of the Gospel accessible to men and women of our times.
“New impulses,” of course, create waves. Not surprisingly, certain circles in the Church have witnessed some spirited debate in recent years about John Paul II’s TOB. What did he really teach? Is it all about sex? What is sex all about? What is the place of this TOB in the theological tradition of the Church? What is the role of the body, sexuality, and marriage in understanding the Gospel itself and the sacramental life of the Church? Is it really possible on this side of heaven to overcome our tendency to lust and “see” the human body as a revelation of human dignity and as a sign of the mystery and beauty of God? What is the best language and approach to use in communicating John Paul II’s scholarly teaching in the “new evangelization”?
In the midst of these conversations, my work as a popularizer of John Paul II’s teaching has been the subject of some rather harsh critiques. During an extended sabbatical in 2010,1 I re?ected prayerfully on the various challenges my work has received, seeking to glean as much as possible from what various authors were saying. This book is the fruit of those re?ections. I offer it not only for those who have followed the discussion and in the hopes that it will clarify some of the debated points; I offer it also and even more so as an invitation to all those involved in the “new evangelization” to re?ect on the challenge, hope, and promise that John Paul II’s TOB represents for the Church and the world at the beginning of the third millennium.
In light of John Paul II’s beati?cation in May of 2011, we have all the more reason to examine (or reexamine) his “masterwork” and allow its healing rays to penetrate our hearts more deeply. As Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete expressed it in his endorsement of this work: “The beati?cation of Pope John Paul II is more than the Church’s of?cial recognition of his sanctity. John Paul II’s teaching is now bequeathed to the Church in a new way—not only by his authority as Pope, but also by his personal experience of sanctity.” This book is offered as a celebration of his sanctity and as an invitation to follow in his footsteps. If we do, we cannot help but become ever more effective witnesses to Christ’s love in the new evangelization.
At the heart of John Paul II’s TOB is the call to love one another in the image of the Trinity, and that means establishing a genuine “unity in diversity.” Our differences, even our theological differences, can and should serve to unite us in our common journey towards the fullness of the truth. Very often the resolution of theological debate involves ?nding the right balance between what appear to be competing truths, but are rather complementary aspects of the whole truth that must be held together in their proper “tension.” Finding that proper tension is like tuning a guitar—we inevitably go sharp, then ?at, then back again until we ?nd just the right tension in the string. When we understand this, we come to see how we need one another’s different emphases. Push-back from either direction is a healthy thing, so long as it’s offered charitably, and with a willingness to af?rm the truth the “other side” is rightly seeking to uphold.
Dominican author Simon Tugwell observes that our hope in Christ is one of “total integration” in which no truth is lost and “nothing is left hanging.” And this, he says, “is why truth can never ?nally be served or peace proclaimed by taking sides . . . The church is called ‘Catholic,’ and this means she is committed to saying ‘Yes’ to the totality of God’s truth.” He concludes by observing that any “serious and useful undertaking produces a crop of different opinions and schools of thought, and it is from a careful scrutiny of all of them that a man becomes genuinely wise . . . Even the opinions we reject make their own contribution to our vision and understanding” (BSCT, pp. 117-118, 119).
The Theology of the Body is the sophisticated work of a mystical theologian. Discovering its gems and absorbing its subtleties is an ongoing process. One never “arrives.” There is always more to learn, always more to appreciate, always more to see. Along the way of this journey, the different emphases of various thinkers can only add to our overall understanding, as Father Tugwell expressed. This is why I believe the spirited conversation that the TOB has engendered in recent years represents a positive development and an important catechetical moment for the Church. The signs of the times continue to underscore how desperate is the need—both in and outside the Church—of recovering a vision of the “great mystery” of divine love revealed through our bodies.
With gratitude for all I have gleaned from a host of “different opinions and schools of thought,” my goal in this work is simply to unfold what I believe John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the Catechism of the Catholic Churchare teaching about this “great mystery” and how we are to share it with the world in the new evangelization. While this work represents a new stage in the development of my own thinking, I also quote from my previous works to show the continuity of my thought and to summarize what I have presented over the years.
It’s my sincere hope that all who read this work will enter more deeply into the “great mystery” that lies at the heart of the Gospel and come away all the more compelled to “go into the main streets and invite everyone to the wedding feast” (Mt 22:9).
The Great Mystery
“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one ?esh.” This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church. (Eph 5:31-32)
At the Heart of the Gospel
t the heart of the Gospel lies the “great mystery” of the marriage of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. In the fullness of time, the two— God and Man—became one in the ?esh of the God-Man. Our belief in the Incarnation of God’s Son “is the distinctive sign of Christian faith” (CCC 463). It’s a mystery so resplendent and grand, so captivating and magni?cent, it never ceases to ravish the hearts of those who glimpse its glory. But there’s more . . .
As if God’s visitation in the ?esh weren’t enough, this astounding visitation is itself an astounding invitation. At the heart of the Gospel is the God-Man’s gratuitous offer to every human being to enter into this same nuptial exchange. God became one in the ?esh with us so that we might become one in our ?esh with him. “The Word became ?esh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature,’ ” proclaims the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Then, quoting St. Athanasius, the Church boldly declares that “ ‘the Son of God became man so that we might become God’ ” (CCC 460). Christ humbled himself to share in our humanity so that we might share in his divinity. What a glorious exchange of God and man; what holy nuptials!
Pope Benedict XVI observes that it is man’s “primordial aspiration” to “enter into union with God” (DC 10). Yet we rightly intuit that our hearts are too impure to enter so sublime a union. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8). As we persevere on our journey with the Lord, we gain con?dence to enter the “holy of holies”—the inner sanctuary of union with God—not on our own merits, but only “by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the veil, that is, through his ? esh.” So let us draw near to this “great mystery,” let us enter con?dently into these holy nuptials “in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb 10:19–20, 22). That is the invitation at the heart of the Gospel.
How do we draw near? How do we enter in? This stupendous mystery is not far away from us. It is not ?oating in the clouds as an abstract idea. It is very close to us, it is intimately part of us. Indeed, God inscribed this “great mystery” in that deeply felt yearning of our hearts for love and union (what the Greeks called “eros”) and signi? ed it in the very form of our bodies when he created us as male and female and called the two to become “one ?esh.” Right “from the beginning” this call to nuptial union was a foreshadowing of the Word made ?esh and his invitation to all humanity to become one with him as members of his body, the Church. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in a pre-papal essay, understanding the Church as the body of Christ “makes sense only against the backdrop of the formula from Genesis 2:24: ‘The two shall become one ?esh’ (see 1 Cor 6:17). The Church is the body, the ?esh of Christ in the spiritual tension of love wherein the spousal mystery of Adam and Eve is consummated” (MCS, p. 26). “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one ?esh” (Gen 2:24). For what reason? St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:31-32—to reveal the “great mystery” of Christ and his love for the Church. The ultimate “reason,” the ultimate “logic” of the human body, of the sexual difference, and of spousal union, is to get us in touch with the Ultimate Reason, the Ultimate Logic of the universe: the Logos, the divine Word who has wed himself to our humanity forever.
In Ephesians 5:31-32, St. Paul links the holy communion of spouses and the Holy Communion of Christ and the Church so intimately as to form one “great sacrament,” one “great sign” that makes God’s invisible mystery visible (see TOB 19:4; 95b:7). We could even say that St. Paul marries these two marriages, that of man and woman and that of Christ and the Church. And this “great mystery” revealed in the marriage of human love and divine love—of eros and agape—is by no means a footnote in the Gospel. Pope John Paul II asserted that “Saint Paul’s magni?cent synthesis concerning the ‘great mystery’ appears as the compendium or summa, in some sense, of the teaching about God and man which was brought to ful?llment by Christ” (LF 19). “It is what God as Creator and Father wishes above all to transmit to mankind in his Word” (TOB 93:2). And God transmits his Word precisely in and through the human body. For “the body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible . . . the mystery hidden from eternity in God” (TOB 19:4). Helping the world to “see” the human body and the “great mystery” of human sexuality in this way is central and essential to the new evangelization.
Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization
Catholics believe that popes are chosen not only by the College of Cardinals, but—through them—by the Holy Spirit who is at work to elect a man uniquely suited to address the needs of the Church and the world at that time. When Pope John Paul II was elected to the Chair of Peter in 1978, the Church was facing a dramatic post-conciliar crisis of faith and the world was living under the threat of global destruction by nuclear war. Under such dire circumstances, what might we expect the new pope to offer the Church and the world in his ?rst major teaching project?
John Paul II concluded that one of the most pressing catechetical needs was to help modern men and women understand the meaning of their bodies. Week after week, in a total of 129 Wednesday audience addresses that spanned ?ve years,3 John Paul II instructed the Church and the world in a thoroughly biblical vision of human embodiment, particularly as it concerns the “great mystery” of our creation as male and female and the call of the two to become “one ?esh.” The general sense of those in attendance at these theological body-lessons was puzzlement (see WH, p. 333). People expect teachers of the Gospel to emphasize the realm of the spirit. What was all this talk about the body? But this ruptured view of body and spirit was the precise disease John Paul II wanted to remedy. He knew that Christians in the modern world had lost sight of the fact that “at the core of this Gospel,” as he once put it, “is the af?rmation of the inseparable connection between the person, his life and his bodiliness” (EV 81).
No, all of this “talk about the body” was not a distraction from the pope’s mission of proclaiming the Gospel to the world. Through this “theology of the body,” John Paul II was plunging us anew into “the perspective of the whole gospel, of the whole teaching, of the whole mission of Christ” (TOB 49:3). In the process, he was presenting the Church with an urgent task for the twenty-?rst century: that of reclaiming the body for the new evangelization. Much is at stake in this task: nothing short of redirecting the “culture of death” from its suicidal course.
“We are facing an immense threat to human life,” wrote John Paul II, “not only to the life of individuals, but also to that of civilization itself.” We live in “a society which is sick and is creating profound distortions in man. Why is this happening?” John Paul asked. “The reason is that our society has broken away from the full truth about man, from the truth about what man and woman really are as persons. Thus it cannot adequately comprehend the real meaning of the gift of persons in marriage, responsible love at the service of fatherhood and motherhood, and the true grandeur of procreation . . . This is the real drama,” he concluded, “the modern means of social communication are . . . falsifying the truth about man. Human beings are not the same thing as the images proposed by advertising and shown by the modern mass media. They are much more, in their physical and [spiritual] unity, as composites of soul and body, as persons. They are much more because of their vocation to love, which introduces them as male and female into the realm of the ‘great mystery.’ ” But the “deep seated roots of the ‘great mystery,’ ” John Paul lamented, “have been lost in the modern way of looking at things. The ‘great mystery’ is threatened in us and all around us” (LF 19, 20, 21).
Here John Paul II sketched in outline form the war being waged in the modern world over what it means to be human. It’s a cosmic contest for man’s soul, but the battle?eld is the body; the battle?eld is man’s own vision of himself as male and female, and his understanding of how, as male and female, he is to love.
When Benedict XVI became pope in 2005, the cultural crisis was signi?cantly worse than it was at the time of John Paul II’s election in 1978. What was his response? Early in his ponti?cate, Benedict asserted that his “personal mission” as pope was not to issue many new documents, but to ensure that the teaching of his predecessor was assimilated by the Church (see interview October 16, 2005). Not surprisingly, Pope Benedict’s ? rst encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) offered a beautiful continuation—even a crowning—of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. In his own words and with his own style, Pope Benedict re?ected at length on the integral relationship between divine love (agape) and the love between the sexes (eros), and how integrating the two is essential if the Church is to be a credible witness in the modern world to the God who “is love.”
Building on Benedict XVI’s encyclical, in Lent of 2011, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, of?cial preacher to the papal household, offered an illuminating and forthright homily to the pope and the Roman Curia on the urgency of integrating eros and agape. He observed that love “suffers from ill-fated separation not only in the mentality of the secularized world, but also in that of the opposite side, among believers . . . Simplifying the situation to the greatest extent,” he said, “we can articulate it thus: In the world we ?nd eros without agape; among believers we often ?nd agape without eros.” The former “is a body without a soul” and is well understood “propagated as it is in a hammering way” by the secular media. The latter— agape without eros—“is a soul without a body”; it’s a “cold love” in which “the component linked to affectivity and the heart is systematically denied or repressed.” Either way, by separating eros and agape, we distort the truth of love and rupture our own humanity. For the “human being is not an angel, that is, a pure spirit; he is a soul and body substantially united: everything he does, including loving, must re?ect this structure” (TF 1).
The systematic repression of eros in the name of “holiness” ultimately stems from a widespread theological vision of man that splits body and soul in order to “free” love from (what many consider) the “un?attering” and “unholy” realities of bodiliness. Not only is this approach to love terribly ?awed, it also conceals within itself a fundamental and grave danger: that of legitimizing and even fostering the world’s approach to love. When believers demand a holiness free of eros, the secular world, for its part, quite happily demands an eros free of holiness. Welcome to the world in which we live.
How should the Church respond? Cantalamessa observes that while “we cannot change with one stroke the idea of love that the world has, we can however correct the theological vision that, unwittingly, fosters and legitimizes it” (TF 3). We can and must reclaim the essential link between eros and agape, between sexuality and spirituality, between body and soul. This is the essential cure for what ails the modern world. And this is the essential gift of authentic Catholic teaching on the human body, love, and sexuality, especially as articulated by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
De?ning “Sex” and “Sexuality”
I often tell my audiences the sad (but true) story of a seven-year-old boy who, entering a church for the ?rst time, asked his mother who the man was on the cross. She said, “That’s Jesus Christ.” To which her son responded, “Mommy, don’t say that, we’re in a church!” How tragic that the most holy, sacred name of Jesus had become for this boy nothing but a bad word! Should his mother stop talking about Jesus, or use some other name to refer to him? Or, rather, should she patiently help rehabilitate her son’s thinking? It seems similar today with the words “sex” and “sexuality.” The very terms have become vulgar in some people’s minds. This makes reclaiming the true holiness of masculinity and femininity and the call of the two to become “one ?esh” an obvious challenge in the new evangelization.
Father Cantalamessa observes that the early Christians faced a similar challenge in the original evangelization. Presumably because of its vulgar usage, the New Testament authors avoided the term “eros” altogether. However, as soon as “Christianity entered into contact and dialogue with the Greek culture of the time,” writes Cantalamessa, “every preclusion fell immediately.” The Fathers of the Church employed a noble usage of eros, and were thus able to rehabilitate an otherwise vulgar word as a “synonym for agape . . . and for every beautiful thing” (TF 3). By following the teachings of the Catechism, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, we can do the same for terms like “sex” and “sexuality.”
“Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul,” states the Catechism. “It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others” (CCC 2332).
“Consequently, sexuality,” John Paul II af?rmed, “is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such” (FC 11). A person’s “sexuality,” therefore (his maleness or femaleness), “in some way is ‘constitutive of the person’ (not only ‘an attribute of the person’)” (TOB 10:1).6 This means our sexuality is not merely one aspect of our humanity. Rather, our sexuality illuminates the very essence of our humanity as men and women made in the divine image.
The more we understand this, the more we recognize how misguided is the common notion that in order to “deny our sinful tendencies” we must “deny our sexuality.” With such an approach we end up trading one sin (the lustful indulgence of sexuality) for another (contempt of human nature). When a person denies his sexuality, as Pope Benedict re?ected in a pre-papal essay, he “thereby strikes a blow against his deepest being. He holds himself in contempt, because the truth is that he is human only insofar as he is bodily, only insofar as he is man or woman.” Hence, the question of sexuality “has high stakes: nothing less than the reality of the creature” (MCS, pp. 32-33). For “every human being is by nature a sexual being,” as John Paul II wrote in his pre-papal book Love and Responsibility. We are male or female through and through.7 And “membership of one of the two sexes means that a person’s whole existence has a particular orientation.” In turn, this orientation towards the “other”—this “sexual urge”—is not to be understood primarily as an “occasion of sin.” Rather, the “sexual urge in this conception,” writes John Paul II, “is a vector of aspiration along which [our] whole existence develops and perfects itself from within” (LR, pp. 46-47).
Some ?nd themselves markedly uncomfortable identifying our humanity in so close a way with our sexuality. They see it as a reduction of the human person to the “sexual level” and, as such, a debasing or profaning of man’s “spiritual dignity.” But can we not recognize that dangerous rift between body and soul lurking behind such an idea? It’s sin that profanes the great gift of sexuality— original sin and our own personal sin—causing it to descend to a subhuman level. The good news is that Christ has raised the body up again, cleansing our sexuality “by the washing of water with the word” (Eph 5:26). “What God has made clean, [we] are not to call profane” (Acts 11:9).8 In this light, identifying our humanity so closely with our sexuality is not a matter of reducing the human person to the “sexual level.” Rather, it is a matter of raising all that is sexual to the level of the human person.
In view of “the redemption of the body” (Rom 8:23), John Paul II’s TOB, as George Weigel put it, “challenges us to think of sexuality as a way to grasp the essence of the human—and through that, to discern something about the divine” (WH, p. 343). The “essence of the human” is our call to communion—with God and with one another; it is the giving and receiving of love. And the whole truth of the body and of sex, John Paul af?rms, “is the simple and pure truth of communion between persons” (TOB 14:4). This is what makes the sexual realm a profoundly sacred one, and this sacred realm, from the Christian perspective, is the only proper context in which to understand the true nature of sexual matters.
In summary, the terms “sex” and “sexuality,” properly understood, refer ?rst and foremost to a rich theological “identity,” not to an impersonal or animalistic “activity,” as the culture so grossly distorts these words.9 Only on this indispensable foundation can we speak of the other meaning of the word “sex”—in the sense of the two becoming “one ?esh”—without vulgarizing the term as our culture does. Becoming “one ?esh” refers “without doubt,” John Paul says, to “the unity that is expressed and realized in the conjugal act.” But the biblical vision “does not allow us to stop on the surface of human sexuality; it does not allow us to treat the body and sex outside the full dimension of man and the ‘communion of persons’ [to which he’s called in the divine image].” In fact, John Paul says, in discussing sexual matters, we have “the obligation to see the fullness and depth proper to this unity, the unity that man and woman must constitute in the light of the revelation of the body” (TOB 10:2). We must take this obligation very seriously if we are to rehabilitate the terms “sex” and “sexuality” in a noble usage.
Such a noble usage leads to the clear recognition that human sexuality and sexual union in God’s design are all about revealing Christ and his love for the Church (see Eph 5:31-32). Indeed, sexual love in God’s design is a “great mystery” that takes us to the heart of the Gospel itself. If we are to redirect the culture from its suicidal course, we simply must reclaim and proclaim this sacred truth in a new evangelization.
The Great Task We Face
We “really are in an age in which a new evangelization is needed,” asserts Pope Benedict, so that the Gospel message “can reenter our thinking and understanding in a new way” (LW, p. 136). Great numbers of people have been raised and educated in the Church, but “so very little sticks” (LW, p. 140). Why? As the Holy Father admits, the modern crisis in faith stems in part from the fact that the Gospel has been proclaimed “in formulas that, while true, are nevertheless at the same time outmoded. They no longer speak to our living situation and are often no longer comprehensible to us” (LW, p. 63). Hence, we “must seriously re?ect on ways to give catechesis a new heart and a new face” (LW, p. 140).
First of all, the “new heart and new face” of catechesis must demonstrate the “positive option” that Christianity provides the world, especially when it comes to questions of sex. Rather than devoting our energies to condemning the world’s sin and accusing human hearts, we must follow the example John Paul II set in his TOB and focus our efforts on calling human hearts to what is true, good, and beautiful (see TOB 44-48). There are, of course, appropriate times to speak about sin and the danger of sin, but that shouldn’t be the focus. As Father Jacque Philippe observes: “When we concentrate too much on something that isn’t right, and make it our main topic of conversation, we end up giving evil more substance than it has. Deploring evil sometimes only strengthens it . . . We do more to help others experience conversion and make progress by encouraging them in the positive aspects of their lives than by condemning their errors. Good is more real than evil, and it overcomes evil” (IF, pp. 76-77). Benedict XVI con?rmed the importance of this approach when he stated:
Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer, that man and woman are made for each other, that the scale of sexuality, eros, agape, indicates the level of love and it’s in this way that marriage develops . . . But [the Church’s teaching] is clearer if you say it ?rst in a positive way. (Interview August 5, 2006)
Furthermore, the “new heart and new face” of catechesis must “translate the treasure that is preserved in [our] faith . . . into the speech and thinking of our time,” says Pope Benedict, “so that [Christ] can become present within the horizon of the secular world’s understanding. That is the great task we face.” This great task is under way. However, the pope acknowledges that it “has really not yet succeeded” (LW, p. 64).
Conventional ways of communicating the Catholic Faith have not served us very well in the modern world. Indeed, if we look at how few people in the pews even believe and profess what the Church believes and professes (especially regarding sexual matters)—not to mention those who have left the Church and those who remain un-churched—we must admit that our efforts to evangelize and catechize have not been very successful (to put it mildly). If we really want to reach the men and women of our time with the orthodox teaching of the Church, it will demand something different than what we’ve seen. First, it will demand, as Pope Paul VI put it, that we “not hold fast to forms of expression which have lost their meaning and can no longer stir men’s minds” (ES 85). Second, it will demand, as Blessed John Paul II put it, a proclamation of Christ that is “new in ardor, methods, and expression” (address March 9, 1983). Reaching the modern world with the full truth of the Gospel will demand—if I may put it this way—an “unorthodox” orthodoxy: a vibrant and joyful profession of ?delity to the teaching of the Church proclaimed in a way that breaks out of “outmoded formulas” and speaks to the living situation of the modern world. “For the deposit and the truths of Faith are one thing,” observed the Fathers of Vatican II, “and the manner in which they are enunciated is another” (GS 62).
If Christ is to become present within the secular world’s understanding, that will mean walking a ?ne line, a place of tension, between the sacred and the secular. That will mean, in some instances, using a language with which a more pious and re? ned audience might take issue so that a much less pious and re?ned audience might be reached. As Pope Benedict put it, “one has to meet one’s listeners halfway, one has to speak to them in terms of their own horizon.” We do this not to “stay” there, but “to open up this horizon, to broaden it, and turn our gaze toward the ultimate” (LW, p. 179). Finding that language is a duty of charity. Finding that language is also a process of trial and error. So let us try, and when we err, let us correct those errors and try again. That’s how we grow. There’s no “one right way” to proclaim the “great mystery” to the modern world, but this much is certain: out of love for others, we must stretch ourselves; we must break out of our comfort zones; we must be courageous, bold, and daring. We must strive to be all things to all men, so that some might be saved (see 1 Cor 9:22).