Additional thoughts on Wojtyla’s theology of the body

18 05 2009


After writing my essay on the theology of the body last week, some lingering ideas have been on my mind. I add them here as an appendix to what I originally wrote.

The main reason for the vehemence behind the former post is due to a sense that the theology of the body threatens to invert the ethos of Catholicism in particular and Christianity in general. Indeed, the weakest link in John Paul II’s catechesis is when he has to deal with the various passages in the New Testament where Our Lord and Saint Paul discuss the role of celibacy in the Christian mystery. While he by no means dismisses these passages, he does not quite know where to fit them into his ideological construct. John Paul II seems to want to stand the Christian vision on its head: the paradigm on which Christian discourse must be based is that of the intimate relationship between man and woman. Since we are discussing an “ethos” and not necessarily an idea, it is not possible to come up with a specific proof text to prove Wojtyla wrong. If he and others want to see the Christian mystery through the prism of marriage, that is their prerogative. It can be one school among many, but I would contend that it is not the correct one.

The genius of the world’s “major” religions is that it seeks to base belief on phenomena that transcend familial relationships. In higher forms of Hinduism, we see this in the developed cults of bhakti yoga: one’s salvation comes through devotion to the transcendent manifestation of the Godhead. In Buddhism, this is taken a step further, and “traditional forms”, while maintained on the popular level, are completely irrelevant to one’s liberation from desire. The family plays no role in Buddhism: the Buddha leaves his family, his wealth, and national ties to seek liberation. Islam has submission to God as an idea that transcends the family, and even late prophetic Judaism sought to create a religion of the heart that was not tied to the “national” promises of the Old Covenant. Thus, when Jesus Christ comes along preaching His message of repentance and resurrection by belief in His name, He of course speaks of “hating your father and mother”, of “letting the dead bury the dead”, and of being a “eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven”. That is because the primary foundation of Christianity cannot be marriage and family. The appeal and growth of Christianity came in the breaking of the power of the familial cults to local deities. Its main paradigm is one of martyrdom, of taking up the Cross, leaving all that you were before, and following Christ. Through this, one becomes an adopted son of God, begotten in the Church without any tie to carnal relations.

In relationship to this, the theology of the body even as preached by Wojtyla can come dangerously close to “Catholic Mormonism”. I will readily admit that the family as an institution is under attack in our society, but the solution to this crisis is not the apotheosis of carnal relations between a man and a woman as the metaphysical foundation of Catholic thought. It has perhaps never occurred to the theology of the body advocates that such an institution cannot sustain such a burden in philosophical terms. Perhaps the reason that the family is deteriorating is because it was not as strong as we thought it was in the first place. Indeed, the contemporary idea of the “nuclear family” is a recent invention, and our ideas of what the relationship between man and woman should be like are so clouded by visions of modern romantic love to be anywhere close to realistic. It is my contention that in this case it is nature that needs supernature; theology of the body puts the cart before the horse. Marriage may be a sacrament, but it is not the “primordial” sacrament that leads to life. That one is baptism: the symbolic death and resurrection of man that leads to eternal life. To divinize relationships based on carnal ties is something that Mormons do, not Catholics.

The real question at the heart of theology of the body, looking purely at the text, is, “is it convincing?” The hundreds of pages of text end in an attempt to tie all of it together in an apologia for the Church’s opposition to artificial contraception. In spite of the poetics and rhetoric in the previous hundreds of pages, if Wojtyla’s explanation of this moral truth does not succeed in convincing outsiders, then it is all for naught. Indeed, when I was reading it, I felt almost cheated; the previous four hundred pages seemed to be for me a whole lot of superfluous grandstanding. The problem that the Polish philosopher has is largely one of his own making: if he merely assents to the traditional Catholic idea that the primary end of sex within matrimony is procreation, he would not really have any difficulties. Instead, he has to put on the same level the “unitive” end of marriage with that of procreation, and that is where the problems begin. For him, the conjugal act can never be “deprived of interiority” and is to articulate the “language of the body as mutual gift”. Any sexual act where artificial contraception is used is “deprived of its inner truth because it is deprived artificially of its procreative capacity, “ and “it also ceases to be an act of love” (Catechesis 123). Whether or not such language is convincing to modern people is far from settled.

I think the idea that “sex is for procreation” is the only position that is tenable philosophically, and to say that modern people won’t buy it is neither here nor there. People know at the bottom of their hearts that sex is primarily for procreation and marriage, just as they know that it is wrong to murder and steal. We see evidence of this in our daily lives in spite of the propaganda of the society in which we live. Indeed, the greatest marriage in history, that between the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, did not involve sex, but it certainly involved a Child. It is also not possible to “spiritualize” your way out of the appeal of lust and sin; those are merely existential facts that man has to deal with due to his fall from God’s grace. These questions should best be left to the confessional rather than becoming the building blocks for a chic theological construct. The bedroom should not be a theological subject simply because it is not suited for it. Otherwise, we will have a legion of scrupulous couples wondering if their intimate acts are “interior” enough.

One last observation: of all the pundits who have commented on this issue lately, I have noticed that almost none of them have read John Paul II’s text in full. Most say, “well, I haven’t read it, but it seems to me that…” I find this a particularly bizarre thing to say when it comes from advocates of the theology of the body. “I support it, but I have never read it.” Maybe the dirty little secret is that people don’t read it because it is too ambiguous and dense for anyone to really penetrate, so in that case people have to rely on pop commentators like Christopher West to interpret it for them. On the other hand, pro-TOB West detractors don’t realize that Christopher West wrote a preface to the new translations of Wojtyla’s sermons. If he doesn’t “get it”, then who does? If there are problems with the theory, look to the source.



9 responses

18 07 2009

I found the articles on TOB to be refreshing, esp the comments about Pope JP2’s arguments.

However, I have not seen anyone take up the issue of the context of the TOB – Pope JP2’s univeral soteriology as outlined by Fr Johannnes Dormann in his volumes “Pope John Paul II’s Theological Journey to the Prayer Meeting of Relgions in Assisi”. Dormann examines three of Pope JP2’s main encyclicals that provide the basis for the gathering of religions in Assisi. He poses the question in Vol 2 “what is the relationship between ‘Christs being’ and each human being and where the Church’s mission is concentrated? In the Encyclical’s rigorous anthropocentrism the answer seems to be unavoidabe: they are the same. The Son of God who united Himself formally by His Incarnation with every human being is thus the humano-divine principle of man’s being.” This means that all of creation is redeemed from Adam through to the end of time, and the part of the Church is to bring out the embedded salvation wrought by our Blessed Lord. Dormann makes the point that this is a view that was espoused by Henri de Lubac whom Pope JP2 had a great admiration towards.

At any rate the place that TOB occuppies in this new view of salvation history, is that man having been divinised by the Incarnation (a la Pope JP2’s view) the human body has been restored to its original state of innocence. What this view implies is that the TOB talks are a subset of the view that the way of the Church is (divinised) man.

In this respect it appears to me that West has done everyone a favour by demonstrating the internal logic of the new view and where it leads to. A number have criticised West for misinterpreting Pope JP2, but I don’t think he is as far off the mark as many think. He has clearly read the talks and other material and is implementing his understanding from the plain man’s view of the words. This is not to say that Pope JP2 is clear in what he writes, he isn’t. However, West is clearly speaking as if the effects of original sin have been nullified by the Incarnation and we have only to activate that redeemed state embedded in us by virtue of conception. One of his presentations puts the matter succinctly: Naked without Shame. A blurb selling the product makes it clear that through listening to a series of talks on Pope JP2’s TOB, anyone, even teens mind you, can “..rediscover God’s original plan for our sexuality through the reintegration of body and soul, sexuality and spirituality.” No mention of a life of grace through the sacraments as preached by the Catholic Church as the only solution to such integration By making an individual self-aware, that is knowledge, through talks and activities, of the true meaning of their body because of Christ’s Incarnation through talks, anyone listening or reading his material, [which in fact comes from Pope JP2] activates his own eschatalogical end here on earth. No wonder TOB is being marketed to anyone and everyone. It is marketed as such because everyone is an anonymous Christian and the TOB is the means by which they might come truly alive.

Mind you I doubt West has a clue about the soteriology of Pope JP2 that underpins this new cottage industry.

25 05 2009

Fearsome Comrade,

I’m fully aware that sickness and starvation killed off many babies in the pre-modern era. However, after the invention of the sewer system and improved hygiene in the 19th century, many babies that would have died had they been born a few decades earlier survived. That’s when it became easier to have larger families with relatively few infant and/or child deaths. I was simply pointing out, as other have, that until recently children were considered to be an economic bonus rather than a burden, especially if you were living an an agrarian society. The American baby boom of the 1940s and 50s was aided by a perception that it was cost-effective to have 4+ children. This perception doesn’t exist anymore, where manufacturing jobs are scarce and a college education is basically the equivilent of what a high school degree used to be. With increased automation and outsourcing, there is less need in society for a large population as there is in an agrarian or industrial societies. Since there is no real need or desire for people to have lots of kids, either on a personal or societal basis, they don’t, and no theological sex theory can change that.

25 05 2009
Arturo Vasquez


I guess I can concede your point that it is a bit ironic to the outsider that the Church spends way too much time concerned about how people chose to fornicate. In general, a bunch of celibates talking about sex is just strange. I can concede that, it would be best if such things were kept to the modesty of the confessional and individual counseling.

On the other hand, you are also right that in many cases the real traditional Catholic form of birth control was a high infant mortality rate. Barring that, though, back in the day children equaled free labor, even in that “rural utopia” of Catholic agrarian society (sarcasm fully intended), whereas now they equal a liability. For all the talk of the demographic implosion of Europe, what real incentive will the Church give to people to have six or eight children when the modern economic structure demands fewer, educated, and highly skilled workers? We all know of the conservative Christian churches where families roll up in big white vans and eight children pile out, along with their exhausted mother, unsupported by the traditional extended family and rural societal structures. Such Christians only have bigger families since they are better educated and “take their Faith seriously”, which is to draw a fine line between devotion and a clique. That means that the father is often a successful business man, a lawyer, or some other person of means. But what of Joe Catholic in the pew?

If our hierarchy was really, really honest, and so concerned about the demographic implosion in Europe especially, maybe their slogan can be: “bring back the Catholic ghetto”, where families live eight to a room and children go to work at twelve to support the family. Or maybe they should say that Catholics should have at least X amount of children: sort of a Catholic eugenics program. Then we can have street fights in Paris, Madrid, and Rome between underemployed Catholic youth and their Muslim competitors.

It’s not that I doubt for a second the sinfulness of artificial birth control. We should just realize what we are up against.

25 05 2009
Fearsome Comrade

In my thick, metaphysically unsophisticated Lutheranism, I think Catholics find themselves with two options: Scylla and Charybdis. On one hand, you have something like 16 or 17 of tradition firmly grounded in the notion that the only sort of person with any authority to speak about sexuality is someone who’s run off into the desert and taken a vow of chastity. Does it start with Plato and Origen? Beats me. But we’re talking about a history in which a pope didn’t see anything particularly wrong with selling priests’ wives and children into slavery so as to enforce chastity. That’s Scylla.

On the other hand, you have JP2’s dopey “theology of the body,” which apparently doesn’t actually mean anything, but somehow devolves into this bizarre world where Catholic high school students scrupulously fornicate without using birth control. F’real, I hear Catholics spends, way, way, WAY more time grousing about and condeming Trojans than fornication. Okay, I’m kinda sympathetic to the anti-BC thing, and I get where you’re coming from, but doesn’t anyone regard it as a BIT more of a problem that premarital sex is pretty normal among the laity?

I don’t expect you to convert to any sort of “earthy” Lutheranism where sexual desire is regarded as non-evil and you can come right out and say that Jerome was too flippin’ grumpy and that Augustine went too far in making his own lasciviousness normative for sexuality. You roll with Plato, and that’s you. I’m just saying what I see.

Leah, remember that in olden-tymie days, you might have had six kids, but you only had to feed two or three of them until adulthood, since the others would die before they hit five. Just sayin’.

18 05 2009


David writes:
>>>As you mentioned, TOB is in a large part a defense of the Church’s position on artificial contraception, and advocates NFP for those couples who have “serious” reasons to space births or prevent conception.

The Church has permitted natural methods of spacing children (now called NFP) since long before Pope John Paul II was born. As Fr. Brian Harrison points out in his article, “Is Natural Family Planning a ‘Heresy’?”:

“The first time Rome spoke on the matter was as long ago as 1853, when the Sacred Penitentiary answered a dubium (a formal request for an official clarification) submitted by the Bishop of Amiens, France. He asked, “Should those spouses be reprehended who make use of marriage only on those days when (in the opinion of some doctors) conception is impossible?” The Vatican reply was, “After mature examination, we have decided that such spouses should not be disturbed [or disquieted], provided they do nothing that impedes generation” By the expression “impedes generation”, it is obvious the Vatican meant the use of onanism (or coitus interruptus, now popularly called ‘withdrawal’), condoms, etc. For otherwise the reply would be self-contradictory and make no sense.

“The next time the issue was raised was in 1880, when the Sacred Penitentiary on June 16 of that year issued a more general response (i.e., not directed just to an individual bishop). This time the Vatican goes further: not only does it instruct confessors not to “disquiet” or “disturb” married couples who are already practising periodic continence; it even authorizes the confessor to take the initiative in positively suggesting that method, with due caution, to couples who may not yet be aware of it, and who, in his prudent judgment, are otherwise likely to keep on practising the “detestable crime” of onanism. One could not ask for a more obvious and explicit proof that already, more than eighty years before Vatican II, the Holy See saw a great moral difference between NFP (as we now call it) and contraceptive methods (which Catholic moralists then referred to globally as ‘onanism’ of different types). The precise question posed was this: “Whether it is licit to make use of marriage only on those days when it is more difficult for conception to occur?” The response is: “Spouses using the aforesaid method are not to be disturbed; and a confessor may, with due caution, suggest this proposal to spouses, if his other attempts to lead them away from the detestable crime of onanism have proved fruitless.” The editorial notes in Denzinger indicate that this decision was made public the following year (1881) in the respected French journal Nouvelle Revue Théologique, and in Rome itself in 1883 in the Vatican-approved series Analecta Iuris Pontificii.”

So the Church’s allowance of what came to be known as NFP goes back more than 150 years.

>>>Anyone who isn’t trying to justify the practice can see that NFP is just a more complicated form of birth control

There is a definite difference between NFP and artificial birth control (contraception). Fist of all, NFP can be used either to postpone pregnancy or bring it about while contraception can *only* be used to avoid it. If a woman on the Pill, for instance, decides to have children, she must stop taking it and wait a few cycles until her body readjusts. A woman who uses NFP, OTOH, needn’t stop using it but can actually use it to figure out when she is most likely to conceive. So NFP is not contraception, but a method of fertility awareness that can be used to either conceive or postpone conception.

Second, in Casti Connubii (1930), Pope Pius XI proclaimed the following re. contraception:

“… the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.” (Casti Connubii 56, emphasis mine)

Note that the specific problem with contraception is that the marital act “is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life.” That is, artificial birth control thwarts the natural procreative power of the conjugal act. This goes against nature and is therefore immoral. NFP, OTOH, does not do this because it waits until that “natural power to generate life” is no longer present (ie. the infertile time). One cannot thwart something that is not there

This is why, three paragraphs later, Paul XI reiterates that it is morally licit for couples to have marital relations even at a time when they are incapable of conceiving:

“Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.” (Casti Connubii 59, emphasis mine)

This was written back when Karol Wojtyla was but a child, decades before anyone had ever heard of a “Theology of the Body.” The Church hardly needs TOB to defend NFP.

NFP respects the normal, natural fertility of conjugal relations and works within the framework of the fertility cycle. Contraception, OTOH, works against it and does away with fertility. It’s the difference between being the minister of God’s gift of fertility and trying to master it. These are not morally equivalent in the eyes of the Church. NFP is clearly morally licit if a couple has just cause for spacing the births of their children, but it is not manditory. No couple is obliged to practice NFP if they don’t want to.

In Jesu et Maria,

18 05 2009

It seems to me that the fundemental problem is not that Catholics need to be reminded of the value of marital sex (since most people don’t need a metaphysical excuse to hop in the sack), but that Catholics don’t want to have children. It used to be that children were an economic investment. Now they are considered to be a economic drain. Since it is assumed by many people that children need designer clothes, iPods, and an Ivy League education to be happy and sucessful, they relegate themselves to having as few as possible to maximize the amount of stuff that can be given to each child. It’s probably safe to assume that many people aren’t having kids because of environmental concerns, even as they drive SUVs and fly on planes. Until this situation changes, Catholics will continue to contracept like everyone else.

18 05 2009
Arturo Vasquez


Indeed, it is arguable from the text that the measuring of vaginal mucous is a way of revealing the language of the body to the other (to use Wojtyla’s language). If done in the spirit of truth, it can be a more profound entrance into the mystery of the human person, showing the rhythms of life in which we dwell as incarnate subjects.

(See how I mastered the lingo.)

There is another problem of the phenomenological method itself, in which human experience is expected to match the exigencies of ideology. This never turns out well. The unitive aspect of sex is a subjective phenomenon not easily captured in theory. And while their acts are sinful, it is very problematic to say to a couple that their sexual activities performed using artificial contraception are not acts of love. Disordered love, maybe, but I don’t see the pastoral benefits of telling a couple what they should be feeling, or what their act means in the context of their particular relationship. God knows there have been sexual acts in the past that have purely for procreative purposes that have been equally objectifying and “de-humanizing”. That is why Catholic moral theology has been loathe to comment on “subjective” conditions of actions. What is certain is the objective weight of a particular act: sexual intercourse that does not allow the possiblilty of procreation is objectively wrong, no matter how you feel about it or what it does in the context of your relationship. We can comment on sin, not on emotional and psychological pathology.

Theology of the body is a fad. In twenty years, it will be a footnote in John Paul II’s pontificate.

18 05 2009
Ben George

I recall a TOB reading group I attended a few times. People would read through passage of TOB and then comment. Not once did anyone comment directly on the passage, because it was obvious no one understood what the passage was supposed to mean in the first place.

It was rather bizarre. After a few paragraphs of dense and convoluted phenomenology, the “take home” message was, for most, “just, you know, how beautiful love is.” Ok?

18 05 2009

In many ways, it is really quite laughable to elevate sex to the level that TOB advocates do. It might be argued though, that in this day and age where we as a society have elevated sex to such a a matter of primary importance, such an approach was necessary. Our culture has become so sexualized and the act so divorced from procreation that no one takes the idea of sex for procreation only seriously anymore (other than hard-core traditionalists).

The problem, though, is that TOB tries to have its cake and eat it too. As you mentioned, TOB is in a large part a defense of the Church’s position on artificial contraception, and advocates NFP for those couples who have “serious” reasons to space births or prevent conception. Anyone who isn’t trying to justify the practice can see that NFP is just a more complicated form of birth control (and considering how tedious and difficult it is to actually practice, is it any wonder almost no Catholics actually do?). And no, it is not the abstinence part that is contraceptive, it is specifically selecting non-fertile days for sex that is. Deliberately having sex on a day one knows one is not fertile is no more “open to life” than someone using a condom, which, ironically, has a higher failure rate than NFP in the prevention of conception. Further, as long as an act culminates in “unprotected” vaginal sex, there is an anything goes approach to what kind of actions are permitted. The bottom line seems to be that as long as a man ejaculates in his wife’s vagina, and no where else, you can do whatever you want.

So, on the one hand, there is this grandiose conception of marital sex, but a very clinical approach (temperatures taken every morning at the same time, dutifully charting the results and assessing the quality of cervical mucous throughout the day) to its practice. its all very muddled and confused. Is it any wonder that so few Catholics take the Church’s teachings on sex seriously?

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