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Theology of the body – an overview

Anna Krohn
Anna Krohn.
By Anna Krohn

What is the theology of the body all about?

Many grandparents, parish priests and teachers are stunned into silence by the fervour and the impact of the ‘theology of the body’ revolution among some youthful couples, students and junior seminarians.

The older folk wonder about the buzzwords and what lies behind comments such as: “TOB (theology of the body) has changed my life!” (a common refrain). They are mystified by the way the John Paul II generation (as it is sometimes called) devotedly keeps alive the memory of the Polish Pontiff.

Have we not all been told for a long time now that Catholic and, still worse, Papal teaching on the hot-button issues is woefully and even dangerously out of touch?

A quick browse of our breakfast newspaper will bring up a shopping list of complaints against the strictures of the so-called ‘official’ Catholic ‘policy’ on human fertility, sexual behaviour, personal morality, sacramental and liturgical practice, life ethics and family culture.

Sadly, many baptised Catholics through misunderstanding or indifference absorb these accusations. Accordingly, they cut out of their lives the unpalatable ‘hard rules’ of Catholic teaching.

It was Pope John Paul II who, with his lifelong pastoral/spiritual insight, his dramatic creativity and his genius for communication, realised that secular liberalism was an outgrowth of moral and spiritual legalism and flesh-denying dualism rather than a rejection of it.

Far from leading disillusioned contemporary people into a happy reconciliation with their own personal dignity, sexuality, physicality or each other, the reverse was evident.

At the same time the Pope carefully acknowledged the baleful effects of lop-sided, joyless and shallow (and therefore quasi-heretical) attitudes and beliefs of Catholics themselves on the matters of the heart, the erotic, the senses and sexuality.

It was the Pope’s frankness about human failure and his depth of insight into human desire that so appealed to those born after the ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ revolution and fed on fast food, immediate information and fleeting satisfactions.

John Paul II’s programmatic ‘theology of the body’ is more than clever sociological forecasting. It is also much more demanding than any revamped check list of moral prohibitions or a glib top 10 list of tips for relationship nirvana. It demands from its audience attention, meditation and sometimes painful honesty.

What is the heart of the message?

John Paul’s particular theology of the body was brought to light through 129 weekly talks delivered in short but dense catechetical bites in the early years of his Papacy, from 1979 to 1984.

The theology of the body might be defined as a re-narrated and freshly integrated theological exploration centred on what God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ‘reveal’ through the gift of our bodies (that is, both God’s gift in creating embodied persons, and our desire to give/receive through our bodies).

The dynamic and concrete vision of the human person tells of both the ‘suffering’ and the blessing of being human, and of being called precisely through our shared body-experience to God’s infinitely saving and satisfying love and revelation.

In his extended reflections, Pope John Paul II employs three major biblical picture-frames: Genesis chapters 1 and 2; the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5); and Christ’s words about the resurrection and the kingdom (Matt. 19 and 22) along with St Paul’s reflections upon these themes (1 Cor 7 and 15).

To this the Pope adds two more central scriptural reflections: upon the Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5; and upon the ‘wedding’ themes in the Song of Songs and the Book of Tobit.

On to this vast biblical tree, Pope John Paul II weaves the bright fruits of Catholic Tradition in its mystical, moral, philosophical and even its artistic dimensions. The result is a complex but captivating retelling of the whole.

However, in touching, as he does, upon the body’s theological implications for procreation, sexual relationships, art, bioethics, politics, culture, education, worship and pastoral care, he does not aim to overwhelm or exclude.

By choosing to deliver his teaching through the Wednesday Audiences, the Pontiff aimed to invite his audience to become fellow pilgrims to his own meditations – whether they were physically present or ‘listening’ from a time or place afar, whether in the Church or beyond, whether teenage backpacker or senior bishop.

Further resources

Over the next few months it is the aim of this series to unpack the context, purpose, style and key themes introduced by Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, following the structure of his presentation so that different levels of further reflection can be followed.

These articles will make further reading suggestions that will be made available via a web-link.

The primary text for these articles will be the excellent compilation and translation of the Pope’s texts presented in Italian (but conceived in Polish).

This printed edition is the fruit of nine years of scholarly labour by Prof Michael Waldstein and is accompanied by a valuable index/glossary and by insightful introductory notes.

It is published under the title Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006) and is generally available through good Australian bookshops. However, other online translations and printed collections are also widely available.

Many other scholars, thinkers and speakers have contributed to the clearer exploration of the Pope’s important initiative and their works are invaluable for anyone hoping to understand the theology of the body more deeply.

Notable are: Christopher West, Prof Janet Smith, Katrina Zeno, Mary Healy, Sam Tarode, Prof Kenneth Schmitz, Dr Mary Shivanandan, Cardinal Angelo Scola (of Venice), Australia’s Rev Anthony Percy and, not least, Pope John Paul II’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Anna Krohn is a sessional tutor in the Nursing Department at Australian Catholic University and an academic skills adviser at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

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