Theology of the Body examines the divine within the physical.
by Luke Eggleston
SUN staff writer
Pope John Paul II had a great desire to illuminate church teaching on marriage, the family and human sexuality.
What became apparent to the pope, after much meditation and 129 lectures, is that the teachings of Theology of the Body can be applied to all human relationships and even to the meaning of life.
Lisa Hall, Syracuse Diocesan Director of Respect Life Ministry, noted that the teaching is very broad in its applications.
“I think if it has been targeted mainly toward those particular vocations — family and marriage — I would have to say it’s a mischaracterization of the Theology of the Body,” Hall said. “Really, Theology of the Body is a study in being human. It’s a study in the purpose of life and the meaning of life and human sexuality. If you have a body, this study applies to you. It is the study of God through the human body. So it is applicable to every person and every ministry in the church.”
Pope John Paul II taught the Theology of the Body in a series of Wednesday audiences from 1979-1984. In an introductory video concerning the subject, Christopher West, a leading teacher of the Theology of the Body, offers a quote from the late pope:
“[What we learn is obviously] important with regard to marriage; [however, it] is essential for the understanding of man in general: for the self understanding of his being in the world.”
West is a certified catechist through the Diocese of Denver and an instructor of marriage preparation through the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., who is now based in Lancaster County, Pa.
Theology of the Body instructs Catholics that the goal of life is oneness with God and that a human being’s body is, in effect, a physical expression of the divine. It teaches that humans are involved in an eternal exchange of love with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and that humans express God’s love through their bodies and receive God’s love through their bodies.
West shares from Ephesians when he says, “The union of a man and woman in marriage is a sign that points us to a great mystery — the great mystery of communion with Christ.” Cont. on page 11 describing the family as the “foundation of civilization,” West elaborates that sexual union is at the center of the family.
Quoting John Paul II, West said, “The conjugal union is the ontological foundation of the family.”
West describes the social implications of the Theology of the Body in terms of a series of chain reactions.
“Sexual union builds family. Families shape and build neighborhoods. Neighborhoods shape and build communities. Communities shape and build cities. Cities shape and build states. States shape and build nations. Nations shape and build the world,” he said.
West summarized the pope’s teaching thusly, “The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it.”
Father Joseph Scardella, director of the Syracuse Diocese Office of Ministerial Formation and Liturgy and RCIA, explained that Pope John Paul II’s series elaborated on Humanae Vitae, written by Pope Paul VI. That encyclical generated a fissure in the church over the question of contraception. Father Scardella noted that Pope John Paul II’s teaching seeks to elaborate on the teaching of Humanae Vitae.
“There has been such dissension in the church over Humanae Vitae,” Father Scardella said. “What John Paul II wanted to do was look at that document and see what Paul VI was saying and kind of illuminate that through this particular lens and show that there is no discrepancy in church teaching — that it’s always remained the same and that Humane Vitae is not a bad document. A lot of people look at it and think it’s only about contraception. It’s not just about contraception; it’s about humanity and I think he really wanted to illuminate this and bring a lot of errant Catholics back to an understanding of human sexuality.”
The Bible is rife with metaphors describing the relationship between humanity and Jesus Christ as “the bride and the bridegroom.” According to West, the phrase is more than a metaphor; it is an expression of God’s plan. West carried the lens metaphor further when he described the Theology of the Body in similar terms.
“You might say that John Paul II uses the spousal union as a pair of glasses. He puts on these lenses and he steps back with these lenses on to look at the whole reality of creation and redemption, the whole reality of God’s plan for our lives,” West said.
Hall and Sharon Flanagan have taught Theology of the Body to several different groups. Father Scardella has incorporated it into the diocese’s Formation for Ministry Program. He believes Theology of the Body has the potential to effect sweeping changes in spirituality throughout the diocese.
“If our diocese could grab hold of this teaching in our parishes, we’re going to see such a resurgence of family life and we’ll turn the tide of where society is going,” he said. “I think it’s that important and that powerful.”
Father Scardella and Hall both noted that Theology of the Body carries implications for priests, religious and single people as well. Father Scardella explained that Theology of the Body teaches individuals that celibacy in religious life is already a sign pointing toward complete union with the divine.
It talks about celibacy as pointing toward the future Kingdom,” Father Scardella said. “It is already pointing toward eternal life. It’s the relationship with God that all people hope to have. In celibacy, we’re a sign of the Kingdom to come.”
“Theology of the Body is the understanding of God’s call for your life and understanding the meaning and purpose of your life as a natural foundation on how you are to serve,” Hall said. “Once you have this basic foundation of both the meaning of your life and then through your own discernment, with God, your call to vocation in life, it naturally follows that you will either be called to marriage or be called to a single and celibate life. But you’ll have the awareness to be called, not just fall into whatever you feel like next. Then, by following God’s call on your life, you can bring Christ to others. That’s what will lead to authentic social outreach and communion with God and one another.”
Flanagan has conducted several courses on Theology of the Body in her home parish, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Liverpool, and in other parishes throughout the diocese.
Different DVD programs have been developed by Christopher West including an introductory program, a more advanced study called “Into the Heart” and a program for engaged and married couples called “God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage.” There is also a curriculum for youth called, “Theology of the Body for Teens” by Jason and Crystalina Evert and Brian Butler.
Both Hall and Father Scardella stressed that rather than prescribing a set of strict regulations, Theology of the Body is a liberating teaching.
“What the Holy Father is saying is that this has always been church teaching. The church has always taught what is acceptable and good and what is not acceptable nor good. As Christians, we have a responsibility to always choose the good, and in the realm of human sexuality, to always choose to uphold the dignity of the person,” Father Scardella said. “Theology of the Body gives you a real sense of who you are as created in the image and likeness of God. It gives you a whole different understanding of who man and woman were before ‘the Fall’ and what happened to humanity after the Fall. This teaching shows us how to re-focus our lives away from sin and how to live in God.”