The Not-So-Sexy Theology of the Body

Over at Where Peter Is, Rachel Amiri continues that site’s invaluable contribution to discourse about the Church’s teaching with a fine discussion of a fad that has troubled me for some time now: the cottage industry of Theology of the Body stuff that is hyper-focuses on one particular part of the body (hint: it’s not the digestive tract):

Although Catholics in the United States frequently discuss issues related to human sexuality, our catechesis on marriage and sex very rarely treats these as the complex mysteries that they are. Instead, we tend to unintentionally promote an unrealistic vision of sex in marriage. This is in great part the result of catechesis that is designed primarily to persuade married or engaged adults to conform their behavior to the moral law on matters of sexual ethics like contraception, cohabitation, and sex outside of marriage. Teaching Catholics about chastityboth within and outside of marriage—is often preoccupied with anticipating objections, and is impoverished as a result. This includes even our best attempts to convey coherent and orthodox sexual teaching rooted in Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body (TOB).

In my experience, our approach to talking about marriage and human sexuality rarely presents the comprehensive unity and integrity of John Paul’s catechesis (and Catholic teaching as a whole). It has also in many ways failed to provide a truly human and realistic vision of marriage in which sexuality is one part.

“God himself created sexuality, which is a marvelous gift to his creatures” (AL 150). The problem isn’t the importance of sex, which is “a source of joy and pleasure” (CCC 2362) for married couples and integral to the procreative purpose of marriage. Rather, it is that a myopic focus on sex-related questions elevates them in importance and thus obscures how marriage is lived in love—with all its joys and sorrows—throughout life. This limited vision is also at odds with what Pope St. Paul VI called a “Christian realism” about sex and marriage, and is significantly out-of-step with the very comprehensive approach taken by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia.

Pope Francis’s landmark document on family life honors the complexity of sex in marriage by placing it in the context of the entire union, emphasizing the need for integration. “The marital union is thus evoked not only in its sexual and corporal dimension, but also in its voluntary self-giving in love,” he writes at the beginning of Amoris Laetitia (AL 4). Marriage does not require renouncing experiences of sexual pleasure and enjoyment, but “integrating them with other moments of generous commitment, patient hope, inevitable weariness and struggle to achieve an ideal” (AL 148).

Many contemporary marriage preparation and catechetical programs on human sexuality in the United States are shaped by the TOB, and are barely beginning to incorporate the insights of Amoris Laetitia, if they are doing so at all. These programs tend to focus on the positive aspects of sex in marriage that emphasize its goodness—rooted in scriptural imagery (to heighten contrast with cultural misunderstandings of the Church as sex-negative)—as well as the need for sex between spouses to be “free, total, faithful and fruitful.” One such program, Joy-Filled Marriage, published by Ascension Press and co-authored by popular TOB authors Christopher West and Gregory Popcak, is used in some of the largest dioceses in the United States. In a promotional video for Joy-Filled Marriage, West introduces the program as the answer to the current “crisis” in marriage in the Church, and the “glorious gift of the theology of the body” as part of the answer. He then touts the program’s ability to respond to current “issues” in marriage preparation—namely, that couples today “are already sleeping together” and using contraception before marriage prep—by referring to exit surveys which show a quarter of couples say they are likely to stop having premarital sex or using contraception after completing his program.

To be clear, the use of TOB-based resources is not the problem, but rather how resources like West’s present John Paul’s teaching and shape Catholic understandings of sexuality. As someone who has studied John Paul’s TOB catechesis in its entirety and his book Love and Responsibility, I both love this teaching and seek to live it. The Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality is a gift in my own life. I also dedicated much of my professional career to supporting others in following this teaching as a teacher of natural family planning. In my work I noticed some latent problems experienced by Catholics who had been formed by popular interpretations of the TOB. A real possibility of confusion and difficulty exists for couples who encounter struggles in their marriages that referring back to the great and glorious vision that they were promised will not overcome.

West asserts that his work in promoting the TOB “seeks to translate it into language that average people can understand.” It is clear that John Paul II’s work does require a “translator” for popular audiences. Admittedly, John Paul’s theological writing can be quite opaque. If you read the series of Wednesday audiences that make up the TOB, you will note his tendency to dance thematically around questions in a sort of spiral while expounding upon various ideas—often using his own vocabulary. Additionally, his teleological and natural law framework can be difficult to understand, because it is not intuitive or immediately accessible to postmodern 21st-century Catholics.

Yet many of the popular resources based on the TOB add to the confusion. One example is the way they present the idea that marital sex is an experience by which spouses “renew their vows” and receive the sacramental grace proper to marriage. This is indeed one part of the story of human sexuality integral to the TOB’s teaching on the “nuptial mystery” (as both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis call it). In popular resources, this is presented in an awe-inspiring and positive way that is designed to attract and convince Christians to honor it. Christopher West in particular promotes what he calls a “sublime vision of marriage” where “sexual union that is free, total, faithful, and open to new life […] symbolizes and participates in the communion of Christ and the Church.”

This description of sexual union is how West justifies the Church’s teaching on contraception, stating that, “If spouses willfully contradict any of these goods of marriage in their sexual expressions, marital intimacy becomes less than God intended it to be. In turn, spouses, rather than renewing their vows through intercourse, contradict them.” Greg Popcak also restates this claim, stating that The Church teaches that every time a Christian married couple makes love, they are physically restating their marriage vows and recommitting themselves to all the promises they made at the altar.” (Holy Sex! Popcak, 109). These resources rush so quickly to address the almost-ubiquitous contraceptive use among Catholics that it is quite common to hear in TOB or natural family planning circles that to receive the grace of marriage, one must “re-enact” marital vows with sex in accord with the divine plan.

It’s not that sex is not a way that spouses might renew their promise of self-giving in marriage, but that it is not the only way that renewal takes place….

There’s much more here. Do read it all.

I’ve always been leery of the TOB stuff. I mean, it’s a useful thing as far as it goes and I’m grateful to John Paul II for discussing it. Nothing like it was ever done by a Pope before and he was uniquely situated to do it given his long pastoral experience with laity, combined with his training as a philosopher.

But I think it’s significance has been blown way out of proportion by a conservative American Catholic culture that was already far too prone to obsess over pelvic issues and which took this series of academic/pastoral musings and raised them, by a sort of popular fiat inside a very cramped ideological bubble, to the level of Magisterial and even infallible dogmatic teaching that they neither enjoy, nor were ever intended to enjoy by JPII. He never devoted a single encyclical or formal ecclesial document to this stuff. It was more in the nature of a series of ideas he was working out before he became Pope, then he finished the job with a series of talks he gave early in papacy and then never returned to the matter again.

But a small group of Americans glommed on to TOB stuff and have spent the last few decades obsessing over it and, in particular, obsessing over the sexual component of marriage in a way that gives short shrift, I fear, to the rest of that sacrament. I appreciate what Ms. Amiri has to say here. Check it out!


7 Responses

  1. Totally agree that the focus on sex in marriage crowds out the focus on a hundred other things that marriage involves. Frankly, Catholic sources tank their credibility when they say that the marriage “crisis” is caused by couples are sleeping together before marriage, as if addressing that magically fixes all the actual issues a couple could have.

    IMO, the “crisis” is caused by general ignorance and lack of self-control regarding the overall dynamics of relationships. People generally don’t know how to purposely build and navigate relationships, how to create healthy relationship dynamics, how to identify toxic dynamics, and how to figure out whether to fix or bail on a relationship. How to trust, when to trust, when to dig deep and pour yourself out (because your partner needs it), and when to put up a boundary and say “I’m sorry I just can’t right now.” Of course, general relationship dynamics also apply to sex, but it’s a big mistake to say that larger issues of wisdom and character are magically fixed by self-control in the pelvic area.

    1. Premarital relations with one or more partners correlates directly with marriage longevity.

      1. Did you intend this as a reply to my comment? Because I don’t see you address / dispute any of the points I actually made. Just curious.

  2. I don’t know…I think TOB and AL came along in the nick of time. Some of us were raised in households with really messed up messages about sex. How my husband and I survived my conservative upbringing and his ultra liberal one is beyond me.

    And no, you can’t have the sexy without the unsexy. There is so much unsexy in the baby/toddler stage. I could swear mine had a devious form of infrared ESP designed to scuttle the sexy.

    After paying good attention to what the Church has to say, I would advise anyone embarking upon a marriage to invest in some really good sex education. You don’t learn how to play the violin by blindly grinding a bow upon some strings. On the other hand, even if you’re a virtuoso with the bow and strings it would mean zilch if you are a rude or selfish person. I think this is what the author of the article is trying to convey–that most of everyday life is about everyday virtue, but I think there is a danger to allowing ourselves to cruise along on the hum drum channel. Sometimes it’s real mental work to stop seeing the world in shades of beige and make an effort to get to a more vibrant place. Sometimes we have to push ourselves to fight lethargy, and lethargy is the death of intimacy. Every human must flight this. I once read a sermon in which a saint expressed the belief that Lazarus didn’t just come out of the tomb –he had to make an effort and correspond to the grace of being brought to life.

    Intimacy is as important as eating for a marriage.

  3. I suspect that church teaching on the sacrament of marriage is at the same development stage as Penance was in the 4th century. Or the doctrine of the Trinity in the 3rd. I think we have the broad brushstrokes and a good beginning, though not without pitfalls or undeveloped aspects. I also think the current state of theology is like an extended family gathering at a large dinner table. A couple of bachelors, Uncle Charlie and Uncle George offer some very insightful observations. But we haven’t heard from their married siblings yet. And the meal is barely begun, let alone the after-dinner drinks and serious adult conversation.

    One example in point: what does generativity in marriage mean? How far does it reach? A priest friend once routinely preached at weddings that openness to children was not enough. A couple was uniquely placed to offer from their love and commitment a service for the needy and poor. The point of married love is not just within the walls of a home and care for children, but to spread that love to the extended family, the neighborhood, the parish, and beyond.

    The openness to biological children is not wrong. It is just incomplete. Lay people are not breeding stock for the next generation of Church. Marriages are not havens for safe sex. They are laboratories and practicums and community centers for justice and charity. For starters.

  4. I got drilled in TOB as a teen. Rather unstructured mind you. I think our teachers just liked using the phrase: Theology of the Body. But, I think it was the only remotely Catholic thing I was taught in Confirmation class. At least it was peddled as Catholic. Lately, I’ve wondered if it had something to do with the fact that I’ve never been interested in marriage or that pride keeps me from violating the 6th and 9th Commandments.

    I don’t speak Spanish and I don’t speak Portuguese but I can tell the difference. Similarly, I could listen to Dominicans debating Thomism, understand none of it, and still know they weren’t talking TOB

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