How many Catholics have purchased the Summa Theologiaeof St. Thomas Aquinas, anxious to read through the most important work of the Church's greatest thinker, only to get mired in the text's complexities in the first few pages?
Not a few have had a similar experience with Pope John Paul II's theology of the body, his massive collection of Wednesday audiences on marriage and sexuality.
Thankfully, a gifted layman named Christopher West has made the Holy Father's teachings in this area accessible to the masses. In a dynamic tape series titled Naked Without Shame (giftfoundation.org), West, a graduate of the Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage & Family, effectively combats the popular view that the Church should “stay out of the bedroom.”
West, who brings this message to live audiences around the country, shows why the bedroom really needs the Church: Because sexuality has a nuptial, covenantal meaning—mirroring our relationship with God—and so sexuality, by its nature, has everything to do with Christianity. With a delivery that is to-the-point, energetic and, at times, somewhat shocking, West reveals one of John Paul II's many great gifts to the Church: his insight into how our sexuality is not something with which me may do as we please, but is infused with a profound meaning under which we must align ourselves if we are to find genuine freedom and happiness. Our sexuality carries within it a covenantal and eucharistic meaning through which we give the whole self to the other just as the Trinitarian God gives himself totally to us.
Why is the enthusiasm elicited by West's presentations accompanied by some bewilderment? Because he grasps the insight that sex must be Christianized so expertly and poignantly that, at times, he inadvertently goes one step too far—and, if I may say so, sexualizes Christianity.
Put another way, so clearly does he see how sexuality must be taken up into Christianity that he can give the impression that Christianity has been taken up into sexuality.
There's hardly a thing in the material content of West's work that falls into this mistake and, even if there were, it would be of minor concern. Just about everyone, myself included, has at least a few rough edges in the material content of their work. Rather, West's mistake occurs in the formal content he presents—that is, in the overarching lens or perspective through which he lets his audiences see the material content. While giving his audience accurate understandings of material content ranging from the nature of the conjugal act to the meaning of celibacy, there is the lurking danger of conveying that Christianity really is all about sex. Ironically, the central insight that sex is all about Christianity then recedes into the background, as uncomfortable listeners become suspicious that Christianity is being sexualized.
For example, West shows how sexual pleasure is a foretaste of the eschaton—an appropriate suggestion and a good example of Christianizing sexuality. But this is followed with the assertion that “Heaven is the ultimate climax”—an inappropriate suggestion and an unfortunate example of sexualizing Christianity.
What's more, knowing that people will be a bit embarrassed by such imagery, he proposes that the audience's discomfort owes to our seeing sexuality through our fallenness when we should be recognizing that Christ has redeemed sexuality. Doubtless there's truth in that, but it seems more likely that the discomfort is occasioned by West's implication that sexuality is the very foundation of Christianity.
This lurking danger can be allayed by a clear reminder that the truth about sex is not at the foundation of Christian truth. It is as true and as important as other Christian truths, but is not the foundation. The “hierarchy of truths” (Decree on Ecumenism,No. 11) means that, while there are many doctrines that are essential to Christianity, not all of them are equally foundational. This is a critical distinction. At the foundation we find the Trinitarian life, dwelling in us as grace, through the Incarnation.
The sacraments, truths about Mary and the truth about sex are all equally true and equally important—but not equally foundational. West might defend himself by noting how John Paul II speaks of marriage as the primordial sacrament, but even the sacraments are not at the foundation of the hierarchy of truths.
To his credit, West now includes a letter of explanation with his tape series that addresses all the specific complaints that have been coming his way. But those complaints may in fact be manifestations of the uneasiness people feel at having sexuality placed at the foundation of the hierarchy of Christian truths. Grace, not sex, belongs there.
That grace, then, can transform our sexual lives. West shows how it really is possible to understand the way sexuality was “in the beginning,” and we can transcend, with the help of Christ, our fallen nature. Then we can see sexuality in its original integrity. With grace, this vision really can be lived. We can avoid disordered uses of our sexuality. An important distinction, however, is in order.
The Body Sacramental
It is one thing to be faithful to absolute moral norms: Avoid fornication, auto-eroticism, the entertainment of impure thoughts, contraception and so on. It is another thing, above and beyond avoiding intrinsically disordered acts, to have a full experience of integral sexuality, infused with Trinitarian bliss. We should all be on that trajectory, and those of us with families must guide our children onto it. But a certain realism is essential so as to avoid a crushing disillusionment or anxious scrupulosity. Mary Beth Bonacci, writing in Envoy magazine, confesses that, even working for years in an apostolate dedicated to promoting chastity, she failed to recognize the sheer fierceness of concupiscence. “In fighting sexual temptation, we're often facing demons we can't even begin to understand,” she writes. “And even for the healthiest of people, commencing sexual activity apparently trips something inside which is very, very difficult to shut back off.”
Many of West's listeners may very well be able to see and appreciate the sacramental meaning of the body, but, due to the damage wrought to the “raw material” of their sexuality, the capacity to fully experience that meaning may be beyond reach.
Take, for instance, the person abused as a child whose damaged psyche spreads to her sexuality. She may have come to terms with this privation, and would prefer to live with it. Likewise the person of homosexual orientation who lives chastely, and would prefer not to seek reparative therapy: He can appreciate the sacramental meaning of the body, and simultaneously put it on the back burner for himself, aware that it's not the center of Christian life.
It is well and good to aim at infusing our sexuality with the fullness of Christian grace. But, this side of the eschaton, many people's damaged raw material—psychological as well as physical—sadly stays put.
The foundation of the faith—the Trinitarian life, grace infused ever more into our being—is something they can have fully, and is in fact something that can grow ever more strong right in the midst of the struggle with our damaged raw materials. Married couples who struggle with disorders may also take comfort in the fact that John Paul II's understanding of the “matter” of the sacrament of matrimony is the entire person of the spouses—not just the conjugal act.
With these caveats in mind, I guarantee that many people will find that Christopher West's series provides just the jump-start needed to get their sexual lives in order. West's highly readable book Good News About Sex and Marriage(Charis/Servant) is also recommended, and we hope that his forthcoming book from Pauline Press, interpreting each of the Pope's Wednesday audiences on the body, keeps the theology of the body rightly ordered within the hierarchy of truths.
As George Weigel has noted, the Pope's insights are like a “theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium.” Don't be afraid to let the Holy Father's theology of the body go off in your own life right now.
Mark Lowery teaches moral theology at the University of Dallas. Lowery@acad.udallas.edu