In September 1979, with the sexual revolution in full swing and influential Catholic theologians sustaining a full attack against Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical reaffirming Church teaching that prohibits contraception, Pope John Paul II began a series of reflections that reframed and revitalized the Church’s message on the meaning and purpose of human sexuality.
"It is an illusion to think we can build a true culture of human life if we do not … accept and experience sexuality and love and the whole of life according to their true meaning and their close interconnection," John Paul stated in one of his 129 weekly public reflections that would comprise his "theology of the body."
His new catechesis did not downplay the power of sexual desire. Rather, he placed it within the context of a sweeping and hopeful vision of "human love in the divine plan," as he would come to call these reflections.
The theology of the body put the Church’s "teaching on sexuality in the context of a whole, relational vision of the human person as someone loved and called to love; by offering an account of love not just reduced to feelings, but that was able to embrace the whole of the human person, his affections, will and intellect," said Father Jose Granados of the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the co-author of Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
"It offered a solid foundation for building up human life: By connecting the teaching on sexuality with the sacrament of marriage, a sign of the love between Christ and the Church, the message of faith was able, then, to illumine from within the experience of every man and woman," Father Granados told the Register.
Three decades after John Paul completed his catechesis in 1984, it continues to spark enthusiasm from Catholic leaders and educators who welcome his appealing way of reframing the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, premarital sex, contraception and differences between sexes.
"It is an effective apologetics for the extraordinary gift of sexuality. That is the first phase, the entry point for something much greater," said Matthew Pinto, the president and co-founder of Ascension Press, which publishes a wide range of resources, including the curriculum, "Theology of the Body for Teens."
Young adults "are interested in love, relationships and the precarious topic of sex, and it addresses these subjects in a manner that does not condemn their hunger and desires," Pinto told the Register.
"It sheds light on what their desires are and how they can be channeled in a way that brings about joy, not pain."
The Pastoral Impact
Yet for all the excitement stirred up by a well-designed curricula — like "Theology of the Body for Teens," now in 83 dioceses — or popular authors and speakers like Christopher West and Dawn Eden, the long-term impact of John Paul’s teaching remains unclear.
"It was thought that the theology of the body would help re-sacramentalize Catholic systematic theology for a Gnostic age. That’s beginning to happen, but the real impact has been pastoral: in adult formation and marriage prep," said George Weigel, whose first biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, heralded the teaching as a potential game changer.
John Paul II began his catechesis in anticipation of the 1980 Synod of Bishops, slated to address "The Role of the Christian Family." Now, Weigel is waiting to see whether the pope’s teaching will shape the work of the contemporary Synod of Bishops, meeting to provide "guidelines in the pastoral care of the person and the family" in an extraordinary assembly in October and an ordinary assembly in 2015. It has been expected that the synod will address pastoral solutions for divorced-and-remarried Catholics, who are not permitted to receive the Eucharist.
"I hope the Synods on the Family this year and next recognize the remarkable new tool we have in the theology of the body to make sense of the Church’s long-standing teaching on marriage and the family; but I’m not holding my breath, waiting for German theologians to concede that," Weigel said, in a reference to recent statements from Germany calling on Pope Francis to relax Church teaching on marriage and divorce.
John Paul presented his first "Wednesday catechesis" on the theology of the body at his weekly general audience on Sept. 5, 1979, with a meditation on Christ’s reference to "the beginning" during his talk on the indissolubility of marriage in Matthew and Mark. Altogether, this catechesis would span a period of more than five years, with the final weekly talk taking place on Nov. 28, 1984.
The papal analysis is composed of two parts, with the initial half covering a detailed consideration of God’s original plan for human sexuality, as elaborated in the Book of Genesis, and an in-depth look at what Jesus taught "concerning concupiscence as adultery committed in the heart" in the Sermon on the Mount.
The second half provided an analysis of sacramental marriage, based primarily on the Letter to the Ephesians and Humanae Vitae, and it linked the love of Christ, the Bridegroom, for his Bride, the Church, to the marriage covenant of Adam and Eve blessed by Yahweh in the second chapter of Genesis.
The first Polish pope wanted to bring his flock back to the "beginning," because that is how Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ questions about his opposition to divorce: "In the beginning, it was not so."
"John Paul II said, ‘When man is placed in front of woman for the first time, the human person in its dimension of mutual self-giving comes into being,’" explained Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, during a recent published interview that stressed the ongoing relevance of the pope’s teaching.
"The expression of this self-giving (which is also the expression of human personhood) is the human body in the whole, original truth of its masculinity and femininity," noted Cardinal Caffarra, who served as the president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, which has made the study of the pope’s teaching essential to its curriculum.
An Integrated Vision
John Paul’s insights were, in part, the fruit of his own investigation into Humanae Vitae, which affirmed the "inseparable connection, established by God," between the unitive and procreative significance of the marriage act. Pope Paul VI provoked a firestorm when he opposed artificial birth control as a violation of the integrity of the "one-flesh" union, and Catholic spouses were directed to practice natural family planning (NFP), which requires periodic abstinence, if necessary, to space children.
"Abstinence is a major stumbling block for many, especially husbands, because it calls for restraint of sexual desires," said Mary Shivanandan, the author of Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage, who has done research in the NFP field. "We are made for union and communion, but John Paul also explains that chastity is a requirement of the person. Chastity is self-mastery; and if you don’t possess yourself, you can’t give yourself."
Pia de Solenni, a Seattle-based moral theologian, has witnessed the powerful impact of John Paul II’s teaching on individual lives.
"People are hungry for it," she said. "I meet person after person who has had a conversion because of this. The materials are there. We need to start getting them into more parishes and schools."