PHILADELPHIA — Nearly 30 years after Pope John Paul II began explaining his “theology of the body” during a series of 129 papal audiences, his teaching continues to inspire passionate feelings, and even divisions, within the Church.
Evidence of this passion could be found at the first National Theology of the Body Congress the last week of July; 450 priests, religious, theologians, catechists and laypeople flocked to the small town of Blue Bell, Pa., to discuss and debate every aspect of John Paul’s teachings on human sexuality and the sacramental nature of the human body.
The conference was organized by the Theology of the Body Institute, a nonprofit group that offers training and certification to people who want to teach or better understand John Paul’s vision of human sexuality. The group is under the auspices of Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and includes Cardinal George Pell of Australia and nine other bishops on its episcopal board. It was founded in 2004 by David Savage, with the cooperation of speaker and author Christopher West and Matthew Pinto, founder of Ascension Press and CatholicExchange.com.
Participants came for a variety of reasons, but all shared a common love of John’s Paul’s theology.
“Our community of sisters believes in the value of the theology of the body for our pastoral ministries,” remarked Sister Michelle Fernandez of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary, “but also for a better understanding of our spousal roles as brides of Christ.”
Father Timothy O’Connor of the Servants of the Cross came from Texas to learn and make connections that he hoped would bear fruit in his ministry to the poor. “I’m part of a missionary group that works with family issues, and theology of the body is very relevant to that.”
Sarah Williams commuted from southern New Jersey every day of the conference, 90 minutes each way. “I just love the theology of the body and want to learn everything I can about it,” she said.
3 Days of Study
During the first two days of the Congress, attendees participated in workshops covering every aspect of the theology of the body. Workshops were divided into four tracks, focusing on catechesis and evangelization, marriage and family, philosophy and theology, and pastoral ministry. Panel discussions tackled everything from same-sex “marriage” to John Paul’s use of theology of the body to defend Humanae Vitae.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner were accompanied by keynote addresses ranging from the intersection of the theology of the body with anthropology to its potential impact on family law. Michael Waldstein, author of the corrected translations of John Paul’s original addresses, used his keynote to reveal the treasures found in the “Hidden Talks” of the theology of the body, which covered the Song of Songs, Tobit and Ephesians 5.
Due to the adult nature of the imagery, the Pope chose not to deliver these talks in public, and Waldstein only discovered them after the death of the Holy Father. The talks do indeed include remarkably vivid language about human sexuality and provide a more complete sense of the biblical basis of the Pope’s theology. Waldstein is preparing a final edition that will include these lost talks.
Altogether, there were more than two dozen presentations by some of the leading religious, academic and lay speakers on the theology of the body, including Helen Alvare, Greg and Lisa Popcak, Father Richard Hogan, Damon Owens, Pia de Solenni, Janet Smith, Father Brian Bransfield and Joan Frawley Desmond, a frequent Register contributor. In between the educational opportunities, attendees were able to visit an exhibit room offering books, DVDs and other materials.
Each day began with Mass and included 24-hour Eucharistic adoration and opportunities for the sacrament of reconciliation. The final Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Rigali along with 50 priests.
Theology of the Body Pioneers
The high point of the three-day event was an awards banquet on Thursday evening honoring five individuals and groups “for pioneering work in the advancement of the teachings of Venerable Pope John Paul II on human sexuality.”
The Awards of Distinguished Service went to Father Richard Hogan, one of the first authors to write about the topic; Valentine and Ann Coelho, who tirelessly teach the message throughout their native India; the Theology of the Body International Alliance, which provides extensive education and materials for promoting the Pope’s teachings; Ruah Woods, a theology of the body education center in Cincinnati; and the Daughters of St. Paul, publishers of theology of the body books under their Pauline Press imprint.
The banquet opened with an invocation by Cardinal Rigali and closed with a prayer from the bishop emeritus of Tzaneen, South Africa, Hugh Slattery. The highlight of the evening was a one-hour talk by Father Roger Landry on “Theology of the Body in the Life and Ministry of the Priest.”
Theology of the body has courted its share of controversy from the beginning. The chapter on “Sexology and Ethics” in Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility drew criticism because of the future Pope’s frank talk about sex.
More recently, Christopher West, one of the most popular evangelists for the theology of the body and a key figure in the Theology of the Body Institute, has faced criticism for the explicit language he has used in promoting the topic.
Philosopher Alice von Hilde-brand, the widow of 20th-century philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, for example, charged recently that West “has sometimes misunderstood the authentic Catholic tradition” concerning the teaching on human sexuality and that he has a “hyper-sexualized approach” to theology of the body. Von Hildebrand, in a lengthy essay at CatholicNewsAgency.com July 21, suggested that the popularizer of theology of the body “ignores the importance of pudeur,” a French term she translated as “holy bashfulness.”
West, von Hildebrand asserted, “does not seem to grasp the delicacy, reverence, privacy and sacredness of the sexual sphere.”
West, who is taking a six-month sabbatical to reflect on his teaching methods and was conspicuously absent from the Philadelphia congress, would have found plenty of defenders there. People were eager to defend the work he has done to popularize John Paul’s teachings. During his invocation, Cardinal Rigali made a pointed reference to West and offered a special blessing for him and all the “good work he does.”
Cardinal Rigali has defended West in the past and remains very involved with the institute. As Katherine Blanchard, the Theology of the Body Institute’s director of development and communications, observed, “We don’t take a step without him.”
Speaking about the controversies, Blanchard said that many speakers were invited: “We recognize that there are many talented speakers on the theology of the body. It would have been impossible to extend invitations to every theology of the body speaker in the world, but we certainly discerned inviting a balanced representation of the thought on John Paul II’s theology of the body, and we believe we achieved that.”
She added, “The disagreement is really on a philosophical level, and we’re focusing on the practical application of the theology. We’ll let the academics work out the details and respect their conclusions. This is such an original message that there are always better ways to learn and teach about it. That’s what we’re here to do.”
Thomas L. McDonald writes from Medford, New Jersey.