Christopher West asked the audience in his presentation on the theology of the body and the New Evangelization, “What is the most-Googled word on the Internet?” Almost everyone got it: “sex.”
“And the second-most-searched-for word? “God.”
Combine those two words, reversing the order, and what do they lead to? Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body.
“That’s what the world is really looking for,” West said.
What else would draw people from six continents to the tiny village of Gaming, tucked into the foothills of the Austrian Alps?
Gaming just happens to be the site of the Austrian Campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville, as well as the campus of the International Theological Institute. Both of them, together with the Theology of the Body Institute, sponsored this first-ever international symposium on John Paul II’s theology of the body from May 18-20. The symposium is further proof that John Paul II’s theology of the body is fast becoming a flourishing cultural reality in the Catholic world.In a Single Sentence
Michael Waldstein, author of the new English translation of John Paul’s works on the theology of the body, gave the opening keynote address on May 18, the 87th anniversary of John Paul II’s birth. He explained how St. John of the Cross deeply influenced Karol Wojtyla’s personalism, contrasting the Pope’s vision of the human person with that of Max Scheler and Immanuel Kant.
But Waldstein also provided some handy nuggets in the form of effective sound-bite presentations of theology of the body. Let us suppose for a moment that someone who knows you are a committed Catholic begins to hear the buzz about the theology of the body and feels intrigued. You run into each other at a grocery store.
He leans toward you and asks in a confidential tone, “So, what exactly is all of this theology of the body stuff that I’ve been hearing about lately?”
How can you even begin to respond before your milk starts to spoil?
Waldstein presented two single-sentence summaries of the entire theology of the body. The first was a quote from the French thinker Pascal Ide: “Gift expresses the essential truth of the human body.”
This dense expression needs to be unpacked somewhat, and Waldstein did a fine job in his own, slightly longer sentence that contained the essential elements of the theology of the body: “God, who is love, made the human body above all to express love, to express a total gift of self, so that the spousal meaning of the body is the essential truth of the body.”
That is, God created us male and female so that husband and wife might make a gift of their entire persons to one another in love, embodied in the conjugal act. That gift of self is an icon of the self-giving love of the three persons of the Blessed Trinity.
A quote from St. Thérèse of Lisieux serves equally well to express succinctly the beauty of John Paul II’s vision: “Aimer c’est tout donner et se donner soi-même.” (To love is to give everything and to give oneself.)Theology of the Body Triangle
Another valuable device for visualizing the main lines of the Pope’s thought was presented by Waldstein as a “theology of the body triangle.” This triangle represents the three fundamental principles of John Paul II’s theology of the body, which derive from St. John of the Cross’ spiritual theology of spousal love, and illustrates the relationship of these three principles to one another.
(1) To love is to give oneself.
(2) The spousal love of man and woman is the paradigmatic case of a total gift of self in our experience.
(3) The Trinity is the exemplar of love and gift.
Waldstein explains the triangle more fully in his introduction to his new English translation of the theology of the body, published by the Daughters of St. Paul in 2006:
“The first point on this triangle is a general account of love as a gift of self. From this point, one line extends horizontally to the thesis that the gift of self is present with particular completeness in the spousal love between man and woman. Another line extends upward diagonally, to the analogous application of the same account of love to the Trinity. Love and Gift take place in complete fullness in the begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit (see Dominum et Vivificantem, No. 10).
The descending line from Point 3 to Point 2 represents the thesis that communion between created persons, particularly the communion of spousal love between man and woman, flows as an image from God’s own Trinitarian communion” (Introduction, No. 24).Vatican II and Theology of the Body
What led John Paul II to his remarkable thesis that married love is nothing less than an icon of the self-giving love of the Blessed Trinity?
Dominican Father Jaroslaw Kupczak, who holds the chair of theological anthropology at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow, Poland, followed the trail back to the Second Vatican Council.
He noted that before the council, Karol Wojtyla’s writings on spousal love, such as Love and Responsibility, were primarily philosophical in nature.
It was only after the council that Wojtyla began to refer to the Trinitarian foundations of love between husband and wife.
The first time he expressly did so was in a 1974 article, “The Family as a Communion of Persons.” Father Kupczak did not hesitate to make the claim that Vatican II transformed Karol Wojtyla the philosopher into Wojtyla the theologian.Unlocking Theology of the Body
At times, John Paul II’s theology of the body can seem a bit daunting.
One hundred twenty-nine Wednesday audiences delivered over a five-year period is a lot to assimilate.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone were to present a hermeneutical key or perspective in which the entire theology of the body could be read? Donald Asci of the Franciscan University of Steubenville did just that. He made the case that all of the theology of the body could be viewed from the perspective of chastity.
Here it is not a question of chastity in the narrow sense of a virtue as a disposition to good behavior. Rather, chastity is considered in the broad sense as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (Catechism, No. 2337).
Why is chastity so vital a key for unlocking the theology of the body? The theology of the body is centered on the gift of self that we are all called to make to others, regardless of our state or vocation in life.
Only the chaste person can make such a gift. For spouses, this gift is embodied and expressed in the act of conjugal union. But no one can give what he does not first possess. It is precisely the mastery of oneself, the self-possession which comes through chastity, that enables men and women to be a gift to one another.
The international symposium at Gaming was not merely an intellectual study of the theology of the body. Nearly every participant was in some way or other involved in promoting theology of the body. As a result, what happened behind the scenes, in the down time between conferences, was just as important as the presentations themselves.
Over an Austrian lunch of knödel and pork, with perhaps a cold glass of beer on the side, participants exchanged experiences and fervently conspired on how to launch theology of the body in Europe, India, New Zealand and other parts of the globe.
From the tiny village of Gaming, Austria, a new wave has been generated that will bring John Paul II’s transforming teachings to many lives.
Legionary Father Walter Schu is the author of The Splendor of Love (2003, New Hope).