A Synthesis of Eternal Truths

Theology of the Body: A Register Symposium, Part 2

“The New Evangelization” is a term coined by Pope John Paul the Great to describe the current need for the evangelization and re-evangelization of countries and areas of the world that are historically Christian, but for various reasons are no longer so, or are Christian in name only. Pope Benedict XVI has taken up this clarion call with regard to Europe in particular, as he witnesses Europe’s attempts to deny even the factuality of its Christian roots. Pope Benedict even instituted the Pontifical Council for New Evangelization this year.

The “re-evangelization” of countries is not new. There are precedents wherein a country/people received the kerygma (the initial proclamation of the Gospel) from early missionaries, but the local Church was left without pastors, lacked a systematic structural development, reverted back to native religions, fell into heresy, fell away, converted to other religions due to invasions, etc. The parable of the Sower and the Seeds is very applicable here. India claims to have received its kerygma from the apostle Thomas himself. England received the faith early on but was in need of re-evangelization soon after. The Potawatomi Indians in Michigan were baptized by a missionary priest and taught the Our Father in Latin, but did not see another priest for many years. Their recitation of the Our Father was proof of their baptism to subsequent missionaries.

What does John Paul II’s theology of the body have to do with his New Evangelization? Everything. Although he did not connect the dots himself — most likely out of modesty — the correlation is vital, at least for Western civilization. How so? There is no evangelization without the evangelization of culture. Individuals belong to cultures, and the Gospel must not only transform the individual but the culture through “inculturation.” Why the need to evangelize cultures? “Culture” is everything that makes us human: art, work, recreation, leisure, athletics, family life, rites of passage, social networks, politics, food, dance, literature, drama, rituals and, above all, worship. For the Gospel to “stick” and be effective, it must permeate all these areas.

Today, “pop culture” is the dominant culture. Some would call it “American culture” or “media culture.” Some disdain pop culture as “low culture” versus the “high culture” of classical music, the “great books,” etc., but the fact is: The pop culture has all the earmarks of a bona fide culture. And it’s the only culture many young and not-so-young people claim allegiance to. As John Paul also said: “Man is the way of the Church.” We do not have the luxury to hang back, stand aloof from the roads that the masses travel on. We must duc in altum, “put out into the deep,” put out into the wild and wooly watering holes of the pop culture if we are to bring and be Christ, the Way, Truth and Life, to souls.

As Vatican II taught us, there are “seeds of the Gospel” present in every culture. There is a need to “baptize” what is already good in a culture and “purify” what is not. What are the “seeds of the Gospel” present in today’s Western, so-called “post-Christian” culture and pop culture? A fascination, obsession and unswerving commitment to the body, the sensuous, the material, the beautiful, what can be seen, felt and experienced. And John Paul II said: Fine. We can start there. This was the genius in his theology of the body. Instead of starting with the spiritual, the soul, the mind, consciousness, i.e., what cannot be seen, he said: Let’s start with what we can see. The physical. The body. As John Paul’s biographer, George Weigel, notes, the theology of the body has turned and will continue to turn the entire theological and philosophical world (secular and religious) upside down (or right-side up!) by giving it a new starting point. A universally verifiable starting point. And this starting point cannot be divorced from God, because it is creation and creation is a doctrine, and now we are squarely in the lap of God.

But didn’t we always start our catechesis with creation? “God made the world”? Yes. However, we Western Catholics are card-carrying members of our particular Western culture, which is Cartesian, that is, which espouses and lives out a mind-body split at its very core. (See Waldstein’s introduction to the new edition of the theology of the body, Male and Female He Created Them.) This flawed philosophical underpinning undermines and overrides whatever we are taught by the Bible and the Church and guides our everyday choices.

The fact of that matter is: We do not have bodies; we are bodies. We are embodied spirits and spiritualized bodies. The definition of the human person is body and soul, together forever.

Is theology of the body something new or something old, then? It’s both. It’s a new synthesis of eternal truths. John Paul II, a master catechist, has arranged the deposit of the faith in such a way that it is immediately accessible to all, because he starts where we all live: our bodies, love, relationships.

Jeff Cavins says that what we learn about our faith through the years often amounts to a “pile of Catholicism” that might even seem like a bunch of true but unrelated facts. John Paul II has taken the jigsaw puzzle box of the Catholic faith and assembled the pieces together so that we can see the beautiful complete picture and plan of God for the human body, the human person, centered around creation/Incarnation/new creation.

Now we can see how everything is interconnected: how the Eucharist connects to marriage, how the magisterium connects to the Church’s social teaching, how the liturgical year connects to our cycles of fertility, etc.

As Father Thomas Loya says, “The theology of the body is the delivery system for the sum total of the Church’s wisdom.”

Perhaps we could even say that the theology of the body is the New Evangelization.

Sister Helena Burns, a Daughter of St. Paul, is a media literacy and theology of the body presenter, as well as a screenwriter.