Christopher West Responds: Christian Nuptiality and Nuptial Christianity

Theologians will be unpacking John Paul II's “theology of the body” for centuries. Debates over interpretation are a healthy part of the process. So I welcome Mark Lowery's critique, in a Register oped essay, of my tape series Naked Without Shame (Nov. 25-Dec. 1).

I also thank him for his approach. He generously praises my work and even continues to recommend my tape series, despite the flaws he sees in it.

In brief, Lowery applauds me for “Christianizing sexuality,” yet faults me for “sexualizing Christianity.” While I understand his point, I maintain that I do neither. To “-ize” something implies that you're making it something it's not. John Paul's catechesis itself doesn't “-ize” anything. By reflecting on the words of Christ, the Pope calls sexuality and Christianity to “be what they are.” And at the heart of both, according to John Paul, lies the mystery of nuptial communion.

Naked Without Shame was recorded more than two years ago. In retrospect, I agree that some things I said should have been better nuanced. For example, in stressing the importance of “sex,” I should have emphasized more the broader term “nuptiality.” However, even had I chosen my words more carefully and tempered my use of hyper-bole, it seems Lowery (and many others) would still have trouble with the lens through which John Paul views the universe.

As George Weigel writes in Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, John Paul “challenges us to think of sexuality as a way to grasp the essence of the human — and, through that, to discern something about the divine” (p. 343). This bold proposal doesn't mean that God is “sexual.” Nor does it mean, as Lowery thinks I imply, that “sexuality is the very foundation of Christianity.”

Christ is the foundation of Christianity! But let's not “de-sexualize” Christ. He came in the flesh as a bridegroom to give his body for his bride. Christ's sexuality — his maleness — is of central importance.

Grace and The Body

Lowery believes I fail to keep “the theology of the body rightly ordered within the hierarchy of truths.” Yet this indicates a common misunderstanding. The Pope's catechesis is not merely one aspect of truth in the overall hierarchy. It's a new lens through which to view the most essential theological and anthropological truths of the faith.

The Trinity is the central theological truth. And our creation as male and female in the Trinity's image is the central anthropological truth. In keeping with what John Paul considers perhaps the most important contribution of Vatican II, the essence of the Pope's project is to demonstrate the organic communion between these divine and human truths. And by virtue of the Incarnation, the body is the tangential point of God and man's communion.

Thus, I couldn't agree more with Lowery that at the foundation of Christian truth “we find the Trinitarian life, dwelling in us as grace, through the Incarnation.” This is “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:9). But how is this “hidden plan” revealed? John Paul says that the body, “and it alone,” is capable of revealing God's mystery. This is why he speaks of a theology of the body. The flesh, and the “one flesh” union, reveals the divine mystery (General Audience, Feb. 20, 1980).

Lowery is right: Grace belongs at the foundation of Christian truth. But how is grace communicated to man? Without this, grace remains abstract. John Paul stresses that in creation grace was communicated “through the union of the first man and woman in … marriage.” In redemption this same grace is communicated through “the indissoluble union of Christ with the Church, which … Ephesians presents as the nuptial union of spouses” (Oct. 13, 1982).

St. Paul describes nuptial communion as a “great mystery” because it refers to Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:31-32). This communion is established in baptism and consummated in the Eucharist, which John Paul describes as “the Sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride.” He even goes so far as to say that “Christ, in instituting the Eucharist … wished to express the relationship between man and woman, between what is ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine.’ It is a relationship willed by God both in the mystery of creation and in the mystery of redemption.”

The Spousal Analogy

When grace is understood in its communication, there's no dichotomy between placing grace and nuptial union at the center of the Christian mystery. What John Paul describes as the “Sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride” is, in fact, the source and summit of our Christian life.

Of course, it's an analogy to speak of the marriage of Christ and the Church. Analogies are always inadequate. Yet John Paul believes the spousal analogy is the least inadequate since “in the very essence of marriage a particle of the mystery is captured” (Aug. 18, 1982).

Hence, the Pope says we're justified in applying the spousal analogy in two directions. Primarily, God reveals the truth about nuptial union (Christian nuptiality). But in some way nuptial union also reveals the truth about God (nuptial Christianity).

It's imperative to realize that the Pope's theology of the body is not just about marriage and sexuality. It's the lens through which he views “God's salvific plan in regard to humanity.” Far from peripheral, the nuptial mystery reveals “the central theme of the whole of revelation, its central reality” (Sept. 8, 1982). It “concerns the entire Bible” (Jan. 13, 1982) and plunges us into “the perspective of the whole Gospel, of the whole teaching, in fact, of the whole mission of Christ” (Dec. 3, 1980).

Some have critically described the Pope's view as “pan-nuptialism.” This might be what Lowery, understandably, is troubled by. After all, this is a novel perspective; as George Weigel observes in Witness to Hope, it “has barely begun to shape the Church's theology, preaching, and religious education. When it does, it will compel a dramatic development of thinking about virtually every major theme in the Creed.”

Hope for the Wounded

Lowery also suggests that I hold out false hope to the sexually wounded. It's “one thing,” he says, “to be faithful to absolute moral norms,” but another “to have a full experience of integral sexuality.” I agree that Naked Without Shame could have more clearly addressed the real difficulties to be faced on the road to healing. Still, it seems Lowery doesn't fully understand what John Paul calls “the ethos of redemption.”

The Pope repeatedly insists that this “new ethos” isn't mere conformity to norms. Instead, it involves an interior transformation of the person “such as to express and realize the value of the body and sex according to the Creator's original plan” (Oct. 22, 1980).

I don't see John Paul describing this as a side-issue that Christians can simply put “on the back burner,” as Lowery proposes. Lowery believes the truth of the body is “not the center of Christian life.” Yet John Paul believes it's “the fundamental element of human existence in the world” (Jan. 16, 1980). In fact, for the Pope, living the truth of the body always means “the rediscovery of the meaning of the whole of existence, the meaning of life” (Oct. 29, 1980). For John Paul, this is what growing in holiness is all about (see Feb. 20, 1980).

It's for freedom that Christ has set us free! Why, then, would anyone, as Lowery suggests, prefer to live with his privations? True healing isn't only a hope for heaven. John Paul also stresses what he calls “the hope of every day” (Jul. 21, 1982).

Few preach the “new ethos.” Few counselors understand it. But don't we empty the cross of its power if we claim that some may be so wounded that true healing is beyond reach? John Paul proclaims that “this is the matter under consideration: the reality of the redemption of Christ. Christ has redeemed us! This means he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being” (March 1, 1984).

Mark Lowery once told me that this is one of his favorite quotes from the Pope. But I wonder if he fully understands it. It may seem more “realistic” just to cope with brokenness, but John Paul holds out “another vision of man's possibilities” (Oct. 29, 1980). He believes that experiencing God's original plan for the body is a “task” that Christ gives to everyone, a task that “can be carried out and is really worthy of man” (Nov 12, 1980).

Christopher West writes from Denver.

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