It’s Not Really All About Sex

Theology of the Body: A Register Symposium, Part 1

As he gazes down from the window of the Father’s house at the exuberant fans of his theology of the body, John Paul II must be smiling. How could the Pope who once exhorted the Church to “put out into the deep” in quest of the New Evangelization not be pleased?

After all, nothing could be nearer the heart of the New Evangelization than the true meaning of sex, right? Or is that right? Or, just as crucially, is sex really what theology of the body is all about?

Not according to Michael Waldstein, translator of the definitive English version of the 129 Wednesday audiences containing John Paul II’s teaching on married love, celibacy and fruitfulness. In a 2010 summer course, Waldstein did not hesitate to affirm, “John Paul II’s concern in the theology of the body is the Gospel. It would be an error to get sidelined with what is always attractive to people: sexuality.”

Naturally, Waldstein doesn’t mean to deny the large role that sexuality plays in TOB. After all, it is a central thesis of John Paul II that God created us male and female so husband and wife could incarnate the gift of their entire self to one another in the marital embrace. Even more, this complete self-giving lies at the very core of who we are as persons (see Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes 24,3).

But true self-giving love encompasses a much broader horizon than the mere act of sexual union. Adam and Eve were not created simultaneously. Adam was created first. Why? The Genesis account reveals an experience present in the life of every human person: “original solitude.” Before Eve was created, Adam stood utterly alone in front of God, his creator.

Which of us cannot recall such fundamental experiences of being alone in our own life? One occasion that will always remain etched in my memory was the snowy Minnesota night I returned home after attending midnight Mass during my first semester in college. Dad and Mom, my three brothers and three sisters were all safely inside the house, sound asleep. As I gazed up at the immensity of the starry night, with a few flakes of snow beginning to fall softly, I realized that no matter how close we might be to one another as a family, my life was now on a different trajectory than theirs.

Adam’s experience of original solitude reveals that ultimately each one of us stands alone before God. First and foremost we belong to our Creator. Although the deep inner meaning of the human body, created male and female, is spousal, even before that its original meaning is virginal. As Waldstein reflects, “In the first place we are a gift back to the Creator. It is to him that we belong bodily. So the virginal meaning of the body, in which we give ourselves to God, is the first meaning of the body at creation and its eternal meaning in heaven. Sex is a little episode between the beginning and eternity, in which the body will be virginal once again.”

The celibate vocation anticipates on earth the ultimate fulfillment of marriage in heaven, the eternal realization of the deepest meaning of the body, when each of us will make a gift of ourselves to Christ, the bridegroom, and receive in return the very gift of Christ himself. Waldstein concludes, “Married persons are between the divine origin and the definitive goal in the heavenly Jerusalem. Sexual lives, inasmuch as they are sexual, are a brief episode in the grand picture. Sexuality has its wonderful and beautiful place, but a small one.”

Approaching the theology of the body in this manner, from its internal “logic of the gift,” reveals it to be not merely a theology of sexuality, but one of communio. And where can that deepest possible communion of persons be found? In the eternal union between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The continual self-gift of the three Persons of the blessed Trinity overflows, not only in the gift of our own bodily existence, but in the gift of the incarnate Son as our redeemer. Christ has redeemed us — both in soul and in body — and at the price of his agonizing death on the cross!

The revelation of such love evokes in us the experience of wonder. It is precisely this deep wonder, rooted in love, that instills the driving force which propels the New Evangelization. “In reality, the name for that deep wonder at man’s worth and dignity is the Gospel, that is to say: the Good News. It is also called Christianity. This wonder determines the Church’s mission in the world and, perhaps even more so, ‘in the modern world’” (John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 10).

On Oct. 12, Pope Benedict XVI revealed just how close the New Evangelization is to his own heart. By promulgating the motu proprio entitled Ubicumque et Semper (Everywhere and Always), he established a Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. The newly created Vatican office is charged with coordinating plans to renew the vigor of the faith in regions where it was once dominant but has lost ground to the forces of secularization — notably Europe and North America.

As he gazes from his lighted Vatican window, calling briefly to mind the dedicated promoters of the theology of the body, Pope Benedict must be smiling.

Legionary Father Walter Schu is a moral theologian and the author of The Splendor of Love: John Paul II’s Vision for Marriage and Family (2003, New Hope).