When a Body Meets The Body


by Christopher West

Pauline Books and Media, 2003

530 Pages, $29.95

To order: (800) 836-9723 www.pauline.org

A quarter-century after Pope John Paul II began explaining his theology of the body — in Wednesday audiences that ran intermittently until late 1984 — the teaching remains largely dormant.

Two priests, Richard Hogan and John LeVoir, sought to popularize it in a 1985 Doubleday book (reprinted in 1992 by Ignatius), Covenant of Love. But, by and large, the theology of the body has not yet exploded into the Church's culture — as it inevitably will, according to papal biographer George Weigel. He has likened it to a ticking time bomb.

Christopher West wants to help set off the detonation. Think of this book (along with his website, www.theologyofthebody. com) as a fuse.

The theology of the body, West insists, is not just a personalistic sexual ethic. It has implications for Christian thinking on creation, soteriology, eschatology, the relationship of nature and grace, spirituality and sacramentology.

Nor is sexual ethics something tangential to the “essential truths” of the faith, as some dissident Catholic theologians have suggested. What one thinks of sex depends on what, or whom, one thinks man is — and that's a matter rife with implications for the identity of the God-Man, Jesus Christ.

William May rightly observed that the dubious Christologies of the 1970s were a natural outgrowth of the theological rebellion regarding sex in the 1960s. The roots of the confusion lie in a failure to grasp what Pope John Paul II calls “the nuptial meaning of the body,” a concept West exhaustively fleshes out.

“[A]ll of the sexual confusion in our world — and in our own hearts — is simply the human desire for heaven gone berserk,” West writes. “Untwist it and we rediscover the image of God in every human being; we rediscover the deep human longing … for union with him.”

Bask long enough in these pages and you'll notice the Pope doesn't contradict or change the basic lessons on life and love that wise Catholic parents have always taught their children. The problem, such as it is, is that the Holy Father lays out the teaching with such depth, precision and erudition that we need help unpacking it. After all, we've been weaned in a culture not accustomed to thinking too hard, especially about sex.

West does a superb job, commenting on each of the more than 100 audiences, bringing the themes together into a clearer whole. Following the Pope's plan, he examines man before sin, man sinful yet redeemed and eschatological man. West also examines the “sacramentality” of marriage and specific issues raised by Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical on the regulation of birth, Humanae Vitae (On Human Life). “We can appreciate the vital role of the sexual relationship in shaping ethics and culture in the simple truth that the family is the fundamental cell of society,” he writes. “As the family goes, so goes culture. But, pressing further, what is the origin of the family if not the ‘one flesh’ union of spouses? …

T]he relationship between the sexes becomes the meeting place of God and man or it becomes man's point of closure to God and the first step in the disintegration of culture.”

Attentive readers will recognize what it is they're holding in their hands — the fuse of a time bomb under the appearance of a book.

John M. Grondelski writes from Warsaw, Poland.