St. John Paul II Was Right: The Relevance of the Theology of the Body
Monica Ashour, co-founder and executive director of the Theology of the Body Evangelization Team, on the key to a sound Christian anthropology of love and sexuality.
ROME — The anthropological vision of John Paul II on love, life and human sexuality, developed in his “theology of the body” (TOB) catechesis, has become a polestar for a whole generation. Gathering a series of 129 catechetical addresses pronounced during his Wednesday audiences in St. Peter Square from Sept. 5, 1979, to Nov. 28, 1984, the theology of the body remains a key element of John Paul’s thought and a major papal contribution to the Church’s teaching on human sexuality..
Although the Pope’s addresses remained relatively unknown until the 1990s, this crucial work is now widespread — and continues to spread — thanks to the commitment of individuals around the world who have dedicated their lives to teaching John Paul’s vision, notably through the organization of large conferences and the creation of institutes and associations.
One of these associations is the Dallas-based Theology of the Body Evangelization Team, known as TOBET, founded in 2001 by a group of educators and parents. TOBET’s aim is to “‘translate’ this philosophically dense, theological reflection so that families and people of all ages can access this life-affirming teaching.”
Its executive director, Monica Ashour, a national speaker and author, wrote a number of books designed to help people live according to the anthropology espoused by the theology of the body in a more concrete and authentic way, including through books for children entitled The Body Matters.
In May 2015, Ashour was a participant in an ad hoc committee for the Pontifical Council for the Family led by the council’s president at the time, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia. Three years earlier, in November 2011, she attended the Theology of the Body International Symposium in Rome and presented a talk about how to teach teens the TOB.
The Register met her during her recent pilgrimage to the tomb of St. John Paul II in Rome.
For many years, you’ve been dedicating a significant part of your life to spreading St. John Paul’s TOB, through TOBET. Why are these teachings so important nowadays?
I think John Paul II saw the problem in our current culture. In the mid-fourth and early fifth century, St. Augustine sought to address the problem of what it means to be human; 800 years later, St. Thomas Aquinas addressed this question, as well; and 800 after Thomas, St. John Paul, in turn, sought to answer a similar question. St. John Paul saw that the body was not being seen properly in modern society. He describes our understanding of our bodies as “detachment.” We [as a modern society] are, John Paul II claims, detached from the truth of our own bodies. We don’t see them as a sacrament, as revealing something about God, about ourselves, about love. So John Paul II focuses on the body and its meaning, and I think this focus is perfectly fitting for this culture.
How did John Paul II develop these teachings from his own experiences?
Karol Wojtyla lived during World War II, during which, in [Nazi] concentration camps in Poland and neighboring countries, there would be experiments on people, especially on Jews, whose bodies were seen as objects of scientific study. And then with the sexual revolution — John Paul was a young priest back then — he saw people abusing the body as mere tools for pleasure. This is how he came to understand that the body matters.
In John Paul II’s TOB addresses, the importance of the body is underscored by the fact that the word “soul” appears 55 times, “spirit” 99 times and “body” 1,319 times.
But today, things are not much better than they were during John Paul II’s time. When we look around, we see so many tattoos on people, and there is rampant sexual promiscuity — all because we see the body in the wrong way. The sacred dimension of our body is so often lost.
This is what I think St. John Paul saw at the time. And he anticipated even transgenderism. In TOB, he says that, in today’s society, a person has difficulty in identifying with his or her own body. When he wrote that in the 1980s, he may have seen transgenderism as it was going to become many years later. Many at the time did not understand the meaning of being a “body-person,” a term coined by him. In this way, John Paul II doesn’t give us only a theology of love, of marriage, and of matrimony, but he also gives us the theology of the body.
You see a continuity of thought linking St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Paul II. What are their distinctive features?
Regarding the theology of the body, St. Augustine says that procreation and education of children is the purpose of conjugal and marital intercourse. Then, 800 years later, St. Thomas Aquinas further developed St. Augustine’s idea of the union of spouses as a secondary and subordinate end to procreation. And 800 years after Thomas, St. John Paul, agreeing with both Augustine and Thomas, further develops our understanding of the body’s nature by pointing out that the body speaks a natural language, a language of a free, full, faithful, fruitful person-to-person encounter.
In the theology of the body, John Paul II says to the husband and wife that their bodies speaks through the language of gift. He draws inspiration from Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 24, which says men and women “cannot fully find [themselves] except through a sincere gift of [themselves].” That is the meaning of life. In a similar way, Pope John Paul sees the meaning of life in Genesis 2:25 (“Adam and Eve were naked and did not feel ashamed”). Why? Because before the Fall, the human body revealed who we were as humans, and we knew our bodies were meant to be a gift. After the Fall, we lost sight of this sense of gift. So the gift — and recovering that sense of gift — itself is the meaning of life.
Even if I am single, I can give the gift of my body to others, although in a way quite different from how a married couple give their bodies to one another, of course. It is important to know that we all, married and single, speak the language of gift through our bodies — because we are gifts to each other. Right now, for example, my vocal cords are directed towards your eardrums. I am giving something to you, and you’re giving something back by receiving, by smiling at me, and together as we interact we are more than the sum of our parts.
God is love, so whenever all of us love together, we reveal God. And how can we express that love to one another? A primary and fundamental way of expressing this love is through our bodies. We are a composite body and soul. But I think John Paul moves away from the expression “body and soul” and just says that the body shows you that you have a soul, that you’re made for love and that finding that sense of love in our bodies and souls is the meaning of life.
A significant part of your work focuses on young people, to whom you dedicated a series of books. Why do you think it is important to reach young people with these teachings?
A few years ago, I received a phone call from Toronto, in Canada. I’ve been urged to teach TOB to children because, in a school there, the small children were told that their sexuality was fluid. “Close your eyes,” the teachers instructed the children. “Think about whether you’re a boy or a girl, and don’t let anybody tell you. You decide your own sexuality.” Naturally, parents were outraged at this sort of activity, and the school’s sex-education curriculum provoked great controversy among the parents.
After I heard that story about students being encouraged to decide their own sexuality, and many others like it, I consulted the bishops on our TOBET advisory board and they advised that I write books for children that would counter these false secular teachings on human sexuality. This is how my series of books called The Body Matters started. We hope we can spread them in Catholic schools as well as in parish catechetical programs. And we want parents to read these books as well because many may not know the theology of the body. These books are a good way to establish a dialogue between parents and children.
Some commentators lamented the fact that the synod on young people, in October 2018, didn’t give enough space to sexuality. Do you agree with them?
I believe there wasn’t much discussion about TOB during the synod on young people, which I think is a problem. There needs to be some focus on sexuality, and that focus should not be at the exclusion of anthropology — that is, at the exclusion of what it means to be human. I wish the synod would have integrated Pope John Paul’s understanding of the human person as a gift made in God’s image because I think he knew what we need now — that is a TOB based on Scripture.
How would you have integrated TOB into the synod on young people?
I would have advised participants to take seriously what Pope John Paul was trying to do. He warned against seeing the body in “detachment” or that the body doesn’t have meaning. If I was an adviser in this kind of event, I would start by asking, “How does the body teach you many lessons?” Then I’d point out that the body teaches us that we’re human, first and foremost. This basic teaching — the humanity of our bodies — will become more important in the future because another thing that is coming is transhumanism, which is very scary.
Next, I would point out that the body teaches us that we are male or female (“boy body” or “girl body” is how I put it for children in the TOBET books), not neutral. This, too, is vital for children to know, as I’ve heard that people are even building sex robots to replicate — and replace — authentic human sexual experience. So, if we don’t talk to young people about the truth of their existence as male and female sexual beings, then they’re going to be brainwashed by erroneous views of sexuality as a neutral thing. My advice is that young people should take seriously the people who have studied and understood the truth of the child, the truth about the human person, and the truth about sexuality and about the body mattering in all these truths.
Your first book was on marriage preparation. What would be your first piece of advice to a young couple getting married?
Engaged couples need to understand that the body is a revelation of the person. So often, we wrongly think that the body is separated from the person. It is seen as a tool for pleasure, not a sacrament. Engaged couples must see the body as a gift and the other as a gift. Only then will they be able to see how the teachings about sexuality come into play — even though, of course, marriage is about much more than sexuality.
All of TOB is about ultimately getting to heaven, where we will be in union with God and others, with our “spiritualized” bodies. So, through TOB, engaged couples will truly come to now that “I am meant to be for you and you for me.”
When I give talks before engaged couples, one of the last things I explain to them is how, for instance, two fiancées, Katy and Joe, will enter into a mutual self-giving in marriage. “When you get married, Joe,” I say, “you become Joe for Katy, and, Katy, you become Katy for Joe.” In other words, Pope John Paul says a person is a “being-for-another.” So they become gifts for each other, and they get to journey this life together. And, ultimately, they get to see each other face-to-face, with their bodies, in heaven. Marriage gives you a taste of heaven.
In the priesthood and religious life, too, individuals are self-giving and likewise live for all. In either case, married or religious life, this self-giving is a taste of what heaven is about. Both of those vocations give a taste of heaven. It is all about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — and the Church — all being at the center of one’s life.
You’re in Rome for a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. John Paul II. What does this trip mean to you?
I am here is to show my gratitude. I am grateful to God, to my parents for raising me in the Catholic faith, and to Pope John Paul who gave us TOB. I am going to be in front of his tomb, praying and thanking him for his gift, a gift which is going to transform the culture, one person at a time, for Jesus and his Church.
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.
- theology of the body
- the body matters
- st. john paul ii
- solène tadié
- monica ashour
- human sexuality and love