John Paul II’s Antidote to the Culture of Death
Christopher West discusses the past, present and future of the Pope’s theology of the body.
As John Paul II insisted, “It is an illusion to think we can build a true culture of human life if we do not … accept and experience sexuality and love and the whole of life according to their true meaning and their close interconnection” (Evangelium Vitae, 97). For as our understanding of sexuality goes, so go marriage and the family. As marriage and the family go, so goes civilization.”
This is the great gift of John Paul II’s theology of the body: By revealing the glory of God’s plan for man and woman, it provides the antidote to the “culture of death” and the surest foundation for building a “culture of life.”
Theology of the Body Past
Page one of the TOB manuscript is dated Dec. 8, 1974. It’s dedicated to “Mary all beautiful.” Amazingly, Cardinal Wojtyla finished writing the text between the election of Pope John Paul I in August 1978 and his own election that October. In turn, what was intended as a book by a Polish cardinal became, instead, the first major teaching project of Pope John Paul II — delivered in a series of 129 addresses between 1979 and 1984.
Some prescient scholars saw its significance at the time and began trying to make its dense language accessible. Still, it would be another 15 years or more before a larger movement started gaining traction.
In 1999, George Weigel published Witness to Hope, in which he made his now-famous statement: The TOB constitutes “a kind of theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences … perhaps in the 21st century.” This sparked the interest of many and confirmed what various others had been trying to say for some time: We have to take a look at this as a Church!
Theology of the Body Present
Katrina Zeno, one of the many fine teachers of the TOB, once shared with me that she sees the spread of TOB as a grace of the Jubilee Year 2000. I agree. Much work remains to be done, but — through a great many books, courses, conferences and study programs by a variety of authors — the message is steadily getting out there. Lives are being changed, marriages are being healed, new marriages are starting on a much more solid foundation, religious vocations are being embraced — all beautiful signs that the seeds of the culture of life are sprouting.
Still, the TOB “movement” is not without its growing pains. There is a great deal of debate about how to interpret John Paul on various points and how best to “translate” his dense theology for a popular audience.
While deeply rooted in tradition, John Paul II also presented some striking developments of thinking. As I observed in my book Theology of the Body Explained, “Such developments always afford a creative tension in the Church as scholars, catechists and laity alike seek to understand them and apply them in Christian life. Differences in interpretation and the debates they engender are a healthy part of that process.”
Indeed, I believe the current “TOB debate” will lead (and is leading) to a purification of the “TOB movement” and is a necessary precursor to the “TOB future.”
Theology of the Body Future
With the concerted efforts of all in the Church to continue spreading the message of the TOB, I believe we will see in the not-too-distant future the detonation of this “theological time bomb.” When that happens, a “culture of life” will emerge from the ashes of the “culture of death.” And we will see the triumph that Mary promised in Fatima.
The day John Paul was shot — May 13, 1981 — was not only the annual memorial of Fatima; it was also the day he had planned to establish his Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Could it be that there were forces at work that did not want John Paul II’s teaching to reach the world? John Paul credited his survival to Our Lady of Fatima and subsequently entrusted his institute to her protection.
Part of the Fatima prophecy was that “Russia would spread her errors throughout the world.” We rightly think here of the spread of communism. But below the surface of Marxist economic theory lay the need to eliminate what he considered the fundamental “class distinction,” the distinction between man and woman. In fact, various scholars argue that the deepest error Russia “spread around the world” is precisely the deep-seated sexual confusion in which we’re now immersed.
But just as John Paul II’s vision of the human person inaugurated a revolution that led to the fall of communism, we have every reason to hope that his theology of the body — if we take it up, live it and share it with the world — will lead to the collapse of the dominant sexual ideology. Let it be, Lord, according to your word. Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!
Christopher West is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute in Exton, Pennsylvania, and is the author of many popular works on John Paul II’s landmark catechesis, including Good News About Sex & Marriage, Theology of the Body Explained, and Theology of the Body for Beginners.
Tomorrow: Father Jose Granados discusses three key points in understanding Pope John Paul II’s vision of theology of the body.