Who’s Afraid of the Theology of the Body?

COMMENTARY: As Chesterton said, ‘A new philosophy generally means in practice the praise of some old vice.’ No doubt the same is true of a new ‘theology of love.’

Detail of sculpture of Pope John Paul II in Krakow, Poland.
Detail of sculpture of Pope John Paul II in Krakow, Poland. (photo: Shutterstock)

A group of 50 bishops and theologians meeting in Rome last week announced that they have discovered an apparently new element in Christian morality: love, as in a new “theology of love.” They say it is needed to replace the tired, old theology of the body famously propounded by Pope St. John Paul II, who, after all, has already been gone for 10 years.

A “theology of love”? I thought we already had that: “God is love.” “If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and my Father will love you, and we will come and make our home in you.” “Greater love than this has no man.”

We must proceed with caution. As Chesterton said, “A new philosophy generally means in practice the praise of some old vice.” No doubt the same is true of a new theology.

Context is all: The meeting, held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, was held to study “pastoral innovations” that could be presented at the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in October. It was led by the very same people, including German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who have been telling us that the Catholic Church needs to re-examine the treatment of persons who divorce and remarry outside the Church and admit at least some of them to holy Communion. They also want the Church to recognize and welcome the positive contributions of committed homosexual relationships. These ideas were presented at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family last October. Although the paragraphs dealing with them failed to win approval in voting on the final document, they were left in place at the direction of Pope Francis. Now, it is on to the next bout.

Why would a “theology of love” as opposed to the theology of the body be desirable? Why is the theology of the body suddenly inadequate, when it was once considered so comprehensive that only scholars could take it all in?

John Paul II’s teaching on human sexuality and marriage was presented in Wednesday audience addresses (1979-1984) and in the 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), written to complete the work of the last Synod of Bishops on the Family in 1980. The Pope compiled, explained and enriched the teaching of Christ that has been faithfully transmitted by the Church.

In a nutshell, the theology of the body recognizes that the human body, male and female, carries revelation about both human nature and our relationship to God; indeed, even about God’s nature. When Jesus was asked about the allowance of divorce in the Mosaic Law (Matthew 19:3-9), he referred to the Book of Genesis, “God made man in his image. In the image of God, he created him. Male and female, he created them” (1:27); and “For this reason, a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two become one flesh” (2:24). Jesus concluded from these texts: “Therefore, they are no longer two, but one flesh. What, therefore, God has joined together let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6).

Pope John Paul II developed the “one-flesh union” as an expression and fulfillment of the mutual gifts of self the husband and wife make to one another. It is far more than the physical union. It is a gift and reception in love of each person’s intimate being, in trust and faith. Once made, the gifts cannot be rescinded. The self-giving is so complete that it cannot be shared with a third party. And, more wondrously, the gifts are fruitful, in that they can bring forth new human life; man and woman are given a share in the very creative power of God. Hence, the characteristics of marriage: a union of a man and a woman that is indissoluble, exclusive and fruitful.

The Pope points out that the dynamic of gift, reception and new life is an image of the Holy Trinity. Human marriage tells us about the interpersonal relationships of the Trinity. The Father speaks the Word as the full expression or gift of himself, and the Word, the Son, receives all from the Father. The gift, reception and return of the gift are the Holy Spirit, the Love that proceeds from the Father and the Son.

This is what is meant by Genesis 1:26-27, “God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image and likeness. …’ God created man in his image. In the image of God, he created him. Male and female, he created them.” There is an analogous relationship, an “image and likeness” between the Holy Trinity and human marriage. We also know that human marriage images the relationship of Christ to the Church, another relationship of gift, reception and return of the gift, resulting in new life (Ephesians 5:21-32). That relationship is also indissoluble, exclusive and fruitful.

Now we can see what is inadequate about the theology of the body for Cardinal Marx and his friends: It expresses and explains what has been the constant teaching of the Church received from Christ himself. It has no room for maneuver. Like the body itself, it is completely unambiguous and non-plastic. We have no say in how it works. We cannot reshape it or reassign its functions.

But for the participants at last week’s meeting, these are new times, and we need a new paradigm to deal with the new “lived experience of the faithful.” We need flexibility, accommodation and tolerance. We need love.

Love is delightfully ambiguous and amorphous, shaped by the lovers. It can be whatever we want it to be: emotional, sensual, temporary, multipartied. It can even mean never having to say you’re sorry. I am dating myself with that one, but, in fact, that is what the theology of love appears to be. Listen to what some of the speakers at last week’s meeting were saying, like in this report from veteran Vaticanista Sandro Magister:

According to the authorized account in the May 26 issue of La Repubblica, the only newspaper admitted to the meeting and on top of that the only newspaper that Pope Francis says he reads:
“A priest and professor speaks without hesitation of ‘caresses, kisses, coitus in the sense of coming together, co-ire,’ as also of ‘that which accompanies the unconscious lights and shadows of the impulses and desire.’ One of his colleagues: ‘The importance of the sexual stimulus represents the foundation for a lasting relationship.’ Freud is quoted. There are references to Fromm. ‘The lack of sexuality,’ it is added, ‘can be associated with hunger and thirst. The question that characterizes it is: Do you want to have sex? But this does not mean desiring the other, if the other does not want it. The question should be: Do you want me? This is how sexual desire for the other can be united with love.’”

God has disappeared; Christ is nowhere; there are no requirements, restrictions or regrets. If things don’t work out, just move on. Feeling is all; desire rules. It might be protested that this is overstating the situation. But if the line is not drawn where Christ drew it, how can there be any line at all?

There are no accommodation points, no adjustments to get something that is not quite indissoluble, somewhat less exclusive, almost fruitful. Either the marriage union is between a man and a woman or it is not a marriage.

It has never been the mission of the Church to accept what is incompatible with her Master. He attracted great crowds, but failed to convert most of them. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem …how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but thou wouldst not” (Luke 13:34). Yet he did not compromise: The mission of the Church is to preach the Gospel and baptize those who accept it. There was never a promise of popularity.

The problem in the next synod is that very senior and influential prelates are demanding that the Church conform to the world because the world will not conform to the Church. We are living in a culture that began more than a century ago to dig the pit we now inhabit. Heterosexuals have already deconstructed marriage through no-fault divorce, contraception, abortion and not bothering to get married at all. (In North America and Europe, upwards of 40% of children are born to unmarried mothers.) Even before the drive for same-sex “marriage,” our civil society had already largely abandoned true marriage.

Heterosexuals are in no position to deny homosexuals anything because it would require making arguments that could also be used against them. Having allowed themselves every sexual license, how can heterosexuals say to homosexuals anything but “Who are we to judge?” in modern culture?

It should not be difficult for the bishops and the Pope to survey the social wreckage of several decades of increasingly free love. They will naturally consider the consistent teaching of the Church, following the words of Christ. Fortunately, there will be among the advisers at the next synod a professor from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, which was strangely unrepresented at the last synod.

Likewise, they will have the clear and comprehensive teaching of the magisterial document Familiaris Consortio, which was not referenced at all in the preparatory document for last October. In the study document for the next synod, it is cited several times, although not in any way that challenges the agenda of the “theology of love.”

The bishops and the Pope will therefore stand, like all of their predecessors, on the Tradition and magisterium that continue to sustain the Church. They will see the “theology of love” for what it is, as Chesterton would have expected, simply praise of an old vice.

Donna Bethell is chairwoman of the board of directors at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia.

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