Theology of the Body: Context

Before I get into individual sections of the work, I think it will be helpful to give a brief overview of the structure and content of Theology of the Body. I will also share a few general thoughts.

 What is Theology of the Body?

Before I started studying Theology of the Body (TOB), I had a vague idea that it was something written by Pope St. John Paul II about marriage, sex and contraception. From the title, I also thought that it should look into what the human body can tell us about God. All of those things are, in fact, part of TOB, but it is more than that. It really an incomplete answer to the question, “What does it mean to be human?”

I say that it is incomplete in agreement with John Paul II. He explains in his conclusion (TOB 133) that the term “theology of the body” is intended to mean something much wider than the scope of his catechesis. He means theology of the body to be a whole area of theology: something like sacramental theology or christology. Of course, theology of the body actually overlaps  both of those areas and many others. He never gives an explicit definition, but I will shoot for something rough here:

theology of the body: the study of the human person as a union of spirit and flesh, in his original, historical, and redeemed positions relative to God, himself, and the rest of creation 

John Paul defines the focus of his catechesis, within the larger realm of theology of the body, as “the redemption of the body and the sacramentality of marriage.” He notes the subject of death and suffering as an area of future potential in theology of the body. So I will respond here to one objection I have heard to theology of the body: that it focuses too much on sex, marriage or gender. Since the topic is the sacramentality of marriage, a great deal of the discussion will obviously be sex, in both senses of the word.

Because the term theology of the body is meant to refer to a whole genre of thinking, not to the specific work of John Paul II, I dislike “Theology of the Body” as a title for the published set of audiences. Its formal title, “Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body,” is cumbersome and not in popular use. So to try to be sure that everyone understands what I am saying, I will continue to use Theology of the Body as the title, but I am open to solutions to this problem.

 Why was it written?

St. John Paul delivered the first audience on September 5, 1979 and explained that he meant to lead the church on a reflection parallel to the one the bishops were undertaking in preparation for the 1980 synod on The Duties of the Christian Family. The fruit of this synod, Familiaris Consortio, was published in 1981. The last audience of Theology of the Body was delivered in 1984, so the audiences were more than a companion to the synod.

John Paul also states that the entire work is meant to be an adequate apology for the Church’s teaching on contraception. He takes a huge step back and says that in order to understand why contraception is unacceptable and harmful, you have to understand sex properly. To understand sex, you have to understand marriage. And to understand marriage, you have to understand man: his original design, the wounds of original sin, the healing offered by Christ in the redemption, and his glorious destiny in Heaven.

Why should I bother?

No single sentence, no 30-minute lecture, no forty-page document can really explain the problem with contraception. Of course, that’s why so many people in the Church are hurt and confused about this issue. And that’s why we need to make this very long, complicated, adequate answer to the question available to everyone. Catholics are cheating our generation by keeping this treasure hidden, and by failing to offer healing for the sexual wounds we all share in diverse manifestations.

If you’ve ever wondered why contraception is wrong, why marriage is between a man and a woman only, or why formal marriage even matters, Theology of the Body is for you. If you experience the brokenness of sin to the very core of your manhood or womanhood, struggling in your self-image, your romantic relationships, your marriage, and your relationship with God (basically, unless you are The Blessed Virgin), Theology of the Body is for you. If you believe the teachings of the church but struggle to explain them to your friends and family, Theology of the Body is for you.

OK, you’re convinced that you need this teaching! Unfortunately, it’s not really an easy read, to put it mildly. Do not despair. There are resources out there to make these teachings accessible, but there aren’t nearly enough yet. Christopher West has many books, CD’s and DVD’s written on multiple levels to help you get started. There are other resources available as well – perhaps I will put together a listing in a future post. If you follow this blog for a few months, I will go through all of the audiences, a few at a time, like I explain here.

In the next post, I will give a brief overview of the whole thing. If your idea of TOB is a bit vague, read on.

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