The Theology of the Body & The New Evangelization
by Christopher West
“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 inter-connection.” So says John Paul II in The Gospel of Life (n. 97). The sexual embrace is the foundation stone of human life itself. The family – and, in turn, culture itself – springs from this embrace. In short, as sex goes, so go marriage and the family. As marriage and the family go, so goes civilization.
Such logic doesn’t bode well for our culture. It’s no exaggeration to say that the task of the twentieth century was to rid itself of the Christian sexual ethic. If we’re to build a culture of life, the task of the twenty-first century must be to reclaim it. But the approach of the old moral manuals isn’t going to win over your neighbors, friends and coworkers. We need a fresh theological vision that explains the Church’s sexual ethic by appealing to the way we moderns think.
As more and more people are discovering, John Paul II devoted the first major teaching project of his pontificate – 129 talks delivered between September 1979 and November 1984 – to developing just such a theology: a theology of the body. The end result is a revolution not only for Catholics, but for all Christians, and – if Christians take it up and live it – for the whole world.
The Body Proclaims God’s Mystery
The Pope’s theology of the body provides a beautiful, uplifting vision of marital love and sexual intimacy. But it goes far beyond that too. It’s a deeply affirming education in what it means to be human.
As John Paul says, what we learn is obviously “important in regard to marriage and the Christian vocation of husbands and wives.” However it “is equally essential and valid for the understanding of man in general: for the fundamental problem of understanding him and for the self-comprehension of his being in the world” (Dec. 15, 82). Therefore, “it is this theology of the body which is the basis of the most suitable method of the. . . education (in fact the self-education) of man” (April 8, 81).
Following the Scriptures, John Paul demonstrates that the union of the sexes provides a “lens” through which to view the whole plan of God for humanity. God’s eternal plan is to “marry” us (see Hosea 2:19) – to live with us in an eternal union of life and love. And God wanted this eternal “marital plan” to be so plain to us, so obvious to us that he impressed an image of it in our very being by creating us male and female.
This is why the Pope speaks of the body as a theology – a “study of God.” The body, in the full truth of its masculinity and femininity, proclaims the divine mystery in the world. What’s the divine mystery? As the Catechism says, “God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange” (CCC, n. 221).
A student of mine once overheard a fellow parishioner say, “Three persons in one God . . . three Gods in one person . . . who cares? Let’s just get on and lead good Christian lives.” Whoa! The Trinity is at the heart of everything we believe as Christians. Since we’re made in the image of the Trinity, we can’t know who we are or how to “live good Christian lives” apart from the Trinity. This is especially true concerning the union of the sexes.
In fact, God intends marital union as an earthly image of His own Trinitarian “exchange of love.” It’s also a “promise” of our destiny to share in the love of the Trinity through Christ. “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-32).
Of course, spousal union is only an analogy of the Trinitarian mystery. As John Paul II reminds us, God’s “mystery remains transcendent in regard to this analogy as in regard to any other analogy, whereby we seek to express it in human language” (Sep. 29, 1982). At the same time, however, the Pope says that there “is no other human reality which corresponds more, humanly speaking, to that divine mystery” (Dec. 30, 1988).
Concerns the Whole Gospel
Understanding the human body as a theology shouldn’t only be the interest of a few specialized theologians. It should be the interest of everyone who desires to understand the meaning of human existence. Even though it focuses on sexual love, as the Pope says, the theology of the body affords “the rediscovery of the meaning of the whole of existence, the meaning of life” (Oct. 29, 80).
There’s a reason we’re all so darned interested in sex and the beauty of the human body. When we have the purity to see it, they’re meant to point us to God. Understanding God’s plan for the body and sex “concerns the entire Bible” (Jan. 13, 82) and plunges us into “the perspective of the whole Gospel, of the whole teaching, in fact, of the whole mission of Christ” (Dec. 3, 80).
This is no footnote in the Christian life. As George Weigel observes in his biography of the Pope, the theology of the body “has ramifications for all of theology.” Yet it “has barely begun to shape the Church’s theology, preaching, and religious education. When it does it will compel a dramatic development of thinking about virtually every major theme in the Creed” (Witness to Hope, pp. 343, 853).
Why’s the body so important to theology and the understanding of human life? Because ultimate reality itself is revealed through the body – through the Word made flesh. Christ – through His body given up for us – “fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22).
If it seems odd to speak of the body as a theology, John Paul II reminds us that “Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh the body entered theology ...through the main door” (April 2, 80). God’s mystery revealed in human flesh (theology of the body) – this is the very “logic” of Christianity. And this is the logic we must bring to our neighbors, friends and coworkers in a “new evangelization.”
What is the New Evangelization?
John Paul first used the expression “the new evangelization” in a trip to Latin America in 1983. Ever since he has “unstintingly recalled the pressing need for a new evangelization” (Faith and Reason, n. 103). This urgency stems not only from the fact that entire nations still haven’t received the Gospel, but also because “entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and His Gospel” (Mission of the Redeemer, n. 86).
Therefore, one thing “new” about this evangelization is that it’s directed in large part towards “baptized non-believers.” Men and women in large numbers are “culturally Christian,” but haven’t experienced a conversion of heart to Christ and His teachings. The call to interior conversion, in fact, was one of the main themes of Vatican II. As the Council understood well, this can only happen through an authentic, compelling, evangelical witness to salvation through Jesus Christ.
As John Paul clarified in his Apostolic Letter At the Beginning of the New Millennium, the new evangelization isn’t “a matter of inventing a ‘new program.’ The program already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever” (n. 29). What’s essential in order to bring the Gospel to the modern world is a proclamation that’s “new in ardor, methods, and expression” (March 9, 1983).
Speaking to the American Bishops in 1998, the Pope observed that “the new evangelization [involves] a vital effort to come to a deeper understanding of the mysteries of faith and to find meaningful language with which to convince our contemporaries that they are called to newness of life through God’s love.” It’s the task of sharing with your neighbors, friends and coworkers, “the ‘unsearchable riches of Christ’ and of making known ‘the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things’ (Eph 3:8-9).”
“How the heck am I supposed to do that?” you ask. Talk about sex. What a great starting point for evangelization – everybody’s interested! I say this with a bit of humor, but I’m also entirely serious. If we’re to make known to others “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God,” guess what – there’s an image of this mystery stamped right in our sexuality. The theology of the body provides just the “meaningful language” we need to convince our neighbors, friends and coworkers that they’re “called to newness of life through God’s love.”
Bringing Heavenly Mysteries Down to Earth
Once the Pope’s scholarship is actually comprehended (or presented in a way that people can understand), the theology of the body has a remarkable ability to bring the heavenly mysteries down to earth. The Pope’s insights “ring true” because his teaching is the fruit of a constant confrontation of doctrine with experience.
As the Holy Father observes, “God comes to us in the things we know best and can verify most easily, the things of our everyday life, apart from which we cannot understand ourselves” (Faith and Reason, n. 12). What do we know better, what can we verify more easily, what’s more “every day” than the experience of embodiment? This is where God meets us – in the flesh. And this is where we must meet the world in the new evangelization.
The Catechism teaches that the Church “in her whole being and in all her members ...is sent to announce, bear witness, make present, and spread the mystery of the communion of the Holy Trinity” (n. 738). This sums up well the essential goal of evangelization. And this eternal mystery of communion becomes close to us, we realize that it’s part of us through the lens of the theology of the body. The mystery of love and communion isn’t something “out there” somewhere. It’s “right here” – stamped in our whole personal experience of “being a body,” of being male or female.
Our creation as male and female and our longing for communion is “the fundamental fact” of human existence (see Feb. 13, 80). Again, the Gospel meets us right here. As John Paul says, the Christian mystery cannot be understood “unless we keep in mind the ‘great mystery’ involved in the creation of man as male and female and the vocation of both to conjugal love” (Letter to Families, n. 19).
Incarnating the Gospel
In that same address to the American Bishops, John Paul defined the basic task of evangelization as “the Church’s effort to proclaim to [all men and women] that God loves them, that he has given himself for them in Christ Jesus, and that he invites them to an unending life of happiness.” This basic message is in itself “good news.” But it needs to be incarnated if men and women are to find their link with it.
Of course, this message was and is incarnated in Jesus Christ. But can’t you just hear one of your neighbors saying, “What does some man who lived two thousand years ago have to do with me?” As a professor of mine used to say, we can proclaim that “Jesus is the answer” til we’re blue in the face. But unless people are first in touch with the question, we remain on the level of abstraction.
Herein lies the gift of grounding the Gospel in the body. It’s the antidote to abstraction. It roots us in what’s truly human – in the “every day” – and by so doing prepares us to receive what’s truly divine. In other words, it puts us squarely in touch with the human question, thus opening our hearts to the divine answer.
In some sense, embodiment is the human question. What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? There are no more important questions for men and women to ask. And notice that these are inherently sexual questions, questions about “being a body.”
The Body Reveals the Person
Of course, the very ability to question and to wonder points to our deeper, spiritual dimension. But the human anomaly is that our spiritual dimension is manifested in our physical dimension. The human body – unlike that of your cat or goldfish – reveals the mystery of a person. John Paul describes this as the experience of “original solitude.” When Adam named the animals, he realized that he was “alone” as a body-person in the world. We all know this experience of human “solitude” – of being alone before God, different from the rest of creation.
This universal human experience leads to the universal human question: Why am I here? What’s the meaning of my existence? Where do we find the answer? The same place we found the question – in our experience of embodiment. If solitude (why am I a person?) is the human question, communion is the divine answer.
The experience of “being a body” not only demonstrates that I’m “alone,” it also demonstrates that I’m in need of a “helper.” It’s not good to be alone (see Gen. 2:18). We’re meant for love, for communion with an “other.” And this call to love is inscribed right in our bodies. A man’s body doesn’t make sense by itself. Nor does a woman’s. By contemplating the “other” in the beauty of sexual difference, we realize that we’re called to be a gift to one another. We discover that the body has a nuptial meaning.
The nuptial meaning of the body is the body’s “capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift and – by means of this gift – fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence” (Jan. 16, 80). Did you hear that? If we live according to the truth of our sexuality, we fulfill the very meaning of our being and existence. Tell this to your neighbors and you’re sure to get their attention. Self-giving love is the meaning of our existence. And it’s stamped right in the meaning of our sexuality.
This isn’t abstract. Even if sin has distanced us from the beauty and purity of God’s original plan, you and everyone in your address book know the “ache” of solitude and the longing for communion. Everyone knows the “magnetic pull” of erotic desire. This basic human longing for union, in fact, is the most concrete link in every human heart with “that man who lived two thousand years ago.” How so?
Human Longing Leads to Christ
Experience attests that even in the most wonderful human relationship that “ache” of solitude isn’t entirely satisfied. We still yearn for “something more.” If sex really was our “ultimate fulfillment” then marriage would be nirvana. But the union of the sexes at its best is only a glimmer, only a foreshadowing, only a “sacrament” of something far greater.
“For this reason ...the two become one flesh.” For what reason? To reveal, proclaim, and anticipate the union of Christ and the Church (see Eph 5:31-32). The eternal, ecstatic, “nuptial” Communion with Christ and the entire communion of saints – so far superior to anything proper to earthly life that we can’t begin to fathom it – this alone can satisfy the human “ache” of solitude. This is the North Pole to which that magnetic pull of erotic desire is oriented. Borrowing an idea from St. Augustine, we’re made for communion with Christ, and our hearts are restless until we rest in this eternal embrace.
Herein lies the logic of celibacy “for the kingdom” (see Matt. 19:12). Christ calls some men and women here on earth to “skip” the sacrament in order to devote themselves entirely to the “marriage of the Lamb” (Rev. 19). In this way they witness to our ultimate fulfillment. While many are calling for an end to celibacy, we need the authentic celibate witness more than ever. When we lose sight of the eternal union, we inevitably look to the earthly image (sexual union) as our ultimate fulfillment. What was meant to be an “icon” of heaven then becomes an idol.
Welcome to the world in which we live. Sin’s tactic is to “twist” and “disorient” our desire for heaven. That’s all it can do. When we understand this, we realize that the sexual confusion so prevalent in our world and in our own hearts is nothing but the human desire for heaven gone berserk. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God” (Collected Works, Volume I).
The Task of the New Evangelization
The task of the new evangelization isn’t to condemn the world for its excesses and distortions, but help people “untwist” them. For example, the typical American college student quickly learns that the meaning of life is to get drunk and have rampant sex. “Untwist” these counterfeits and you discover two sacraments: the Eucharist and Marriage.
We’re meant to be “inebriated” on the new wine that Christ gives us. And where did Christ first give us this new wine? At a wedding feast (see John 2). The union of the sexes can only bring us the joy we seek if it images Christ’s love poured out in the Eucharist. This is what we’re really long for. In the new evangelization, we need to walk into fraternity parties where people are getting drunk and seeking illicit sex and say, “Do you know what you really want here? You want the Eucharist and Marriage, and the Catholic Church has them to give to you.”
Once again I’m inserting a bit of humor. But again, I’m also serious. Behind every sin, behind every disordered “acting out,” there’s a genuine human desire that’s meant to be fulfilled through Christ and His Church. As our desires become “untwisted,” we begin to realize that we really desire eternal love and joy. This is what we’re created for. And the good news of the Gospel is that just such a love has been revealed. It’s already been freely given. How? Where? In the body of Christ. This is why “Jesus is the answer.”
If the spirit of the Gospel isn’t incarnated in this way with men and women’s real desires, it will forever remain detached from what we experience as “essentially human.” Yet, Christ took on flesh to wed Himself to what’s essentially human. Hence, if the Gospel isn’t incarnated with what’s essentially human, it’s essentially not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel of the Body
The “core of the Gospel,” according to John Paul, “is the proclamation of a living God who is close to us, who calls us to profound communion with himself. . . . It is the affirmation of the inseparable connection between the person, his life and his bodiliness. It is the presentation of human life as a life of relationship.” As a consequence, the Pope says that “the meaning of life is found in giving and receiving love, and in this light human sexuality and procreation reach their true and full significance” (The Gospel of Life, n. 81).
We might call this profoundly incarnate vision the “Gospel of the Body.” In a word, the Gospel is a call to communion. This is what we long for and this is what our bodies shout: communion! As John Paul asserts in his letter on the new millennium, “To make the Church the home and school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings” (n. 43).
The new evangelization, therefore, isn’t first an appeal to abstract, objective principles. If you’re to reach your neighbors, friends and coworkers, you have to appeal to their deepest yearnings for communion. Then, based on your own experience, you must witness boldly to the truth that “Jesus is the answer” to their yearnings.
“But. . .” you say. “My friends and neighbors will never accept the Church’s teaching about sex.” That depends on how you witness to it.
A Call to Embrace Our Greatness
Sexual love is meant to image God’s love. The Church’s sexual ethic makes total sense when we understand this. It’s not a prudish list of prohibitions. It’s a call to embrace our own “greatness.” It’s a call to authentic love. Everyone longs for this.
Why, then, are people so quick to reject the Church’s teaching? What if you were raised in a culture that incessantly bombarded you with propaganda convincing you that counterfeit love was the real thing and the Church’s vision was a counterfeit? Might you be a little confused?
But here’s what we have going for us: the truth we’re called to proclaim to our friends and neighbors is already stamped in their hearts. It may be buried under layers and layers of debris from all the counterfeits, but it’s still there. Our job is simply to help people begin peeling those layers away so they can get in touch with their deepest desires. We impose nothing. We simply appeal to what’s already in them.
People can only live with counterfeits for so long. They never satisfy. In fact, they wound us terribly. If you use a chainsaw to comb your hair, there are going to be some scars, some traces that “you shouldn’t have done that.” My point is that the truth of the Church’s teaching on sex is confirmed in the wounds of those who haven’t lived it. We’ve bought into the lies of the sexual revolution and we’ve found them wanting. This is why the world is a mission field ready to soak up the theology of the body. The Pope proclaims a message of sexual healing, of sexual redemption. This is good news of great joy!
But we can only pass on this good news – this “Gospel of the body” – if we’re first infused with it and vivified by it ourselves. As Pope Paul VI said in his great encyclical on evangelization, “The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself” (n. 15). There’s no doubt that, in delivering his theology of the body, John Paul II’s intended audience was, first and foremost, the Church herself.
Very few Christians seem to understand that an image of the Gospel is stamped in their own bodies and in their yearning for union. Large numbers of Catholics have been caught up in the counterfeits of the day and are hostile towards the Church’s teaching. Hence, unless the tide is turned within the Church – unless the Church is first evangelized – she cannot evangelize others.
The Spousal Analogy & the “Analogy of Faith”
John Paul II’s theology of the body provides great hope for this urgently needed renewal within the Church. When we view the Gospel message through the interpretive key of man and woman’s call to communion, not only does the Gospel message take on flesh, but even the most controversial teachings of the Church – contraception, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, an all-male priesthood, etc., etc. – begin to make sense.
Spousal theology demonstrates how all of the various puzzle pieces of the Christian mystery fit beautifully together. The truth of Catholicism “clicks” when viewed through the theology of the body. In other words, through the spousal analogy we become attentive to the “analogy of faith” – that is, to the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation centered on Christ (see CCC, nn. 90, 114, 158).
This is why the theology of the body will lead to a dramatic development of thinking about the Creed. This is why the Catechism speaks of the important connection between sexual rectitude, believing in the articles of the Creed, and understanding the mysteries we profess in the Creed. In other words, the Catechism points to the intimate connection between purity of heart, love of the truth, and orthodoxy of faith (see n. 2518).
Conversely, as the last 35 years of dissent demonstrate, Christianity unravels at the seams – its inner logic collapses and virtually everything it teaches becomes contested – as soon as we divorce ourselves form the “great mystery” of nuptial communion revealed through the body.
If the “new evangelization” is to succeed, we sons and daughters of the Church must first recover the sense of having an urgently important message for the salvation of the world. The Gospel of the body proclaimed by John Paul II is that message. How urgently it is needed! If the future of humanity passes by way of marriage and the family, we could say that the future of marriage and the family passes by way of John Paul II’s theology of the body.
Put simply, there will be no renewal of the Church and of the world without a renewal of marriage and the family. And there will be no renewal of marriage and the family without a return to the full truth of God’s plan for the body and sexuality. Yet this won’t happen without a fresh theological proposal that compellingly demonstrates to our neighbors, friends and coworkers how the Christian sexual ethic – far from the cramped, prudish list of prohibitions it’s assumed to be – is a liberating message of salvation that corresponds perfectly with the yearnings of the human heart.
This is precisely what John Paul II’s theology of the body offers us. As such it provides the antidote to the culture of death and a theological foundation for the new evangelization. So, I appeal to you – take up a study of the Pope’s theology of the body. Make it your mission in life to understand it, live it, and share it with everyone you know. If we do, together, we shall not fall short of renewing the face of the earth.
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Christopher West is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute. He is also one of the most sought after speakers in the Church today, having delivered more than 1000 public lectures on 4 continents, in 9 countries, and in over 150 American cities. Copyright © Christopher West