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Theology of the Body, Part One: An Education in Being Human

I wasn’t sure what kinds of posts I was going to work up for Lent this year. The Advent Daily Dose was a great thing, but I didn’t think I should be putting in so much extra time on the computer during Lent. I pondered sharing thoughts for mothers or just a hodgepodge, but then a few weeks before Lent, my mothers’ Bible study began a short series on the Theology of the Body with videos by Christopher West.

I was so struck by the beauty of what I was learning, and I was immediately summarizing and commenting in my head as if I was going to share the information with someone else. I’m hoping that was God’s way of saying that a little Lenten series on the The Theology of the Body is a great idea.

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Once a week (no promises on the day, I’m just not that organized right now) I’ll be posting thoughts on what I’m learning. I’ll try to distill down for you what Christopher West is already distilling from Pope John Paul II’s 129 talks from the beginning 5 years of his pontificate. (photo source)

The posts will be a combination of bullet point quotes and notes and my assessment and extrapolation of what I’m learning. I like to connect the Holy Father’s teaching to the modern world and my life as a mother as much as I possibly can, so that humble attempt is what I’ll be offering you.

The Foundation of Life and Culture: Rediscovering the Meaning of Life

The foundation of the Theology of the Body (TOB from here on out) is a philosophical and practical exploration of the Scriptural and traditional teachings about the human body as male and female, that we are a reflection of the person of God in our bodies, and that the two becoming “one flesh” is a manifestation of the love of the Trinity. “It is crucial to realize that the TOB is not only meant for married people.”**

**Anything in quotes that is not otherwise credited is from Christopher West, either the text of the study guide or loosely transcribed from his talk.

Why talk about sex? Without sexual union, without man and woman coming together in love to cocreate another human being with God, we would not only have no society but no human existence. “The fundamental cell of civilization is the family. The nucleus of the family is the mom and dad,” which depends upon sexual union! “In short, as sex goes, so go marriage and the family. As marriage and the family go, so goes the world.”

The family and society are collapsing because we no longer understand the meaning of sexual union and communion.” Namely, that sex must encapsulate both union and communion, not a passing fling in the night or a loss of self-discipline that results in regrets. (Lent, by the way, is the perfect time to practice self-discipline. As I discussed in “I Don’t Believe in Giving Up Pizza for Lent,” when you practice self-denial often with something like food, you develop stronger self-discipline in all areas. Men who can abstain from sweets or soda or eating between meals are more well-equipped to practice natural family planning and respect their wives as sacred mysteries, not as objects.)

Christopher West really got my attention when he threw out the question, “Why isn’t the pro-life movement working?” Back in college I came across a list written by Mother Teresa of Calcutta which detailed the solution to the problem of abortion. She worked through about ten points that went something like this (pardon my poor memory after 10 years; I’m missing half the points, and these are truly my own words):

  1. We will not eradicate abortion by making laws against it, but by changing the hearts of the people to believe that life in the womb (and all life) is sacred.
  2. We cannot convince people that life in the womb is sacred until we demonstrate that all life is sacred (euthanasia has to go, for example).
  3. We don’t demonstrate the life is sacred without eradicating artificial contraception, which is anti-life and anti-child.
  4. We will not succeed in eradicating artificial contraception until we understand the sacred meaning of our marriage vows.
  5. We cannot understand or live out the sacred marriage vows until we live them out in the bedroom and in all of life, the husband loving his wife as Christ loved the Church (to die for her!). (Ephesians 5)
  6. Therefore, the solution to the problem of abortion does not lie in legislating, protesting, or even praying for abortion to end. The key is to pray for a deep understanding of the Sacrament of marriage, for husbands and wives to love one another as Christ loved the Church, and to teach this love and sanctity of life and marriage to our children. Only then will the pro-life movement be successful.

Clearly I’m missing a bunch of the points in Mother T’s progression, but Christopher West also nailed the point that human life is based in human sexuality and sacred union.

The pro-life movement cannot succeed in a world where contraception results in a distorted view of human sexuality. We must get beyond “Don’t!” and “How far is okay?” and the attitudes behind those questions. Love, physical and spiritual, consists of “What can I do to serve the other person?” not “What’s in it for me?”

“If the task of secular ideologies in the 20th century was to rid that century of the Christian sexual ethic, the task of the Church in the 21st century must be to reclaim it. We need a fresh approach [not the repression of previous generations], that reveals the beauty of God’s plan for man and woman and the joy of living it. God grants the Church what she needs when she needs it,” hence the TOB, the perfect “antidote to the sexual revolution and loose morals” of our day.

What Makes the Human Body “Theological”?

The fact that the heart of Christianity is Christ, and He is the Word made flesh, is a clear sign that to deepen our faith, we need not push aside our physicality for merely spirituality. God and the body are not separate, any more than we are separate from our bodies. Our “bodies are sacramental and reveal a great spiritual mystery.”

“Man is a person in the unity of his body and his spirit. The body can never be reduced to mere matter: it is a spiritualized body, just as man’s spirit is so closely united to the body that he can be described as an embodied spirit.” (John Paul II’s 1994 Letter to Families)

 

“As a being at once body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1146)

The Body as “Sacrament”

What do we see when we look at a person? As important as their spirit is, we see their body. It’s the only choice we have. The body can be understood as “sacrament” meaning “making visible of the invisible,” much like God does with the gifts of the seven Sacraments and sacramentals in the Church – He allows us to experience Him through our bodies.

“In the body of Jesus ‘we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 477).

 

“God’s mystery has been revealed in human flesh. For in Christ, ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily’” (Colossians 2:9).

“Theology of the body,” therefore represents the very logic of Christianity.

“Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh, the body entered theology…through the main door” (Theology of the Body 23:4).

We encounter Christ through our bodies and Christ’s bodies; there is no other way.

“The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it” (Theology of the Body 19:4).

Takeaway Points

  1. The body is part of the mystery of being human.
  2. We cannot build a culture of life without reclaiming the true meaning of human sexuality – union and communion. 
  3. Since God revealed Himself through flesh, He made the body holy. We can look at our bodies to see the image of God (remember, not the other way around – God is not made in our image, but we in His). Our bodies are the mystery of the spiritual made visible.

Questions to Ponder

  1. How does this idea of the body being theological, good, holy go against some of the ways many churches teach about the body?
  2. How does the cultural view of the body distort the holiness of the true meaning of our physicality and sexuality?
  3. What would have happened if our country/world had accepted the contraceptive mentality in the 18th century rather than the 20th century?
  4. What is necessary for us to make sure that the future is as holy as possible?
  5. Many natural family planning practicing Catholics are often presented with uncomfortable questions like, “Are you done  now?” (having kids) and “Phew! X number of kids! You must be busy!” (in a negative tone). How can we respond in love to personal questions that are clearly a manifestation of an anti-life attitude, one that believes that children are a burden and we should be completely in control of our family size?
Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

33 thoughts on “Theology of the Body, Part One: An Education in Being Human”

  1. I’m not Catholic, but God has been calling me to pay closer attention to my physical body lately, and I’ve been wondering about resources to help me with that. I’ll check out Theology of the Body. 🙂

  2. Kathy via Facebook

    My daughter’s youth group is in their second year of doing the high school version of this.

  3. Thanks for doing this Katie! As a future NFP teaching couple, I just can’t get enough ways of talking about TOB to help us understand it better! It truly is revolutionary teaching!

  4. On top of my long-winded reply above, just wanted to say thanks to Katie for this post. You obviously have a gift for turning theology into something everyone can understand. I was thinking that to myself, even before reading your husband’s comment, which basically says the same thing. So thanks for sharing your gift with us!

    I read your blog from time to time, but I don’t think I’ve ever commented until now.

  5. Hi Heather,

    I’m a lurker, too 🙂 But your question is such an important one that I couldn’t not answer it for you. Please let me share a part of my testimony with you: The fundamental unit of society is the family. Families can be sealed together for time and all eternity. If you live righteously, you will have the opportunity to marry and have children, whether it is in this mortal life or after. God loves all of His children and won’t deny the blessings of marriage and family to anyone who is worthy of those blessings. God loves you.

    1. This is a beautiful answer, but it may not be supported by Catholic or Christian church teaching. I am lifelong single and childless and I can’t tell you how painful it is to have happy wives and mothers tell me that I’m just as fruitful as they are, when they would never in a million years trade their life for mine. I’d love to believe that marriage and childbearing are possible in Heaven, but it doesn’t seem to be Church teaching. My only consolation is that there won’t be traditional families in Heaven and that it will just be one big family. But even then, it’s very sorrowful to have to wait until the next life for relief. Happily married wives and mothers will never understand this pain of exclusion, both inside the church and outside in society.

  6. Thanks, Katie! Your post reminds me of a story I heard about Mother Teresa. (I hope I’m remembering right; this is my paraphrase.) When asked what we should do to eradicate abortion, she said, “Have lots of children and love them.”
    We show that life is valuable by the way we have and raise children.

  7. My husband and I took the Natural Family Planning course when we were first married and it was such a blessing to us. It is so true that they are intertwined inseparably – our sexuality, the creation of life and the family.
    Our culture, unfortunately, is dead set on taking God out of all of them so we, as the church, need to teach right thinking and pray for the truth to shine in the darkness.
    Thanks for the post, Katie!

  8. Hi,
    I usually just lurk and read but your post has led me to ask a question of my own. I have never married, never will probably, I have no children and according to at least one dr never will. Which leads me feeling rather lost especially when I read things like what you quoted “The fundamental cell of civilization is the family. The nucleus of the family is the mom and dad,” sometimes I really wonder what about the rest of us who aren’t able to marry or have children where exactly do we belong? Part of my disenchantment with a lot of religion is the feeling I have no value as a person because I’m unmarried and childless. Maybe its just me, I’m in no way critizing your post it was wonderful and insightful and some of the things said really made me think this is just the first time I’ve been prompted to speak.

    1. Heather,

      Every person has value, no matter their state in life. Each person is called to a state of life, and maybe yours is the single life. All are important to society. We are all called to be Christ bearers to the world, with or without bearing children. And being a Christ bearer means bringing God (through love) to all. God loves you, don’t ever forget that.

    2. Dear Heather,

      My heart grieved for you when I read your post. NEVER think you have no worth because you are single. God’s Word says, “The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit.” (I Cor. 7:34) You have great worth! Look at Paul!!! He was mightily used by God and he wasn’t married. Just love God and serve those that He puts into your path. You will have a great ministry in that.

      Love,
      Lori

    3. Heather,
      I feel badly that I didn’t see your comment until days later. Most definitely, the other two gals are right on with their thoughts.

      Not everyone is called to married life, and you are certainly an important, valuable part of civilization and the world of faith. Those called to the single life have a role to play just as those of us in the married life or with a religious vocation. You can give birth to love through acts of service, prayer, and giving of yourself to those in need, just as truly as I give birth to children. Your family unit will always be the one you were born into, as well.

      I hope that makes some sense and gives some consolation – Pope John Paul and Christopher West both emphasize that TOB is not just for married people – your body is still a gift to be treasured, no matter your state in life. Your purity can be an example to others, for example. so many people in your community could benefit from your prayer or your time in acts of service…and the single life allows you to spend your time differently than married folks or priests and nuns. All have a place!

      🙂 Katie

      1. Not everyone is called to married life? Really? I’m stuck single & alone forever? All this time I’ve been waiting for God to provide me a helpmate & I might not get one? That saddens me.

        1. You could be a nun, dahling. I suppose you’d have to convert first… 😉 I’m just kidding. Truly, though, I do think it’s important to trust God with your future, even if it might be disappointing in some ways. I’m pretty sure you’re not 30 yet, so don’t despair on marriage already! Pray about your vocational calling and God will move your heart to peace with whatever His plan is for you, my friend. 🙂 Katie

    4. Heather,

      Mother Teresa never was married or had children, and look at what she did! She is one of the most respected women worldwide, a woman that all Catholic women look up to. I am not saying a woman needs to become a nun if they choose not to marry, but that her example illustrates that you don’t need a husband or kids to make a difference in the world.

      I have noticed that some Christian religions seem to push the idea that it’s everyone’s destiny to get married some day, and have a family. That we need to prepare ourselves for marriage, and of course there are no other options. This viewpoint, to me, seems horrifying (not to mention that it discounts those that may be too disabled to marry even…I know that sounds like a stretch, but there are people living in many situations not suited to marriage, like extreme physical or cognitive disability, but their lives are still just as worthwhile and not second best to those who marry).

      Growing up and going to Catholic school, we were always taught that there were three vocations: religious life (becoming a priest, nun, monk, etc), married life, or life as a single adult. We were taught that God calls different people to different things, and each option had distinct advantages for making the world a better place (for example, as a single adult, you have more freedom to focus on how you will impact the world, like being able to travel more, live many places, etc). (re-reading Katie’s post, it looks like I am basically repeating what she said)

      Also, when people say family is important, there is family of origin to consider. We weren’t all blessed with perfect parents, but I believe that in most cases, you still need to respect them, even if it is just “from a distance” (talking worst case scenario here, where it’s better for your own sanity as an adult to not be super close, etc).

      Just felt the need to comment, because it’s an issue I feel strongly about. It is a shame when I see young people that start to get older, and they seem almost desperate to marry if they haven’t, and they waste so much time obsessing over it, that they seem to be neglecting the joys of life and neglect thinking about ways they can/will impact the world. You see it especially with women in their 30’s/40’s. I just want to say to them, “you can do great things without a husband!”

      I completely understand that some of those women may feel marriage IS what they want or IS their vocation. But by the same token, I hope they don’t think that because it’s what they were taught (though I imagine many Catholic women weren’t taught that, because of what I was taught. But I see it a lot with Protestants and Jews. My guess is Muslims too?). I hope other religions will learn to embrace this concept more.

      1. Thanks for the first-time comment! I wish I could take credit for the meat behind this post, but it’s so much Christopher West that I feel like I was just the stenographer. 🙂

        Your comments are dead on – I too see so many women just searching for a husband and forgetting to seek the sacrament of marriage, or pray for God’s will for their vocation – they’re just trying to “find that guy.” It results in a lot of desperation and faulty marriages, in my opinion.

        Love this: “You can do great things without a husband!”

        🙂 Katie

    5. Hello Heather,

      I’m not married either, and I’m at least ’39 and holding’ 🙂 I know it’s not only hard to hear what sounds like “Families are where it’s at!”; it’s also hard to *live* as a single person — as a joyful single person! — sometimes.

      One of the main points in the Theology of the Body is that each of us was created by God to make a total gift of self. It’s fairly easy to see how that works out in family life: there are concrete and consistent people one must give onself to, concrete and consistent places where that usually happens, and the task to be done isn’t hard to figure out.

      But God hasn’t left single people out!! The Catechism reminds us that they are very close to His heart. And He will show us ways to make a total gift of ourselves, since that’s what He’s called us to.

      Single people often have more time to develop and give the gifts and skills they possess, or to lavish more time on relationships with younger and older relatives and friends. Ok, but what about the times when you think “But there’s no one around me right now, and I feel so lonely!!” ?

      I asked my Dad that, once, and he gave me an answer that’s blessed me over and over again: the pain of loneliness I feel at times is Him calling me to give more of my heart, more of my trust to Him. It’s what Mother Teresa called “an unusual gift;” she understood that our Father only gives us good gifts. The trick is to always turn to Him, tell Him all that’s going on inside you (in good times too, not just the tough times!), and say “Ok! So – what do You want to do with this one, Lord?! Your move!” and to wait on Him.

      The point of being here on earth is to grow closer and closer to Him/let Him bring me closer and closer to Himself. There is going to be suffering. What, I’m only going to let Him use fun/happy things to bring Him and I closer together?! That’d be a LOT easier….but in the end, what kind of love is that? He wants me with Him on the cross. Not because He wants pain for me, but because He wants me with Him. You’d think that loving someone shouldn’t hurt, right? Ideally, no, it shouldn’t. BUT: ever since the Fall (original sin), loving has had to include suffering and pain. So the question remains: no matter what, will I love/keep loving Him?

      It’s not easy at every step. But He will always give us the grace to do whatever He is asking of us. And in the end, we get to be (united) with Him forever! Ask for grace to see this life/your life from the heavenly perspective.

      Also, you might be interested in a fine ‘blog called “Seraphic Singles” (http://seraphicsinglescummings.blogspot.com/) The author writes about living the single life with great joy (living with joy, and she has joy, as well!)

      I hope this is helpful. God bless you, Heather! I’ll pray for you!

  9. I just wanted to share my response from your questions to ponder. I have 5 kids and I get from people all the time “Are you done yet?” or “Are you going to have anymore?” My current answer is “Only God Knows!” Usually this disarms people and I rarely have anymore hostility towards me. Since we must remember to be people of love, I don’t want to argue with anyone, but if someone asks me honestly, I am more than happy to respond.

  10. I really appreciate your clear explanation of why changing the laws will not stop abortion. My personal belief is that the laws should allow that choice but that our society needs to change into one in which the conception of unwanted children is far less frequent and parenthood is far better supported.

    What would have happened if our country/world had accepted the contraceptive mentality in the 18th century rather than the 20th century?

    Read some history as you consider this question. The details of our societal “mentality” are different now than 100 years ago, but contraception by withdrawal, barrier methods, and herbs was popular by the 18th century. Although abortion was illegal, it was common worldwide in the 19th century. So the answer to this question cannot be, “We would have died out,” or anything along those lines.

    1. Becca,
      I never once thought we would have died out, but I wondered if we would have had enough people to spark the industrial revolution, for example. It’s no secret that we are having fewer children per parental unit now than 100-200 years ago, so something has definitely changed.

      1. I think the change has been less a change of mentality than the influence of changes in technology and marketing. If hormonal contraceptives had been invented in 1760 instead of 1960 and had been widely and openly promoted, with doctors recommending them even to virgins “to regulate your cycle” (aargh, that’s such a lie!), then yes, we might have had a smaller population and a less revolutionary industrialization. That might have reduced the environmental destruction (from cutting down trees and mining coal so rapidly, having no concern about air pollution, etc.) but it would have slowed the earthly progress of humankind. Thus, we might not be able to talk to each other on the Internet today! But would our species be better or worse off spiritually? I have no idea.

        Where I see changes in the contraceptive mentality over history is not in the desire to limit childbearing but in the way of thinking about what the experience of contracepting is supposed to be like, and I think that has changed because of the new technologies and the marketing of them affecting people’s views. 60 years ago, contracepting was related directly to sexual activity: either modifying one’s behavior (abstention or withdrawal) or using a barrier method. Now, many people think they have a RIGHT to be “protected” from pregnancy by a medication, implant, or surgery–something implemented at a different time from sex and maybe without the knowledge of one’s partner. I see lots of ads for “birth control you only have to think about 4 times a year!” and such.

        That’s always struck me as wrong. Despite being raised with no moral restrictions on contraception, I was freaked out when I first learned how the pill works (I was about 11 years old) because it is so obviously weird and interfering with natural processes that we don’t even understand.

        I’d much rather see our improved scientific abilities go toward better understanding of natural fertility for better NFP, than toward drugging everyone and polluting our water with the byproducts!

        1. Becca,
          May I just “ditto” you entire last sentence, adding that I’d love to see scientific abilities go to just about anything that’s a real disease instead of figuring out how to break a working system? 😉 Good for you to have an eye for what’s abnormal.
          🙂 Katie

    2. Just with respect to the history of contraception, my husband had an undergrad student being a bit of a pig about the withdrawal method in the early modern period, so he gave an impromptu lecture on the many forms of contraception employed in the 15th and 16th century. People have been skirting Church teaching for as long as the Church has had these teachings. Some things don’t change.

  11. While I disagree with some of the message of this post even though my family practices natural family planning, it is well written, and much less judgmental than most writers who take your position. I really appreciate that. We learned in high school debate that using an intellectual argument in calm voices is much more persuading than throwing insults at the party on the other side of the debate. Unfortunately people on both sides of the abortion and gay marriage issues have done just that, throw insults.
    I personally find nothing compelling to change my belief system when someone is just insulting the other person, with no valid points. Your words were refreshing, as well as enlightening, causing me to step back and review my own beliefs. While I do not agree with everything, I understand the perspective you are coming from. Great thought provoking post!

    1. Brittany,
      Always my goal! Many of the words are Christopher West’s, anyway, and John Paul II’s, always solid. Thanks! 🙂 Katie

  12. This is really beautiful. I think it is easy for Christians to lapse into an ungodly attitude towards the body– we assume that what we hear from “the world” is okay, without even examining it in the light of Scripture. For example, I know a lot of Christians who assume that as newlyweds, OF COURSE they’ll “wait a while” to have kids, using the Pill or an IUD. This is the cultural norm and now, unfortunately, it’s become the norm in many churches. 🙁

  13. Thank you, Katie. I always appreciate your openness and eloquence when sharing things of the heart. This looks like a thought-provoking and faith-building series.

  14. Dustin | Engaged Marriage

    This is an AWESOME post, Kate! I’m so glad you are sharing the goodness of TOB in your own words to make it a bit easily to “digest” here. When explaining why we practice Natural Family Planning, I sometimes get into these same basic beliefs, and I know how hard it is to really distill such deep material.

    Great work!

    Dustin

  15. Beautiful writing!!! We need to be able to articulate God’s purpose for marriage in a society who has lost it’s way and thing homosexual marriage and abortion is okay.

  16. This whole post is really interesting, but I’m just going to grab onto one point since I’ve been interested in it since I’ve gotten married–natural family planning. I’m one of those anomalous Protestants that agrees that it is beneficial to spiritual life (and other areas!) to practice natural family planning. I say anomalous, because in my experience (30 years in different denominations, several as a Christian school teacher) I have seen that many Protestants in the south are not even exposed to the idea of this being an option. I’m sad that so many people I know buy into the worldly view that a couple with more than 3 children is either weird or stupid. I think that’s why there are a handful of ministers (Voddie Baucham comes to mind, though I don’t know much about him) who are working hard to combat that attitude and re-emphasize the sanctity of life and Christian family legacy in Protestant circles. I had never heard Mother Teresa’s points about abortion, but I so agree. Unfortunately, whenever I talk about this subject to people who don’t think like me, they assume I’m just over-sensitive to the whole issue since our son was adopted and dismiss my opinions. I just really think that Protestant churches need to talk about these issues more (even things like IVF) and have stronger guidance from our spiritual leaders–the benefits for marriages and families and the pro-life movement would be amazing, I think. Thanks for a great, thought-provoking read this morning!

    1. Ivy Mae,
      Dead on! I love your viewpoint and am glad to have shared some food for thought! 🙂 Katie

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