Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pope Leaves Legacy as Sex Educator John Paul Ii's 'Theology of the Body' Made Teachings Accessible

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pope Leaves Legacy as Sex Educator John Paul Ii's 'Theology of the Body' Made Teachings Accessible

Article excerpt

When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, admirers cited his inspiring of multitudes the world over and his role as the spiritual catalyst of the non-violent overthrow of Soviet-bloc communism.

Critics saw him as a reactionary who bolstered the papacy's authoritarian grip, upheld male and clerical privilege and responded slowly to the crisis of sexually abusive priests and the bishops who enabled them.

But some of John Paul's greatest admirers say his legacy is growing in an area that got scant mention in his obituaries nine years ago: as a sex educator.

Pope Francis probably won't put it quite that way on Sunday when he proclaims John Paul to be a saint along with a predecessor, John XXIII. But Catholic schools and parishes are increasingly teaching user-friendly versions of the "theology of the body" -- the sum total of 129 short talks that John Paul gave early in his papacy on God, sex and the meaning of life.

"The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible, the spiritual and divine," John Paul said. Citing the Christian teachings that humans were created in the image of God, who became human in Jesus Christ, "the body entered theology," he said.

"The theology of the body is what John Paul II is going to be known for," said the Rev. James Farnan, pastor of St. Thomas More Church in Bethel Park, who draws on the teachings in marriage preparation sessions. "It's somewhat philosophical, but for anyone who has studied it, it's changed their life."

At the exhibit hall of the National Catholic Educational Association convention this week at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, a booth offered an array of books and videos on "Theology of the Body for Teens," with specific editions for middle- and high- school levels and for their parents that aim to put John Paul's teachings into accessible language.

"John Paul II gave us such a gift with the theology of the body," said Kate Camden, brand manager for the materials, published by the West Chester, Pa.-based Ascension Press. A large exhibit poster says, "If Sex is on their minds, put Truth in their Hearts."

"Kids love it," said a visitor to the booth, Cathy Hannon, who coordinates religious instruction at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Davenport, Iowa. "Parents love it because they know it's good Catholic teaching" and it opens the door for them to talk about sex with their teenagers.

A curriculum outline said it aims to teach not just abstinence but also a positive view that "our bodies are very good and have been designed by God for communion with him and with each other."

Neither Ms. Camden nor Catholic researchers have statistics on how many parishes or schools around the country are using the relatively new materials on the theology of the body, nor on what effect they're having on teen behavior and attitudes.

Older programs teaching abstinence have taken criticism in an era when many teens and adults become sexually active outside of marriage.

"While those schools have every legal right to choose what their curriculum will be, they are in this case choosing ideology over the health of their students," said the Rev. Harry Knox, a Protestant minister and president of the national Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a multi-religious group that includes Catholics who dissent from church teachings on contraception and abortion.

He said sex education needs to include information about condoms and the prevention of pregnancy and disease.

"Knowledge is power, and young people cannot be expected to make good moral decisions if they don't have all of the information they need," he said. …

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