A DISEMBODIED 'THEOLOGY OF THE BODY' : John Paul II on Love, Sex and Pleasure

By Johnson, Luke Timothy | Commonweal, January 26, 2001 | Go to article overview

A DISEMBODIED 'THEOLOGY OF THE BODY' : John Paul II on Love, Sex and Pleasure


Johnson, Luke Timothy, Commonweal


Papal teaching on human sexuality has received some positive reviews recently. A number of these have appeared in the journal First Things. In "Contraception: A Symposium" (December 1998), Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., declares that Pope Paul VI has a lock on the title of prophet because, in Humanae vitae, he was right. In the same issue, Janet E. Smith thinks that people who regard the papacy's condemnation of contraception to be based on the "artificial" methods employed simply have not acquainted themselves with the richness of papal teaching. In particular, she says, "those who appreciate precise and profound philosophical reasoning should read Karol Wojtyla's Love and Responsibility," while offering a strong recommendation also for "the extensive deliberations of Pope John Paul II." Even more recently, Jennifer J. Popiel ("Necessary Connections? Catholicism, Feminism, and Contraception," America, November 27, 1999) states that "unlike many women, I find the church's doctrinal statements on contraception and reproduction to be clear and compelling," and argues that Natural Family Planning is fully compatible with feminism, since "only when we control our bodies will we truly control our lives."

George Weigel joins this chorus of praise in his biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope (Cliff Street Books, 1999). Under the heading, "A New Galileo Crisis," Weigel traces the pope's systematic response to the "pastoral and catechetical failure" of Humanae vitae in a series of 130 fifteen-minute conferences at papal audiences beginning on September 5, 1979 and concluding on November 28, 1984. The conferences were grouped into four clusters: "The Original Unity of Man and Woman," "Blessed Are the Pure of Heart," "The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy," and "Reflections on Humanae vitae." These talks were brought together under the title Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Pauline Books and Media, 1997).

Weigel himself considers John Paul II's work to be a "theological time bomb" that may take almost a century to appreciate fully, or even assimilate. It "may prove to be the decisive moment in exorcising the Manichaean demon and its deprecation of human sexuality from Catholic moral theology," because the pope takes "embodiedness" so seriously. Weigel considers these conferences to have "ramifications for all of theology," and wonders why so few contemporary theologians have taken up the challenge posed by the pope. He is surprised as well that so few priests preach these themes and only a "microscopic" portion of Catholics seem even aware of this great accomplishment, which he considers to be "a critical moment not only in Catholic theology, but in the history of modern thought." Weigel provides three possible reasons for this neglect: the density of the pope's material, the media's preoccupation with controversy rather than substance, and the fact that John Paul II is himself a figure of controversy. It will take time to appreciate him and his magnificent contribution.

Is Weigel right? Have the rest of us missed out on a theological advance of singular importance? Can the claims made for the pope's Theology of the Body be sustained under examination? Recently, I devoted considerable time (and as much consciousness as I could muster) to reading through the 423 pages of the collected conferences, and I have reached a conclusion far different from Weigel's. For all its length, earnestness, and good intentions, John Paul II's work, far from being a breakthrough for modern thought, represents a mode of theology that has little to say to ordinary people because it shows so little awareness of ordinary life.

I want to make clear that I am here responding to the theological adequacy of papal teaching. I do not dispute the fact that in some respects papal positions can legitimately be called prophetic. Certainly, John Paul II's call for a "culture of life" in the name of the gospel, against the complex "conspiracy of death" so pervasive in the contemporary world, deserves respect. …

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