At the Heart of the Gospel
The sexual revolution brought a terribly distorted vision of the body and sex into the mainstream.
How should Christians respond? With his illuminating Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II challenged the modern world not to stop at the surface, but to enter the depth of the “great mystery” that the body and sex reveal: a mystery that lies at the heart of the Gospel itself.
Since he first discovered John Paul II’s teaching in 1993, Christopher West has devoted himself to sharing its life-transforming message with the world. In this highly anticipated work, West leads us into the depth of Christ’s “nuptial union” with the Church, demonstrating how authentic Catholic teaching on the body and sex saves us from both the libertine perspective of popular culture and the cold puritanism that has sometimes infected Christianity. In the process, West provides a blueprint for reaching our sexually broken world in the “new evangelization.” Read the introduction from the new book on Catholicism and sexuality by Christopher West.
I remember the first time I read John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB) in the early 1990s. I was convinced that if this glorious vision of human life and divine love were delivered to people in a comprehensible and engaging way, it could change the world dramatically for the good, even rescue us from the downward spiral of the “culture of death.” In short, I was convinced I was holding a revolution in my hands and I knew I would spend the rest of my life studying it and sharing it with others as part of the “new evangelization.”
While the late pope’s teaching does present some bold theological developments, we must affirm, of course, that “revolutions” do not occur in Catholic teaching itself. That would imply a fundamental change and, although our understanding of the Gospel can and does deepen with time (see CCC 66, 94), the essential witness of the Church is the same yesterday, today, and forever (see TOBE, pp. 599, 601). Yet, in responding to the particular crises of their times, the saints bring “new impulses into the world,” observes Pope Benedict XVI; and through these new impulses, he says, the saints bring about “revolutions”—”revolutions for the good” (LW, p. 158). Blessed John Paul II’s TOB is just such a revolution: it’s bringing “new impulses” into the world, making the often hidden glories of the Gospel accessible to men and women of our times.
“New impulses,” of course, create waves. Not surprisingly, certain circles in the Church have witnessed some spirited debate in recent years about John Paul II’s TOB. What did he really teach? Is it all about sex? What is sex all about? What is the place of this TOB in the theological tradition of the Church? What is the role of the body, sexuality, and marriage in understanding the Gospel itself and the sacramental life of the Church? Is it really possible on this side of heaven to overcome our tendency to lust and “see” the human body as a revelation of human dignity and as a sign of the mystery and beauty of God? What is the best language and approach to use in communicating John Paul II’s scholarly teaching in the “new evangelization”?
In the midst of these conversations, my work as a popularizer of John Paul II’s teaching has been the subject of some rather harsh critiques. During an extended sabbatical in 2010,1 I reflected prayerfully on the various challenges my work has received, seeking to glean as much as possible from what various authors were saying. This book is the fruit of those reflections. I offer it not only for those who have followed the discussion and in the hopes that it will clarify some of the debated points; I offer it also and even more so as an invitation to all those involved in the “new evangelization” to reflect on the challenge, hope, and promise that John Paul II’s TOB represents for the Church and the world at the beginning of the third millennium.2
In light of John Paul II’s beatification in May of 2011, we have all the more reason to examine (or reexamine) his “masterwork” and allow its healing rays to penetrate our hearts more deeply. As Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete expressed it in his endorsement of this work: “The beatification of Pope John Paul II is more than the Church’s official recognition of his sanctity. John Paul II’s teaching is now bequeathed to the Church in a new way—not only by his authority as Pope, but also by his personal experience of sanctity.” This book is offered as a celebration of his sanctity and as an invitation to follow in his footsteps. If we do, we cannot help but become ever more effective witnesses to Christ’s love in the new evangelization.
At the heart of John Paul II’s TOB is the call to love one another in the image of the Trinity, and that means establishing a genuine “unity in diversity.” Our differences, even our theological differences, can and should serve to unite us in our common journey towards the fullness of the truth. Very often the resolution of theological debate involves finding the right balance between what appear to be competing truths, but are rather complementary aspects of the whole truth that must be held together in their proper “tension.” Finding that proper tension is like tuning a guitar—we inevitably go sharp, then flat, then back again until we find just the right tension in the string. When we understand this, we come to see how we need one another’s different emphases. Push-back from either direction is a healthy thing, so long as it’s offered charitably, and with a willingness to affirm the truth the “other side” is rightly seeking to uphold.
Dominican author Simon Tugwell observes that our hope in Christ is one of “total integration” in which no truth is lost and “nothing is left hanging.” And this, he says, “is why truth can never finally be served or peace proclaimed by taking sides… The church is called ‘Catholic,’ and this means she is committed to saying ‘Yes’ to the totality of God’s truth.” He concludes by observing that any “serious and useful undertaking produces a crop of different opinions and schools of thought, and it is from a careful scrutiny of all of them that a man becomes genuinely wise…Even the opinions we reject make their own contribution to our vision and understanding” (BSCT, pp. 117-118, 119).
The Theology of the Body is the sophisticated work of a mystical theologian. Discovering its gems and absorbing its subtleties is an ongoing process. One never “arrives.” There is always more to learn, always more to appreciate, always more to see. Along the way of this journey, the different emphases of various thinkers can only add to our overall understanding, as Father Tugwell expressed. This is why I believe the spirited conversation that the TOB has engendered in recent years represents a positive development and an important catechetical moment for the Church. The signs of the times continue to underscore how desperate is the need—both in and outside the Church—of recovering a vision of the “great mystery” of divine love revealed through our bodies.
With gratitude for all I have gleaned from a host of “different opinions and schools of thought,” my goal in this work is simply to unfold what I believe John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are teaching about this “great mystery” and how we are to share it with the world in the new evangelization. While this work represents a new stage in the development of my own thinking, I also quote from my previous works to show the continuity of my thought and to summarize what I have presented over the years.
It’s my sincere hope that all who read this work will enter more deeply into the “great mystery” that lies at the heart of the Gospel and come away all the more compelled to “go into the main streets and invite everyone to the wedding feast” (Mt 22:9).