By Emily Stimpson Chapman
Right now, a good many minds are at work fleshing out the theology of the body’s theological and philosophical subtleties: how it builds on Karol Wojtyla’s earlier scholarship, how it responds to Scheler, how Garrigou-Lagrange’s influence runs through it. That’s good. Those discussions are important and necessary. We need them to more fully understand the complex and dense lessons contained within John Paul II’s catechesis.
But they’re not all we need. In addition to the grand discussions, we also need the small ones, the ones about how the theology of the body affects us when we’re doing the dishes, throwing a dinner party, or racing to meet yet another deadline.
After all, it’s in kitchens and gardens and parish pews, not classrooms and faculty lounges, where we live the bulk of our life. It’s there, in the midst of the ordinary, that God invites us to something extraordinary—to become saints.
The Redemption of Spousal Love
In 1979, Pope John Paul II began introducing the theology of the body to the world through his weekly Wednesday audiences at the Vatican. It took him five years to carry out the task. It took almost another fifteen years for anyone outside Catholic theological and philosophical circles to start talking about those audiences. And when they did start talking about them, they mostly talked about what the theology of the body had to say regarding spousal love (i.e. sex).
That was understandable. The theology of the body has much to say about sex—much that’s beautiful, powerful, and life-changing, much that men and women in our culture need to hear. In fact, that’s one of the primary reasons why the text was composed: To defend Humanae Vitae—Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical which reiterated the Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception.
As John Paul II explains in his introduction to the last section of The Theology of the Body, the section dealing with Humanae Vitae:
If I draw particular attention to these final catecheses, I do so not only because the topic discussed by them is more closely connected with our present age, but first of all because it is from this topic that the questions spring that run in some way through the whole of our reflections. It follows that this final part is not artificially added to the whole, but is organically and homogeneously united with it. In some sense, that part, which in the overall disposition is located at the end, is at the same time found at the beginning of the whole. (133:4)
That, in large part, explains why John Paul II gave us the theology of the body: to help us make sense of the Church’s teachings on spousal love.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t make the theology of the body a theology of sex. It’s much more than that.
As John Paul II made clear, the theology of the body, at its core, is a study of what it means to be a human person made in the image of God.
In other words, it is an anthropology, not a sexology. John Paul II used that anthropology to defend Humanae Vitae and the Catholic vision of love, but it can be used just as effectively to address the other great questions and struggles of human existence: questions about friendship and suffering, work and play, technology and beauty, birth and death.
When we fail to see that, when we reduce the theology of the body to a theology of sex, we truncate the lessons John Paul II was trying to teach through those Wednesday audiences. We miss the point and narrow their scope. We also end up with a theology with a rather limited application.
The Redemption of All the Rest
Regardless of what Freud says, most of life is not about sex.
For us, life is about eating and drinking, dressing and cleaning, working and playing, laughing and talking, running and dancing, crying and fighting, forgiving and being forgiven. It’s about thanking God and wrestling with God, falling on our knees before Him in perfect contrition and adoring Him for being with us in the midst of the whole beautiful mess. Life is about God. It’s about falling in love with Him and becoming like Him so that we can be with Him forever. Life is how we become saints.
For all of us—married, single, or celibate—sex is a part of that. Much of our happiness in this life and the next hinges on our understanding of spousal love. Much more hinges on how we live that understanding out.
But much also hinges on how we understand and live out all the rest.
And if the theology of the body really is the “theological time bomb” that George Weigel so famously claimed it to be, it must say something to the rest of life as well.
That’s what John Paul II was getting at when he wrote:
In his everyday life, man must draw from the mystery of the redemption of the body the inspiration and strength to overcome the evil that is dormant in him . . . [W]hat is at stake is the hope of the everyday, which in the measure of normal tasks and difficulties of human life helps to overcome “evil with good” (Rom12:21). (86:7)
Let’s leave the reflecting on the theology of the body and spousal love to those who are already ably doing so, and reflect instead on what the theology of the body looks like outside the bedroom—at mealtimes, in the office, sitting on the porch laughing with friends.
In those places, doing those things is where we live most of life. And if we want to become saints, if we want “to overcome the evil that is dormant” within and let holiness seep down into our bones, the entire fabric of our life needs to be transformed.
The theology of the body shows us a way to do that.
Yes, it shows us how to let grace touch us in the rooms where we make love, but it also shows us how to do that in the rooms where we dance, cook, and rock our babies to sleep.
That’s what makes the theology of the body such a practical theology. That’s what makes it a domestic theology, one that weaves together a tapestry of glorious, grand ideas all to be lived out in the mundane moments of ordinary life.
Emily Stimpson Chapman is the award-winning author of several books, including These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body, from which this article is adapted.