George Weigel poignantly has called the period of Blessed John Paul II’s final suffering and death the “Last Encyclical”. In many respects, it was the most important of his pronouncements, as he lived, suffered, and died as he had preached, showing the world how to live, suffer and die with dignity. Among the greatest works of his Pontificate is his Catecheses on Human Love (Cat.), also known as “Theology of the Body”, profoundly beautiful but theologically complex teachings on human love that at times have been subject to misinterpretation.
In this “Last Encyclical”, Blessed John Paul II demonstrated in a truly consummate manner the authentic meaning of his Catecheses: Aware of the gift of his own life and vocation, the Holy Father gave over his entire person -- body and soul -- as a complete gift of self to God through his suffering. In doing so, he gifted to God an entire, virginal person whose body was broken, in communion with Christ’s Bride, the Church, in her nuptial union with Jesus the Bridegroom. Consecrating his suffering along with that of the Church to God, John Paul walked most intimately with Mary alongside our Lord until the foot of His Cross, uniting himself to our suffering Lord all the way to the Cross. In so doing, Blessed John Paul II gave himself in total self-abandonment to God as Mary had done without reserve throughout her entire life, as one who trusts God and always is sure of the love of the Father’s Divine Mercy.
It is in light of this theology that I have examined Christopher West’s new book, At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization (New York: Image, 2012). West indicates in his new book that lust first and foremost is a disorder of the heart, but it is not clear what he means precisely by his reference to the “heart” in this new book, given his discussions on “purity of heart” in his previous work. He argues throughout At the Heart of the Gospel that a more complete spousal understanding of the “body” provides the key to rectifying sinful diseases of the “heart”. However, West’s argument raises the same question posed over his previous discussions: Does his presentation give adequate attention to the Church’s teaching on concupiscence, that the tendency to sin is objectively present in the body even after the Sacrament of Baptism, however much such concupiscence may be mitigated by grace and virtue? The repeated testimony of countless saints makes abundantly clear that, even after baptism, saints are human beings and do not escape the tendency to sin. People who ultimately have been declared saints in the Church, in their striving to fulfill God’s universal call to holiness, had to wage battle daily in their thoughts and actions and were not suddenly free from concupiscence during their earthly lives. Those who have become saints have, rather, cooperated with grace and become victorious in their fight.
It is important to note that the “heart” of a person in Christian teaching does not refer merely to his “feelings”. Rather, the image of the heart is used symbolically in both the Old and New Testaments to indicate who a human person is in his totality -- body and soul – comprising all of his thoughts, actions, and personality. Indeed, the heart has served for millennia as a preeminent symbol – in pagan and Christian cultures alike – for the core of the human person. We must discover our meaning as human beings in our own heart’s face-to-face encounter with the Heart of the suffering and crucified Jesus, just as Mary’s Immaculate Heart understood, just as Blessed John Paul II did most vividly during his final days on earth when nothing bodily cooperated with his will … that is, nothing except his heart. When the heart of man in his entire person – body and soul – authentically meets the pierced Heart of Jesus, this encounter is the sacred place of our salvation where we ask Jesus to be the Lord of our hardened hearts, exchanging them for His Heart so completely full of love and life, as the Holy Spirit pours forth into us as a living spring of the Father’s Divine Mercy (cf. Ezekiel 36.26-28). The human Body of Christ dies on the Cross, and the ultimate gift of self that Jesus has made is confirmed by the piercing of his Sacred Heart. As God, Jesus actively permits Himself to be pierced, ceaselessly pouring forth from Himself a perfect merciful Love that has its source in the Father and invites man’s heart to enter into interpersonal communion with the Heart of God.
It is here, in union with the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection, that each person finds his ultimate transformation in body and soul. By contrast, West seems to hold that the sexual union of spouses in conjugal love is the supreme dynamic through which human beings reach mystical communion with God, thus risking the articulation of John Paul’s teaching as one of a mysticism of sex.
In order to understand properly what the late Holy Father is saying in his teachings on the spousal relation, we must remember that John Paul II often speaks by analogy. West, however, seems to lack in his argument an adequate concept of analogy, and thus of sacrament, consequently running into problems in how he reads the communion of persons in God and in married love. John Paul II certainly emphasizes the conjugal relation as icon of the greater interpersonal communion to which we are called in God. Understanding this latter concept analogically, the conjugal relation stands as an image pointing to the deeper reality of the Trinity, revealing God in our human world in a new and different way. The late Holy Father is not saying that when you see the family, or the conjugal relation founding it, you see an entity that is in itself the Trinity; you do, however, encounter an analogy of the Trinity, in a manner that befits a sacrament. Conjugality leads spouses into the deeper mystery of the greatest dynamic of Love, the Holy Trinity as perfect Communion-in-Being, raising the spousal relation as a sacramental sign of the greater reality of God.
It is crucial to note that before revealing Himself spousally as Bridegroom of the Church, Jesus first is Son in His eternal encounter with the Father, in a filial relation as Son of God. His spousality thus is rooted firmly in his filiation, indicated by what John Paul II calls the original solitude. In original solitude, man stands alone first before God as His child, formed in His image and likeness (Gn. 1.26). The Pope builds his teaching based on what is expressed fundamentally in Gaudium et Spes 22: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” The body first has such a filial relation with God.
As a child of God, man has a relationship with Him that then gives him the capacity to be in relation with another human being. We thus speak here first of a virginal relation, rooted in being a child of God, that then is manifested differently in the celibate and married states, as it involves the relationship of the entire person with God. The original filiation in God holds priority over the spousal relation within marriage, although the filial and spousal relations illuminate a deeper understanding of each other, being circumincessive in a manner like the three Persons of the Holy Trinity mutually indwell within each other. In order to express adequately the thought of Pope John Paul II on the sexual expression of spousal love, it is vitally important to understand that the sexual love between spouses finds its meaning first in their filial relation to God; their spousal love comes to birth in a manner that is both distinct from, and consequential to, filiation. Pope John Paul II articulates that the filial love rooted in the body’s original solitude indicates the primacy of the virginal state in the natural order, leading to a virginal fruitfulness that has priority over marital fruitfulness, although each form illuminates the deeper meaning of the other. The priority of virginity is also an eschatological reality and concerns the participation of virginity in Christ’s nuptial union with the Church and humanity and realizes the source of its fruitfulness in the Resurrection.
The crucial anthropological point of filiation in the original solitude, as articulated in the Catecheses, seems to have gone missing in West’s new book, such that the reader is left with the notion of a spousal relationship severed from its filial root. Our mystical spousal relationship with God, brought to fruition epitomally in the Holy Eucharist, is rooted first in being a child of God in Baptism, as Blessed John Paul II certainly illustrated through his virginal life as have numerous other saints consecrated in virginity.
With little mention of filiation, it comes as no surprise that West pays little attention to children and family in his new work, yet John Paul II’s Catecheses consider them to be foundational to building a civilization of love. The reader of West also would not know that the Holy Father, in fact, had dedicated fourteen of the Catecheses, over 10 percent of the total, to the theme of consecrated virginity. Without reference to this important point, readers moreover are left with an incomplete understanding at best of how Blessed John Paul II’s last months were a “theology of the body” lived authentically at the deepest level of his person, the true legacy of the beloved Pope and the meaning of his life.
West highlights some good points concerning the importance of the body’s dignity with respect to our Lord’s Incarnation in the flesh. However, by failing to address the Incarnation of our Lord as first being filial in primacy, that is, His Body is that of Son prior to being that of Divine Spouse as Bridegroom wedded with the Church as Bride, the author remembers the end but appears to forget the beginning. Jesus’ relation to the Father has a supranuptial dimension, as the total gift of self is the very nature of the Trinity. Jesus as the Son of God is the foundation for the entire ministry of Jesus, our salvation in bringing the Church in relationship to the Father, and the ultimate consummation of the nuptial relationship between Bridegroom and Bride (cf. Ephesians 5.21-32) on the wood of the Cross.
Other areas of West’s presentation stand out as being in need of more careful thought:
Use of “Sexual” Terminology
West insists on using “sexual” language throughout his work in an attempt to communicate more easily the truths of John Paul II’s often complex teaching to his readers. To West’s credit, in a few places he emphasizes that his use of such terminology always is intended to mean an integrated sexuality, that is, one that respects the unitive and generative aspects of human sexuality within the confines of marriage. However, in his insistence of utilizing the language of “sex”, he risks both threatening the reverence that is due before the mystery of sexuality as well as reducing John Paul’s Catecheses to being solely about sexuality, evidencing a separation between John Paul II’s work and his own. The Catecheses are far broader in scope than sexuality in addressing numerous other themes of theological thought and inquiry.
Speaking from my heart to that of Christopher West, as missionary to missionary, I have found that if you present the teachings in the Church’s traditional language, explaining the language as you go along, people are capable of stretching their minds to understand it, even appreciating elevated language such as conjugal, marital, spousal and other such terms as intended in the Catecheses. The Holy Father used those terms intentionally, as should we lest we risk articulating a different message than he intended. Such is the “hard work” of catechesis, but it also is necessary to raise the dignity of a culture’s language in order to transform it, a fact demonstrated evidently in the new English version of the Roman Missal in our Church’s liturgical life. Addressing language in this manner assists in incorporating the theology of the body within that of the Church’s broader theology of love, an important task specified by Pope Benedict XVI during his address on May 13, 2011 to the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.
John Paul II speaks of communion as interpersonal, that is, as person to person. This theological and anthropological approach springs from his great treatise on sexual ethics, Love and Responsibility, in which – writing as Karol Cardinal Wojtyla -- he explains how our regard for another human being always must value the other as a person, one who is a unity of body and soul, in a manner consistent with what he termed the personalistic norm. This argument is fundamental for understanding the full scope of the Catecheses. Such interpersonal communion by its nature is most intimately a face-to-face encounter. John Paul II, to my understanding, never refers to this communion as being merely between bodies. In West’s discussion, perhaps unintentionally, the body is overemphasized to the point that it appears idolized. It is crucial to highlight in discussions of bodiliness that we are talking about the body of a person. Indeed, the body manifests the person. John Paul’s use of such personalistic terminology is very specific, as was also clear in Love and Responsibility, protecting his theology from being reduced to the level of a mere bodily sexuality. Of course, sexuality is a main aspect of the Catecheses, that goes without saying. However, it is always the sexuality of persons, body and soul, never intended to be reduced to the bodily aspect alone. In conjugal union, the entire being of the person, body and soul, grows in communion and enters into the mystery of the Divine Communion of Persons.
Such purity involves one spouse’s ability to see the other spouse’s body in purity. Spouses certainly should not be seeking to look at other persons’ naked bodies (except when necessary to care for their children or when medically required, with the obvious complete respect for human dignity that is due). However, West argues that mature purity at a virtuous level signifies being able to look at any body and maintaining perfect chastity; if he has to look away, West states that he is merely continent but not virtuous, although admitting that the vast majority of persons would find themselves in such a position. If discussions on the virtue of chastity, or “mature purity”, attempt to look at any body with the hope of seeing the other with pure eyes, West’s theological presentation is under serious threat of becoming an apologia for pornography, which is precisely the separation of the body from the person. West spends much time talking about the importance of loving others’ bodies properly, but what is missing from the discussion is the greatest need to love other persons most, encountering them as integrated bodies and souls, with virginal innocence. Loving persons accordingly is consonant with Karol Cardinal Wojtyla’s articulation of the personalistic norm in Love and Responsibility, without reducing the person to mere bodiliness.
This problem becomes even more acute in West’s example of “the two bishops”. Questions concerning the historical accuracy of West's account notwithstanding, two bishops come across a harlot who is naked. One averts his gaze in “custody of the eyes”, while the other looks at her intently, lamenting with tears that “such beauty is being sold to the lusts of men” (pp. 88-89). However, averting the eyes here is the lovingly responsible thing to do and is indeed virtuous if he does so in purity of heart ... In doing so, a man responsible in his love guards the human dignity of the other as well as his own, even if the naked harlot showing herself publicly does not do so. To avert the eyes is prudent as such a bishop would know he still has concupiscence in his human nature (cf. CCC 2516). He guards his eyes not out of fear of sinning but out of pure love for God and neighbor, never wanting to risk jeopardizing or losing the chaste integration of his love. If the bishop who cries upon seeing the harlot indeed has virtuous integrity of heart, then in his mercy he (and the other bishop) would demonstrate love best by "clothing the naked" (cf. Matthew 25.36, one of the “corporal works of mercy”), helping the harlot come to realize the dignity that God has given her. Doing so would be virtuously continent, as John Paul II delineates continence (cf. e.g., Cat. 127:4). The cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, and justice (cf. Cat. 128:2) are vital to what John Paul II considers the integrated virtue of continence, delineated as part of temperance (cf. Cat. 128:1). However, West makes no mention of their fundamental importance to handling such a scenario virtuously.
We would be grossly irresponsible to our love toward God, neighbor, and self if we were to fail to remember that we are incarnated souls whose flesh still must deal with concupiscence as a daily battle for all of life (Cat. 86:4, CCC 2516), lest we fall into a false angelism that articulates our being beyond the possibility of sin. The Church in her wisdom gives the faithful an Act of Contrition that urges us to resolve, with the help of God’s grace, to “avoid all occasions of sin” in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Such avoidance is not done out of fear, but rather out of chaste prudence, or an intelligent love integrating reason and heart (cf. Cat. 131:1) that directs us toward regarding the other through the eyes of virginal innocence, loving our neighbor as having been created in the image and likeness of God. In this manner, Jesus conquers our concupiscence in our every prudent, loving decision made by the help of His grace and leads us progressively to grow in virtuous purity of heart over our lifetime. At times, West seems to misread his critics as being fearfully prudish, when their emphasis really is on addressing the issues of the Catecheses in purity of heart, in line with the demands of the virtue of prudence and virginal innocence. In catechizing the material of the Catecheses, we must never be prudish, but we must always be prudent.
The most contentiously problematic issue addressed in West’s new book concerns a most delicate set of matters involving conjugal chastity. West’s discussion at best risks muddying the waters by causing confusion in his readers concerning the issues of engaging in “marital sodomy” (which he addresses in Appendix I) as foreplay leading to completion of intercourse in a conjugal manner, and the pursuit of female orgasm apart from coitus but during the overall context of a conjugal act (which he mentions in endnote 67). His presentation appears to advise caution to the former while seeming to condone the latter, which in doing so lacks discretion before the mystery of sexuality and demonstrates a failure to understand intimacy properly. It would behoove West in due and prudent discretion to direct couples to talk to their priest or a confessor for advice; such sexual issues were in fact once confined for good reason to confessor’s manuals, as they are complex and delicate. When the Church tells people publicly what sexual actions they can get away with without sinning, many people will push the envelope. In doing so, such spouses would become deaf to Paul VI’s and John Paul II’s insistent call to focus their mutual love on respecting the inherent unitive and procreative qualities of the conjugal act (HV 12). Pius XII sheds additional light for us in his Allocution to Midwives:
There are some who would allege that happiness in marriage is in direct proportion to the reciprocal enjoyment in conjugal relations. It is not so: Indeed, happiness in marriage is in direct proportion to the mutual respect of the partners, even in their intimate relations; not that they regard as immoral and refuse what nature offers and what the Creator has given, but because this respect, and the mutual esteem which it produces, is one of the strongest elements of a pure love, and for this reason all the more tender.
West states in his new book on one page that he personally is against marital sodomy, that he would “strongly, in no uncertain terms discourage” or would even “condemn” such behavior due to what St. Alphonsus Liguori calls the “sodomitic emotion” (pp. 227-228, cf. Liguori 6.469). Nonetheless, West highlights over several pages what he describes as a “broad consensus of orthodox moral theologians” arguing that the “objective criteria for evaluating the sexual behavior of spouses is that their physical intimacies must culminate in the natural act of marital intercourse” (pp. 225-226). This point has been debated strongly among many theologians and clergy as it concerns the issues cited in Appendix I and endnote 67; thus, there is no “broad consensus” as West claims. West’s presentation evinces a lack of proper understanding of embodiment, or the lack of a sense of the body as sacrament. Everything done in the body has an intrinsic meaning that does not come simply from the mental intention, or the intended goal of a series of acts. Consequently, West differs from John Paul II in the understanding of the body as sacrament. West’s presentation is problematic on a number of other fronts as well.
Saint Augustine condemned unnatural acts in the marriage bed (cf. On the Good of Marriage 11-12), while Saint Thomas Aquinas states that a husband’s actions towards his wife should never “use her indecently” (S. Th. II-II, Q.154, art. 8, cf. art. 12). Pope Pius XI also spoke strongly against unnatural actions in his great encyclical on conjugal chastity: “No reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good” (Casti Connubii 54). Pope Pius XII reinforced Pius XI’s teaching in his Allocution to Midwives: “No ‘indication’ or need can convert an act which is intrinsically immoral into a moral and lawful one.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the intention does not change the object of an act in its nature (CCC 1750). Building upon the foundation of Gaudium et Spes 51:3, the Catechism also articulates (2368):
When it is a question of harmonizing married love with the responsible transmission of life, the morality of the behavior does not depend on sincere intention and evaluation of motives alone; but it must be determined by objective criteria, criteria drawn from the nature of the person and his acts, criteria that respect the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love; this is possible only if the virtue of married chastity is practiced with sincerity of heart. (cf. Persona Humana V and IX for similar arguments)
Moreover, it is of serious concern when issues such as marital sodomy and the wife’s sexual gratification outside of the conjugal act are presented in books seeking to present the teaching of Blessed John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”. Blessed John Paul II never mentioned these specific issues concerning conjugal chastity in the Catecheses, nor in his other Magisterial teachings. Including them as West does in his latest book risks developing a theology attributed to the Pontiff that is objectively distinct from what the Pope articulated, even if unintended, one that both jeopardizes being true to his authentic intellectual legacy while risking oversexualizing or vulgarization of John Paul II’s teaching. In Love and Responsibility, Cardinal Wojtyla stated concerning the natural law and the order of love:
In the order of love a man can remain true to the person only in so far as he is true to nature. If he does violence to “nature”, he also “violates” the person by making it an object of enjoyment rather than of love (229-230).
The above-noted acts that West treats, being essentially non-conjugal, are incompatible with the logic of self-gift found in John Paul II’s Catecheses, which is continuous in thought with his earlier work on sexual ethics. Even if the spouses in such circumstances intend on completing the act in a conjugal manner, their intention does not give them the freedom to use each other (or themselves) for the purposes of arousal by non-marital, unnatural means. Spouses should never instrumentalize each other (or themselves) in a relationship of use, rather striving instead for their hearts to be connatural with the Heart of Christ. Conjugality is a matter of encounter, heart to heart and face to face, leading spouses together into interpersonal communion with God.
Based on the logic of the “broad consensus” above, a logic differing from John Paul II’s logic of self-gift, there is substantial risk that spouses mistakenly could consider any number of immoral behaviors as justifiable as long as they conclude with consummation of the conjugal act in its natural course, actions involving for example the use of pornography, perversions, or masturbation, in addition to those aforementioned. The risk of pornographizing the marriage bed is very real. For chastity to be properly integrated, the “language of the body” must be “reread in the truth” (Cat. 118:4, 6; 119:1). Blessed John Paul II elaborates further: “The conjugal act, while most closely uniting husband and wife, capacitates them for the generation of new lives, according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and of woman" (HV 12) … The conjugal meaning of the act is ensured by respecting the “innermost structure (that is, nature)” of the “laws inscribed in the very being of man and woman” (Cat. 118:5). Couples who have problems with arousal to engage in the conjugal act are in certain need of healing in their sexual woundedness, which requires spouses to be lovingly tender and patient with each other. A pure intimacy should be fostered between them that nurtures communion sensitively and selflessly, ideas developed in detail in Love and Responsibility. They should strive to regard each other with the “sincerity of heart” (CCC 2368) that regards the spouse with the virginal innocence of the original solitude.
Prudence is essential when examining issues of conjugal chastity. The consistent teaching of the Church is that married couples should not make maximizing their sexual pleasure the main goal of their intimacy. In his discussion of delicate issues in conjugal chastity, West risks causing confusion when stating “nothing is shameful”, although he rightly warns couples against being “slaves to sensuality” (p. 225). West’s presentation fails to account adequately for the positive aspects of shame that are so important to the Catecheses and which are emphasized in Love and Responsibility. Blessed John Paul II also took much flak during his Pontificate when articulating that it is possible for spouses to commit the sin of lust within marriage. Humanae vitae emphasizes conjugal chastity not only in terms of avoiding contraception, but also in spouses’ focusing their married love on a mutually shared life rather than simple gratification.
Considering that there is evidently widespread confusion among the Christian faithful on these matters, including among a significant number of Catholic clergy who genuinely desire to be faithful to the Church’s teaching authority in guiding the People of God, it is important for the Magisterium to emphasize that certain acts are conjugal, while couples should not seek to explore pleasure outside of what is conjugal. In effect, Pius XII’s declaration needs to be reemphasized but for a new generation, integrating it with the teaching of Blessed John Paul II’s Catecheses. It is essential for the Magisterium to ensure that Blessed John Paul II’s teachings are never used to condone searching for sexual satisfaction by way of acts that are essentially non-conjugal and objectify the spouse in their intrinsic structure. The deeply wounded culture in which the Church finds herself endeavoring to evangelize has caused many of the faithful to be confused about what constitutes chaste behavior in marriage. Unfortunately, today’s pornography laden world is ever increasing in its attacks on the purity of the Church’s Faithful, risking dividing those who are called to unite in the common task of the New Evangelization.
In his upcoming article entitled "The Theology of the Heart: A Crucial Lens for Understanding Blessed John Paul II’s Catecheses on Human Love", Fr. Gresko highlights the vital importance of integrating the Church's theology of suffering -- as found in her teachings on the Sacred Heart of Jesus -- with theology concerning the body in order to interpret correctly Pope John Paul II's Catecheses on Human Love. Fr. Gresko explains how the theology of suffering provides the hermeneutic key to understanding the perfect self-gift found in God's love as expressed through the human body. This article may be found in the June-July 2012 issue of Inside the Vatican magazine; for further information, please visit http://www.insidethevatican.com/.
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PRAYER TO IMPLORE FAVORS
THROUGH THE INTERCESSION OF
BLESSED JOHN PAUL II, POPE
O Blessed Trinity, we thank You for having
graced the Church with Blessed John Paul II
and for allowing the tenderness of Your
Fatherly care, the glory of the Cross of
Christ, and the splendor of the Spirit of love,
to shine through him. Trusting fully in
your infinite mercy and in the maternal
intercession of Mary, he has given us
a living image of Jesus the Good Shepherd,
and has shown us that holiness is the
necessary measure of ordinary Christian life
and is the way of achieving eternal
communion with You. Grant us, by his
intercession, and according to Your will, the
graces we implore, hoping that he will soon
be numbered among Your saints. Amen.
With ecclesiastical approval of
AGOSTINO CARD. VALLINI
Vicar General, Diocese of Rome
Fr. Gregory Gresko is Chaplain of the Blessed John Paul II Shrine in Washington, D.C. He earned his S.T.B. from the Pontifical Athenaeum of Sant’Anselmo in Rome and his S.T.L. magna cum laude in marriage and family studies from the John Paul II Institute of the Pontifical Lateran University (Rome). His licentiate dissertation was entitled, “Educating to Love: Foundational Pedagogy in Light of Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility”.
Fr. Gresko currently is working on his doctoral thesis for the same Vatican institute, on “The Consecration of the Family to the Heart of Jesus in Light of the Pastoral Ministry of Père Mateo Crawley-Boevey, ss.cc.” He blogs at The Blogging Monk.
Fr. Gresko’s work on the theology of love has been featured by Inside the Vatican as well as Catholic Online, including in interviews on EWTN, Catholic News Agency, and VocationBoom.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.