Is the Theology of the Body scandalous?

Christopher West, among other lay Catholic speakers, has definitely popularized Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. But if you caught his stint ABC’s Nightline, or the small fury in the blogosphere over an article that quotes Dr. Alice von Hildebrand saying West’s approach is “dangerous”; you might be wondering where’s the balance? Are we too prudish, or is the Theology of the Body scandalous?

I’ll be honest. I like Christopher West. I think he’s a good guy trying hard to do a difficult job. But, I also agree with many of the criticisms leveled against him. In that vein, I think he should take the criticism seriously, learn from it, and move on adjusting his presentations as necessary.

Pope John Paul II’s catechesis on the “Theology of the Body”(TOB) is revolutionary. Indeed, I remember reading his Love & Responsibility and thinking, “a celibate guy wrote this? Seriously?” and then immediately understood the scope of Pope John Paul II’s phenomenology (i.e., I have a lot to learn). It’s not that TOB added anything new to the Church’s teaching on sexuality or the human person; but the understanding and explanation is unfolded carefully and meaningfully in TOB.

Sex is a touchy subject. It has to be handled faithfully and sensitively– which tends to make most people turn off their listening ears. Christopher West’s presentation of the Theology of the Body is lively; he tries to wake up his audience to help them see that the Catholic Church really does know what she’s talking about in regards to who we are as human persons– and especially as regards our sexuality. He says some outlandish things (to grab the attention of the audience) but usually goes on to explain and nuance the odd sayings in the light of Church teaching.

For mature Christians, I think there is some wiggle room for discussion. For example, while The Theology of the Body Institute recently made it clear that Mr. West does not endorse oral sex; his book The Good News About Sex & Marriage does give the go-ahead. I think his conclusions are based on sketchy evidence, at best; and on that point I think Mr. West is off base. While the Church is not going to draw up a list of bedroom dos and donts for married couples, I don’t think the Nihil Obstat or Imprimatur in Mr. West’s books can make up the beginning of one. Theology of the Body is not about learning how far we can go, or how much we can get away with– that’s the wrong way to look at things. Theology of the Body is about who we are as persons and the ultimate purpose of the gift of sexuality lived out in human life–whether through the sacrament of marriage OR (and I think this is too often forgotten) through celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom.

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