When we get into a relationship, it’s not all about the good stuff in making it work. It take some elbow grease and the grace of God. OSV News photo/Jim Young, Reuters

When Theology of the Body is misunderstood

  • April 20, 2023

Is it possible to abuse the gifts of God? Absolutely. Does it make them any less a gift just because they are open to abuse or we abuse them? No. Thomas Aquinas said that just about anything can be abused, even Gregorian Chant! But what happens when we abuse a gift whose sole purpose is to keep us from abusing God’s gifts?

I’m talking about Theology of the Body, of course. God’s gift of Theology of the Body, given to us through Pope John Paul II, was written to restore and deepen the true meaning and dignity of the body, sex, beauty, love, relationships and marriage.

There’s an amazing essay by author Emily Stimpson Chapman, available for free for a limited time, entitled: “No, You Can’t Skip To The Good Part” (emilystimpsonchapman.substack.com.) Emily is an incredible writer, and she takes a hard look at what happens when John Paul II’s life-changing Theology of the Body is not taught well, when only the “good parts” are cherry picked (the thrill of falling in love, the joy of happy marriages, the beauty of sex, etc.).

These truncated presentations of TOB are also an oversimplification of God’s teachings on the body, human interactions, sexual morality, marriage. Instead, Theology of the Body is a comprehensive anthropology: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be the freaks of the universe, uniting matter and spirit, the physical and spiritual like no other creature?

By limiting youths’ and adults’ exposure to TOB to a one-hour “chastity talk” once in their lives, or a little Natural Family Planning (NFP) for engaged couples — the message is sent that TOB is not a terribly broad or important tool, and these vital topics do not require much of our attention, let alone a lifelong struggle and learning curve… with accompanying rewards. The idea can be embedded by faulty TOB training that if I simply abstain from sex till marriage, my married life will be permanently ecstatic. And if I practice Natural Family Planning, I will be in total control of every aspect of my future — childbearing and rearing will be a breeze.

As a long time presenter, I have found there can be a shallow kind of enthusiasm for TOB if it isn’t presented in its proper, much broader context (which isn’t always possible). Presenting a “hit and run” talk can lead to folks simply trying to find a way to fit TOB into their pleasure-seeking ethos. However, there are also plenty of folks, young and old, who get that Theology of the Body goes deep and wide, who understand that the Cross is everywhere, even in the most delightful aspects of life. And the Cross is our salvation.

I’ve heard even recent graduates from stellar Catholic universities were horrified at how “difficult” marriage is. Others got supremely frustrated when NFP didn’t “work.” I think a main problem is the way we raise children to think that life is all about “being happy,” or “whatever makes you happy,” and that negative emotions, being challenged by something difficult, or simply having a bad day is the worst possible thing that could happen to you, means something is terribly wrong and you need to pop some meds. Believers can even send the message that “God wants you to be happy,” without the full catechism exposition of “knowing, loving, serving God,” and the far superior “happy with Him in the next life.” We set young people up to fail, to be fragile, to trust and follow only their emotions, think only of this life, etc.

And sometimes we can forget that we’re not doing this short life on our own. Prayer, the sacraments, the practice of virtue, nobility of character, self-denial, enriching our knowledge and wisdom, combating our personality defects — with trust in God’s help and strength — all go into the mix to make us, over time, fine, affable, nuanced, strong human beings, whether married or not. Life is not stasis. “May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another” 1 Thessalonians 3:12.

No, we can’t just skip to the good part, but we can get there with elbow grease and the grace of God.

(Sr. Burns, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA. HellBurns.com. Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.