Theology of the body on display in California

The Theology of the Body Institute presented its third biannual Theology of the Body Congress in Ontario, California Sept. 22-25. Thirty-four speakers with expertise in theology of the body, as well as marriage and family issues, addressed the gathering of nearly a thousand in the first-ever Theology of the Body Congress held in southern California. The event was presented by the Pennsylvania-based Theology of the Body Institute, founded 12 years ago to promote Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body. An early work of John Paul’s pontificate, theology of the body is the title given to a series of presentations on family life and human sexuality he gave from 1979-84.

Sex, family and beauty

Among the presenters was the institute’s curriculum specialist, Bill Donaghy, who began with an introduction to theology of the body. He explained, “Sexuality itself is the image of God. It should not be a stumbling block, but the key to understanding God’s plan for life and love.”

He noted that John Paul’s meditations began not with Genesis 3 and original sin, but Genesis 1-2, “how God intended human sexuality to be in the beginning.”

He also delivered the talk “In the Person of Christ,” a program for priests to help them understand theology of the body in their ministries.

“Celibacy is a call to become a life-giving gift,” he said. “Celibate priests are called through theology of the body to be a spouse of the Church, and have spiritual children who are no less real than children in the flesh, but more.”

Donaghy also reflected on his experience of being a husband and father of four children under age 9 in his presentation “The Beautiful Mess of the Family.” He noted, “I am a steward of my kids and not a dominating master. When I understand this stewardship, the ‘mess’ that can sometimes be family life can be beautiful.”

Other speakers included The Catholic University of America professor John Grabowski, Ph.D., who participated in a panel discussion on the modern family. He noted that the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception use, was approaching.

“Theology of the body gives us a deep understanding of the human person, so we can better understand the inseparable connection between union and procreation,” Grabowski said. “Pope John Paul gave us the anthropology that underlies the teaching Paul VI presented us in Humanae Vitae.”

Presenting pornography

The Congress featured three presentations on pornography and its harmful effects on individuals and families. Matt Fradd of Integrity Restored, who speaks to 70,000 teens annually about the harmful effects of porn, was among the presenters.

“We’ve reached a tipping point in our culture,” he said. “Everyone either, a) struggles with porn use, or b) knows someone who does.”

He compared defenders of pornography to apologists for the tobacco industry in decades past.

“As the research continued to pile up about how harmful smoking is to your health, they’d continue to deny it. We see the same thing happening with defenders of porn today,” he said.

In a panel discussion, he pointed out that 26 peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated that porn affects the human brain in much the same way as a drug.

“It is not a drug we can inhale or inject, but one to which we can still become addicted.”

Fradd discussed the seven myths of pornography, including that it is “adult entertainment.

“It isn’t adult entertainment at all,” he said. “Studies have shown that porn erodes the frontal lobe of the brain, which we use to make executive decisions. Porn makes us more juvenile, not more of an adult.”

Another myth, he said, is that freedom from porn is a destination at which one someday can arrive.

“I encounter people who believe that if they say a certain prayer, wear a certain scapular, read a certain book or have a certain holy priest pray over them, they can be pure,” he said. “But freedom is not a destination, it is a daily choice.”

Fradd said theology of the body, as well as the writings of Christopher West, helped him overcome porn use in his own life and to save sex for marriage. Theology of the body offers a correct understanding of the human person as a good to which the only proper response is love, Fradd said, drawing from the 1960 book “Love and Responsibility” by then-Bishop Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II).

Panel members recommended a multi-pronged approached to overcoming a porn addiction, which included confession/spiritual direction, professional counseling and a support group. Panel member Gregory Bottaro, Psy.D., asserted, “Having an addiction doesn’t mean you’ll be that way for life, but that the brain needs some work. It can be changed through changing our behavior.”

John Paul’s feminism

Sister Helena Burns of the Daughters of St. Paul told of her transformation “from radical feminist to theology of the body feminist,” arguing that if society denies the differences between men and women, it’s the female sex that is “obliterated.” She explained that she was a feminist, defined as someone who supports “the protection and promotion of women,” but no longer a radical feminist, who denies there are differences between men and women. Such a view, she said, is not scientific and “lays the groundwork” for the current gender identity debate.

Her studies of theology of the body led her to modify her viewpoint and embrace the teachings of the Church, which “believes in the complementarity of the sexes.” She said theology of the body “gave me permission to be a woman … and it’s good to be a woman!”

Anastasia Northrop, organizer of the National Catholic Singles Conference, delivered a presentation on “A Single’s Guide to Theology of the Body.”

“Having been single longer than intended, I wanted to take some key points from theology of the body and apply them to the challenges of being single in our culture today,” she said.

Northrop shared that, being the oldest of nine children, she’d hoped that by this point in her life she’d be married with many children, but that desire had not yet been fulfilled. So, she said, “I have had to learn to trust God and have confidence in him even though it isn’t my plan.”

While theology of the body doesn’t specifically address being single, she said, it offers a biblical anthropology and understanding of the human person that teaches you “to make a gift of ourselves which enables you to live a fulfilled life, single or not.”

Quoting “Love and Responsibility,” Northrop said that human freedom is a means to an end, which is love.

“Man longs for love more than freedom. When we are given freedom, we are given it so that we can give ourselves as a gift; we use that freedom to become a gift,” she said.

Author and speaker Rose Sweet spoke on “7 Steps and 7 Secrets to Mercy for the Divorced.” Noting that she herself was a divorcee, she said theology of the body blends well in her work with the divorced and separated, as it offers “practical answers to relationship issues. It is beautiful, and I incorporate it into all my work.”

She touched on the issue of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, whom she described as “technically in a state of adultery” and hence should not receive Communion.

“It is hard to hear but it is the truth,” she said. “They are not in full communion and should not be receiving Communion. That goes for any Catholic in the state of sin.”

In addition to lectures, participants had the opportunity to attend Mass, go to confession and participate in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The spiritual component is essential to the Congress’ success, said Donaghy.

“Everything we teach has to be coupled with prayer,” he said. “It is essential. It is what gives power to the teaching.”

Participants expressed the hope that theology of the body would become more widely known. Grabowski said spreading the message was crucial, as “we’re living in a culture decimated by the sexual revolution.” He called theology of the body “an invaluable tool to evangelize and catechize the culture so people can recognize the counterfeit messages spread throughout our society.”

Jim Graves writes from California.