The theology of the body is not just a theology for Marriage Encounter weekends, Pre-Cana classes or high school classrooms. It’s also a theology for the public square.


Of course, Pope John Paul II’s collection of teachings has a lot to say about sex and sexuality. When it comes to communicating the Church’s understanding of marital love and intimacy to contemporary culture, the theology of the body has been a game-changer, helping countless people grasp for the first time the sacredness and power of giving one’s body to another.

But it’s not called the theology of the body (as opposed to the “theology of sex”) for nothing. Pope John Paul II’s teachings are, at their heart, not a sex-ed curriculum, but rather an anthropology of what it means to be a human person. They are a prism through which Catholics can view themselves and the world rightly.

That’s why the theology of the body has something to say about what happens outside, as well as inside, couples’ bedrooms. It is, at its most basic, not just a guide for how we are to love, but also for how we are to live.

And, when properly understood, it sheds light on the root causes of some of our culture’s most pressing social concerns: the spread of pornography, the rise in out-of-wedlock births, the culture of divorce, support for abortion and embryo-destructive procedures, and the push for same-sex marriage.

On all those issues and more, the theology of the body can illuminate and clarify the Church’s teachings and solutions. Here’s how.

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.


On the surface, pornography seems to be a sin rooted in desire.

But it’s not. It’s a sin rooted in a misunderstanding of the human person and the universe itself.

“Why do artists spend their entire life trying to master the human body?” asked Father Thomas Loya, founder of the Tabor Life Institute. “Because the human body is the sum total of all the elements of beauty. … The invisible principles of truth, goodness and beauty — those things which are of God — have been enfleshed. They’ve been made real to us in the created order, and the human person is the high point of that.”

Pornography, however, never allows the eye to see that. It stops the eye, Father Loya explained, and holds it on the surface, isolating the physical from the spiritual and rendering the body into an object to be used for another’s pleasure.

“When we look at porn, we’re looking at a counterfeit of beauty,” Father Loya said. “We’re not looking at real beauty at all.”

And that’s where the theology of the body comes in.

It gives man, explained Father Loya, “a way of seeing correctly, honestly, sacramentally,” training the eye to recognize that all of life, including the naked human body, reveals God.

That training, he continued, is training that all men and women living in the West today need.

“We are immersed in a ‘pornographied’ culture,” he said. “But we can’t drive down the street with bags over our heads. We have to learn how to be in it. We have to learn how to see, not run.”

Learning how to see, he said, begins with recognizing that the image of God has been incarnated in men and women.

It also requires recognizing that the beauty and form of the naked human body reveals the spousal mystery of the human person — that men and women are created to give themselves in life-giving love to one another as the Three Persons of the Trinity give themselves in love to each other.

Finally, it requires integrating that understanding into the way we look upon other persons.

Practically speaking, Father Loya explained, that integration demands that we never choose to use or view pornography, which uses every artistic trick in the book to focus the eye on the sexual and not the spiritual dimension of the person.

When an alluring image or person does capture the eye, he recommends people, “See, pray, then pass on.”

He explained: “See the beauty and acknowledge it. It reveals God and is meant to be seen. But then pray for that person, and move on. Don’t let your thoughts dwell there.”

It’s important, he continued, “to make the image into a real person. Don’t think of them as an object.”

It’s also important, he added, to regularly view “honest works of art” — keeping pictures in the home and viewing art in museums that treat the naked human form as it’s meant to be treated — with reverence, awe, and as a window to the sacred.

Above all, Father Loya counsels people to turn to the sacraments and prayer, calling on Jesus fervently and frequently, to help reorder their vision and refocus their sight.

“God is a communion of persons, who has entered into a spousal mystery with his own creation,” he concluded.

“If we keep seeing sacramentally, keep seeing the center, looking at the interior life of the Holy Trinity, we will see human sexuality as we’re supposed to see it. If we don’t, if we look at it with no context, we will not only open ourselves up to all sorts of addictions, we will also end up with a skewed concept of God.”

Pornography: The Numbers (sidebar)

55.5% - Teens who have viewed pornography

25 million - The number of adults in the U.S who spend 1-10 hours every week viewing pornography online

25% - Web searches exclusively for pornographic content

$13.3 billion - The annual revenue of the porn industry in the U.S.

56% - Divorce cases involved one party having “an obsessive interest in
pornographic websites”

— According to statistics compiled by Covenant Eyes (

Same-sex marriage

Over the past decade, same-sex marriage has been on the fast track from idea to reality. Now legal in five states (and recognized in three more) and the District of Columbia, same-sex marriage is still opposed by the majority of the public. But the tide continues to shift in proponents’ favor.

According to Janet Smith, who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair in Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, that shift is due to three fundamental misconceptions about marriage and the human person.

First, she told Our Sunday Visitor, “people think marriage is not a reality that we have to abide by, but a reality that we can decide. It’s like arguing that we can say trees are not trees, but tomato plants instead.”

The second misconception, she continued, is the belief that, “sex is simply for pleasure. It doesn’t have a larger meaning.”

And third is the belief that opposing same-sex marriage is the equivalent of “condemning people who struggle with same-sex attraction to a loveless existence.”

But the theology of the body, she explained, when properly understood, has the potential to turn all those ideas on their head, reordering cultural conceptions of marriage, sexuality and fulfillment and bringing them back into line with truth.

For Catholics who absorb the teachings, Smith explained, Pope John Paul II’s meditations on the human person can reorder their thinking about marriage because it uses Sacred Scripture as the basis for the anthropology developed. There, she said, “it is very clear that marriage is supposed to be between men and women. ‘Male and female he created them.’”

Likewise, she continued, “there’s no indication anywhere in the text that sex can be used for any other purpose than to create an indissoluble bond between man and woman that’s open to life.”

Coming to understand those two truths is critical, Smith asserted, because before Catholics can understand, accept and advocate the Church’s position on same-sex marriage, they first need to get their own house in order.

“Most people aren’t living respectable sexual lives,” she said. “They know if they start to ask if same-sex marriage is wrong, they’ll also have to ask, ‘Is fornication wrong? Is contraception wrong?’ They don’t want to ask the questions because the answers might force them to examine their own lives.”

“Our outreach has to be first to Christians and Catholics,” she said. “We have to get them to think rightly about this and convince them there is something radically wrong with this behavior.”

And what about those struggling with same-sex attraction? For them, Smith said, the theology of the body offers a clear path to finding the love and fulfillment for which they long: the path of self-gift.

“We don’t want anyone to be lonely,” Smith said. “But you don’t have to be in a sexual relationship to be loved. There’s great joy and fulfillment to be found in familial relationships and friendships — natural relationships free from disordered desires.”

Even more important, she concluded, “the theology of the body tells us that we’re all meant to be in a spousal relationship with God, a relationship where we give ourselves entirely to the good, the true and the beautiful. That’s where we find our ultimate fulfillment. That’s true happiness.”

Same-Sex Marriage: The Numbers (sidebar)

6 - The number of states and federal districts where same-sex marriage licenses are granted (Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, the District of Columbia)

3 - The number of states that recognize same-sex marriages from other states (Rhode Island, New York, Maryland)

50,000 - The estimated number of same-sex marriages contracted in the past five years

10-20 -The average number of additional sex partners most men involved in same-sex unions have each year

39% -The rate of domestic violence among homosexual “married” couples. The rate of domestic violence is 7 percent for their heterosexual peers.

— According to statistics provided by Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons, director of the Institute for Marital Healing, at the National Theology of the Body Congress


For almost a generation, half of all marriages have ended in divorce. Depending on the year, that number is sometimes slightly less, sometimes slightly more. And while unique and valid reasons for the separation of spouses can and do exist, Gregory Popcak, Catholic marriage counselor and founder of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, sees the same fundamental problem at work in the breakup of most marriages.

“People tend to love their own comfort zone more than they love their spouse,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “They don’t think marriage is supposed to change them or teach them something. They think they’re getting married so that they can be affirmed in their ‘okayness’ for the next 60 years.”

But marriage isn’t about affirmation. It’s about a husband and wife helping the other grow in holiness. Which always requires change.

When couples don’t grasp that, Popcak explained, they end up “either constantly fighting or terminally dissatisfied by the lack of generosity their partner shows.”

And that’s where the theology of the body can help.

On one level, said Popcak, it articulates what people need to be truly happy.

“The theology of the body says that the pursuit of your own personal pleasure isn’t going to make you all that happy,” he said. “It can help a little bit, but it’s only going to get you so far. People are actually happiest when they’re loving and serving others, not thinking of themselves.”

To live a truly happy life, he continued, psychologists have con-cluded that people need to pursue three things: meaningfulness (using one’s gifts and talents to serve others), intimacy (maintaining deep and lasting relationships) and virtue (using the circumstances of life to learn and grow).

“That is the same thing the theology of the body tells us — God gives us our bodies to be in communion with others and work for the good of others,” he said. “Everything about our wiring says we need to resist the temptation to be affirmed, and stretch ourselves instead.”

When it comes to marriage, the theology of the body also lays out a plan for how couples can integrate that understanding into their relationships.

Describing it as a “blueprint for loving,” Popcak explained that the theology of the body rejects the idea that the key to a successful marriage is simply learning to tolerate one another. Rather, it asserts that both husband and wife need to go beyond that, changing and growing to accommodate the other and be who God is calling them to be.

In practical terms, Popcak said, that means doing things that might not come naturally or be a bit of a stretch in order to make one’s spouse happier: staying home when you would rather go out, watching baseball instead of HGTV, forgoing meat and potatoes and cultivating a taste for Indian food.

It also means being open to seeing yourself through your spouse’s eyes, recognizing your own sins and weaknesses, seeing how you’re hurting others, and taking steps to change your behavior.

Above all, it means giving yourself entirely to the other, making loving your spouse your most important job and holding nothing, including your fertility, back.

“In the very fabric of our bodies, we are ordered to giving ourselves to another,” said Popcak. “Our bodies our basically screaming out that we’re here to do more than be affirmed in our okayness. If we listened to that, we would see a lot fewer divorces and have far more happy marriages.

Divorce: The Numbers (sidebar)

7.1 - The number of marriages per 1,000 people in the United States in 2008

3.5 - The number of divorces per 1,000 people in the United States in 2008

63% - American children living in a home with both parents

10.7% - Americans over the age of 15 who are divorced

— According to statistics compiled by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia (

Out-of-wedlock births

“More birth control.”

That, said George Mason University law professor Helen Alvarè, is the prevailing government solution to the problem of out-of-wedlock births.

“The idea is that unwed mothers simply lack information and access to birth control and abortion, or that there are insufficient material incentives for avoiding pregnancy,” Alvarè said. “Most of the programs currently funded are all about the functioning of the women’s bodies, the availability of abortive technology, and subsuming their desire for a relationship in favor of goals like education or a better job.”

But a lack of access to birth control is the last reason why most single women find themselves with child. According to Alvarè, who serves as an adviser to the Pontifical Council for the Laity, both the qualitative and quantitative data that has emerged in recent years makes it clear that many unwed mothers choose pregnancy, while many others “allow it to happen” when they’re in a relationship they hope will last. In both situations, one of the reasons they do that is because of a desire to have a deep, long-lasting relationship with another to whom they can be a giver.

Alvarè explained: “You often hear women use the language of ‘wanting to be a gift.’ They say they ‘don’t want to be a taker.’ They want ‘people to think of me as a giver first.’ A common phrase is, ‘The baby saved me.’”

What Alvarè sees in that data is the essential understanding of the human person’s deepest desires as described by the theology of the body.

“The theology of the body tells us that we all long for human communion that is permanent, fruitful and faithful,” Alvarè said. “And, in the absence of intact families and close loving peers, whether male or female, motherhood becomes a way of satisfying that in-built orientation.”

That, she believes, is why throwing more birth control at women at risk for unwed pregnancies or encouraging them to delay sexual activity in order to secure their future career goals is an ineffective way of combating the problem: It doesn’t address the core issues.

What does seem to work, according to the data Alvarè discovered, are pregnancy prevention programs that incorporate the principles of theology of the body. Those programs foster close and ongoing relationships between young women and their mentors, and encourage the women to pursue activities that fulfill their desire for communion — activities such as service learning, sports teams and church groups.

“The theology of the body helps us understand the nature of this problem,” she said. “It correctly articulates the very basic source. Now we need to use that understanding to craft a more appropriate response.”

Unwed Mothers: The Numbers (sidebar)

5% - Children born to single mothers in 1960

40% - Children born to single mothers in 2007

28% - White women who gave birth out of wedlock in 2007

51% - Hispanic-American women who gave birth out of wedlock in 2007

72% - African-American women who gave birth out of wedlock in 2007

9.8 million - The number of single mothers in the United States in 2008.

— According to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, the Center for Disease Control, and Helen Alvarè, professor of law at George Mason University, at the National Theology of the Body Congress

Abortion and embryo-destructive research and technologies

What are proponents of abortion, embryo-destructive stem cell research, and in vitro fertilization missing? According to Peter Colosi, assistant professor of moral theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, Pa., two things.

First, he explained, “they don’t recognize that the human person is a physical and spiritual unity all the time, even when they’re a one-celled embryo. If the person isn’t manifesting their spiritual side, they seem to think it’s not there.” Second, he added, they’re missing an “awareness of the mystery of the human person. They don’t see that each person is an unrepeatable thought of God.”

Instead, behind the push for both abortion and research and technologies that destroy human embryos, Colosi sees a wrongheaded dualism that separates the human body from the human person, and then treats the body as if it weren’t human.

“A pro-abortion advocate once said, ‘God doesn’t care what we do with our bodies; He just wants us to respect each other as persons,’” Colosi said. “They’ve somehow convinced themselves that the two can be divorced.”

But they can’t. And that’s a message at the heart of the theology of the body.

Colosi explained: “One of John Paul’s favorite phrases was, ‘Man is a body.’ Not, ‘Man has a body,’ but, ‘Man is a body.’ The minute you say, ‘Man has a body,’ you introduce a degree of separation. And there is no separation. There is an intimate closeness between spirit and matter.”

Helping people grasp that truth, Colosi said, enables them to understand that abortion violates persons in two ways. On the most obvious level, it takes the life of an unrepeatable human person, one who will never come again. It destroys the child body and soul, a soul known to be present because a living body is present.

But abortion violates not just the child, but the mother as well.

“The theology of the body helps us understand the spiritual and emotional consequences of abortion,” said Colosi. “It explains the connection. Sadly, many women discover this only after the abortion, but what a woman does to her body and to the baby within her has a profoundly negative impact on her soul, her inner life.”

Something similar can be said of embryo-destructive research and technologies. According to the principles of theology of the body, scientists aren’t simply creating bunches of cells when they create embryos in a laboratory. They’re creating actual people, some who will come into the world — albeit treated initially more as a right and a product than as the embodiment of the conjugal act of love between two people — but many more who will die in the womb, remain frozen in perpetuity in a storage facility, or perish under the researchers microscope.

“There is a huge gulf between a young couple, preparing the nursery for the arrival of their first child and the scientist in his lab, creating and killing human embryos like disposable matter,” Colosi said.

“The young couple is aware of the mystery of the human person, the scientist completely overlooks people.

Embryo research and abortion: The Numbers (sidebar)

50 million - The number of abortions in the United States since 1973

Every 26 seconds - How often a child is aborted in the United States

400,000 - The number of human embryos frozen and stored since 1978.

— According to statistics compiled by the National Right to Life Committee and the Rand Institute 

Theology of the Body Basics (sidebar)

Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body…

…was first given during the course of 133 Wednesday audiences delivered from 1979 to 1984.

…is an anthropology of what it means to be a human person, a union of body and spirit.

…teaches that the body expresses the person and reveals how men and women are made in the image and likeness of God.

…reveals that the one flesh union of husband and wife points to the life-giving communion within the Trinity.

…shows how using another person for our own pleasure violates the dignity of the human person.

…illustrates how the celibate life is a sign of the total self-gift we are all called to make of ourselves to God.

…calls all human beings to make a gift of themselves to one another in love. 

Three-part series

This is the second In Focus in a three-part series that unpacks the topics presented at the first National Theology of the Body Congress held outside of Philadelphia July 28-30. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are taken from talks delivered at the conference.

 The next installment will run Oct. 24.