New evangelist for Theology of the Body

God has a beautiful, powerful, utterly fulfilling plan for love, marriage and human sexuality. He just hasn’t always had the best PR office. 

Through the centuries the Church has struggled to articulate that plan, and her children have likewise struggled to understand it. In recent years, however, both those struggles have been on the wane thanks to Blessed John Paul II’s catechesis on the human person: the theology of the body. 

Rooted in the writings of Sts. Thomas Aquinas and John of the Cross, the theology of the body has given the Church a language to help explain her ancient understanding of the human person and human sexuality. It’s also made that understanding more accessible than ever to Catholics around the world. 

One of the organizations which deserves a great deal of the credit for helping disseminate John Paul II’s catechesis over the past seven years is the Theology of the Body Institute. This year the Pennsylvania-based group named Damon Owens, a popular speaker, retreat leader and founder of two Natural Family Planning (NFP) organizations (New Jersey Natural Family Planning Association and Joy Filled Marriage New Jersey), as its first executive director. 

Just days after he stepped into his new position, OSV spoke to Owens about the theology of the body, its present impact within the Church, and the future of the Theology of the Body Institute. 

Our Sunday Visitor: How were you first introduced to the theology of the body? 

Damon Owens: My wife and I had been giving talks on NFP and Humanae Vitae [Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Of Human Life”) for about eight or nine years when, in 2002, someone handed me an early Christopher West tape. It was a life changing moment. My wife and I had returned to the faith just before we were married in 1993. We’d been hungry and sensitive to Church teaching since then, but even after all our years of doing marriage-preparation work, there was still a certain level of difficulty articulating why we do what we do and why we believe what we believe. The theology of the body changed that by giving us the “whys” behind the “whats.”

That led us to an explosive conversion of heart, helping us recognize, in a new way, the beauty of the Church’s teaching on marriage, masculinity and femininity, the unity of body and soul, our divine origins, and our eternal destiny. 

OSV: Why do you think the theology of the body is such an integral part of the New Evangelization? 

Owens: First, for those of us who already assent to the faith, the theology of the body leads to renewal — renewal in hearts and renewal in relationships. It reorders and reintegrates our view of the world. From time to time, there can be a tendency among some Christians to think that the physical world is optional or even bad, or that life would be so much better if we could just get beyond the messy reality of the body. 

But the theology of the body challenges that. It helps us understand that we’re far more integrated as body and soul than we realize, and the separation between the spiritual and physical isn’t as sharp as we might believe.  

What we experience in the body can lead to a deeper understanding of spiritual realities, and spiritual realities are made manifest in and through our bodies. Second, the theology of the body helps us evangelize more effectively those who don’t assent to the faith. 

OSV: How so? 

Owens: Well, first, it gives us a language. When we speak about love, marriage, relationships or our love of God, it’s personal, not legal. That’s jolting to many people. It’s never occurred to them that God is in love with us, and we can be in love with God. Equally important is that it allows us to touch people where they’re most broken, in their identity and relationships. I think one of the bitter fruits of the world’s disintegrated view of the human person is this notion that not everything has an objective meaning. 

So to be able to propose and explain the deepest meaning of things is compelling and sets us apart. 

Likewise, this integrated view of the human person resonates with people’s own experience. We all have that need to make a gift of ourselves, to serve and love others for their own sake. We all have a need for communion even when we cannot name it. 

To express those experiences in a language people understand helps them discover that there is a noble, beautiful meaning to being male and female, a meaning that matters to us and to the world. 

OSV: How deep is the theology of the body’s reach into the Catholic Church today? 

Owens: Well, this is just one man’s observation, but I would be surprised if 10 percent of Catholics could give a cogent explanation of the theology of the body. It’s probably more like 2 percent.  

But I don’t think we need to be too pessimistic about that. As Father Richard Hogan pointed out to me once, it took 400 years for the Church to incorporate St. Thomas Aquinas’ teachings into the magisterium. Given that comparison, it is amazing how much exposure the theology of the body has gotten in what has really been just a blink of the Church’s eye. 

We’ve only just begun unpacking these teachings, so we can’t expect them to be everywhere just yet. 

OSV: How do we deepen its reach? 

Owens: I think it starts with meeting Catholics where they’re the most broken. We need to dialogue with friends on difficult issues such as divorce, promiscuity, cohabitation and contraception.  

We also need to infuse the language and approach of TOB into our marriage-preparation courses, as well as marriage-enrichment efforts. Priests can do a lot just from the pulpit. 

Even in public-policy debates there’s room for theology of the body. I live in New Jersey, and we’ve just held hearings on a bill that would redefine marriage. What’s been glaringly absent is any meaningful public dialogue of what marriage is. Most people don’t have the language or understanding to do that.  

We do. And it is a compelling language that is hard for people to dismiss because it is so beautifully grounded in concrete human experience. 

OSV: So where does the Theology of the Body Institute come into all this? 

Owens: Our mission is to educate men and women to understand, live and promote the theology of the body. We strive to serve as a center of excellence where anyone interested in the theology of the body can get first-rate instruction without having to go to a university for a degree. 

We started doing that in 2004 through our Head and Heart Immersion courses. These 30-hour courses follow a retreatlike format, with four to six days of teaching integrated with Eucharistic Adoration, prayer, fellowship, spiritual direction and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

To date, we have had over 1,700 people from around the world attend our courses, including 100 students enrolled in our Theology of the Body Certification program. 

In addition to our courses, we offer on-site speakers covering numerous theology of the body themes for parishes, universities and conferences around the world. 

OSV: Is there anything new on the horizon for the Institute? 

Owens: Well, we are very excited about our renewed focus on clergy enrichment. As the fruit of much discussion, prayer and discernment, we are developing a three-part certification program to help our priests incorporate the theology of the body into their priestly identity, prayer and mission.  

This is an initiative that has been on our hearts from the beginning, but has been given priority in the last year and a half at the request of our Episcopal Advisory Board. We hope to launch the first courses in 2012-2013. 

More broadly, we’re looking to collaborate with other organizations and dioceses and offer leadership training in the theology of the body. 

The theology of the body is a lens that helps make clear everything the Church teaches and everything that we experience. Accordingly, we believe it needs to be central in how we teach every element of the Faith. 

We have been privileged to proclaim this teaching since 2004, and hope to continue serving the Church and the culture in the future. 

Emily Stimpson writes from Ohio.