“When it comes to most cultural problems, Europe is a generation ahead of America — and not in the positive sense.”
That, said Peter Colosi, assistant professor of moral theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, is one of the primary reasons why, in 2007, he coordinated the first International Theology of the Body Symposium in Europe.
“The theology of the body came from Europe, but Europeans don’t know it, ” Colosi said. “In America, many people have learned about it and seen their lives changed for the better. They’ve kicked pornography addictions, stopped contracepting and discovered great happiness in living according to the Church’s teachings on human sexuality. But that’s not the case in Europe.”
That first symposium was a success. Hundreds of participants from across Europe went to Gaming, Austria, to hear leading voices in the theology of the body movement. The participants left amid much talk of working to spread the teachings across the continent.
Whether that goal was met was a question surrounding the third International Theology of the Body Symposium, “Love and Life,” held June 3-5 at St. Mary’s College in London.
As with the second international symposium, which took place in Maynooth, Ireland, in 2009, “Love and Life” was the brainchild of Leonora Paasche, a graduate student at St. Mary’s, and Robert Colquhoun, the coordinator of 40 Days for Life in England. The pair asked Colosi for help coordinating a third symposium and lining up top American speakers such as Christopher West, Michael Waldstein and Janet Smith.
Colosi happily complied, and on June 3, the sold-out London symposium commenced. Catechists, teachers, priests and interested laypeople from 15 different countries gathered for three days of lectures on the human person and human sexuality. They also discussed if and how the theology of the body teachings have taken root in their countries.
From most countries, there was positive news. In Budapest, Hungary, a group of laypeople and their priest recently launched their country’s first theology of the body study group and are writing a workbook to help other Hungarian Catholics do the same.
The Czech translators of Christopher West’s “Theology of the Body for Beginners” (Ascension Press, $12.99) have led numerous workshops and retreats and are about to launch a theology of the body website.
Father Luc Simons, a priest from Holland, reported on the success of a 10-week intensive-study program that had 300 participants.
In England, several study groups are under way, and two dioceses recently developed theology of the body-based marriage-preparation programs. Ireland has experienced increasing success with Pure in Heart, a movement that promotes chastity.
Unfortunately, those fruits are the exception. The majority of Europeans remain as sexually secular as ever. Few have heard the term “theology of the body,” and many who have want nothing to do with it.
According to conference delegates, part of the reason is the lack of support among Europe’s priests and bishops.
“You never hear about the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality, let alone theology of the body, from the pulpit,” said Clare Ford, who speaks on the topic throughout England. “If any priests are talking about it, they’re usually part of the ecclesial movements.”
A dearth of materials native to European culture and in European languages has also been a problem.
According to Agnes Schaffler, who leads the study group in Budapest, the Wednesday audiences that comprise the theology of the body have yet to be translated in Hungarian, nor are any much-needed secondary sources available. In Portugal, study groups also mostly rely on American books and videos. In the Czech Republic, the audiences and “Theology of the Body for Beginners” are translated, but as co-translator Jana Prudka said, simply translating American materials isn’t enough for most Europeans.
“Our thinking is more cyclical, less linear. We need more resources that reflect how we think and live.”
With few Catholic publishing houses across the continent, that problem won’t likely go away soon.
“It’s a question of supply and demand,” said Ben Gray, who teaches religious education in the U.K. Diocese of Brighton. “Few can supply the materials and even fewer demand them.”
“Most European Catholics, including the parents of teenagers, don’t want to hear what the theology of the body has to say,” he said. “And they’re so invested in their own beliefs that they don’t want to come close to anything that challenges them.”
When it comes to Europe’s young people, it’s an entirely different story. “They love it,” Gray said. “They can’t get enough of it.”
Attendance at the symposium reflected that. Most attendees were in their late 20s and early- to mid-30s; the organizers are even under 30. And the translators in several countries are under 40.
“The younger generation isn’t as jaded yet,” said Julie Rodrigues, a Portuguese high school teacher. “That makes them more open and responsive.”
Accordingly, despite many obstacles, much hope remains that the theology of the body can make more inroads into European culture.
Portugal will host the next symposium, and Colosi sees it as a positive sign. “It’s the Europeans making this happen now,” he said. “That wasn’t true four years ago. Who knows where we’ll be in another four years.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
Theology Basics (sidebar)
Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body was first given during the course of 133 Wednesday audiences, from 1979 to 1984.
It is an anthropology of what it means to be a union of body and spirit, and it teaches that the body expresses the person and reveals how men and women are made in the likeness of God.
It reveals that the one-flesh union of husband and wife points to the life-giving communion within the Trinity.
Theology of the body shows how using another person for our own pleasure violates the dignity of the human person, and it illustrates how the celibate life is a sign of the total self-gift we are all called to make of ourselves to God.
It calls all human beings to make a gift of themselves to one another in love.