Spreading the wisdom of John Paul II

What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? How are we called to live and love and be the face of Christ in a confused, chaotic, post-modern world?

From July 9-11, more than 700 people from across the United States and more than a dozen countries gathered in Philadelphia to discuss those questions at the second International Theology of the Body Congress. Organized by the Theology of the Body Institute, the congress brought together leading scholars and speakers — including Christopher West, Dr. Janet Smith and secretary for the Pontifical Council on the Family, Bishop Jean Laffitte — to help Catholics explore Pope St. John Paul II’s catechesis on the human person.

After the congress, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Theology of the Body Institute executive director Damon Owens about the event and what John Paul II’s work offers the culture today.

Our Sunday Visitor: What was the impetus for the first International Theology of the Body Congress in 2010?

Damon Owens: The original idea was to do what had not been done before: to provide an environment where representatives from different apostolates and dioceses, as well as religious brothers and sisters, priests and lay people could gather together and discuss how we could grow and bring this teaching to bear on the culture. That’s why we called it a congress, as opposed to a conference or a symposium. Because we wanted to leverage the varied and unique contributions of individuals and groups and bring them together to see what could be done together that can’t be done individually.

OSV: When it comes to the movement surrounding the theology of the body — the people talking about John Paul II’s teachings and promoting them — what has changed since the first Theology of the Body Congress?

Owens: Over the last four years, I think there has been a maturing of both our understanding of the teaching and the people promoting it. It’s still a small percentage of people who know it and are working to teach others about it, but those absolute numbers are much larger than they were in 2010. Right now, you also see growing numbers of diocesan offices not just promoting the teachings but incorporating them and their language into catechetics and evangelization. Pope Benedict XVI played a big role with that, and Pope Francis is doing the same.

OSV: How so?

Owens: People are taking another look at their programs and ministries through the prism of evangelism, humility and mercy. In the process of that, they’re seeing just how much the theology of the body can help. In just the past few months, the Theology of the Body Institute has fielded several phone calls from dioceses asking us to help them develop diocesan catechetical programs using our approach. It wasn’t in our original plan for the institute, but the dioceses are recognizing that what we’re doing in our courses is converting hearts and equipping people to evangelize.

OSV: How are the changes in American culture that we’ve experienced over the last four years influencing this movement? Is it getting easier or harder to talk about the theology of the body?

Owens: It’s pretty obvious right now that we’re seeing a quick and accelerated devolving of cultural morality. Leading the way is the accelerated acceptance of same-sex marriage and people acting out on same-sex attractions. But really, that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to rejecting absolute sexual morality. As people have tried to respond to this, they’ve discovered that moral answers have been useless at stopping the decay. Simply telling people something is wrong or goes against Christian teaching isn’t working. John Paul II’s approach, however, is different. The theology of the body tells us that the truth of who we are can be known by anyone with right reason and good will. It employs a language that invites people to ponder questions of identity, making the Church’s teachings accessible in a way they haven’t been before for people in this culture. It helps people find ways of explaining what they already know in their hearts.

OSV: What’s proving most effective in terms of getting these ideas into the average Catholic’s head at the parish level?

Owens: Catechists and parish leaders who take the time for good in-depth instruction — those who don’t just have the information in their head but have really allowed the teachings to transform the way they live and see the world and relate to Christ. It really is about the messenger being the message. I’m not saying people didn’t live the Faith before. But there is a growing realization that the teachings of our Faith by themselves generally don’t convert. Conversions happen through a personal encounter with mercy and love. So for example, having a language that speaks to the brokenness of divorce and same-sex attraction is helpful, but it’s even more important to have mature Christians, who have attained a certain level of peace, to speak with people about the brokenness with loving attentiveness.

OSV: Where do you think the movement surrounding the theology of the body is headed?

Owens: People are hearing the intimate language of the theology of the body more and speaking about our relationship with God in spousal terms. As this continues, we’ll see that language — terms and definitions rooted in the theology of the body — become more prevalent in Bible studies, marriage preparation and other catechetical materials. For instance, baptism will be increasingly talked about as a “nuptial bath” or marriage as the communion of persons. That kind of language changes the tempo and the tenor of our dialogue with the culture. I think it’s also probable that we’ll see the phrase “theology of the body” less often. It will become so integrated that it won’t be necessary to always refer to those concepts as “theology of the body.” No matter what happens, though, I am convinced that the foundation of the theology of the body is essential for us, not only in pursuing personal holiness, but in order to truly evangelize. The world has changed — the Gospel has not. But how we communicate the Gospel has to change. The theology of the body is for such a time as this.

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.