Sunday, September 01, 2019

Theology of the Body is not Catholic Teaching

The title of this essay is admittedly a bit provocative, but it is my hope that this will lead to the article being shared with well-meaning Catholics who seem to be muddled on the authority of John Paul II's teachings on human sexuality known as "Theology of the Body."

The immediate impetus for publishing this essay was a recent exchange I had with a young woman who was telling me that "the Church's teaching" on some point of sexual ethics was such-and-such. I told her that I had never heard that such-and-such was the Church's official position, and as if to prove her point she referred me to a citation from a Christopher West book on Theology of the Body. She was surprised when I told her that Theology of the Body is not official Catholic teaching and that Christopher West is certainly not any sort of official organ of Catholic dogma. This was actually news to her; she had been under the impression that Christopher West was some sort of authoritative interpreter or what she took to be a dogmatic teaching of the Church.

Therefore, let me say it again plainly: the teachings known collectively as Theology of the Body are not authoritative Catholic teaching. In this essay I hope to explain why—but contrary to many traditionalist critiques of Theology of Body, I will not in any way be addressing the content of John Paul II's teaching on the subject. So don't get excited; this is not going to be some take-down of the content of Theology of the Body. I think the argument that Theology of the Body is not authoritative can easily be made by an appeal to the manner in which it was communicated by the late John Paul II without ever having to wade into the morass of critiquing the principles of TOB.

Before we begin, it is necessary to understand the background of TOB and why John Paul II thought the Church needed a new grounding for sexual ethics.

Prior to the post-Conciliar era, Catholic sexual ethics were largely centered on the procreative ends of the sexual act viewed through a Thomistic-Aristotelian framework. Those things which were conducive to the natural ends of the sexual act were permissible, those that hindered the fulfillment of those ends were not. This is all well and good, but from the point of view of John Paul II, this approach had two distinct downsides:

(1) The pedagogy of Catholic sexual ethics tended to be reduced to a series of "don'ts" grounded in mere obligation and obedience.

(2) The sexual act tended to be discussed only with reference to things external to the spouses themselves (i.e., the procreation of children, or the obligations laid upon the couple by God and the Church).

The first point is admittedly a problem I have often seen in older Catholic literature on relationships and sexual ethics. There is a Fr. Lovasik flyer or pamphlet on Catholic dating that is essentially one long list of prohibitions. Catholic sexual ethics are weakened when they are reduced to simply telling single people "Don't fornicate! Don't fornicate! For the love of God, DON'T FORNICATE!"

The second objection holds some validity as well; people want—I would argue need—to have intrinsic motivations for their actions. Appeals to authority or the procreation of children, even though they are perfectly valid, are not always enough for some people to get on board. For example, people whose only substantial argument against divorce are that it can harm the children don't have much of an argument when addressing an infertile couple considering divorce. Similarly, in education, it is not sufficient to tell a student "You must learn this material because if you don't you will get grounded by your parents and won't be able to get into college." Both of those things may be true, but they are what we would call extrinsic motivations; students do not truly learn and internalize material—do not truly enjoy and embrace education—unless they have an intrinsic motivation based on wanting to know the material for its own sake because it is interesting to them.

Pope John Paul II wanted to give Catholic couples an explanation of the Church's sexual ethics that was not based on an ethics of obligation or reference to procreation alone. Now, the Church's tradition already had some raw material for this in the concept of "the good of the spouses" as one of the ends of matrimony. John Paul II sought to elaborate on this aspect of the sexuality and chose as his point of reference the school of thought known as Personalism or Phenomenology. It is beyond the scope of this article to give a comprehensive account of Personalism as a philosophy, but it suffices to say that Personalism takes an approach to ethics that makes the reference point of moral actions the dignity of the human person (if you've noticed the ubiquity of the phrases like "human person" and "dignity of the human person" in modern Catholic literature, it is due in large part to the influence of the introduction of a Personalist vocabulary into Catholic thinking).

I am neither pro nor anti-Personalism; and please don't spam the comments with links or YouTube videos arguing one way or another on it. It's not relevant. The point is, John Paul II thought the Personalist vocabulary could help provide Catholics with a fuller picture of sexuality that could fill out the traditional approach by using the good of persons as a point of reference. In other words, instead of just telling Catholics what they should not do regarding sex, John Paul II wanted to tell them what they should do, and more importantly, why they should do it. This goal is at the heart of Theology of the Body. And it's not an ignoble goal. Catholics ought to understand what they should be doing and why with regards to sex. Too many Catholic couples are crippled with debilitating anxiety, uncertainty, ignorance, and embarrassment about sex—and I am talking about traditional Catholics as well as mainstream Catholics.

But I digress. So, John Paul wanted to deliver a fuller explanation of the Church's ideas about human sexuality using Personalist ideas to help build a more anthropological case for the Church's teaching that would give Catholics a deeper intrinsic motivation to live out the Church's integrated vision for marriage, sexuality, and family life. These ideas he fleshed out in a series of Wednesday audiences spanning five years, from September 1979 to November of 1984. It was this series of speeches which were later collected and termed Theology of the Body.

Why is Theology of the Body not an authoritative teaching of the Church? Catholics know (or ought to know) that papal statements carry different levels of authority. An ex cathedra declaration is infallible; papal encyclicals and apostolic exhortations where the pope intends to teach authoritatively are of very great authority as well. These are the sorts of papal teachings that command the assent of the faithful; ex cathedra teachings demand the assent of the Catholic faith, while others call for human assent.

But below this, there are teachings of the pope that are of lower authority. This could include letters (such as John Paul II's "Letter to Artists") or formal addresses (John Paul's "Address to Scientists of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences"). In these sorts of teachings, the pope is often speaking as a private theologian, or even if he is speaking as pope, he is speaking on matters that are more particular and are not considered universal teachings of the Church. Often times he is giving his opinion on a matter. These letters may later be collated into a single body of teaching and granted a higher level authority (Dictatus Papae of St. Gregory VII and the Syllabus of Errors of Bl. Pius IX were both authoritative documents composed of excerpts of papal letters), but the excerpts of the letters were later elevated to this level of authority by subsequent papal acts.

A still lower level of papal teaching comes from verbal statements made by the pope in the context of homilies, audiences, ad limina visits, and other formal occasions. In a papal homily or audience, the pope is speaking merely as a pastor and private theologian. Now, if we recall, TOB was originally this level of communication. It was a series of speeches given in the pope's Wednesday audiences. These audiences were subsequently compiled by independent authors—for example, Christopher West—and marketed as "The Theology of the Body." This has given the illusion of a comprehensive, single corpus of thought to what was essentially a series of homilies on a common theme given over many years. Some Catholics even think Theology of the Body is an encyclical.

A collection of papal speeches cannot be an authoritative teaching of the Church. Though John Paul later reiterated some of the themes from the TOB audiences into his encyclicals, there has never been the sort of wholesale elevation of his particular audience statements to the level of authoritative teaching, such as occurred with Dictatus Papae or the Syllabus of Errors. Theology of the Body is essentially a very popular collection of papal speeches, but it does not constitute "the teaching of the Church" anymore than if we took a collection of Francis' scattered statements on ecology, smooshed them into a single volume and called it "The Theology of the Earth." Such would not be Catholic teaching, no matter how popular it was.

Incidentally, speaking of Pope Francis, there is a level of papal teaching even lower down on the food chain than speeches and homilies: that is unplanned, informal, "off the cuff" remarks. And yet these very sorts of statements are somehow supposed to constitute the most important teachings of the Franciscan pontificate. This just demonstrates how backwards things have become where Catholics feel free to ignore the authoritative teaching of the Councils but a pope's comment on an airplane is treated like a fifth Gospel.

At any rate, regardless of what you think of the content of Theology of the Body, it should be clear that TOB is not any sort of authoritative Catholic teaching. It is essentially a compilation of papal speeches that has gained a broad popularity among contemporary Catholics. I do not blame the young woman for thinking TOB was authoritative; the way it is trumpeted about, the lauds that are heaped upon it, and the ubiquity of Christopher West materials gives the impression that this collection of speeches has way more weight than it does. If only the Church would push authentic liturgical renewal with the same vigor that TOB is popularized!

Mainstream Catholics who think TOB is Catholic dogma are simply wrong—as are trads who will inevitably come back with "Theology of the Body is modernist heresy!" and other such nonsense statements. Ultimately, TOB is merely one pope's idealized pet project for better explaining Catholic sexual ethics to modern man, no more, no less. 


jamesthe1st said...

Thank you for writing this! It's surely strange to me now that I think about it how many smart Catholics talk about the Theology of the Body as if it has such major authority. Today it is so common for one to mistake any utterance of a Pope as authoritative.

Unknown said...

While ToB isn't currently authoritative, nor should be treated as such, its content will decide that. For just as intentionality and mode define the Church's authoritative teachings, content is it's third pillar.
For where does much of Gods revelation regarding His Truth come? From the saints, from the content of their lives and words.
By Gods grace, Theology of the Body will be defined as authoritative, or God will provide something else. As you mention, having only a list of 'No's softens no hearts and changes no lives.

Note: You refer to ToB as 'sexual ethics' in your essay. ToB is not simply sexual ethics. It is relational ethics, with the focus on the unity and communion between our physical bodies and souls. While the marital act is the most sacred of the inter-relational acts between persons, it is by no means the only way to relate. Which is why ToB is a singular work.

Boniface said...


Well, sorta.

If my parish priest says "Blessed are the poor in spirit" in his homily, his homily does not become authoritative magisterial teaching, even though he is quoting the Scriptures, which of course are of the highest authority. It becomes merely a (still) non-authoritative homily which says some really good and truthful things in it.

Niiiidriveevof said...

Aren't the homilies of a (your) bishop binding teaching, let alone of the pope? Doesn't the bishop have magisterial authority individually? (obviously anything in a homily is nullified if it contradicts some teaching of greater authority.) Can you establish your position on this point from theological sources?

(Aside - can you disprove those who say the Syllabus has no more authority than the sources it references?)

I realize this post is of narrow scope but I am surprised you are not anti-personalist. The obsession with human dignity is practically idolatry, in common with other aspects of modernism, and comes directly out of antichrist philosophy. The tradition does not put such a high value on it.

I'm also not convinced the motives for TOTB you accept are reasonable. Would they be reasonable in a discussion of the morality of war, or finance, or mental reservation, or material cooperation? "soften no hearts and change no lives" indeed. These motives reflect a loss of faith in this morality, a loss of consciousness of moral authority, an obeisance before the moral authority of progressivism hidden in language of mercy.

Boniface said...

I am not exactly pro-personalist either, but I'm not die-hard against it. I think it is sometimes a valuable perspective, but I certainly disagree with jettisoning our traditional ethical-philosophical vocabulary in favor of personalism exclusively.

Yes, I do think the motives are reasonable. Besides, a mere motive of obedience as the reason for moral action is not strictly traditional; the motive of happiness is more in line with the Catholic moral tradition. I don't think saying you need something in addition to mere obedience is a weakening of the concept of moral authority; it is an acknowledgement that people generally need intrinsic motivation to be happy with their obligations, and God does want us to be happy in them.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Boniface.
One can certainly appreciate that TOB offers valuable insights into Catholic sexual ethics and the dignity of the human person, especially as they relate to abortion, euthanasia, and the degradation of marriage. However, there are some who proffer TOB as THE lens through which we are to view Catholic sexual ethics and the dignity of the human person, which, along with the fact that TOB originated from a Pope, may explain why some folks mistakenly believe that TOB is authoritative Catholic teaching.

pjotr said...

When you state that "TOB is merely one pope's idealized pet project for better explaining Catholic sexual ethics to modern man, no more, no less", then you give TOB indeed a high authority since Catholic sexual ethics are more or less dogma. So the (better) explanation of these ethics have the same authority as the ethics themselves. Otherwise you don't consider the explanation "better" but "wrong".

Boniface said...

Don’t be silly. An explanation of something is distinct from the thing itself. If I come up with a allegory for explaining the Gospel or the Trinity, even if my allegory is true and clear it does not make it authoritative.

Anonymous said...

This was incredibly useful in communicating with the people who use TOB as if it were an authoritative interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Thank you for writing it. It was very thoughtful and precise.