In far too many instances, the debate surrounding the Theology of the Body can seem to be little more than some esoteric intellectual exercise. More often than not we hear eloquent sermonizing on how the benefits living a life according to the theology of the body will bring, but seldom how we actually go about it. Many of the popular teachers on the subject seem to think that if we just believe in the central message enough, then that is all that is necessary to the Pope’s message. If you would ask me to give one criticism about the way TOB is presented by its popular evangelists, it would be this.
The sad part is that it doesn’t need to be this way. Throughout his Wednesday audiences, the Holy Father speaks of the “infallible and indispensable” (Wednesday audience 10/3/1984) way to live out an authentic Christian spirituality that is the truth behind a theology of the body: we are made for union with God, and our vocations in life demonstrate this. According to the Holy Father (who was actually quoting Paul VI in Humanae Vitae), that infallible and indispensable way is the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and Penance.
In a certain sense, I can sympathize with the evangelists who don’t cover this material often, especially Penance. All too often we treat Confession as a miserable experience where we go before God and talk about how horrible we are. When it comes to the Eucharist, Catholics of all persuasions barely ascend beyond clichés about “receiving Jesus” without ever stopping to ponder what that really means, especially in light of the Holy Father’s message. I think a big reason this happens is because we fail to properly understand the issue of concupiscence.
To give a brief recap of previous columns, we were created to live with and look upon God “face to face”, but due to sin, we lost that communion. Even though Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross makes it possible to once again have communion with God, concupiscence pulls us away from such communion. An overarching theme of the theology of the body is how living as a gift to others leads us back to God.
So far all we have done is retrace the same boring intellectual exercise I complained about in the beginning. John Paul II takes it a step further, in outlining how we are to live as a gift. We live as a gift through living out the Beatitudes. We live out the Beatitudes by practicing purity of the heart. Indeed, the Pope says that all the commandments and Beatitudes are fulfilled by purity of the heart. (Wednesday Audience 10/8/1980)
Far too often whenever we hear “purity of heart” we take it to mean a long juridical list of do and don’t, especially when it comes to the bedroom. For John Paul II the definition was much simpler. It was simply to “demand consistently from his heart and from his body.” A more basic understanding is that purity of heart is self-control, to balance the desires of the body and heart, and channel them both towards God.
If we know anything about concupiscence, it is that it damages self-control. St. Paul speaks of the impulse to sin as “that which I will to do I do not, and that which I do not will I do.” (Romans 7:19) John Paul II rightly recalled how, left to our own devices, that will to sin can profane the heart. (Matthew 15:18-20) As a result, to the impure of heart, nothing is clean. (Titus 1:15) While our hearts aren’t completely corrupted (the Protestant idea of total depravity), we cannot live according to the calling of our election (2 Peter 1:10) with such a heart.
The only way to do away with that impure heart is through repentance. In the bible, repentance is always connected with purity of heart (Psalm 51:12, Ezekiel 18:31, Ezekiel 36:26), and it is God who places a pure heart within the individual. In Ezekiel’s imagery, he removes the heart of stone (that is a dead heart) and replaces it with a heart of flesh that causes us to walk in the commandments, a heart that is alive in God. As we saw earlier, this is what purity of heart is according to John Paul II.
For Catholics, this miraculous event occurs through the Sacraments, and the prayers of these two sacraments make this explicit. Eastern Catholics are well aware of this lovely prayer used in the Melkite Church:
“God through Nathan the prophet forgave David his sins; and Peter shedding bitter tears over his denial; and the Adulteress weeping at his feet; and the Publican and the Prodigal Son. May this same God, through me, a sinner, forgive you everything in this life and in the life to come.”
They explicitly tie the events of Psalm 51 (David’s repentance with the Prophet Nathan and the effects of said repentance) with the Sacrament of Confession. The Latin Church has long used the events of Psalm 51 in the Asperges Me which is chanted before every Sunday Mass in the Extraordinary Form. (The Asperges is also an option to be chanted in the Ordinary Form during Eastertide.) Before Mass starts, Catholics chant a plea of being made whiter than snow and purged from our sins by being sprinkled with hyssop, a symbol of the cleansing power of the blood of Christ. Why would we chant this? This cleansing occurs through our reception of the Eucharist.
Paul VI counsels us to “drink deep of grace and charity from the unfailing fount that is the Eucharist” (Humanae Vitae 25) and it is through this sacrament that John Paul II says gives new life in the Spirit. (Audience 11/14/1984) Without these sacraments, everything else is impossible. With all of this in mind, there is a very good way to test whether or not the person presenting John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is doing so faithfully: what does this individual say about the Holy Sacraments?