When I began writing five months ago for Catholic Exchange, I wanted to help readers see (on both sides of the aisle) that Blessed John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love, including the often talked about Theology of the Body, was not a new concept. Far too often (mostly out of ignorance, sometimes out of malice) the topic is presented as a break from traditional Catholic teaching on the manner. For someone about to be canonized a saint, it is rather scandalous to think that they became a saint by breaking radically from Church teaching. Yet there are individuals who make a lot of money in various factions who teach precisely this.
Having demonstrated this charge false, there are other extremely important parts of John Paul’s catechesis which are relevant for everyone today, even those who aren’t Catholic. The most important facet of this should be that John Paul’s catechesis is catechesis. What is the point of catechesis? Many would say that it is to learn about the doctrines of the Catholic faith, and they would be wrong. According to the Pope who probably had the greatest background in catechesis (rivaled only by perhaps the present Pope in Francis), the point of catechesis was as follows:
The task of the catechist is to take up one or other of the truths of faith or of Christian morality and then explain it in all its parts; and since amendment of life is the chief aim of his instruction, the catechist must needs make a comparison between what God commands us to do and what is our actual conduct… He should, in conclusion, earnestly exhort all present to dread and avoid vice and to practice virtue. (St. Pius X, Acerbo Nimis, 13)
Like most catechesis in America today, the Catechesis on Human Love is not presented in this fashion. We learn an awful lot about how good and holy our sexuality is, but how often do we see its presenters list ten ways in which it can help us live holy lives? (Jimmy Akin, call your office.) How often do we even talk about virtue within this context? How often do we talk about how these Wednesday audiences drive us towards the four cardinal virtues? How does a life in accordance with the Theology of the Body form us in faith, hope and charity? What is the relation of these audiences to the gifts of the Spirit? Instead of all these questions, we spend time talking about the importance of naked bodies to our sexuality, how we can look at naked bodies without sinning, who is and isn’t a Manichean, etc.
The key to the topics we should instead be talking about is also one of the most misunderstood: that of shame. Blessed John Paul uses the word shame 140 times in his Wednesday audiences. To many, shame is a wicked and vile thing that we need to be free from. Adam and Eve were “naked without shame”, and Christ (or knowledge in the secular culture) liberates us from shame.
The one thing you need to know about this idea is that it is not Biblical. The Bible never presents shame in such terms. While there is indeed a negative component of shame, it is mostly treated as something which simply exists. In Sirach 4:23, there is a shame that brings sin, and a shame which brings glory and grace. What form that shame takes depends mainly on our actions. (4:26-36)
In his Wednesday audiences, Blessed John Paul takes up this dual nature of shame extensively. The first reference to this duality is in his teaching that while shame tends to separate man from woman, it also impels them to greater communion. (General Audience 12/19/79) This is true for our relationship both with our fellow man as it is with God. The reason that this is so is because within our experience of shame is an echo of our original calling that God gave us.
This might sound complicated, but it really isn’t. Even atheists understand that there is something wrong with the world, especially in regards to the way we treat each other. While we might be loathe to describe it as such, this disconnect is a result of sin. Therefore, shame is our recognition that for all of our desires and plans, we are flawed creatures living in a flawed world. Since we were created for paradise in heaven, this lack of justice stirs the heart of even the ungodly.
The genius of the Bible lies in taking this human reality and pressing it into the service of God. When Sirach spoke of holy shame earlier, all of the instances of it involve changing our lives. Don’t lie. Don’t seek the ruin of others. Strive for justice, confess our sins, etc. In short, use that echo to amend your life and return to God.
Another example of this shame is King David. He realizes there is something lacking in his life, that he isn’t experiencing the fulfillment he thinks he should. This is shame. Yet unlike the righteous man, that shame leads to selfishness. He has an adulterous affair, tries to first get Uriah to violate God’s law, tries to get the husband to sin against the nation, has the woman’s husband murdered when that doesn’t work, covers up the crime, and no doubt gives Uriah a state funeral. God sends Nathan the prophet to remind David of his shame, and he does so by way of a parable of a rich powerful man oppressing an innocent poor individual. When David’s sense of justice is offended, Nathan reminds him of his far viler deed with Bathsheba. Overcome with guilt, David uses this instance of shame to repent and seek God’s pardon. (2 Samuel 11-12)
John Paul II captures this understanding of Christianity within his Theology of the Body. He takes certain concrete realities, and uses them to inspire us to overcome our deficiencies and place greater trust in God. Like the Bible, he uses the existence of shame to help us return to the Father. Let us be like the men in the Bible who used shame as an opportunity to amend their life and live life as a true gift to others.