For the Catholic millennial generation, there is little doubt that one of the most popular works is the Wednesday General audiences of Blessed John Paul II that comprise “Man and Woman He Created Them”, or as they are known to wider audiences, the Theology of the Body. For those 30 and under, it is basically required reading if you wish to interact with your Catholic peers.
Over the past several years, many intelligent minds have debated the meaning of these texts, and how Catholics should get the most out of them. The conventional wisdom about TOB is that it is a catechesis on sex, and the Pope uses these audiences to give a properly Catholic understanding on sex. To this school of thought, everything (or almost everything) can be interpreted through the prism of sex.
While I find this view flawed, I don’t think it should be rejected entirely. Society has some really screwed up definitions about sex (as both an action and a noun), and the Wednesday audiences provide a valuable correction to these faulty views. Yet if one actually reads the words of the Pope, this isn’t why he gave these talks. What Catholics today need to do is to return to these documents, and re-orient our understanding accordingly. When we look at the first audience, we find the Pope saying the following:
Together with them, numerous groups of pastors and laymen are taking part in it, feeling especially responsible with regard to the role which Christ assigned to marriage and the Christian family, the role that he has always given, and still gives in our age, in the modern world.
The cycle of reflections we are beginning today, with the intention of continuing it during the following Wednesday meetings, also has the purpose, among other things, of accompanying from afar, so to speak, the work of preparation for the Synod.
Very little of our debate is centered around this premise, and I think it is a shame. When we look at the Wednesday audiences primarily from a family-centric perspective, we find a few things:
1.) The Theology of the Gift actually makes sense
One of the most quoted Church documents in these addresses is Gaudium et Spes, which states that “man can only find himself through a sincere gift of self.” This is frequently taken to refer to sex, but this interpretation really cheapens the depth of what the Pope and Council are getting at. Gaudium et Spes gives this quote in the context of emphasizing that the brotherhood of man should be modeled upon the relationship between The Father and the Son: that of a family. John Paul II’s keen insight here is that this manner of existence is stamped into our very creation as male and female. When we live our lives as a free gift to another, we are not only living as God wills us to live, we are fulfilling the basic desires of our humanity, because this self-donation is the only way a family works.
2.) The Theology of the Cross actually makes sense
One of the strongest criticisms of popular TOB evangelists is that through their emphasis on sex, they present the Catholic Church as one gigantic pleasure cruise. By shifting the emphasis back onto the family (as originally intended), not only do we avoid this, but we discover another reality: the reality of suffering. Anyone can be a gift to another when all that is involved is our own pleasure and fulfillment. It takes a heightened understanding to be a gift when the only thing you are certain to get in return is pain and torment. Why would Christ suffer so much for people who had rejected Him? To say “because He loves us” is true, but a pointless cliché. He loves us because He is part of that same human family by his Incarnation, and as St. Athanasius teaches, became man so that the Father could be revealed to us. (On the Incarnation, 41). The beauty of the Gospel is that God is our Father, not just a Deity. In our earthly lives, our families can only function when we practice the same form of “gift”, self-denial for the betterment of the family.
3.) The Holy Family Actually Makes Sense
When you limit TOB to primarily something about sex, you run into a glaring problem. According to Blessed John Paul, the two individuals (outside of Christ) who lived the theology of the body perfectly were Mary and Joseph, and their union was emphatically non-sexual. (General Audience 3/24/82) Their understanding of the gift was the only one in human history (again, outside of Christ) which was perfectly focused first and foremost on God (as symbolized by their chastity within marriage), on each other (on account of the numerous sufferings they endured as husband and wife), and finally, on their child (in that all of these sufferings were put towards the raising of their child, and hence transformed into ways to grow in holiness) Jesus Christ.
Throughout this alternative understanding of the Wednesday audiences, you will notice that nowhere did I discount that the audiences provide a greater understanding about sexuality. They most certainly do, and some of the findings of the popular evangelists have no doubt strengthened the faith of thousands of Catholics. Yet married couples do more than just spend their lives in the bedroom, and the religious life is a life of the Theology of the Body as well, even if it is emphatically non-sexual. I think this approach strikes the right balance between a lot of the good these evangelists have presented, but also takes the criticisms offered to heart, and offers a better understanding of the wisdom of Holy Mother Church, which should be at the center of all our actions.
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