The Eucharist and Theology of the Body

shutterstock_148013390In 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?

image:Renata Sedmakova /

Kevin Tierney


Kevin Tierney is the Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane. He and his family live in Brighton, MI. Connect with him via FB  or on twitter @CatholicSmark.

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  • noelfitz


    I usually like your articles, but I am afraid I do not understand this one.

    You write “In a certain sense, I can sympathize with the evangelists”, which of the four do you have in mind?

    I find the “theology of the body” difficult to understand. Theology is the science
    of God and “the body” seems to refer to a created thing. TOB is considered a new concept, but what did JP II add to Catholicism that was not always there? I am lost here.

    For me even “spirituality” is a new concept I do not understand.

    In the NT I do not find “pure of heart”. Most translations of Mt 5:8 consider “pure in heart”. This seems preferable as the dative is used in the Greek not the genitive.

  • Hi, Kevin–I’ve enjoyed reading this post–it calls to mind how I just recently heard a great example from a presenter who really “gets” the linkage between TOB and the Sacraments–just re-listened to the now-classic CD by Christopher West called “Marriage and the Eucharist”–very good stuff. Might be worth mentioning, though, that the one (and only, I think) time JPII uses the phrase “infallible and indispensable” regarding the link you mention, he specifically has in mind the “spirituality” of conjugal and family life–not to downplay this great truth and its impact on all of us, married or not, but the incredible amount of TOB content that is prelude to this one audience is itself a *mountain* of rich material that may well help explain why the linkage to the Sacramental life is not heavily emphasized by some TOB presenters who tend to focus first or primarily on the “good news” of the framework JPII establishes first before he “lands the plane,” so to speak, on the runway that is “Humanae Vitae.”
    Also, I’d add that we all can/should be encouraged by JPII’s making it so clear that, yes, we *can* be “liberated from the domination of concupiscence” and attain a “mature purity” that brings real Christian hope and joy and a deeper communion with God in the Sacramental life of the Church. Indeed, as both JPII and Aquinas attest, the remedy for concupiscence is indeed grace itself.

  • Kevin O’Brien

    Kevin, if you allow the first comment here to stand, please clarify something.

    The commenter makes it sound as if we can be freed from concupiscence in this life, whereas the actual quotation says a very different thing – JP2 says that Christ “has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence” (emphasis in the original – on the word DOMINATION). The tendency to sin no longer DOMINATES us (if we cooperate with God’s grace), but that tendency always remains, and while Christ’s grace is the only antidote to this tendency to sin, we are never at a point where we can be glib about it and say, “I have arrived! I have attained mature purity! I am free from concupiscence all together!” Freedom from domination is not freedom from temptation. The tendency to sin remains, though it is no longer our master – provided we cooperate with God’s grace and avoid sin and near occasions of sin.

    But West himself says that a man may look freely upon a naked woman other than his wife if he has attained “mature purity”. In what strange world would even the most holy of saints on earth look at naked pictures and not expect lust to well up – even if he had been freed from “domination” by sin?

    Kevin, you are being kind and patient with this strange heresy, and I appreciate that. But it is a form of madness.

    I go into detail here …

  • Here are a couple additional thoughts for readers to consider:

    First, C. West’s and K. Tierney’s posts on TOB and the Sacramental life are totally in synch, so let’s try to keep focused on the good content there.

    But, readers will benefit from some accuracy regarding what Christopher West himself says–and here’s a suggestion: If you want to know what someone says, don’t merely rely upon what someone else *says* that someone says. Just go directly to what that someone says. For example, here’s one thing that Christopher West himself is on record saying about concupiscence:

    ***”It is abundantly clear from both Catholic teaching and human experience that, so long as we are on earth, we will always have to battle with concupiscence – that disordering of our passions caused by original sin (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 405, 978, 1264, 1426). …In some of my earliest lectures and tapes, I confess that I did not emphasize this important point clearly enough. The battle with
    concupiscence is fierce. Even the holiest saints can still recognize the pull of concupiscence within them….Liberation from concupiscence – or, more precisely, from the domination of concupiscence (John Paul II used both expressions)…is not only a possibility, it is a necessity if we are to live our lives ‘in the truth’ and experience the divine plan for human love (see TOB 43:6, 47:5).”***
    So, there’s that. There’s also an interesting point to be made about “victory over concupiscence” and being “free from the domination of concupiscence.” As West notes, JPII uses *both* expressions, and he uses the *first* of the two–the simpler concept of “victory over concupiscence”–*consistently* throughout the TOB corpus, on multiple occasions. He actually does *not* use the phrase “domination of concupiscence” in the TOB corpus, but rather in *Veritatis Splendor*. Thus it would be erroneous to think that there is some vital distinction of thought at hand regarding these two ways of expressing the idea JPII has in mind–rather, as West notes above, including the term “domination” gives a bit more precision, but it does not diminish the point JPII drives home over and again in the TOB corpus, namely that it is both possible and essential for us to allow the grace of redemption to bring us real victory over concupiscence in this life. This is the very meaning of “mature purity” and is one of the core teachings of the entire TOB corpus. And it’s a real victory that is possible. If it were *not* possible, then we must conclude that grace has no real power in battling the effects of sin. Can grace give us a real “victory” over our other disordered passions, such as the temptation to the sin of anger? If yes, then grace can give the soul real victory over the disordered passion that tempts us to lust as well.
    West also has a great section on this subject (liberation from domination of concupiscence) in his book of last year, “At the Heart of the Gospel.”

  • Just a few points of order here for everyone….

    I don’t have any control over what people do and don’t post.

    That being said…. Deacon Russell, I asked you before if you were to comment on my works, you would do so with the understanding that we are NOT here to relitigate the debates from 2010. Same goes to everyone else. You can discuss “mature purity” when I talk about “mature purity.” It just so happens that this is my next column. So in the meantime, if people want to talk, let’s talk about the stuff on the Sacraments and concupiscence. 🙂

    I would say that yes, John Paul uses “victory over concupiscence”, but always understood in the limited sense that the Bible, Tradition, and his own papal encyclicals define the term. I think this was part of the original problem. (It is also a problem that I feel is not yet solved, but for another time.) Far too often, John Paul’s works are read in a vacuum apart from previous Church teaching.

    I tend to think my style is unique from both “sides.” For example, I use a lot more Scripture, especially the Old Testament in my presentations. That comes from my background, and a lot of the work I’ve done. If we must name names, I think Mr. West and friends could benefit a lot from reading the Old Testament, and reading it as a document in and of itself, and a document which anticipates Christ and the fulfillment, not revocation, of the teachings of the law and the prophets.

    I also use Scripture because quite frankly, the average layperson is not as interested in what Aquinas does or doesn’t say about continence. Yes, its incredibly important from a theological standpoint, but I think so far the discussion has only centered in the theological, and not in the actual. The trick is to take that wisdom of Aquinas and apply it into concrete situations. As I hope to show in my next work, some of the advice given by the conventional wisdom take on TOB is questionable at best, from the standpoint of the Scriptures, practical advice, and ironically enough Aquinas as well.

    As far as the statements the pope made about the sacraments, yes, it is indeed focused in the direct context on marriage and conjugal life. It is focused around the vocation of the spouse. Yet any priest would certainly view confession (both the celebration of and the confessing by the priest himself) as pretty vital to their own vocation and spiritual growth, for many of the same reasons. That’s the beauty of the sacraments. They respond to your particular vocation with the grace you need, if you are willing to accept and make use of it.

    So go ahead and everyone get those talking points ready, because in 2-3 weeks we will be back discussing what is meant by “victory over concupiscence” and “Mature purity.” As for now, I will only tease it with a quote from the Prophet Isaiah: “Cease doing evil, learn to do good.”

  • I have questions about that article, maybe we can talk about that later. I still need to find a translation of the spiritual canticle that says what West says it does. I’ve found three that don’t, and if that confirms my views, it explains a lot how he’s really sorta botched the point.

    Check the blog later, maybe Monday. 🙂

  • frangelo

    Internal context indicates that by “victory over concupiscence” JPII meant freedom from sin and the fearful oppression associated with excessive shame (not modesty). What should be obvious becomes obscured when we forget that the Blessed Pope was presenting the perennial teaching of the Church in terms of its positive motivational (re supernatural intention) values, not in terms of do’s and don’ts’. He was not revolutionizing Church teaching. He was representing it in manner proportionate to what he would later call the new evangelization.

    Organic development. Organic development. Organic development. This concept goes a long way as a principle to guide us away from a plethora of problems in doctrine and discipline.

  • Hi, Kevin–be assured there is no “re-litigation” happening in my comments. I’ve merely re-asserted what is to be found in the teaching of JPII, remarked on the clear unity of thought to be found in your post above and what TOB veteran West has had to say on the subject, and defended the authentic record regarding what West really *does* say against a confused and false claim regarding the same. I just want as much clarity as possible regarding topics such as these, and I know you do, too. To that end, I’ll be offering a post on some of these issues over at Catholic Lane in a short while (way better than comboxing it, I think). God bless! Deacon Jim R

  • Hi, Fr. Angelo–don’t you think that when JPII says “victory over concupiscence” he might actually mean…victory over concupiscence…? Of *course* he means it in congruence with everything that the Church has always taught on this subject, but he means “victory over concupiscence” nonetheless. I invite your further comment once I’ve gotten a new post pulled together on this. Thanks, Deacon Jim R

  • laurettas

    Kevin, in regard to your comment that looking at a naked woman causes lust, am I to assume that if I go to a physician or am in need of assistance when in a compromised situation requiring EMT personnel that I need to worry about being attacked? In other words, are there not situations where a man can indeed look at a naked woman’s body and not lust? An artist painting a nude portrait? I have to assume then that the cultures in which women often are unclothed have extremely high levels of rape?

    It is frustrating for me that because an individual might have struggles with this issue, that they then demand that EVERYONE has problems with it. Lust is not something that all people have no mastery over just as not everyone has an excessive desire for food or alcohol.

  • Hi, Lauretta–the one response to your question that I’ve seen before is the straight-faced claim that people in certain professions (like doctors, EMTs, etc.) receive the additional grace that they ask for when they must look upon someone unclothed and wish to overcome concupiscence and lust. But the confused corollary to this response (again, at least as I’ve encountered it) is that–for some strange reason–God apparently *won’t* give similar grace to *others* who seek to overcome the same effect of concupiscence. Rather, the rest of us poor souls who didn’t pick the “right” profession appear to be irrevocably susceptible to being dominated by concupiscence no matter how hard we may try to avoid it.
    This, of course, is both absurd and inconsistent. The truth is that, if *anyone* (regardless of profession) is open to receiving the grace necessary to overcome concupiscence in any given moment, God *will* grant us that grace. And this is ultimately one of the core messages to be found in JPII’s Theology of the Body. The Holy Father holds out to the faithful the hope that, each and every day, we have the opportunity to be victorious over concupiscence.

  • laurettas

    That is really a novel idea, Jim, that God would grant a special grace to someone to fulfill their job but not to fulfill their vocation! Wow. I had no idea that jobs were more important than our vocations.

    As I was pondering this, the thought occurred to me that I don’t recall Christ being overly concerned about how people were dressed. He was associating with prostitutes but I don’t remember him chastising them about their dress. He was pretty clear, however, that anyone who had thoughts of lust was committing adultery in his heart and didn’t make any exceptions to how the person who may have incited the lust was dressed. Hmmmm………..

  • It isn’t really that silly. But even then, John Paul II points out there’s a real risk of “anonymous nakedness” in that in such a state someone is stripped of their humanity, and that if this has to happen, it should be as limited as possible.
    So you kind of miss the point.

  • For Laurettas and Deacon Russel, and anyone else interested:

    In the General Audience of April 22, 1981, The Holy Father says the following:

    The person of developed sensitivity overcomes the limit of that shame with difficulty and interior resistance. This is seen clearly even in situations which justify the necessity of undressing the body, such as in the case of medical examinations or operations.

    “Mention should also be made especially of other circumstances, such as those of concentration camps or places of extermination, where the violation of bodily shame is a method used deliberately to destroy personal sensitivity and the sense of human dignity.

    The same rule is confirmed everywhere—though in different ways. Following personal sensitivity, man does not wish to become an object for others through his own anonymous nakedness.”

    Notice how he says “which justify the necessity.” In other words, we aren’t talking normal circumstances. So to say “I can look at naked bodies because I have mature purity” and then say “well doctors do it!” John Paul II would clearly disagree.
    And for all the idea that John Paul II was quite fine with nude paintings, in that general audience he actually says quite the opposite. He recognizes their utility, but talks about the real dangers regarding objectification in them, and essentially says if you have to do it, make sure it is limited and with safegaurds in place to protect the integrity of the person.

    Part of things like medical training deal with precisely these kind of questions precisely because of the sensitivity involved. That’s what I mean when I said you completely miss the point of the Holy Father, and that mainly comes from a flawed understanding of what “victory over concupiscence” means.

  • I’m actually pretty sure I get the Holy Father’s point on this. Part of our disconnect on this point seems to be the notion that there are actually people who would go around actively *seeking* nudity to look at. My point is that God will give the grace to remedy concupiscence to anyone who will ask for it, regardless of profession. I assume we agree on that point.

  • We do. But it all comes down to what “victory over concupiscence” is. When one says “well artist and doctors look at nudes all the time”, that has nothing to do with a victory over concupiscence, because I think we can all agree on this (at least in this discussion), such behavior is not becoming of a Christian.

    The problem is there are indeed people who DON’T make those distinctions. Someone wrote here on Catholic Exchange in the past saying nudist colonies were okay according to the theology of the Body, and spouses could go to nude beaches and there’s no problem, provided they had “mature purity.” That’s utter nonsense, because if such a person had “mature purity” that would be the last place they would want to go!

    He also said that focusing on modesty is pointless, because “Christ never complained about how people dressed.” Just as one of the commenters here did. If one is trying to square that with John Paul II’s Wednesday audiences, again, I humbly submit someone has missed the point.

    Ever take a trip on a college campus and listen to a bunch of people, wounded by concupiscence, rationalize the heck out of their foul behavior is, because they only focus on “the good news” of TOB, rather than reading it in accord with Church teaching? There’s also the problem that in some of the leading lights, everything before TOB was “repressive”, acts conducted by “yesterday’s church” in “darkness” before the Pontiff “revolutionized” Church teaching.

    That’s why I’m writing the next several columns here at CE on this issue, and in all honesty, I’ve spent the last 5 months here at Catholic Exchange outlining everything for precisely this. We are going to talk about that victory, what a mature purity is, what occasions of sin are and how they tie into TOB, etc. It’s also where I hope to show that the CW approach (Conventional wisdom!) to the Wednesday audiences isn’t what the Holy Father actually taught.

  • Then I would expect we will have some good conversation on these subjects as the future posts roll out. But I would ask one thing: please let’s set the bar as high as we can regarding evidence and source citing. One of the fundamental problems regarding critiquing the “CW approach” is that people do not *show*, they merely “tell” their version of what CW “says” without citing sources.
    So, if you are going to claim that the “CW approach” is not “what the Holy Father actually taught,” then I will expect you will–literally–be able to *show* directly from quoted/cited sources how and where you see differences in the two.
    In this light, I look forward to your future posts!

  • laurettas

    I don’t think I missed the point at all, Kevin, but I think that a lot of other people do. I read in the past that a well-known Catholic person asked CW what he would do if Christopher saw the other man’s wife naked. Supposedly CW replied that he would not lust but the other person was upset and said that CW’s response should have been that he would avert his eyes. That is an example of exactly what you are saying. CW was saying that he would not treat the woman as “anonymous nakedness” but would see her as a person and therefore would not lust after her. One only lusts when one depersonalizes the other. As a woman, who dresses quite modestly BTW, a man averting his eyes is a sign to me that he is NOT seeing me as a person and has instantly reduced me to an object.

    Also, we have no control whatsoever over how others dress or behave and in the culture in which we live the majority of people are not committed Christians and even among those there are many who will follow fashion before their Christian precepts. So, the discussion about modesty in dress is useless, we can’t control them. The only thing that can be done is to, as CW says, put oneself on the cross, beg God to transform our disordered desires, and stay there until the transformation is complete.

    CS Lewis has a wonderful story about that very thing in The Great Divorce. God is asking someone to give up his “lust lizard” but the man has so many excuses as to why that should not happen but when he finally acquiesces, the transformation is amazing. If only more people had the courage to allow that to happen, the world would be transformed.

  • laurettas

    So, Kevin, I am just curious. Why did JPII “have” to have the loincloths removed during the restoration of the Sistine Chapel? I believe that he viewed the Sistine Chapel as a tribute to the theology of the body.

    Also, again all of this discussion about modesty, etc. is futile. You are NOT going to change how the majority of people dress so if you don’t learn to see the person behind the immodesty, you are going to be miserable and conflicted most of the time. If there is not mastery in this area, then there is the very real reality that one’s spouse will become an object for the “relief” of the lust which has been engendered by exposure to the massive immodesty present in today’s environment. MANY people have to learn to cope with immodestly dressed people sitting next to them every day at work, and, as one TOB presenter has noted, immodest dress can be much more lust-provoking than total nudity, such as a physician would experience.

  • laurettas

    I hope, Kevin, that you will show the exact quotes from both the presenters as well as JPII’s statements to show where the disagreement is. Too often people accuse the presenters of misrepresenting something when they are saying exactly what the Holy Father did. It just didn’t set well with the offended individual so they tried to shoot the messenger rather than allow themselves to seek to understand what the Holy Father was saying.

  • noelfitz


    many thanks for your clear reply to me.

    I am newly returning here. By that I mean I used to contribute to CE a long time ago, but since it changed its structure I have not been involved. But I am hugely impressed with it now. Serious articles appear and queries are answered repectfully and with clarity. The articles do not stress excessively Obamacare and right-wing economics.

    However I am still confused about TOB. If it is a unique contribution of JPII it must not have been there prior to him. I do not know these unique features. I would have presumed they never existed in the past. The discussion here shows the amiguity.

  • I’d say it isn’t “unique” to John Paul II. You can check my archives here for an explanation on that, especially “The Treasures of Blessed John Paul II.” Doing a Bible study on the first two chapters of Genesis is actually really ancient. reading it in light of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is also pretty common.

    What Bl. JPII did that is “novel” in a sense is to tell that classic story using more modern philosophical constructs, and offered a meditation on how our creation as male and female tell this story as well. In this sense it is a development of the classical hexameral literature. (I explain that term in the article as well!)

  • Why did JPII restore them? They were works of art, and nudity wasn’t the focus of them. (i.e. an inordinate amount of attention wasn’t paid to Adam’s genitals.) There was no need for them to be covered up.
    As far as modesty, I will get to more of that later, but I still submit you are missing the point. There’s several dimensions to modesty in the proper Catholic sense. That’s probably two or three columns away, so be patient. 🙂

  • noelfitz


    Double, treble or 100 times extra thanks to you for your very kind, clear and concise reply to me.

    You have clarified my thinking about TOB, and showed me it means something.

    I used the word “unique” from one of the replies to your article.

    In the past you replied to me concerning articles in other fora , for which I am also grateful.

    I really appreciate your courtesy and insights.



  • As I’d hoped, I was able to expand on a few salient points referenced here in a post which, if you are interested, you can find here:

    All comments are welcome–God bless!