Theology of the Interior Body

If you ask someone what John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love (which includes the Theology of the Body) is, you will typically hear it is the Pope’s theology on sex, how to understand the human body, etc.  Some will even say a major part of it is how to understand the body in relation to nakedness.  As even an occasional reader of this column will learn, I reject these concepts as alien to the text itself.  If we want to properly understand the mind of the Pontiff, we need to broaden our understanding of these texts by giving less weight to the commentators and experts (even this one), and instead return to the actual text itself.

When we dive into the texts, we will see that yes, John Paul II did spend some time talking about nudity.  He mentions words such as nakedness and nudity around 100 times over 129 audiences spanning two years.  To put this in perspective, there are roughly 176,000 words in these addresses.  Word searches aren’t conclusive, but they do give us a good idea what the priorities of a text are.  One thing he talks about with greater frequency than nudity is the subject we will discuss today:  the interior life.  John Paul II uses the word interior (or interiorly) 207 times in those addresses, or twice as much as talk about nudity.  Not surprisingly, we spend most of the time in this culture talking about nudity and sex.  Yet we cannot accept this state of affairs as a faithful representation of the text.

Why is John Paul so concerned with the interior life?  As always, John Paul II builds his argument from the Holy Scriptures.  When God creates the world in Genesis, we read that five times God “saw it and it was good.”  When He creates man in His image, we read that God saw it and it was “very good.”  God’s creation was unambiguously good.  While this might sound like a tired cliché in today’s culture, this was an incredibly radical teaching when Judaism first presented it, and the first doctrinal heresies of Christianity centered on this verse.

These heresies were typically connected with Gnosticism, a heresy which had as one of its central tenets the idea that the merciful, all powerful and loving God could not become flesh, because flesh was evil.   Further developments of this Gnosticism believed that the “god” who created man was an evil deity, and the “God” of the New Testament was the greater power, helping man to break free from his evil creation.   As absurd as this sounds to our modern ears, this concept was rampant within the world Christianity inhabited, and even some of her greatest minds (such as Tertullian and Augustine) struggled with it and were influenced in lesser or greater ways by it.  We even see this teaching in modern times, when people in despondency say things such as “I’ve done far too many evil things to be saved” or the joke that someone would “burst into flames” when stepping into a Church.

For Christianity, our teaching is diametrically opposed to this.  We state that God is one, and that He created all things and that they were good.  When evil appeared it was only because man abused his free will and acted contrary to the divine plan.  As a result, it is the choices we make that are evil, while we ourselves still maintain the inherent dignity we had from our creation, even if it is corrupted and shines less than it should.  You only redeem something because it is good, and we only love that which is truly beautiful.  God redeems us because we are good, and we are beautiful, no matter what shape we are, or how wounded our life is by sin.

John Paul II focused on the interior life for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: it’s where what matters is housed.  Christ drove home this point in the Gospel when he pointed out that it wasn’t the things man ate which defiled him (that is, the things of this creation), but rather what proceeded from his heart which defiled him.  (Matthew 5:27-28) Another way of saying it is that how we use our free will that matters.   He did this to drive home a powerful message:  we have to stop blaming everyone else for our sins and imperfections.  Most importantly, we have to stop blaming God for “making us this way”, for creating our passions and desires.  It isn’t God’s fault we abuse them.

In addition to opposing those who perverted the understanding of matter, Christianity also opposed those who perverted the understanding of the spirit as well.   They believed that it was what was on the inside that counted.  They were a good person.  They honored their parents interiorly, but couldn’t be bothered to express that honor visibly. (Matthew 15:6)  They didn’t hate their brother, but they sure spent every waking moment demeaning him.  They didn’t cheat on their spouse, but they spent every waking moment wishing they had the opportunity.  They looked, but they didn’t touch.  Or, if one prefers a more modern understanding, they looked, but they didn’t lust.

Why did Christ condemn these ideas with the strongest words?  He devoted the entire second half of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:17-48: the part modern Christianity and the world always ignores) pointing out that our actions must match the interior disposition, otherwise we are lying.  Over a period of five months (December 1980 to April 1981), John Paul II devoted ten different audiences towards how to live out this part of the Sermon on the Mount.   He offered a hermeneutic to interpret this question through:  works of the flesh (that is, being concerned only with life here in the immediate sense on earth) and works of the Spirit, a life focused on godliness and also our original call to communion.  (General Audience 1/7/81)  Our bodies are meant to be a visible representation of this life according to the Spirit lived interiorly in the heart. This is the dimension of the discussion that is frequently forgotten when discussing the concept of mature purity: the connection not only to the interior, but how we act in the exterior as well.  Without this understanding, the doctrine of mature purity we are about to discuss makes little sense, and is essential to the “adequate anthropology” the Holy Father attempted to build in his Wednesday audiences.

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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  • Absolutely on the money to focus on the interior life via TOB. Well stated.

    The link below also will take CE readers to some related content on this subject that appeared previously last year on CE:
    It is good to see a fundamental convergence on this aspect among those of us who study TOB. Thanks.

  • noelfitz

    Hi Kevin,

    This is a brilliant article. Many thanks.

    Some time ago I used to contribute to another Catholic site, but in it I was attacked, humiliated, insulted and held up to ridicule and contempt, to such an extent that my faith was under stress.

    Here in your article we get solid Catholic, even Judeo-Christian teaching, of the goodness of God and of human persons.

    This is being attacked at present in the US, even among Catholic converts, where there has always been strong puritanical beliefs, perhaps reflected most strongly in the views of Jonathon Edwards.

    You quote the Hebrew Bible to show that creation is good, but St Paul echoes the same belief – “For everything created by God is good” (NRSV, I Tim 4:4).

    Ubi caritas et amor Deus ibi est.

  • Hello Noel,
    Thanks for the kind words, but I don’t think we should be dogging upon other Catholic sites. I myself am an editor at one of those sites. A lot of us write at multiple ones. We are all part of a family. I’m sorry you felt wronged by one in the past, and I’m glad you’ve found a home reading stuff here, maybe we should leave it there.

  • ” Not surprisingly, we spend most of the time in this culture talking about nudity and sex. Yet we cannot accept this state of affairs as a faithful representation of the text.”
    One clarification to offer on this point, as I’m sure it’s not intended to come across as suggesting that it’s somehow “wrong” to talk about *all* the themes JPII did cover–there is ultimately nothing objectionable about any faithful TOB presenter who offers the average listener a synopsis of what JPII really *did* say about nakedness, shame, human sexuality, etc. Naturally it’s going to get talked about quite a lot because the culture continually crams the *counterfeit* message down our throats. So, when presenters are providing an alternative to the counterfeit, they are indeed offering a “faithful representation of the text.”
    I’m pretty sure we would all agree on this, but thought it important to mention.

  • As always, we are thankful for Deacon Russell to come in and “clarify” the blindingly obvious that only those with an agenda would think needs “clarifying.” Seriously, let the authors speak for thesmelves on what needs clarifying.

  • I’m sure readers will understand that, as familiar as I have come to be regarding the tenor of comments in recent years–comments that seem to suggest that certain TOB presenters don’t faithfully represent the TOB corpus when they specifically present JPII’s teaching on the themes of nakedness, shame, purity, and sexuality, my attempt to “clarify” is really an attempt to establish the fact that everyone is really on the *same* page on this issue–that no one really can seriously assert that it’s somehow incorrect to present JPII teachings on these aspects and that “you can’t say everything at once” about the TOB corpus. It’s definitely *all* worth talking about–including the excellent points you make in your post.
    As I say above, because of the past adversarial nature of certain threads of TOB discussion, I think it *is* important to make explicit those areas of agreement which may indeed seem quite obvious to you and me, but may seem less so to a reader who happens upon this post.

  • Thank you for this Kevin. Due to the efforts of some Catholics the JPII’s Catechesis on Human Love has been reduced to merely being the Theology of the Body. What has been neglected; and much to our detriment is the Theology of the Soul and the Theology of the Mind.

  • Hi, David–the interesting thing is that, in the audiences, JPII used the term “theology of the soul” exactly *zero* times and the term “theology of the mind” exactly *zero* times. He used the term “theology of the body” more than 100 times, by my count.
    So, if the task is to relate what *JPII* had to say to us, how is it a “reduction” to mention “theology of the body” and how is it “neglect” to not mention the other two terms that JPII never actually used?

  • ROFL And the Bible uses the word “Trinity” how many times? Or better yet, how many times does JPII in his lecturers refer to the soul and the mind?

    The series of his lecturers are properly called the “Catechesis of Human Love” and his teaching on Human Love in those 129 Lecturers have just as much to do with condition of the mind and soul as it does the body, but it is the body that is our chief instrument in the communion of persons in this state.

    My point above is in response to those who have over sexualized the Catechesis of Human Love and have, thereby, distorted or been misleading about the full teaching that JPII worked to convey 😀

  • Fortunately, I have never run into that phenomenon of “oversexualizing” the TOB Corpus. I’ve stuck with presenters whose works have imprimaturs and nihil obstats (e.g., Christopher West). And, actually, JPII’s own suggestions for titling the corpus were “Human Love in the Divine Plan” and/or “The Redemption of the Body and the Sacramentality of Marriage.” So, in that sense, we’ve got a lot of titles to choose from, all of which are fine–including “Theology of the Body” (which was my point above–a term coined and used more than 100 times by JPII over four years of teaching is going to catch on).
    In any case, I’d recommend several of West’s works if you want something balanced regarding how JPII teaches on the theology of the body–and the mind, and the soul.

  • I guess this is a subjective area. I’ve LONG agreed with Alice von Hildebrand and others who find that Mr. West over sexualizes JPII teaching. I’d NEVER recommend him to anyone on this subject. It’s my opinion that he does far more harm than good.

  • I trust the successors of the Apostles on West’s credibility more than von Hildebrand’s tenuous assertions, largely because von Hildebrand merely set out to demonstrate that C. West is actually not Dietrich von Hildebrand, which is of course true. Unfortunately, though, she engaged a mere caricature of the real C. West and actually *never* engaged the TOB corpus itself in relation to West. No, I think the bishops have this right.

  • Well I respectfully disagree. The nihil obstats is a negative affirmation. It says that it is without error, but it doesn’t say that it actually has value outside of that. The imprimatur has even less value to me, depending on who the Bishop is and whether he actually read the book and whether the author is his buddy or not.

    I will say though that I have more good to say about West’s books (especially his encyclopedia on the TOB) than his presentations, which I have little good to say about.

    His over sexualization of the TOB is why I began my video series on it. Just to offer a more pure perspective on the true beauty and richness of JPII teaching.

  • Just as a matter of housekeeping: nihil obstats and imprimaturs are, forgive the bluntness, irrelevant to this discussion. They are a determination of a local ordinary nothing is heretical and on that alone can be used for instruction.

    They are not infallible, and they do not claim that such a label says everything is done properly. For example: stating that since flowers are reproductive organs, ergo we hand put reproductive organs God created to our significant others isn’t heretical. It is however dumb and juvenile. Saying in seminary men learn how to inseminate their bride isn’t heretical. But it is dumb and juvenile. Wests story of the two bishops might not be heretical, but its the kind of historical fable that would get you flunked out of college.

    Based on the definition he uses for “continence” it moght not be heretical, but its an error of the plain historical record that Aquinas viewed continence a virtue.

    Appeals to authority don’t work here.

  • Can you 1) help me understand just what you mean by “over-sexualization”?
    2) cite an example of what you mean from West’s work?
    As I’m understanding it, “over-sexualization” in this context is also a verrry subjective category.
    Especially when you are presenting on the subject of…human sexuality….

  • I suppose you are familiar with his presentations; in particular for couples? In these presentations EVERYTHING (it seems) from the the Mass to Potatoes have a sexual meaning via theological analogy. From what I hear some people get something out of that, some don’t, but altogether I find that it cheapens the Catechesis of Human Love. That being said, there is room in the Catholic Church for what Mr. West has to say, but I don’t have any recommendation what he has to say.

  • Actually, yes, appeals to the authority of the bishops work just fine here. Of course such appeals do, as it’s a bishop’s job to offer exactly this guidance to the faithful.
    Not only that, but West’s episcopal endorsements include verbal testimonials that I hold as more valuable than the mistaken interpretations of a vanishingly small handful of critics.
    In terms of subjective opinion–you may conclude something is “dumb and juvenile” while others may disagree. That much is true.
    As to Aquinas and continence–the “historical record” is not that simple, as he expressed a much more nuanced view (as does JPII) on when continence is virtuous and when it is not. So do other theologians.

  • I’d say I’m pretty well-versed in his presentations. But to really discuss this beyond the level of assertion, examples are needed. And for clarity, do you mean “sexual meaning” as in related to the human person, male and female, or do you mean pertaining to sexual desire, or do you mean pertaining to sexual relations? Or all of this?
    And are you really willing to suggest that the TOB corpus is “cheapened” when these themes are discussed–the very themes *JPII* discussed in the original work?

  • I believe that you are correct that I would have to lift quotes and such to have a quality discussion, and then we’d have to talk about the context of those quotes and such, and on and on. I’m sure that I don’t have the time or interest in that discussion.

    Yeah, I’ll stick with my opinion that West’s presentations on the Catechesis of Human Love cheapens the true depth, richness and beauty of JPII’s work.

  • And you kinda ignored what was said. Since we aren’t declaring West heretical in this column (others can argue their own position) it is a straw man to cite declarations his local ordinary decided the books weren’t heretical.

    And nobody is trying to silence others here. We just believe the popular interpretation is flawed in that it is lacking proper foundation of certain truths.

    As to whether or not we are a “vanishingly small” group, if we were that small you wouldn’t be here. The trend is different than it used to be. Even those who wouldn’t agree 100% with a lot of the critiques realize this line of thought has a seat at the table. Four years ago a lot of your allies were tireless in trying to deny that seat. Four years ago this columns existence is unthinkable. Now it exists and fields comments from those who think caling us “vanishingly small” is something we should take to heart. Life is full of such pleasant ironies.

  • I didn’t ignore what you said. I just don’t agree that you can reduce the meaning and importance of the imprimatur and nihil obstat to whether a work is “heretical” or not. And you certainly can’t reduce the episcopal testimonial to that level. I merely have no interest in trying to relativize away the voice of the bishops. You can call it a straw man, but it’s quite telling that West has public episcopal support and no public episcopal critics.
    As to whether this is about a “seat at the table,” I don’t know what that means. Firstly, *everyone* interested in TOB should have a “seat at the table.” But if it’s a *table*, then let’s first have *communion* at the table. Let’s not make it “us/them”–let’s merely seek the truth in charity. I’m sure you’d agree that error really doesn’t deserve a seat at the table, so let’s gracefully seek the truth together.
    After all, you are mistaken if you think I’m here representing a “side” in a debate. I’m not. I just want to make sure the truths of JPII’s teachings are clear and accessible to the faithful.

  • Sticking with our opinions is what we all do best. However, we have an obligation to form our opinions based on truth. And we need to be open to correction in this context. So far, you have “told” me but not “shown” me the evidence of your opinions, which allows me to gratuitously deny that your opinion is accurate. Therefore I do. And I base the denial on significant research on my part.
    West’s work is solid, beautiful, reverent, accurate, and authentically Catholic and utterly faithful to the work of JPII.
    If you ever want to get into specifics, just let me know.

  • I kinda can. Nihil obstat means nothing injurious to faith or morals: I.e. nothing heretical. An imprimatur simply is a bishop authorizing printing of a book. They nowhere imply that everything in the book is right or even the best way to do it. That is the definition. Attacking those who disagree as “vanishingly small” for pointing out facts doesn’t change the facts.

  • LOL Ok 😀

  • Kevin–it’s not an attack (and I’m sorry if my opinion and phrasing got under your skin) to say as I did: “West’s episcopal endorsements include verbal testimonials that I hold as more valuable than the mistaken interpretations of a vanishingly small handful of critics.”
    As it is, “facts” are exactly what should be talked about–but not as adversaries. Rather, we should be willing to speak in communion with each other, and with charity. This really isn’t some intellectual battle between–how do you say it?–“Big TOB” or “TOB inc” or certain TOB “types.” At least it shouldn’t be.
    Why don’t you simply acknowledge that West, to his credit, makes his TOB presentation with the endorsement of numerous bishops? And that doing so actually *does* mean something positive? Why try to minimize that positive value? He’s our brother in Christ, right? Good on him for having the imprimatur/nihil obstat, right?
    If nothing else, maybe it’s a reason to consider revisiting your pre-existing views on his work. Maybe you’ve misunderstood something that the successors of the Apostles *are* understanding…

  • Also, below please find the inspiration for the imprimatur and nihil obstat–it’s not just “heresy” that’s a concern. To receive the nihil obstat would require that the work contain nothing that would “harm correct faith or good morals.”

    Can. 823 §1. In order to preserve the integrity of the truths of faith and morals, the pastors of the Church have the duty and right to be watchful so that no harm is done to the faith or morals of the Christian faithful through writings or the use of instruments of social communication. They also have the duty and right to demand that writings to be published by the Christian faithful which touch upon faith or morals be submitted to their judgment and have the duty and right to condemn writings which harm correct faith or good morals.

  • David

    Kevin is right about the “endorsement” issue for we all see the double-standard invoked for those who are critics of West’s ideas/approach- all of sudden there are excuses for why their lack of endorsement can be disregarded: “misinterpretations of a vanishingly small handful of critics.” This is misrepresentative in itself for there are arguably many more public critics of West whom one might call significant persons, e.g., scholars and teachers in the subject, than supporters. In fact, the “big name” defenders of West initially have been largely silent in the last couple of years, e.g., Janet Smith, Michael Waldstein, while the criticisms continue on a regular basis. Again, the critics are dismissed for they are all supposedly misrepresenting West, so, Bishop Jean Lafitte of the Pontifical Council for Culture, for example, is dismissed, even though his opinion and expertise on the subject is more significant, yet Justin Rigali’s endorsement is accepted as “proof.”

    The imprimatur issue also does not mean much these days, especially as it is now voluntary and very limited in contrast to the past- only concerning teachings of faith and morals as defined by the magisterium. And practically speaking, as someone who has worked in diocesan chanceries, a bishop may not even read the work but simply take whatever the censor says, and in this case may not even be aware of the criticisms against West. You’d be surprised how isolated bishops can be.

    There is reference to the “numerous” bishops who endorse West yet no mention of any names, and a convenient excuse that many such endorsements are only “verbal” so when asked for proof we will no doubt be told that there is no written record. There have only been less than a handful, I think, that have given any written and therefore verifiable endorsements for West. JR, can you provide a list of these numerous bishops, and where their statements can be found in print? And I will again point out your double-standard in having a ready excuse to dismiss those who do not endorse West, refuting your own recourse to the endorsement argument.

  • David–thanks for your comment.

    I am not applying a double standard regarding episcopal endorsements and the imprimatur and nihil obstat.

    The simple truth is this: West *has* them. His most vocal critics do not. In my opinion this means something.
    Having said that, I have *always* operated under the principle of “test everything; retain what is good.” And so I don’t “disregard” critics of West in the least. Rather, I have taken every critic and critique seriously enough to personally investigate and research the claims. In doing so, I find them almost always to have been either misinterpretations of fact or subjective criticisms of style.
    I also note that West’s apostolate is going strong and continues with episcopal backing. I need not name names of bishops, in my view. We both already know West has episcopal support. If you do read his books, you’ll encounter it.
    My suggestion continues to be that we stop defending positions and simply examine (or re-examine) evidence and claims made, particularly so what *JPII* teaches can be known with clarity and accuracy. The problem has been that the claims against West continue to obscure what *JPII* teaches. And we can discuss this all in charity and in communion, as long as we are willing to seek truth and to follow the evidence.