Theology of the Body vs 50 Shades of Grey

With fan-fiction origins, E.L. James book, 50 Shades of Grey, has officially become the most widely sold book in Britain – ever. The book, the first in a trilogy, includes explicit scenes and heavy doses of bondage, dominance and sadism.  Here in America, the originally self-published book still stands near the top of The New York Times Best Sellers List with international sales hitting more than 65 million in print and digital copies.  So far, it’s been translated into 30 languages making its author, a British housewife and mother of two, a multi-millionaire overnight.  With a fan-base of teenagers, college students, along with single and married women over 30 – the critically panned book series dubbed “Mommy Porn,” has launched the way into a largely untapped market of female erotica readers.

I have not read the book and don’t intend to read it.  Wikipedia’s synopsis tells the story well enough despite its author’s description of it as an “old fashioned love story.”  Plain and simple – it’s pornography.  Originally titled “Master of the Universe,” the book, due to “reader demand” can now be found on a waiting list at many public libraries across the U.S.  Its wide success has spawned 50 Shades of Grey theme parties, PDF’s, board games, a 50 Shades Album, 50 Shades – The Musical and soon, 50 Shades of Grey – the movie.  The trilogy has even become the subject of a university class started this semester at American University.

What is most astounding and frankly disturbing, is the popularity of a book series which features a lead character, Christian Grey, who represents the antithesis of God’s designs for the nuptial (spousal) relationship, along with the utter lack of self-respect its female protagonist,Anastasia Steele, has for herself.  Since when did a sadomasochistic, non-committal control freak who finds pleasure in physically demeaning, abusing and emotionally manipulating a naïve college girl become a literary hero of so many women?

As ubiquitous as 50 Shades of Grey is these days, I cannot help but think of the vast spiritual, moral, mental and emotional strides women could make (not only for themselves but also our culture as a whole), if they read Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body instead – a series of 129 addresses he gave under the form of Wednesday Catechetical talks in Rome from 1979 until 1984.

As the first major teaching of his Pontificate, Theology of the Body (TOTB) is an extended Catechesis on the truth of God‘s original design for human sexuality and thus the dignity of the human person.  As part of TOTB, JPII emphasizes how the dignity of the human person can be distorted through sin – such as pornography – and how it has been restored and renewed through the redemption of Jesus Christ.  TOTB additionally focuses on Catholic teachings about the sacramentality of marriage, chastity/virginity, adultery, the resurrection of the body and contraception.  The central theme of TOTB is that “the body” is a sign of the invisible mystery of God.  In this sense, the body can be viewed as a kind of sacrament – with the mystery of God being revealed through it.   Therefore, the body alone is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine.

However, in the case of 50 Shades of Grey, the complete opposite of personal and individual human dignity is presented.  Instead, a twisted and false notion of love which reduces the human being to nothing more than an object is presented as something glamorous and dazzling.  In reality, Anastasia ceases to have attraction as a person with her only value being a mere object of fantasy to be used for sexual pleasure.  While women may feel the book is a harmless form of entertainment, Shades of Grey ultimately gives way to darkness leaving one on a path of deception.  In other words, it belittles God’s gift of personhood and the body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit and we ultimately degrade and harm ourselves by reading it. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price.” (I Cor. 6:19-20)

Part of John Paul II’s TOTB explains that lust in its distorted various forms destroys the nuptial meaning of the body and the full awareness of the human being by making it only an article of attraction.  Lust depersonalizes and degrades, thereby hindering mutual acceptance of the other as a unique gift and expression of God’s love.  In this way, it debases the marriage covenant which constitutes the foundation of the “one-flesh” union.  Having our best interests at heart, Christ wants to remove distorted notions of the human body from the nuptial relationship so that in purity of heart, the nuptial meaning of the body and the individual person shines in mutual self-giving within sacramental unity.  Thus, true union comes in discovering the true value of the beloved.

KlimtJohn Paul II’s TOTB is not about being prudish – or about me sounding like the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live.  Instead, it is about accepting the love that Christ wishes for the nuptial relationship – the type of love he created since the beginning of the world which he called “good” (Genesis 1:31).

Unfortunately, in 50 Shades of Grey, millions of women the world over are instead buying into 50 shades of deeply defective and distorted fabrications of what constitutes real and lasting love.

In his reflections on TOTB, Catholic apologist and founder of Totus Tuus Ministries, Jim Seghers, notes that “such twisted notions of love disconnects the body from personhood and becomes exploitive, selfish and violent, ultimately cheapening and belittling the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit.”  When we accept the lie of Shades of Grey and all types of pornography, we are ultimately left unhappy, disillusioned, confused and denigrated.  Why?  Because we are seeking something that has been designed to prey upon our human weaknesses and draw us away from God.  It then becomes harder for us to recognize ourselves as children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit.

Blessed John Paul II gave the world a great gift with his teachings on Theology of the Body which points the way out of the gray and into the light of God’s loving plan for humanity.  Theology of the Body is about recognizing, even amid a culture saturated in distorted versions of love, JPII’s personal invitation to all men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to freely embrace our true dignity.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to the truth, justice, and goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.”  If women would only then take a moment to pause and realize their great value and worth in the eyes of God, I wonder if a book series such as Shades of Grey would still be as popular.  I doubt it!

Judy Keane


Judy Keane is a Catholic writer and a communications/marketing executive who resides in Washington, D.C. She holds an MBA in International Business and is the author of Single and Catholic, published by Sophia Institute Press.

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  • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

    I think we have to make sure that people understand that the Theology of the Body is primarily a work of Philosophical Anthropology – Metaphysics – and not sexual morality.

    For me, this is the problem with Christopher’s West’s portrayal to ‘the public’. It’s just Catholic sex-ed in edutaiment format. I think he’s just taken it from, the old ‘Don’t do it’, as he puts it, to ‘Do it, but…’.

    Therefore, I don’t think it is an issue of dignity, although that might be an epiphenomenon of the Theology of the Body. Rather, I would suggest that, for JPII, it was ‘one step back’ – an issue primarily of ontological identity – and everything else flows from that.

    I think people like Christopher West have made a gross reductionism of Blessed John Paul II’s magnificent work in this regard, and so people only tend to think ‘Theology of the Body’ when the issue of sex comes up as if that was it, rather than it far richer meaning in relation to the whole nature of the human person in relation to the Culture of Death in general.

  • DelawareMom

    It’s so sad that so many people, Catholics included, think that this is okay to read. They think they are doing something only slightly inappropriate. I don’t believe they even classify reading this book as a serious sin. It is a sorry statement about the state of our society, if the women raising our children find this entertaining. God help us all.

  • Peter Nyikos

    It’s sad to see from the Wikipedia entry how one county purchased the book for its libraries before realizing its nature. What is even sadder is to see the reaction of Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the American Library Association when the libraries pulled the copies:

    “If the only reason you don’t select a book is that you
    disapprove of its content, but there is demand for it, there’s a
    question of whether you’re being fair. In a public library there is
    usually very little that would prevent a book from being on the shelf if
    there is a demand for the information.”

    There is not “information” in the novel, only entertainment.

    The libraries knuckled under due to popular demand and made the book available to the public.

  • lighted lamp94

    I am an over 40 mother of nine and just learning the significance of this. How many times in my life time that I have been a lesser version of what God desired. The point being, it’s never to late to live a redeemed life. Mothers, when you see a young girl or mother dressed modestly make a point of saying something! We live in a world where the only feedback a person is getting is for the lack of modesty. Whenever you have contact with a girl dressed immodestly, make a point to tell her something good about an appropriate body part that is showing, like her beautiful eyes or her kind manner. Saint John Bosco said there’s more souls in hell for lack of purity than any sins. 50 Shades of Grey is Satan’s work brought to us by another fallen woman…pray for her soul.

  • Reader

    There are Catholic novelists trying to combat the ’50 Shades’ phenomenon by writing stories that incorporate elements of Theology of the Body. Both Ellen Gable and AnnMarie Creedon have written Kindle best sellers that entertain, educate and evangelize. Catholics should try Gable’s “In Name Only” and “Stealing Jenny,” as well as Creedon’s “Angela’s Song.”

  • chaco

    “…the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her (Babylon/ anti-Christ) fornication. JP II said; ” I don’t think that wide circles of American society or wide circles of the christian community realize this fully; We are facing the final battle between Church & anti-church, of the Gospel versus the anti- Gospel.” (Wall st. Journal, Nov. 9,1978) Keep telling it like it is; It is not a “a harmless form of entertainment”. Evil turns up the heat (temptation) slowly, then before you know it, your cooked. Assurance of salvation through staying close to the Risen Lord is much more satisfying.

  • Given the shape the world is today, I am not surprised that 50 shades is so prominent.
    It is almost like a plague. Co-workers talk about it, friends talk about, it is the talk of dinner parties (even in front of their own children)… as if it was the most acceptable literature in the world.

  • Mom of three

    I think the media hype over this book is why people want to read it in the first place. The women I know who have read it told me it’s dreadful and dreadfully written, and that they never would have read it at all except that they kept hearing about it from mass media sources.

  • wbarquez

    The body, through the language of sex, communicates God’s life-giving love.

  • Susan

    I agree with all you said, and am very disturbed that when received as a gift at our company Christmas party, the whole room of RNs went wild, including one who sat across from me wearing a cross ring and talking about how great Tim Tibow is. However, I have to say that one questions a reviewer who has not read the book.

  • Kitchen Madonna

    I have seen him speak three times in person and listened to his CD’d at least 10 times and I could not disagree with you more. You are being prudish and you are guilty of angelism which is a sin against the Incarnation. You must have a problem with your body.

  • Deoacveritatimyfaithsustainsm

    Judy Keane, well done!!!

    Thank you for taking the time write this article. Too many women of all ages are buying this garbage and men as well and what is worse they are fantasizing and acting out the garbage being sold to them on this so called book.

    This book is very dangerous for one’s soul.

    I particularly like what Jim Seghers said, “such twisted notions of love disconnects the body from personhood and becomes exploitive, selfish and violent, ultimately cheapening and belittling the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit.” When we accept the “LIE” (emphais mine) of Shades of Grey and all types of pornography, we are ultimately left unhappy, disillusioned, confused and denigrated. Why? Because we are seeking something that has been designed to prey upon our human weaknesses and draw us away from God. It then becomes harder for us to recognize ourselves as children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit.
    Thank you again for the article.

  • Kevin Tierney

    Good to see people are still keeping up great arguments!

    Just a reminder kitchenmadonna, it was attitudes like this that served “your side” so badly last time these issues were debated a few years ago, especially on this site. Accusing those you disagree with of “angelism”, I do not think the word means what you say it means. An example of angelism would be denying the objective reality of concupisence.

    That isn’t what the person you are responding to is doing.

    After dismissing the trolls, something for the author of this article.

    I think we can all agree people would be better disposed to reading JPII than 50 Shades, but in what ways does his Catechesis on Human Love (The formal name for it since 2010, “Theology of the Body” being thankfully retired at least in professional circles) help us to not only avoid the bad in those kind of works, but choose the good?
    I think that’s really a problem myself and others have with a lot of TOB catechesis. How does one apply it on the practical level and help grow in holiness? How does one apply in a concrete fashion its recomendations?

  • lamehousewife

    Some good words to use in this discussion…rape culture. Many women understand the problem of the rape culture as promoted by the media and would probably be able to see how 50 shades is related to that problem. Just a couple of terms I have seen used effectively to make a point. Thank you for the post

  • tom

    The sad thing in all of this is we have been inundated with extramarital sex as the norm, that we “celebrate” being gay and we as a society offer abortions as birth control. How do we change? I don’t think that we are going to do it at the polls, at least for a while. We have to stand up. We have to risk embarrassing ourselves and get active in helping change the culture or at least, the perspective of one person.

  • gg

    Thank you for writing this. Mother of 6 “Godly” women whom I have devoted to share JPII’s theology of the body with. As written by lighted lamp 94, we live in a culture with lack of modesty and I intend to do my part of creating a modest environment for my 6 girls

  • QuoVadisAnima

    Perhaps if something discussed here were ambiguous or borderline, that might be pertinent. Or if this were a literary critique pinging the book for some writing flaw. However, one has only to learn the “plot” of this book to readily recognize it as pornography of the more perverse kind. And THAT is the point of this article. Why would any professing Christian believe such sick filth is okay with God?

  • Richard III

    “50 shades musical, album, theme parties, games, etc.” How long has this stupid book been in print for anyway?!

  • Roger

    It’s pornography. By her logic, pornographic movies should be aired on normal TV because there is a demand for it.

    Common sense is dying, unfortunately.

  • Roger

    We will change when we stop living for comfort and start living for God and the pursuit of truth.

    Unfortunately, that will not be any time soon.

  • Roger

    I saw this on the shelf at my Walmart and opened up to 5 random passages all or which involved pornographic usage of food, bodily fluids, and inappropriate language. It’s also poorly written on top of it. Nobody has to read it to judge it, because it is indisputably vile. That’s its main selling point, after all.

  • Roger

    The album even uses classical music on top of it. So weird.

  • Great article; thank you! I’m reminded of a Natalie Merchant song: “But it’s all grey here, it’s all grey to me…if I’m on my knees groping in the dark…I’d be praying for deliverance, from the night into the day…but it’s all grey here”. Keep up the good work and let’s pray for deliverance from this muddy grey!

  • Mama327

    Actually Kitchen Madonna it is you who disrespects your own body by reading such filth