Image: Public domain photo of couple smiling behind a stack of books in library by Josh Felise at Unsplash.com.
By Donald P. Asci, STD is Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville
Applied Theology of the Body
Over the past few years, the findings from surveys done by the Pew Research Center and Gallup polls have consistently painted a dismal, disturbing, and almost depressing picture of how Catholics in the US view the teachings of the Church in the area of sexual morality. According to these sources, the vast majority of Catholics surveyed say that they dissent from the truths of our faith on almost every issue within sexual morality.
For me, these reports are not only distressing but also somewhat bewildering because they do not match my own experience from the past twenty-five years of presenting the truth of God’s plan for human sexuality to thousands of people from all walks of life. In my own work, I have seen the majority of people respond enthusiastically and with a sense of relief and satisfaction to the truth of Catholic sexual morality, especially when it’s grounded in the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II and his monumental catechesis on the theology of the body (henceforth TOB).
All of this leads to some obvious questions. Have those who claim to reject Catholic sexual morality ever heard it proclaimed authentically or ever understood it accurately? Are they rejecting Catholic doctrine on human sexuality or some distorted caricature of our faith? And perhaps more importantly for us, what can we do to help ensure that people are encountering the beauty of God’s plan for human sexuality and hearing it proclaimed in the most personally appealing and most intellectually meaningful way?
In this series of articles, I will share what I have found to be the most important and most attractive truths from TOB to focus on when proclaiming Catholic sexual morality, beginning here with the basic outlook and fundamental reference points provided by TOB. In the subsequent articles, I will apply all of this to specific moral issues.
Sexual Morality and the Gospel: Good News for the Human Heart
Unfortunately, many people imagine Catholic sexual morality through the lens of a deceptive and cliché caricature that portrays it as an oppressive set of arbitrary rules imposed on us by God or the Church. According to this false narrative, Catholic sexual morality requires people to renounce their freedom and repress their desires regarding what they want to do with their bodies in order to conform to an outdated and oppressive mentality, all while making them feel bad about themselves for the things they do wrong. Ultimately, this caricature of Catholic sexual morality casts it in a wholly negative light as the “bad news” about being Catholic by reducing sexual morality to a list of rules stating all the things that you won’t be able to do with your body.
TOB counteracts this false narrative and sets the foundation for an effective presentation of Catholic sexual morality by proclaiming sexual morality in terms of the Gospel—the Good News in Jesus Christ—and by focusing on the freedom found in living according to the truth about our human dignity. Rather than oppressive rules imposed on us by some higher authority, Catholic sexual morality emerges from the Gospel as the truth of our own humanity and dignity, the truth that will liberate the deepest and most noble desires of the human heart and lead to the greatest freedom imaginable. Catholic sexual morality is all about freedom because it is all about truth, and it is the truth that sets us free. Moreover, since it focuses on the truth of our own humanity, Catholic sexual morality does nothing more than asks us to be true to ourselves in the sense of our true dignity rather than merely our individual desires in the moment.
Of course, just as the Gospel gives us access to the truth through reason enlightened by faith, Catholic sexual morality should be presented as revealed truths that break through the darkness of sin and rise above the weakness of fallen humanity. Throughout TOB (and his other teachings), St. John Paul II continually directs his audience to the “perennial truths” of our human dignity and vocation to love in contrast to distortions and falsehoods that enter into the “historical” state of man through original sin. He relies heavily on the maxim that “Christ fully reveals man to himself” to highlight the pivotal role of Jesus as the source of these truths about humanity and our lofty vocation. In these terms, the sexual morality of TOB proclaims the truths of a divine plan for humanity that transcends any culture (rather than ideas left over from outdated patriarchal or puritanical mentalities) and that can serve to evangelize and transform any culture (which does make it seem in conflict with modern mentalities that align with the so-called culture of death).
While calling us to live in accord with the truth of our own humanity found in the divine revelation that culminates in Jesus Christ, the Gospel concentrates on the heart of the person (think, for example, of the hardness of heart referenced in Mt 19, or the adultery in the heart referenced in Mt 5, or the emphasis on the heart in Mt 15). In this biblical meaning, the heart designates the deep interior recesses of the human soul where truth resides and from where good and evil enter our lives. Likewise, rather than merely adjudicating bodily actions, the sexual morality of TOB concentrates on the heart of the person and the thoughts and desires and vivid experiences that tell the story of each human heart. These inner movements of heart are the constant focus of St. John Paul II, and the sexual morality of TOB concentrates on how profoundly and intensely the truth of our humanity revealed in Jesus penetrates our hearts and shapes desires and how we live that truth in our bodily actions. In other words, far from being an attempt to police anyone’s body, Catholic sexual morality channels all its efforts into cultivating purity of heart.
Christological to its core, in order to explore the story of the human heart, TOB famously follows the lead of Jesus by harkening back to the beginning of humanity in creation and by aspiring to the glory of the future world of the resurrection. In other words, the most fundamental paradigm provided by TOB consists in the way it presents the truth of our humanity and the inner life of the heart through the lens of salvation history, taking us from creation beyond sin to the glory of the resurrection. Adopting that fundamental paradigm, the sexual morality of TOB asks whether the human heart is experiencing the truth according to the standards set by the mystery of creation and the mystery of redemption or according to the distortions and degradations of the patterns set by original sin and the effects of concupiscence.
Since salvation history culminates with redemption in Jesus, authentic Catholic sexual morality proclaims a vision of humanity redeemed in Christ and signals the vast potential of the human heart when given over to the powers of redemption in Jesus Christ. It proclaims what we are capable of when empowered by something beyond ourselves and proclaims that we are capable of far more than our sinfulness initially suggests to us. In that respect, Catholic sexual morality seems confrontational and demoralizing only to those who cling to the standards of fallen humanity. In itself, Catholic sexual morality is an extremely hopeful vote of confidence in the human heart and a set of high expectations that acknowledge the power of God over sin and death.
As a major theme of TOB, St. John Paul II repeatedly emphasizes that in our encounter with Jesus we should feel “called and not merely accused” when we examine the inner movements of our hearts. Obviously, we know that we are called to conversion in our following of Jesus because this stands at the center of the Gospel. That means we are called to renounce the ways of life suggested by the limitations of human sinfulness and take up the newness of life made possible by the empowerment we have in Jesus. From that basis, Catholic sexual morality enjoins us to make what St. John Paul II calls a “self-critical examination” of our hearts by which we discern how much in our sexual lives reflects the reality of redemption and how much panders to the limitations of human sinfulness, so that we can renounce the latter to embrace the former. In other words, while it never asks us to repress true and good desires but rather foster and increase them, Catholic sexual morality does require us to renounce disordered desires lest they suffocate the noble desires that we are trying to liberate. Within that dynamic there resides a profound process of self-discovery through self-control.
Image: Public domain photo of engaged couple’s hands as they walk by Jasmine Carter and SHVETS Productions at Pexels.com.
Living and Loving as Embodied Persons
More than anything else, TOB is truly a theology of the human heart in the ways outlined above. Why, then, do we even call it the theology of the body rather than the theology of the heart? TOB focuses so intensely on the body precisely to explore the human heart because it operates with the basic conviction that nothing so genuinely and dramatically tells the story of the human heart as much as the experience of the human body, especially the sexuality expressed in the body. How we experience the body in its maleness and femaleness, what we think and desire when we encounter the body, most dramatically reveals the inner workings of our hearts and shapes the inner life of the person. So too, then, the critical examination of our hearts can focus on our experience of the body as a major part of our response to the Gospel call to conversion. Inevitably, any sexual morality based on the Gospel will amount to living out the great commandment to love, but the criteria provided by TOB enables us to clarify what true love looks like in the sexual sphere.
St. John Paul II focuses on the biblical revelation of the interaction of man and woman (Adam and Eve in Genesis, the Bridegroom and Bride in the Songs of Songs, and the Husband and Wife in Ephesians) to develop the basic idea that the state of the human heart in the various phases of salvation history expresses itself in the experience of the body. For TOB, the focal point of all this interaction concerns the experience of the body in terms of its human dignity, which means having the dignity of a person created as Imago Dei. The sexual morality of TOB, in turn, simply proclaims that sexual activity in and through the body must affirm that truth of our being persons created as Imago Dei. This basic reference point offers a host of criteria for the critical examination of the heart that sets us on the path to purity of heart, and these same criteria also emerge as the highly effective ways to present Catholic sexual morality.
The term “person” has a certain theological origin (from the doctrines of the Early Church regarding the Trinity), and in TOB the notion of human personhood aligns with that theological origin by emphasizing how each of us exists as an utterly unique and irreplaceable “someone” with inherent worth. “Person” also refers to the inner life of the heart lived on the basis of the powers of the soul and thus highlights the spiritual dimension that stands at the core of every human being. TOB further emphasizes that in being persons we are superior to all the other visible creatures on the earth and can therefore only be likened to God and never reduced to the level of the animals. In being like God, human persons are also other-centered and made for love in the form of communion, just as God exists as a Loving Personal Communion. At the moral level, this means that humans must never be reduced to mere material objects (something rather than someone) or to some instrumental value in fulfilling desires and thus must never be used rather than loved.
TOB develops all its teachings on the body through this meaning of personhood by emphasizing how the body expresses the person and makes the person concretely present in the world. As each human exists as the substantial unity of body and soul, we must regard the body as a constitutive part of who each human is rather than being something that each person possesses. All the truths of the person sketched above now extend to the body, meaning that the body is someone unique and irreplaceable with inherent worth, most fully understood through its connection to the inner life of the soul, and never to be reduced to the level of the animals. It also means that, in order to uphold the personal dignity of the body, all our actions toward and through the body must avoid objectivization and use on the basis of an instrumental understanding of value.
From seeing the oneness of the body and person in each human, we can go beyond how the body shares in the dignity of the person to how the person shares in the truth of the body. In other words, what is true of the body is true of the person, and in this way the body serves as a sign of the person. A critical question for the human heart now centers on this integration of the body and person and how well we identify with the body as persons. For example, we must go beyond the idea that the body of a woman is fertile to the greater truth that the woman herself is fertile. In this way we can establish a deep link between the person and the truth of the body such that in order to be true to the person we must be true to the body expressing that person. On the other hand, dominating, manipulating, or altering the body in ways contrary to its own truth (such as negating its sexual complementarity or eliminating its fertility) would amount to violating the truth and dignity of the person expressed in the body.
According to TOB, the proper experience of the body also includes recognizing how the body exists as “a sign of the person” because it functions in such a way as to bring our minds to truths beyond itself, signalling the presence of a person and by its own truth revealing truths of that person. While the body may exist as this sign of the person in all its materiality, for TOB the sexuality of the body does this in a preeminent manner, and herein lies the special dignity and value of the body in its maleness and femaleness. TOB summarizes this preeminent meaning of the sexuality of the body in what St. John Paul II calls the spousal meaning of the body and the language of the body.
The spousal meaning of the body holds a central place in the TOB presentation of the fundamental connection between the truth of the human person and the inner life of the heart. The spousal meaning of the body refers to how the body of the person conveys the core truths of personhood. In those terms, the spousal meaning of the body refers to how the body, specifically in its sexuality, proclaims “here is someone utterly unique with inherent worth who has been created for love in the form of self-gift and communion” (what St. John Paul II calls spousal love). The language of the body takes up the fundamental truths of the spousal meaning of the body but relates to their expression in action. Through the language of the body, dignified sexual actions have a symbolic meaning that speaks the truth that someone has inherent worth and deserves love in the form of self-gift and communion. When sexual actions maintain their integrity they maintain this fundamental proclamation, whereas disordered sexual actions speak a message that contradicts or erodes the truth of the spousal meaning of the body. Morally good sexual actions are those that sincerely proclaim, “You are someone irreplaceable with inherent worth made for love.” Disordered sexual actions corrupt that message and falsely suggest instead, “You are something replaceable with instrumental value made for use.”
The sexual morality grounded in TOB asks us to concentrate on what we are saying to each other and about each other (and about ourselves) by our sexual actions, with the biggest question being whether or not we are speaking the truth of the personal dignity of the embodied human person as opposed to falsehoods that contradict that dignity. At the same time, by its focus on the heart of the person, this sexual morality asks us to acknowledge what we really think and feel and desire about each other as embodied persons and to admit whether we really do intensely experience the personal dignity and inherent worth of the body. Taking things to a deeper theological level, it asks us to admit whether or not we have the inner freedom to act in accord with the personal dignity of the body—whether or not we are slaves to our disordered desires and demoralized by them. Ultimately, it asks us whether the sexual lives of our hearts have been renewed by the powers of redemption in Jesus so that we have the power to love one another as he has loved us.
Reflecting back on those who claim to not adhere in faith to this sexual morality, it can make us wonder if these truths at the core of TOB are what they don’t believe. Do they not believe that each human is an embodied person created as Imago Dei with inherent worth? Do they not believe that we each deserve love in the form of a total and irrevocable self-gift? Do they not believe that we can have the freedom to exercise the self-control necessary to master our passions and discover our true selves? Do they not believe that we have been empowered by Jesus to love each other with enough sacrificial love to uphold each other’s dignity no matter the cost?
Perhaps they don’t believe these things, which would tell us where we need to start in our efforts to help them. But perhaps they simply do not realize just how much of the Gospel really is at stake in the realm sexual morality. Perhaps they need us to do our part to show them.
Donald P. Asci, STD is Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and the author of The Conjugal Act as Personal Act from Ignatius Press. Married since 1993, he and his wife Michelle have six children.
This article from the July 2022 edition of Catechetical Review, Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324, Issue #8.1 of Catechetical Review. Reproduced here with the permission of its publisher, Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, USA. This article originally appeared on pages 34-37 in the print edition.
 John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006).