Making "Theology of the Body" More Accessible

A Monsignor’s Book Aims to Simplify a Key Work of John Paul II

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PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, APRIL 16, 2003 ( Papal biographer George Weigel has called John Paul II’s theology of the body a «theological time-bomb.» Monsignor Vincent Walsh is hoping to help detonate it.

The monsignor from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has recently written «The Theology of the Body — A Simplified Version,» published by Key of David Publications.

It is an attempt to simplify the contents of the «theology of the body» that John Paul II outlined in an series of 129 Wednesday general audiences from 1979 to 1984. Monsignor Walsh recently spoke with ZENIT.

Q: What is the central intuition of John Paul II’s theology of the body, in layman’s terms?

Monsignor Walsh: Often in traditional Catholic theology, the human body was relegated to a secondary position, or even worse, was seen as an obstacle to the soul striving to come to God.

Unfortunately, «the body» was often identified with St. Paul’s word «the flesh» — which is not what Paul meant. The Pope sweeps aside this view and gives the human body a central place in creation, salvation, redemption and eternal life.

The theology, in some respects, is a beautiful poem to the greatness of our bodies. The reader will appreciate the true beauty of his or her own body and the bodies of others. This will generate an appreciation of chastity before marriage and of the sexual act within marriage.

In the Pope’s thoughts, the human body is central to creation. Adam, upon perceiving the body of Eve, immediately knows that she, unlike the animals, can be a full partner.

His only God-given task is to accept her as a gift and unite his own body with hers in a full communion. This personal and bodily communion is really the fullness of man imaging the communal life of the Trinity.

The two totally trust their bodies as the source of their union, for they were naked and not ashamed. Later on, they will realize that Eve’s body contains a hidden mystery, the power to share in God’s creation as she becomes the «mother of the living.»

With their fall from grace, the body is not shoved aside but unfortunately becomes the reservoir of sin, lust and even of death. The body ceases to be a source of union, but instead becomes a place of mistrust and confusion — a battlefield — so that the couple, for the first time, experience shame.

In spite of this, God protects the human body and, in a natural gift, continues to allow it to be the source of new life by procreation. Even more, Jesus redeems the body and now we ourselves carry a body burdened by sin, suffering and death, but also carrying the power of redemption.

Every human life is really a personal decision of what we do with our bodies. Do we allow the power of sin or the power of redemption to hold sway?

As you can see from the quick outline, the theology is really a poem to the human body, not a false picture, because the poem contains also the dark side within the human body, not originally planned by God.

Q: What prompted you to do a simplified version of this theology?

Monsignor Walsh: In February 2000, I read the words of George Weigel in his biography of Pope John Paul II, which stressed the urgent need for the Pope’s books to be made available to a wider audience.

At that moment, having authored many other books, I conceived the idea of a simplified version.

So, I began immediately with «Love and Responsibility — A Simplified Version» and received the Vatican permission for that book in 2001. Moving on to a simplified version of «The Theology of the Body» was the obvious next step. Currently, I am working on «Crossing the Threshold of Hope» as a possible third volume.

Q: What is the most difficult point of this theology for lay people to grasp? Why?

Monsignor Walsh: The most difficult part for lay people lies in the Pope’s writing style. I never saw myself as trying to explain the Pope’s thoughts because, once simplified, they are easy to grasp, especially in «The Theology of the Body.»

I saw my task as the beautiful work of just bringing out the simple and clear thoughts that were covered over by the style, like the recent restoration of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel. The Pope’s decision to remove the prudish covering placed over the sexual parts of the original painting in the Sistine Chapel would be a logical conclusion of his thinking in «The Theology of the Body.»

Q: Many of the discourses date back 20 years or more. How long will it take the Pope’s thought to reach a wide audience? Is that normal?

Monsignor Walsh: As George Weigel stated, it is the Pope’s style that deters people from grasping his thoughts. This simplified version is catching on, especially as the talks are shortened, broken into shorter paragraphs and given little headings to make it reader-friendly.

Really, in the past centuries, much of papal teaching never reached as wide an audience as Pope John Paul II is already doing. So, we just hope to expand on his already established ministry.

Q: What audience has been most receptive to the Holy Father’s theology of the body?

Monsignor Walsh: We sent postcards to all the American bishops and well over 200 responded, asking for a copy. We have also contacted rectors of seminaries and have had a good response.

The obvious first circle after these two groups are those directly involved in family-life issues. So, we have offered sample copies to every diocesan family-life office and also to every pastor in the United States. This is with the hope that, although the average parishioner might not have an immediate interest, if the book were available they would pick it up.

Q: How would you compare the theology of the body with «Humanae Vitae«?

Monsignor Walsh: The Pope devoted his final 16 talks to a discussion of Pope Paul VI’s «Humanae Vitae,» which was extraordinary — a Pope commenting so extensively on another Pope’s encyclical.

He went out of his way to say that these final talks were not an appendage. Really, the theology of the body provides a natural foundation for Pope Paul’s two important teachings, namely, that there «must be no impairment of the person’s natural capacity to procreate human life» and what God has established, that is, «the unitive and procreative significance of the marriage act,» cannot be separated.

From reading various books on the Pope’s life, I get the impression that the Polish Catholic philosophers gathered around their Cardinal Wojtyla had worked out a much more personalistic philosophy than the Roman theologians gathered around Pope Paul VI.

Therefore, this Polish school of thought agreed with the conclusions of «Humanae Vitae» but felt the philosophical underpinnings needed strengthening. Cardinal Wojtyla provided this personalistic philosophy in his book «Love and Responsibility.»

If the reader has grasped the Pope’s teaching in the first 113 talks, they can see clearly the conclusions of «Humanae Vitae» in the final 16 talks.

Q: Given the wide dissent that greeted «Humanae Vitae,» are priests generally supportive of this theology of the body?

Monsignor Walsh: As noted above, the theology of the body approaches human sexuality and these moral questions from a totally different view of the human body than is generally propounded in Catholic theology.

Priests, then, should be able to see that Church doctrine on sexual matters is not rooted in Puritanism — which the Pope constantly denounces — but upon the beauty of God’s creation.

In doing this simplified version, I found my own attitudes toward the human body being greatly lifted. I would hope that happens to every priest.

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