Multipurpose Theology of the Body

Janet Smith Speaks of Digging Deeper Into John Paul II’s Contributions

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By Ann Schneible

ROME, NOV. 16, 2011 ( The many angles from which Blessed John Paul II’s theology of the body can be studied is testament to its profundity. Not only is it a work fit to help those who are suffering from a wounded past, but also for helping people understand salvation history, as well as revealing the mystical union that God wants with each and every soul. 

These are some of the reflections offered by Janet Smith, chair of Life Ethics and professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. Smith was one of the guest speakers at a Theology of the Body conference hosted last week in Rome by Regina Apostolorum university.

ZENIT spoke with Smith about the conference and other initiatives for bringing the theology of the body to a wider public.

ZENIT: What has been your impression of this conference?

Smith: What we’re learning at this conference is how many different approaches there are to theology of the body. That is not surprising, and it is possible that all of them are legitimate. I like to make an analogy based on my experience as a graduate student studying the works of Plato. Some people said Plato’s Republic is a book about metaphysics; other people said it is about ethics; someone else said it was a book about the soul; other people said it was about poetry, or education. In fact, the Republic really is about all of those topics. 

Some people criticize those who find in the theology of the body ways of helping people deal with a wounded sexual past. Yet it seems to me the theology of the body is very well designed to do that. It’s also designed to help people understand salvation history. It’s also designed to help people understand the mystical union that God wants with each and every soul. So I think we’re hearing a whole set of approaches, all of which are valid. And I expect we’ll find many other angles and riches in the theology of the body as more and more people turn their attention to it. 

ZENIT: One of the challenges, whether in the area of education or in communications, is communicating this idea of personalism, this idea of the theology of the body, to those who have not had formation in Thomistic theology, in Thomistic terminology. How can we communicate these concepts to those who have not had this formation?

Smith: I think it may not be that difficult. A lot of people have been doing it very well, so we have a lot of examples out there. I recommend that people just «google» theology of the body, and they will find all sorts of good resources. Some people have been «translating» the theology of the body for more than 15 years now. I think there are good techniques and programs that are available. 

One obstacle is that it is a huge book. Often people pay most attention maybe to the first 10%, about Genesis, and fail to get into some of the other parts of the book which are fantastic. What it does with the Book of Tobit is terrific. Also, of course, Ephesians 5. Too few know that the final third is a defense of «Humanae Vitae,» which was the goal of the whole book. A lot of people never get to the end. 

Because it is such a large book it is not possible in any short session to cover all of it. It is easy to criticize a presenter for not covering the whole of it. If you dive in at any point, it seems like you’re going to be neglecting other things. And then people will complain: «Well, you talked about this, but you didn’t talk about that.» And you say: «Well, it’s a 350-page book! How many years do we have to go through it?»

I would say that it’s not so much an unfamiliarity with Thomistic philosophy that’s an obstacle — that is more true for Love and Responsibility. It’s more an obstacle of not knowing the Bible, and not knowing how to read the Bible. For instance, John Paul II does a deep meditative study of some small portions of Genesis. People find it strange that you’re going to find anything true in Genesis; isn’t it just an old story by people who didn’t have access to science? Simply accepting that God speaks to us through Scripture and that there are truths to be found in Revelation, that can be a huge obstacle for a lot of people to hear what’s being said. 

There are also problems with the confusion about the meaning of purpose and sexuality that people bring with them to the text. I think our culture is so wounded sexually, especially in respect to fidelity, that young people no longer think that it’s possible to have a life-long union with another. They’ve seen too much divorce, and I think that’s one of the major sources of pain in our culture, is divorce. This pain is also an «advantage.» It may make people open to hearing a message that might explain how you could live so that you wouldn’t need to get divorced. I think that one «advantage» that we have is that the world is so wounded, it’s ready to listen to solutions. 

ZENIT: I would like to ask you about the homosexual movement in the States, what role contraception has played in this movement, and how it contrasts with this concept of fidelity that you just spoke about, as well as the way in which members of this movement try to redefine marriage as a union between two people within the context of commitment. However, fidelity, as it turns out, is not part of this idea of commitment. How can the theology of the body speak to this particular problem? 

Smith: Morally speaking, I think that homosexuality is a fairly simple issue. It’s clearly a misuse of one’s sexuality. I want to say that homosexuals really don’t have and can’t have sexual intercourse with each other. They’re doing something else. Females require some sort of toys, mechanisms; males are using parts of the body that are not meant to be used for the purposes to which they put them. It sounds crude to say that, and maybe even impolite to say it. But I often think if people don’t have a true understanding of the facts, they will make false judgments. They tend to think it’s just a romantic liaison between two people who are in love. But I think some recital of the concrete facts is very important. 

Again, the number of sexual partners the average male homosexual has in a lifetime is staggering. For a significant portion it is over a hundred. Even when they’re in so-called stable relationships. The sex with other partners doesn’t stop. The incidence of sexually transmitted disease is scary. Even lesbians have a large number of sexual encounters in their lifetime, though not nearly as many as the males. And for lesbians these aren’t just sexual encounters. In a sense, these are relationships. But they’re heartbreaking relationships. They don’t last. Women get into these relationships hoping that they found a lifetime companion. But I think precisely because it doesn’t have the proper complementarity, it’s not going to last. So they’re going to have this heartbreak, and then that heartbreak, and then that heartbreak. I would say that homosexual relations are not about love but about heartbreak. People are not getting people what they want.

I think that if people knew more of the facts about the whole homosexual lifestyle, they’d be much less willing, much less able to continue to think of homosexual relationships as the same thing as heterosexual relationships. 

But I think heterosexuals have paved the way for this acceptance of homosexuality. And I think it is precisely because of contraceptive sex. If sex doesn’t need to have any connection with procreation, and sex is largely for pleasure, and for recreation, then why shouldn’t homosexuals be allowed to do what they do; it’s some kind of sexual play just for pleasure, which is what heterosexual sex has become. So I think that heterosexuals have paved the way for this.

ZENIT: What are some of the other wounds that our society has suffered from contraception?

Smith: I have a tape called «Contraception: Why Not?» that’s easily accessible at I explain many of the sociological and psychological consequences of contraceptive sex, which is about the only kind of sex our culture knows. Foremost among them is the unwed pregnancy rate. 42% percent of babies are now born out of wedlock. And I don’t think that more contraceptives are going to help. I think that’s actually a direct result of contraceptive sex. Those 42% of people weren’t intending to get pregnant. They’re not married. And what helped them have sex without being married — is, of course, contraception. One out of four pregnancies ends in an abortion. The death toll is enormous from sex outside of marriage. I directly connect contraception and sex outside of marriage, and I think that that has caused our culture an enormous, enormous nightmare. I also think that because people are having sex outside of marriage, they’re preparing less well for marriage, and that is a major cause of the divorce rate. So I think there are multiple bad consequences from contraception. Those are the major ones. 

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