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Book Title: Theology of the Body for Beginners: A Basic Introduction to Pope John Paul II's Sexual Revolution|
The author of the book: Christopher West
ISBN 13: 9781932645347
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 583 KB
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Reader ratings: 6.9
Edition: Ascension Press
Date of issue: September 15th 2004
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It's hard to know how to rate this. I read it to challenge my thinking (shout out to Liz for the suggestion!) and understand my Catholic friends better, so one star feels unfair because I was never really going to agree with a book so contrary to my core beliefs, and it DID provoke some deep thought. But one star accurately represents how angry it made me most of the time. The gender roles, the inherent homophobia, and the exclusively male perspective all irritated me. Above all, to write a philosophy of Catholic sexuality without exploring the relationship between celibacy and patterns of sexual abuse by priests struck me as inexcusable. There was a systemic factor at play in the abuse, otherwise it would not have been such a widespread problem, and I haven’t heard anything that comes close to having the explanatory power of the celibacy mandate.
As a woman, I chafed at the gendered descriptions of virtue because I’ve always identified more with the “male” role—leadership, action, servitude—even when I was a young kid in Catholic school, vying for the role of Jesus in the Passion Play. That doesn’t mean I’m transgender. It means that traditional Catholic gender roles are too restrictive.
On page 122, he argues that “in some sense, embodiment is the human question. What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? There are no more important questions for men and women to ask. And notice that these are inherently sexual questions, questions about ‘being a body.’” I would argue that the true human question is what it means to be alive. It strikes me as patently false that the meaning of life for a man versus a woman can be much different.
Despite my skepticism, I did take some meaning from reading this. Unfortunately, that means I did exactly what they warned against on page 3, which is “spiritualizing” our humanity, Christ, and the Church, thus making me an “enemy [who] incessantly denies Christ come in the flesh.” (Guilty as charged, I guess?)
What I liked best was the description of the body as sacred. That resonates with me deeply. Out for a run on a gorgeous Seattle day, I'm always so happy to be alive and to have this miraculous body that lets me do things like that. Pregnancy is a marvel. (We grow people from scratch! Super cool.) Wounds healing are a marvel. The transformation from baby to child to adult is a marvel.
I also agree that sex should be meaningful and that true belief in your own ethical code is more powerful than any rule or law (see below). It's why I recycle and compost, why I don't cheat at bar trivia, and why I keep my friends’ secrets—it’s an ethos.
An ethic is an external norm or rule—“do this,” “don’t do that.” Ethos refers to a person’s inner-world of values, what attracts and repulses him deep in the heart. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ is not only confirming God’s ethical code. He is also proclaiming the true ethos of God’s commandments—what they call us to internally. In effect Christ says, “You have heard the ethic not to commit adultery, but the problem is you desire to commit adultery. Your ethos is flawed because you’re filled with lust.” (p. 38)
Most people look at Christian morality—especially sexual morality—as an oppressive list of rules to follow. How far this misunderstanding is from the “living morality” proclaimed by Christ! The Gospel doesn’t give us more rules to follow. The Gospel is meant to change our hearts so that we no longer need the rules (see CCC 1968). To the degree that we experience this change of heart, we experience “freedom from the law” (see Romans 7; Galatians 5)—not freedom to break the law; freedom to fulfill it. Here is an example of what freedom from the law looks like: Do you have any desire to murder your best friend? This may seem like an odd question, but it actually demonstrates the point. Assuming you do not, then you do not need the commandment “Thou shalt not murder thy best friend” because you have no desire to break it. To this extent you are “free from the law.” In other words, you do not experience this law (“Thou shalt not murder thy best friend”) as an imposition because your heart already conforms to it. (p. 39)
The author and I agree on the limitations of a romantic relationship and the inappropriate burden of expecting someone to be our everything. The Catholic answer is to seek heaven, while my own is to seek secular meaning, but I especially liked the bolded sentence below:
Experience attests that even the most wonderful marriage does not fully satisfy our hunger for love and union. We still yearn for “something more.” I love my wife, Wendy, more than any words can express, but she will not mind my saying that she is not my ultimate fulfillment. Do not hang your hat on a hook that cannot bear the weight! If we look to another human person as our ultimate fulfillment, we will crush that person. Only the eternal, ecstatic, “marriage” of heaven—so far superior to anything proper to earthly life that we cannot begin to fathom it—can satisfy the human “ache” of solitude. (p. 55)
I am undecided on how I feel about this idea of recognizing one’s wife as “sister” first. I love the idea of equivalent respect for any woman rather than our current cultural norm of being defensive of one’s own female relatives (“Dude, that’s my sister!”) while being creepy and lustful toward other people’s relatives. That said, if lust and sexual desire are synonymous, then I’m not sure I can get on board with calling lust a sin wholesale. Seems to me that it could be okay as an occasional detour within appropriate bounds (similar to gluttony or wrath), but that it’s not a place to set up camp. I’m with Aristotle that moderation is key.
While the idea of being recognized first as a “sister” usually brings great relief to the woman, John Paul observes that it presents a certain challenge for the man (see TOB 109:4). More specifically, it challenges him to assess his motives. Is he motivated by love or by lust, by the sincere gift of self or merely by a desire to gratify himself? The normal man recoils at the idea of lusting after his sister—and so should a man recoil at the thought of lusting after his bride! This is precisely the point. The lover of the Song accepts this challenge and does not hesitate to call his beloved “my sister.” With such a recognition, he demonstrates that his desire for her as “bride” is not one of lust but of love. With “a disinterested tenderness” (TOB 110:2) the lover desires only to be a sincere gift to his beloved according to the image of God. (p. 93)
Another idea that provoked deep thought for me was the permanence of love and its connection to sex. Leaving this one without comment for now while I continue to mull:
The Church does not impose on us the idea that love should be permanent. Permanence is what the heart longs for. In her teaching that sex is meant to express permanent love (that is, marital love), the Church is simply inviting us to be true to the “song” that wells up from the deepest recesses of our souls. Listen to it! It is the Song of Songs. (p. 96)
On celibacy, I am frustrated by the Church’s complete shirking of responsibility for the consequences of the “wrong” kind of celibacy in priests. Sexual abuse ruins people’s lives. If a priest himself misunderstands or disagrees about authentic Christian celibacy, then the Church has a problem that it has a moral responsibility to solve. (Put differently: Pope, come get your boys.)
As the Catechism indicates, the Latin Church usually chooses her priests from among men of faith who have chosen celibacy as their life’s vocation (see CCC 1579). This seems to imply that the choice of celibacy should come first. If a Catholic man (in the Western church) has discerned a celibate vocation, then, within his life of celibacy, he might also discern a call to priesthood. Those priests who believe celibacy was foisted on them, it seems, have not understood these important distinctions. As a result, many today are clamoring for an end to priestly celibacy. Some even blame celibacy itself for the sexual problems and abuses of some of the clergy. As I wrote in my book Good News About Sex and Marriage, “Celibacy does not cause sexual disorder. Sin does. Simply getting married does not cure sexual disorder. Christ does. If a priest, or any other man, were to enter marriage with deep-seated sexual disorders, he would be condemning his wife to a life of sexual objectification. The only way the scandal of sexual sin (whether committed by priests or others) will end is if people experience the redemption of their sexuality in Christ” (GN, p. 163). Authentic Christian celibacy witnesses dramatically to this redemption. It is true that, as a discipline of the Latin Church (rather than a doctrine), the practice of reserving priestly ordination to those men who have chosen a celibate life could change. But when we realize how celibacy points us to the ultimate meaning of sex, we recognize that our world needs the witness of Christian celibacy now more than ever. (p. 63)
And although I love his advocacy of men being good lovers, I got my only LOL in the book thanks to this sex advice from someone who is celibate (bolding mine):
As a practical example of husbands living a redeemed sexuality in subjection to their wives, I often point to this eye-opening passage from the Pope’s book Love and Responsibility. It not only shows that Karol Wojtyla (John Paul’s pre-papal name) was no prude, but, more importantly, it calls men to self-control and tenderness out of deep respect and reverence for their wives. Wojtyla wrote that if a husband is truly to love his wife, “it is necessary to insist that intercourse must not serve merely as a means of allowing [his] climax. ... The man must take [the] difference between male and female reactions into account ... so that climax may be reached [by] both ... and as far as possible occur in both simultaneously.” The husband must do this “not for hedonistic, but for altruistic reasons.” In this case, if “we take into account the shorter and more violent curve of arousal in the man, [such] tenderness on his part in the context of marital intercourse acquires the significance of an act of virtue” (LR, pp. 272, 275). (p. 78)
While sex can be spiritual, it is also a biological and physiological act which has been studied extensively and scientifically. The promotion of simultaneous orgasm as the end to strive for is at odds with what we know about sexuality and suggestive of a naïve and purely hypothetical understanding of it.
This book also failed to anticipate one of my key questions, which is the parallel to the animal kingdom. Other mammals have complementary male and female genitals, derive pleasure from sex, and know how masturbate; humans are not alone in this. Given my understanding that animals do not have souls (per Church doctrine) and are not honoring God through intercourse, how then does the physicality of human sex prove anything? For instance, the author writes, “No wonder we are all so darned interested in sex. God put an innate desire in every human being to want to understand it. Why? To lead us to him” (p. 59). He also writes, “There is an intelligibility to the male and female body. Seen in light of the male-female pair, sexual difference reveals the unmistakable plan of God that man and woman are meant to be a ‘gift’ to one another” (p. 28). The same premises are true of animals, but the conclusions don’t hold.
Because these biological points are not addressed, I feel especially skeptical of the advocacy of abstinence and self-control as necessary and desirable parts of the human experience for a married couple in a loving, committed relationship. Sure, people can control their sexual desire. To say otherwise is the foundation of rape culture. But I’m not convinced that they should have to in the way he advocates here, where not wanting to have children is seen as an unacceptable goal:
In other words, what could they do to avoid conceiving a child that would not render them unfaithful to their wedding vows? You are doing it right now (I presume). They could abstain from sex. There is nothing wrong with abstaining from sex when there is a good reason to do so. The Church has always recognized that the only method of “birth control” that respects the language of divine love is “self-control.” (p. 110)
What purpose does contraception really serve? This might sound odd at first, but let it sink in. Contraception was not invented to prevent pregnancy. We already had a 100 percent safe, 100 percent reliable way of doing that —abstinence. In the final analysis, contraception serves one purpose: to spare us the difficulty we experience when confronted with the choice of abstinence. When all the smoke is cleared, contraception was invented because of our lack of self-control; contraception was invented to serve the indulgence of lust. (p. 113)
In short, whether they realize this or not, contracepted intercourse says, “We prefer the momentary pleasure of a sterlized orgasm over the opportunity of participating in the inner-life of the Trinity.” To which I respond, “Bad choice!” But do you think if couples really knew they were choosing this, that they would continue to do so? I cannot help but think of Christ’s words from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). (p. 117)
Again, this strikes me as out of touch with a lived human experience, where physical intimacy can be one of life’s greatest pleasures. Actually, now that I look back at my notes, that reminds me of the other place where I got an LOL on the plane:
In the new evangelization, we need to be able to walk into fraternity parties where people are getting drunk and seeking illicit sex and say, “Do you know what you really want here? You want the Eucharist and marriage, and the Catholic Church has them in their fullness.” (p. 124)
Ignoring for a moment that I disagree with evangelization on principle, holy moly would I like to see someone actually say that at a frat party! Never mind that the heat of the moment in the frat party is not where you’ll convince someone—it’s in the common room at 3 am on a Tuesday when you have deep talks about life and people are sober and listening. But I digress.
To conclude, the biggest cop-out of the whole book:
John Paul II’s Theology of the Body provides great hope for this urgently needed renewal within the Church. When we view the Gospel message through the interpretive key of man and woman’s call to communion, not only does the Gospel message take on flesh, but even the most controversial teachings of the Church—contraception, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, an all-male priesthood, etc.—begin to make beautiful sense. (p. 125)
That passage made me end the book angry, which is probably why this review is so long. Those teachings do NOT make beautiful sense to me. They strike me as simultaneously coldhearted and naïve, which is a rare and deathly potent combination. They reek of privilege.
We have a moral responsibility to learn from history and experience. When you know better, do better. The Church has had millennia to refine its teachings based on experience, yet here we still are. Sexual abuse, domestic violence, gender discrimination, depression and suicide related to gender identity/sexual orientation, and AIDS transmission in the developing world are all real problems. They cause people pain and sometimes cost them their lives. This idealized and male-driven view of humanity and virtue perpetuates them. The only people who are not typically victimized by these ills are straight, adult men in the developed world—who are, not coincidentally, also the people who’ve always been in power in the Church.
All of that to say: I guess this book did not bring me back to the Church, but I’m very glad I read it.
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Read information about the authorChristopher West is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute. He is also one of the most sought after speakers in the Church today, having delivered more than 1000 public lectures on 4 continents, in more than a dozen countries, and in over 200 American cities. His books – Good News About Sex & Marriage, Theology of the Body Explained, and Theology of the Body for Beginners – have become Catholic best sellers.
Christopher has also lectured on a number of prestigious faculties, offering graduate and undergraduate courses at St John Vianney Seminary in Denver, the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and Creighton University’s Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha. Hundreds of thousands have heard him on national radio programs and even more have seen him defending the faith on programs such as Scarborough Country, Fox and Friends, and At Large with Geraldo Rivera. Of all his titles, Christopher is most proud to call himself a devoted husband and father. He and his wife Wendy have five children and live in Lancaster County, PA.