As you probably know, the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexual morality are really challenging. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not being honest.
In 1968, right in the midst of the sexual revolution, dramatic societal and cultural shifts, and mass confusion within the church, Pope Saint Paul VI released his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the long-standing church teaching on contraception. In reaffirming the church’s teachings about the immorality of artificial means of birth control, the Pope was stating that it was not within his power to change the teaching about contraception because it was not within his power to change church teaching about marriage, and its two-fold meaning of unity and procreation, both of which must be preserved in the marital act.
This was, back then, a total shock to many and continues to be one of the most challenged of the Church’s moral teachings. In his clear articulation of church teaching within that document, he issued a really important invitation. Pope Paul VI stated that in addition to standard disciplines of science and sociology, a total vision of man has to be taken into account when we consider questions around sexual morality (HV, 7). Pope Saint Paul VI knew that the Church needed to be renewed and reminded of the human story to understand the “why” behind this very challenging teaching of the Church. Pope Paul VI didn’t lay out this total vision of man within the document, but he left it to one who was coming after him.
This total vision of man came through a series of Wednesday audiences of Pope Saint John Paul II, now compiled together into a book and known as his Theology of the Body. If you dive in, what you’ll come to discover is that this teaching has far-reaching dimensions. It presents and explores deep questions like: What does it mean to be man and woman? What is the purpose of life? Why are we here? Who is God, and who am I?
The Theology of the Body is a deep scriptural exploration of what it means to be human, the meaning of Christ’s incarnation and our redemption, and our destiny. Through the Theology of the Body, you’ll come to discover that the church’s teachings on sexual morality are not so much a series of oppressive rules to blindly follow, but a radical invitation to embrace the beauty of what it means to be a human person created in God’s image and likeness. This total vision equips you and me to say yes to God’s awesome plan for human sexuality.
As you read all of this, you might be tempted to think this sounds idealistic and at face value has little to do with real human experience. Yet, it has everything to do with real human experience. Redemption and healing of our sexual desires is possible and very real. Discovering our identity and being empowered to live in freedom is very real. Living out the demands of authentic love is very possible, and when embraced, is not only fulfilling, but it brings deep interior joy. After all, you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t believe freedom and joy was waiting for you, even if it may feel very far away right now.
To give you a taste of how God has used the Theology of the Body to bring healing and freedom in my life and the lives of so many others, I will break open below what I believe are five major themes that have helped me more fully embrace God’s plan for my life.
1. Sexual Desire Is Good
Saint Pope John Paul II reminds us that God created sexual desire, and it is good. The body is meant to draw us into communion with another person in the marital act and allows a space for authentic love to be shared and experienced. Often times, especially when we take our sexual desire to unhealthy and sinful places like pornography and masturbation, we can become very suspicious and maybe even resentful of our sexual desire.
We have to remember, however, that living in freedom is not eliminating sexual desire completely; it is about having the self-mastery to order our sexual desire to its proper end in whatever state of life we are in: married, celibate, or single.
What we really should be resentful of is lust, which is a twisting and diminishment of sexual desire. Lust, simply put, is using another person for sexual gratification. It can exist in the mind and be enacted in and through the body through fantasy, pornography, masturbation, extramarital sex, and yes, even within the sexual act between married persons. Lust reduces the person to the level of an object. While lust is directed toward ourselves and leaves little to no room for the good of the other, redeemed sexual desire leads us outside of ourselves toward another in mutual belonging and mutual gift.
2.The Body Is an Icon
If you’ve ever seen a traditional icon, often found in the Eastern traditions of Christianity and Catholicism, you’ll notice they aren’t meant to be a literal reproduction of the person or story they represent. You’ll often see Christ depicted with a really large head, for example, which is meant to represent that He is all-knowing.
These masterpieces are like windows; they are meant to draw you in to see something beyond them. They beckon you to contemplate and encounter the mystery that they portray. Saint Pope John Paul II says in his Theology of the Body, “The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it” (TOB 19:4).
What does this mean? Your body is an icon and therefore has enormous sign value. You reveal a mystery. In fact, your body reveals who you are and the very meaning of your existence. Humanity exists as male and female, and whether you are a man or a woman, your body does not make sense by itself. Manhood can only be fully understood in light of womanhood, and womanhood in light of manhood. Written into your body is the truth that you are called to communion with another.
The body of another person invites you to encounter the inner person—the whole person—body and soul. All too often we stop at the body and this isn’t enough. The redemption that Christ invites us into calls us to see as He sees, the whole person, a very good person, a willed and wanted person, and a person chosen by God and destined for Him. In the quote, John Paul II says that the body also reveals the divine mystery. The reality that we are made for communion is stamped into our bodies, and if we are created in His image and likeness, then revealed in our bodies is the truth that God exists as a communion of persons—the Holy Trinity.
3. Redemption Is About Transformation, Not Sin Management
The Theology of the Body teaches us that redemption is far more than sin management, but rather about restoration and transformation. If you’ve been striving to be freed of pornography or sexual addiction for a while, it can be very discouraging at times. Sometimes the fight for freedom can feel like sin management. You get into a vicious cycle of falling, binging, confessing, and starting over. It’s something a lot of us can probably relate to. However, when we lose sight of what redemption is all about, we easily fall into sin management burnout.
I encounter too many people who are fighting for freedom who “fight” with a defeatist attitude, as if they have already made peace with the fact that they will fall again. We have to remember that redemption is about transformation, and this is good news because this means that you are not solely responsible for your own freedom. If Jesus is calling you to more, it is because He knows that you have what it takes and He is ready to give you everything that you need.
When I am praying with men and women who struggle with pornography, I often ask them, “Do you believe that Jesus has the power to transform you so deeply right now that you never desire pornography again?”
This is a vital starting point because we need to have confidence in God! Remember the men and women in the Gospels who were healed by Christ all had one thing in common—they knew that He could heal them. This kind of freedom can be instantaneous, but oftentimes He lays it out as an ongoing process and journey. Regardless of the form it takes, we need to embrace God’s power to transform us and have confidence that He will do the heavy lifting.
4. Embrace Intimacy and Vulnerability
Healing from any wound requires exposing it to the one who can heal it. Exposing the wound is a very vulnerable act. Consider how many of us are deeply afraid of standing before Christ in the stark and naked reality of our sinfulness. Ask yourself this: do you run to prayer immediately after you have fallen, or do you resist prayer because you feel disgusting and unworthy to be seen by God?
For many of us, it is the latter. This tendency to run and hide has been with us since the fall of our first parents. Recall in the book of Genesis how Adam was hiding as God was seeking actively seeking him out. The Theology of the Body teaches us the closeness of Christ to us, especially in the places of our darkness and woundedness.
To attain the intimacy with Christ that we are called to, we must make ourselves vulnerable. Vulnerable comes from the Latin word, "vulnus," which means wound. We must make ourselves woundable. This means that our defenses have to come down, and our patterns of toxic self-reliance have to fall away. We have to allow Him to work and stop resisting His closeness. God doesn’t overlook our failures or diminish their seriousness. However, He also knows it doesn’t define us. He sees who we are, and He knows that we have what it takes to say yes to His plan for our lives. He doesn’t recoil in the face of our sin, but God actually leans in closer when we allow Him.
5. Your Body Will Be Resurrected
The idea that we will be a wispy, floating spirit in heaven is not the Christian understanding of heaven. Nor is this idea that we become angels when we die. We will be human beings with glorified bodies. You will be a human being for all eternity, body and soul intimately united, but bodies nonetheless. The body is “a unique composite—a unity of spirit and matter, soul and body, fashioned in the image of God and destined to live forever” (Pope Saint John Paul II’s message to Health Workers, Phoenix, Arizona, 1987).
The resurrection of the body is a huge mystery, and perhaps this is why we don’t spend much time talking about it. Nevertheless, the fact that we will one day spend eternity embodied as men and as women should tell us something about how important these bodies are—how important your body is. God doesn’t create junk, and He will not resurrect junk. The Theology of the Body forms us to have a profound reverence for our own bodies and the bodies of others.
Even today, after many years of studying and engaging Saint Pope John Paul II’s teachings, I continue to encounter new treasures that are stretching me, challenging me, and forming me in my identity as a man. I know well the challenge of embracing the Church’s teachings on human sexuality, but what I continually discover is that right in the midst of the challenge, I find Jesus Christ, who not only offers me His strength, but joy, fulfillment, and happiness beyond what I’m capable of imagining.
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