Early in his papacy on September 5, 1979, Blessed John Paul II gave a series of messages at the regular Wednesday audiences on a topic about which he had previously studied and published articles. There were 129 talks spanning five years. These talks came to be called the “Theology of the Body.”
In summary, the theology of the body presents a vision of sexuality as a kind of language. Sexuality is about persons, and the proper use of the language brings out the best in each person; a poor or improper use turns people into objects or things. Please click here to read Pope John Paul’s 129 talks.
Pope John Paul reminds us of the importance of beginning with a healthy vision of sexuality. Too often, our culture views the sexual act as an instrument — at times simply of pleasure or power — rather than its rightful role as the expression of the faithful and permanent love of a man and woman open to children. Such a reduction leads to a view of sexuality as merely inclinations or desires that can be acted upon without any consequence to the persons involved.
As I prepared for this column, I reviewed the teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which incidentally will be 20 years old on Oct. 11 of this year — the beginning of the “Year of Faith.” Two sections are well worth studying: the treatment of the Ten Commandments in Part III, entitled “Life in Christ,” and Part II, a brief but important section on marriage.
Part III (numbers 2331-2391) presents a beautiful and clear Christian vision of sexuality beginning with “Male and Female He Created Them” and then treating the vocation to chastity, which belongs to all who seek to follow Christ. These teachings, and especially the ones on marriage, formed the basis for the pastoral letter of the U.S. Bishops, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan” (click here to view).
In the Catechism, the section on chastity (2337-2359) is worth reading for meditation. To some, chastity is misunderstood as prudish or opposed to the healthy expression of sexuality. However, the beautiful virtue of chastity is one to which persons in all states of life are called. It proceeds from a profound regard for the dignity and wholeness of each person and from a deep understanding of the gift of sexuality and of the equality and complementarity of men and women. It is nurtured by charity and supported by self-mastery and temperance. For married persons, chastity calls forth fidelity to spouse, and for those who are not married, it is expressed in chaste friendship.
This section of the Catechism then explains that sexuality is properly and morally expressed within the permanent, exclusive and life-giving union of one man and one woman in marriage: “Sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion. Marriage bonds between baptized persons are sanctified by the sacrament” (No. 2360).
Without a clear understanding of this teaching, we lose our understanding of right from wrong, and the gift of sexuality becomes superficial. Some have said that we live in a time in which sex is used as an instrument for some other aim without inner meaning, and we also live in an age in which many experience broken relationships, unhappiness and even a certain shallowness. This is not a coincidence.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in our thinking today is that an inclination or desire is something that all have a right to act upon. In 1968, Pope Paul VI predicted as much in Humanae Vitae when he stated that the severing of the link of love and life by a contraceptive mentality would strike at the very meaning of sexuality.
In the pastoral letter on marriage, the bishops identify four challenges of the age: the practice of couples living together before or instead of marriage (cohabitation); the severing of the essential link between sexual love and life (contraception); the prevalence of divorce in our society; and the movement to change the definition of marriage away from the permanent and exclusive union of one man and one woman.
As you study the gift of the sixth commandment, please be open to God’s grace to recover and uncover the great gift of sexuality that is expressed in the virtue of chastity.
There is a lot in the news about our Catholic vision of sexuality and its impact on policies within our country. While this vision is clearly for believers to embrace, it is built on the order of right reason and nature and so contributes to the common good, like the other commandments involving killing, stealing or bearing false witness. When it comes to the law, however, it is our responsibility as believers and persons of good will to propose and persuade and to take part in the processes of government in a responsible and respectful manner. Likewise, we should work together to ensure the religious freedom of all so that we might live without violating our consciences and exercise our rights as citizens. All of these efforts require our informed understanding and civic action.