Every few months or so, controversy flares up over the theology of the body. To be more exact, the controversy is over the American presentation of the theology of the body. A large part of the problem is that TOB was developed by John Paul II, and no one has quite his flair for presenting ideas. Specifically, no one has ever been as good at presenting scandalous ideas in ways that caused no scandal. He had the mysterious charism of being able to, say, condemn Communism in the most strident terms and then share warm handshakes in photo-ops with Soviet leaders in front of enthusiastic crowds; he could argue that the Koran is clearly an inferior religious text (see “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”) and still be loved and admired by Muslims.
This same charism is at work in his presentation of TOB. John Paul II is simply presenting the scriptural teaching on marriage, which in the New Testament involves the scandalous teaching that all human beings are called to celibacy: which Christ teaches when he says in heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage, and which Paul develops in I Cor. 7. John Paul II presents this as the universal call to Christ, and he can frequently do so in such a way as to accentuate the equality of all persons in Christ. This is certainly a kind of teaching on human dignity and the equality of women, however, it is (at least in part) the honey he puts on the rim of the medicine cup. Likewise, he teaches a great deal about the family’s likeness to the Trinity and the dignity of the married life, but he always keeps it in relation to the universal call to celibacy – which, if taught directly or even if taught by anyone other than him – would cause even very convinced Catholics to go running for the doors.
This universal call to celibacy and the essential inferiority of marriage never makes its way down to the popular level of presentation of TOB. I don’t mean that, say, Christopher West never teaches it, I mean that if he does it never enters the consciousness of his audience, and – to be blunt about it – the TOB in its popular American presentation is usually understood in such a way that the superiority of celibacy and our universal call to it is never discerned, and indeed cannot be discerned.
I have extreme doubts that anyone other than John Paul II could speak of his theology of the body in a popular way. Any attempt to make the doctrine popular must cut out the call to celibacy that it at its heart. Without this, the TOB becomes simply a celebration of sexual activity, taken out of a New Testament context that clearly makes it subordinate, less perfect, and destined in the divine plan to vanish from the universe.