The American presentation of the Theology of the Body

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.



  1. Edward said,

    November 18, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    I read West’s Beginner’s Theology of the Body a few years ago and I remember a section where he discusses the relationship between marriage and celibacy. He made a distinction between the objectively better life and the subjectively better one. Celibacy is objectively a superior life to marriage, but subjectively the better life is which ever one God calls you too. What do you think of this?

    Also, in this light, is there a distinction to be made between this life and the next? Obviously Christ taught that our ultimate destiny in the next life is one which excludes marriage between men and women, and in this sense it is clearly superior, but do we need to distinguish between the celibate life on earth and the celibate life in heaven?

    • November 18, 2010 at 5:46 pm

      That response is familiar. I’ve never thought about it, but as I mull it over now I’m really unimpressed by it.

      1.) Parallel examples are pretty problematic. Twinkies and donuts are “subjectively better” for me also. Perhaps what West is really appealing to are the diverse circumstances of various persons. There are objective circumstances in which certain things are better absolutely but not better in a particular case. What exactly are these circumstances? St. Paul gives some – the alleviation of concupiscence seems to be the major one (better to marry than burn). But this is a good deal less exiting than this doctrine of “subjective goodness”, where we imagine that marriage is God’s special plan for just me. In general, I’m very nervous about this idea of “subjective goodness”, which I think could do a good deal of damage if one decided to take it in right earnest.

      2.) If by ‘subjective’ he means “what God calls you to as an individual” then it’s simply false, and it misses the heart of Christ’s teaching to say that God calls some to celibacy and others not. God calls each and every individual to celibacy. It’s simply a matter of when. That’s at the heart of the New Testament. We are all called to the celibate life in this life or the next.

      3.) It’s a way of dodging and avoiding the real scandal of the Gospel, and it robs us of the perspective in which our subjective and personal choices have their fullest meaning. It is better for us to see ourselves as inferiors participating in a common good than to see ourselves as fulfilled individuals in the merely subjective order of things that concern us alone. The common good is simply better than the incommunicable one, and so it is better for us, even in our own subjectivity, to see ourselves as inferiors in a common good than even as perfectly fulfilled in our own incommunicable good. In other words, it is better for married persons to see themselves as inferiors in an common order than as kings of their own order. How much more is this the case when the order in which they are inferiors is the one instituted by Christ himself!

  2. Martin T. said,

    November 19, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    I admit to being shocked and scandlized the first time I heard this from the pulpit as a longtime teaching of the Church. That was no more than 10 years ago, probably not that. The relevance of the teaching goes far into our personal married lives.

  3. Robert King said,

    November 20, 2010 at 9:37 am

    I’ve been mulling this over since you posted, and one thing is certain: I need to revisit JP2’s “TotB”.

    But at this point I’m still speaking from ignorance, so there may be a simple answer to my objection.

    It seems to me that “celibacy” is a negative concept: it is the state of not-married. The state of heaven, that is, “like the angels”, is a positive concept. But the state of heaven is also portrayed as the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, where the Church is his bride. So heaven appears to be a marriage that transcends our temporal practice of marriage, rather than a celibate non-marriage.

    Moreover, the beatific vision is a kind of union, and a union more perfect than any temporal union. Marriage, in the temporal sphere, is an image or foretaste of this union.

    In other words, it doesn’t exactly make sense to me that celibacy is a common good, or that everyone is called to celibacy, whether now or in heaven – because the common good of union with God in heaven doesn’t seem to me to be “celibate”.

    I’m not trying to imply a “sexualization” of heaven; on the contrary, I think that sexual activity in the temporal sphere is a mere shadow of the union of heaven. Nor am I disputing the ranking of celibacy over marriage in terms of nobility of call here on earth. I’m simply wondering whether “celibacy” is an appropriate term to describe the beatific vision.

    • November 20, 2010 at 10:53 am

      One support for your idea might be the frequent comparisions that Scripture between divine union and conjugal love, Hosea says “I will espouse you to me in faith”; Paul says that marriage is a type for the union of Christ and the Church, and the whole Song of Songs makes little sense unless it is read in this sort of way. But I’d still hold that the New Testament teaching is that celibacy is a closer approximation and fuller participation in this life than marriage. The Scripture uses these comparisons to descibe the afterlife and ressurection because they are closer to what we know, even though they are not as perfect of a participation in the life to come itself.

      • Brandon said,

        November 20, 2010 at 12:01 pm

        I think an advantage marriage has, symbolically speaking, is that it is obviously a union in ways celibacy isn’t — i.e., not that celibacy isn’t a union, but that it isn’t obviously so, whereas even the densest people can see that marriage is some kind of union. Plus, I think the Dionysian grotesque has some place here: because marriage involves sex, reasonable people handle the symbol more carefully than they might if celibacy were on the table. (It does seem pretty clear that people don’t in general handle the idea of celibacy very carefully, and thus don’t really think it through — it’s just the not-marriage thing.)

        Perhaps, though, this isn’t quite fair to marriage. Marriage, if one can stand the paradox, could be considered as passing away only because it is (so to speak) an imperfect thing that grows into the perfect. Marriage would then not be wholly different from (earthly) celibacy, but have the same goal as it, differing from it only in the sense that the ordinary school curriculum differs from the gifted or accelerated school curriculum: it teaches the same things, but in a less concentrated way.

  4. Edward Feser said,

    November 25, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    I tend to agree with Robert King and Brandon. Marriage is natural to us, celibacy is not. The life of heaven, and holy celibacy in this life, are superior to the married state not because they are anti-natural, but because they are supernatural. Hence to say that marriage will “vanish from the universe” seems highly misleading. It seems more correct to say that it will be fulfilled insofar as that to which it points will be realized.

    I say this, by the way, as someone who thinks that nuptial imagery has been way overdone in recent theology, and who has little patience for the silly hyper-romanticization typically associated with popular presentations of TOB. But in counteracting this stuff, one needn’t, and shouldn’t, go to he opposite extreme of seeming to denigrate the married state.

    • November 26, 2010 at 7:38 am

      Well, I’m willing to be talked out of what I said, but I don’t see a way out yet. I don’t see how what I said is misleading or extreme given that ressurected persons will have sexual organs but never use them and will will find their greatest enjoyment in not using them.

  5. Peter said,

    November 25, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    I’m not up on JPII’s TOB, nor the more popular presentations, so I can’t speak to that, but I think in the main, James is right.

    1.) Celibacy is better than the marriage state. Council of Trent, sess. 24, can. 10.: “If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.”

    Now, the standard argument can be summarized (cf. Grenier, sec. 1002):

    a) The good of the soul is preferable to the good of the body, and the good of the contemplative life is preferable to the good of the active life. But virginity is directed to the good of the soul in regard to the contemplative life, which consists in thinking of the things of God; and matrimony is directed to the good of the body, which is the bodily multiplication of the human race, and pertains to the active life, because men and women living in the matrimonial state have to think on the things of the world. Therefore. (This is summarizing II-II, q. 152, a. 4.)

    b) That which directly perfects the rational part of man is superior to a good which befits man in as much as he is an animal. But virginity directly perfects the rational part of man, whereas matrimony befits man in as much as he is an animal. Therefore.

    2.) Now, some things must be noted about the concept of celibacy/virginity being used in the Catholic tradition. It is not simply not having sex or getting married. It is abstaining from venereal pleasure for the good of the soul, specifically by the ordering the life more perfectly to the contemplation of divine things. St. Thomas says, “Now virginity is directed to the good of the soul in respect of the contemplative life,” and, “Now the use of sexual union hinders the mind from giving itself wholly to the service of God, and this for two reasons…” (See II-II, q. 186, a. 4)

    This positive motive is explained by Higgins succinctly (sect. 712): “Celibacy or virginity is not only abstention from matrimony but from all use of sex. Its material element is bodily integrity and freedom from venereal pleasure; its formal element, rendering it especially virtuous, is the safeguarding of it for God’s sake. Some people may not marry for selfish reasons. We are not discussing virginity compulsorily but grudgingly borne but virginity freely chosen for reasons of religious worship, contemplation, or the service of mankind. St. Augustine says: `We do not praise virgins for being virgins, but, because their virginity is consecrated to God by holy continence.'”

    Also, it is usually noted that if there were a shortage of people, marriage would become necessary and choosing the life of celibacy would be wrong in that situation.

    3.) It seems to me that its superiority to marriage is natural. Virginity is for the perfecting of the rational soul, especially through the contemplation of divine things, which is a natural good. “If a man abstain from bodily pleasures, in order more freely to give himself to the contemplation of truth, this is in accordance with the rectitude of reason.” (II-II, q. 152, a. 2)

    4.) This also shows how celibacy is a certain likeness and foretaste of the beatific vision (contemplation of God).

    5.) Celibacy thus understood is ordered to a common good, and the highest common good, at that. The argument against this goes like this:

    That which is directed to the common good is better than that which is directed to a private good. But matrimony is directed to the common good, whereas virginity is directed to a private good. Therefore matrimony is better than virginity.

    To this it is responded: Major:— if the common good and private good belong to the same order, I concede; if private good belongs to a different and superior order, I deny. Minor:— Virginity is directed to private good which belongs to the same order as the common good to which matrimony is directed, I deny; which belongs to a different and superior order, I concede.

    The good sought in matrimony is human and temporal good, whereas the good sought in virginity is divine and spiritual good. Moreover virginity is also directed to the common good: for the divine good is the greatest common good.

    Many (all?) in the Thomistic tradition teach this. Gredt, for example, summarizes this teaching in passing (vol. 2, sec. 1013): “(Coelibatus ex nobili fine susceptus perfectior est matrimonio).—Quod est majus bonum individui et multitudinis, perfectius est. Atqui coelibatus ex nobili fine susceptus, ad expeditius vacandum contemplationi veritatis et virtutibus colendis et operibus caritatis exercendis, majus est bonum individuo et multitudini. Ergo.”

    James, have I captured the elements of your thinking, or am I off here?

    • November 26, 2010 at 7:48 am

      There’s a lot to digest here, but I wrote this post with two things in mind:

      a.) “They will neither marry nor be given in marriage”
      b.) The (IMO) common theological opinion (which seems hard to aviod given the above quotation) that ressurected persons will have sexual organs but never use them, and will enjoy this celibacy more than anything else.

      This doesn’t strike me as best described as a state that is neither marriage nor celibacy, but a fulfillment of both. That this state is the fulfilment of everything in human life I would certainly grant, and this would be admitted by all. But the state itself strikes me as celibacy.

      • Thomas said,

        November 29, 2010 at 2:06 pm

        For what it’s worth, the Eastern Orthodox view on this point is much better worked out, and advantageous in that it doesn’t denigrate marriage by imagining God to perform a divorce upon the death of the parties, and it comports better with the idea that human beings were made for each other from eternity. John Meyerdorff’s book on marriage is excellent and most of it is available through the Google books preview.

  6. peeping thomist said,

    November 26, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    There is a lot to digest here, indeed.

    Peter et alia,

    1)Celibacy in this life is clearly higher than marriage. There is no denying this. I don’t know who to blame, but the perception is that sometimes this truth is then taken to unnecessarily denigrate marriage in some way.


    The key, I think, is to see the connection between marriage and something higher, and this is clearly more than simply avoiding the burning stuff. I think the TOB at its best reveals that one gets to what is higher by looking through marriage rather than around it. Rather like Plato on erotic desire, except even more specifically and clearly.

    a) Matrimony may be more directly connected to the good of the body, but it is so in such a way as this connection can never be fully understood without seeing how the way in which it is for the good of the body is tied to the good of the soul. It brings souls into being in some sense, for starters.

    It pertains to the active life, but it is also not good for man to be alone, presumably because it pertains to more than the active life, no? One might wonder on this traditional account why woman was created in the first place if celibacy is simply better and the contemplative life is the highest as the contemplative life is generally understood in these discussions by modern people. Wouldn’t Adam have been better off by himself, contemplating and knowing God by himself? Yet it wasn’t good for him to be alone, and this was on no account of a fault in himself according to Genesis. And the answer to his being alone was NOT creating other men to similarly walk and talk with God. Women aren’t created just to serve man’s contemplation of God and birth little contemplators are they?

    b) Matrimony befits man in as much as he is an animal…true. But animals don’t get married. That presents a problem and a host of questions for this presentation of marriage. Again, why highlight that it is not good for man to be alone in a way separate from the other animals? Why isn’t it wrong for animals to procreate through relations essentially different from those human beings have between the sexes?

    As to 4) …let’s say “celibacy is a certain likeness and foretaste of the beatific vision (contemplation of God).” But marriage is a certain likeness and foretaste of the beatific union, no? So isn’t there some sense in which both pass away?

    5) “The good sought in matrimony is human and temporal good”…again, not unqualifiedly. Through matrimony and the common good of the family one seeks the same common good as virginity (consecrated and ordered rightly) seeks, no?

    Also, although marriage will not exist in heaven, we know that relations between human beings will still exists, and in hierarchical ways. Political order doesn’t disappear, etc., with Christ the King. So it is unclear as to what the relations we develop here become there outside of marriage and sexual acts seemingly gone. It is not clear that other deeper and lesser forms of unity disappear between people in the next life or are manifested in more perfect ways.

    In general, however, it seems to be that the hierarchy of states in this life should be emphasized, but not at the expense of losing the essential notion that it is through marriage (and not just practically speaking of the sake of sating sexual desire and the like) that one can see something higher even if it is not as high a state as virginity properly understood and lived.

  7. Edward Feser said,

    November 26, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    Peter writes:

    It seems to me that its superiority to marriage is natural.

    This part I find problematic. Nature does nothing in vain. Yet she has given us bodies in addition to souls. And though bodily goods are lower goods, they are still goods, and necessary to us — so much so that a soul without a body is not even a human person, but just a part of a person (albeit the chief part).

    We are, in short, rational animals by nature, not Platonic souls trapped in matter. So, our natural goods include animal goods. Now, among these goods are venereal pleasure and its proper context, marriage. Hence, since celibacy is a good for us, and indeed a higher good, it must surely be a supernatural good rather than a natural good.

    (Obviously there are instances of pagans who were capable of something like holy celibacy. But it is the normal case that determines what is natural for us. And that there are also pagans capable of astounding self-sacrifice for the good of others and for love of the divine as they understand it does not mean that charity is not a supernatural virtue.)

    Furthermore, Peeping Thomist is right to emphasize that it is misleading to characterize marriage as merely an aspect of our animal nature. It is more properly characterized as flowing from our rational animality. Even the sexual act, as a matter of natural law, cannot morally be carried out merely as a kind of rutting; a man ought not, for example, to look upon his wife in that context merely as the particular woman with whom he may lawfully indulge his desires. There is a distinctively interpersonal element to sex in human beings, and thus a distinctively rational element.

  8. peeping thomist said,

    November 27, 2010 at 10:40 am

    Heartily agree with Ed here. The traditional view as presented here sounds awful like the dualism of Plato at his worst.

    As to the original post. I’m not sure that JPII’s TOB can be considered “popular.” Chris West’s presentation has made it popular in America, but I don’t think too many people are reading through it on their own. Thomist and traditional types are usually grumpily suspicious of it, and few others read it seriously.

    Maybe James is right that West in some way avoids talking about celibacy, but I don’t think so from what I’ve heard. He talks up purity and the sacrifice of celibacy quite a bit…but I’m not sure. James could be right about this and I haven’t spent enough time with West to know. But I do think this complaint may be unfair. Because what West is dealing with is a society that treats sex as if we were animals, and as if we need to have sex like we need to scratch an itch, and that therefore all things are lawful regarding it. It is of low regard. The answer to this sure as hell doesn’t seem to me to be: “Yeah, you are all right, it is low and animalistic and won’t be with us in heaven and only relates to the body. Practically though you all need to follow this very difficult moral code that runs counter to your culture and this very argument that it is merely low and animalistic.” Rather, the response should be to elevate the understanding of sexual activity in the context of who we truly are: eternal souls working out our salvation THROUGH the body, celibate or no. Now, part of this response MUST, like James says, make clear the higher rank of celibacy to be sure. But I’m not sure why this wouldn’t go hand in hand with elevating our notion of the sexual act and the dignity of our bodies. The mistake, and a very real and tragic one, seems to be the philosophic notion that bodies are dirty and sex is simply something we have to do in order to live, like defecating. There is something very perverse and bifurcated about this.

    In general, we know from revelation and from examining our nature that marriage is not merely some arbitrary arrangement of positive law in order to cool the heat of the unruly members and achieve bodily goods. For starters, take the mystery passage from Ephesians for revelation:

    As far as nature goes, the first community that forms human souls (whether they become celibate or not) is that of the family…and man is naturally social. Man is incomplete in some way without woman. So if sex passes away in heaven, it should point us to the fact that sex is the sign of something higher and deeper and better.

  9. Brandon said,

    November 27, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    .) Now, some things must be noted about the concept of celibacy/virginity being used in the Catholic tradition. It is not simply not having sex or getting married. It is abstaining from venereal pleasure for the good of the soul, specifically by the ordering the life more perfectly to the contemplation of divine things.

    I think this point by Peter is actually quite important; but it actually suggests that there is a real link between marriage and celibacy, because this also describes sacramental marriage. The difference is that sacramental marriage is an imperfect, or to English it, incomplete instance of it: the abstinence of marriage is fidelity to one, and it is for the good of the soul, and qua sacrament it orders life more perfectly to contemplation of divine things, although in other respects it may be to celibacy somewhat as the active life is to the contemplative. Holy celibacy, all other things being equal, more perfectly/completely instantiates the description, so can reasonably be considered a higher state. But there seems to be an important commonality between celibacy and at least that form of marriage that is sacramental, i.e., marriage between two baptized Christians.

    No doubt the issue becomes more complicated when we deal with valid non-sacramental marriages.

  10. Peter said,

    November 27, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    Why was woman made? Huh, seems like the prelude to a joke. Hehe. Better I not answer that one, for there is nothing I understand less than women!

    Seriously, though, I originally wrote a long response, but I don’t want to stray off James’ original point more than I already have, so I’m scrapping it.

    (By the way, see St. Augustine on Marriage and Virginity. They may help thinking over this topic. Also see St. Thomas: ScG III, 122 and the chapters following, and ScG IV, 83: That among the risen there will be no use of food or sexual love. There are many other texts worth bringing into the discussion, but if I have misrepresented anything, these few may help to resolve the confusion.)

  11. peeping thomist said,

    November 27, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    Agreed with Brandon, Peter and James that an understanding of the higher standing of celibacy is intrinsically connected to understanding the place of marriage and sex. I may have bent the bow a little too far and I could have clarified my objections more than I did after turkey and beer. But the point was to generate a response. Would love to hear more from you, Peter. I am aware of those texts and will look at them again if I can squeeze in the chance. In general, however, I think that even if all (or perhaps, most) of those arguments are true there is something unsatisfying about them that doesn’t just come from our dwelling in modern culture, but rather comes from a development of doctrine that hasn’t quite come to fruition. In other words, not because they are false but because they are lacking something further.

    Along these lines:

    “Think of the time it took for the Church to reverse inveterate habits and impose the consent of the engaged couple as the sole indispensable condition for marriage. The famous monogamous marriage that we now call ‘traditional’ was in fact a hard-won innovation. What is really traditional is the contract between two families for an exchange of spouses, whose opinion was seldom asked. Until quite late, so-called ‘Christian’ society regarded with a jaundiced eye those who married—before a priest, to be sure—without consulting father, mother, or the social conventions. In one telling example: when the silk-worker Gonzalo de Yepes married Catalina Alvarez, a poor weaver, for love, his family disowned him. Moreover, when Catalina became a widow, she had to make her way alone to raise her son, later known under the name of St. John of the Cross.”

  12. RP said,

    December 1, 2010 at 3:13 am

    C. S. Lewis suggested somewhere that in heaven we have something better than sex.

    But a problem with the notion that celibacy is “better” is that throughout history it has meant that holiness is for priests, monks and nuns as opposed to holiness for all. I see VCII as reminding everyone of the latter since only a few have stated it before it: Ven. Louis of Granada, St. Francis De Sales, Bd. Newman, St. Josemaria, some in the early Church. However, on the whole, a kind of clericalism has prevailed.

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