This article appeared in the November 2008 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly
Dr Charlie Vivian
Theology of the Body for Beginners. Christopher West.
Broken families, abortion, AIDS, Internet pornography, clergy abuse, homosexual “marriage” – our Church and world is in the midst of a profound sexual crisis. Is there a way out?
or such a time as this have we
been given Pope John Paul II and his ‘theology of the body.’ Based on the words
of Jesus, John Paul II’s reflections on the body and sex take us to the root of
the modern crisis and chart the path to an authentic sexual liberation. The Pope
invites us to reflect on our experience, and embrace our dignity. The message is
one of healing and redemption, rather than
condemnation. Yet the Pope’s profound scholarship often intimidates the average person.
In Theology of the Body for Beginners, Christopher West provides a short summary of the Pope’s revolutionary teaching. Why I love his book is because he speaks the truth in love. God’s truth is proclaimed clearly and fearlessly, yet his tone is gentle, and he injects humour effortlessly. When I experience this combination, I know the Holy Spirit is busy at work!
He provides a crystal clear presentation of why God created us male and female. In essence, our sexuality is an icon: the physical is a representation of divine truth. The purpose of marriage ultimately is to point to the infinitely deeper union within the Godhead, and between Jesus and the Church. And therefore sex is something to be revered and held in high esteem, rather than grasped at grubbily.
He outlines the problem of lust
caused by the fall. Mankind moved from being able to accept God’s gift, and
moved to grasping to meet a (now) unmet need. As a generalisation, men use love
to get sex, and women use sex to get love. This difference in the sexes produces
a shame in women: a woman is moved to cover herself up, so that she is not used
as an object for lust. The opposite of love is not hatred, but using someone for
selfish ends. The adultery of lust is precisely because a man looks in a way
that objectifies. He can just as easily do this to his
wife, and marriage does not justify lust!
But the heritage of our hearts is deeper than lust: we desire what is deeper. Therefore, we shouldn’t look to walk through life simply coping with lust: we need to be transformed! A change in our hearts, (as outlined in the baptismal promises in Ezekiel 36.25) leads us to freedom from the law. In other words, we will fulfil the law rather than breaking it. Sexual purity is not about repressing desire, but understanding its spousal and nuptial meaning; how our communion with God is the North Pole to which erotic desire points.
He also covers the reason why celibacy is so important. Both marriage and celibacy flow from the redemption of sexual desire. When a culture devalues sex, both celibacy and marriage suffer. Since marriage is an icon, the purpose of celibacy is to skip the earthly sacrament in anticipation of the heavenly union. The reality is far more attractive than the icon: otherwise, the icon has become an idol.
Finally, he clarifies why contraception is essentially sacriligeous. Since marriage is an icon, it should imitate the union within the Godhead, which is free, total, faithful and fruitful. Removing any of these undermines the relationship. Intermittent fruitfulness is no better than intermittent fidelity.
This book has given me a vision, a standard at which to aim. It has also emboldened me that God is able to transform (metamorphose) me, through the resurrection power of Jesus, so that I can live this new way. If sexual sin is a regular cause for confession for you, you simply must read this book. If it isn’t, please read it anyway, better to understand and minister to us who struggle in this area.