The 2016 Theology of the Body Congress starts tomorrow in California, and I'm bummed that I can't go. But I still get to share the wonderful news about the goodness of God, of sex, and our bodies through the #TOBTalk campaign (search #TOBTalk on Twitter for more). And I'm hoping somebody brings home a program for me so I can see our book The Four Keys to Everlasting Love listed in the resource section!
I first encountered Pope St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body (TOB) in New York City during the late 1990s, when I was still a practicing Episcopalian. The vibrant Catholic scene teemed with young professionals at the top of their game, working, playing, and praying in the city that never sleeps.
I was proud of my geek status as a Manhattan litigator who had graduated high school at age 14, college at 18, and law school at 21. But there ain't no geek like a Catholic geek. I couldn't hold a candle to these people. In addition to mastering their professional fields, these young Manhattan Catholics of the JPII generation read papal encyclicals on their lunch break and quoted the documents of Vatican II by paragraph number. In this hotbed of faith and learning, JPII's TOB was just catching fire.
In 1997, Pauline Books published the first full-length English translation of the 129 talks that made up TOB. Two years later, George Weigel's definitive biography of Pope John Paul II declared TOB to be "a theological time bomb waiting to go off."
Around this time, my Catholic suitor, one-on-one evangelist, and future husband Manny invited me to join a book club discussing the precursor to TOB -- the book Love & Responsibility, which was written when Pope John Paul II was still Karol Wojtyla. With its detailed analysis of complex theological and philosophical concepts, JPII's writing sang serenades to the geek in me. The fact that his subject matter was love, romance, and sexuality didn't hurt either.
Like most 20-something urbanites, I had muddled ideas about sex. A part of me thought sex was the road to happily ever after, but that definitely hadn't worked out for me in real life."To find your prince, first you have to kiss a lot of frogs," one of my roommates cynically declared. I was tired of frogs.
My mother's birds-and-bees advice to the teen me had included lessons like "men think of sex like hamburger -- they might enjoy it, but no one actually remembers all the hamburgers they've ever eaten." The main idea was that for at least half the population, sex was a feel-good activity that had no emotional value, much less a transcendental one. From there, it was a short hop, skip, and jump to the notion that God didn't really care about sex either. In my mind, sex wasn't "right" or "wrong." It just was.
But if sex had no moral weight or transcendental value, then why did the break-up of a romantic relationship feel like the loss of a limb? Popular theologians like Christopher West (who wrote TOB Explained in 2003) pointed out that sex is meant to bond or unite two people together forever. When "two become one flesh" through sex and then break off that sexual relationship, they feel torn apart on the inside because they are.
This outlook made sense, not just at an intellectual level, but at a gut level, too. Sex was made for lifelong union. And it was made for babies, also. Sex creates life, and that's part of God's plan. As I learned more about Pope John Paul II's teachings, I could feel my worldview realigning like a spine under the hands of a talented chiropractor. I was happier, healthier, and on my way to converting to Catholicism, marrying in the Church, and birthing a passel of beautiful babies.
So, TOB taught me the transcendental value of sex. God does care about sexuality and procreation. He's not a kill-joy, he's a generator of joy. The excitement of romance, the pleasure of sex, the satisfaction of lifelong married love, and the fulfillment of parenting are all joy-filled gifts he gives us. God's love is meant to excite us, please us, satisfy us, and fulfill us. This is the epiphany that TOB sparked in me, and one that I'm honored to proclaim.
This article appeared originally on Catholic365.com. Image Copyright 2016 by Bill Donaghy.