Theology of the Body for Beginners by Christopher West

Theology Of The Body For BeginnersSummary: Very helpful, quick overview of John Paul II’s theology of the body.

I purchased this about a year ago after I read Matthew Lee Anderson’s very good Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith (first review, second review).  I was looking a basic introduction to John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and Christopher West has written several books on it.

The book sat on my bookshelf for a year but I read it very quickly once I picked it up. Overall I this was a good book.  I highlighted and marked up the book quite a bit (and then left it with my Dad while visiting for Thanksgiving, who was also interested in reading it.)

So I don’t have the book notes.  From memory, the strong points are Marriage as a divine gift, the strong idea about how celibacy fits into that sacramental view of marriage, the way that God designed the body and the ways that sin and redemption of have affected our subsequent view of body.  All of that really is good, fits well within the Christian (and Evangelical) theology and I think strengthens our theology.

Many place the book was quite beautiful in its descriptions of the body, marriage, sex, and God’s love for us.  I think that beauty is something that is often missing in our Evangelical descriptions of the body.  We get erotic, physical, dangerous; we miss the beauty.

What I did not get is the Catholic emphasis on contraception.  It just does not theologically make sense to me.  I understand being open to God giving us children. I am all for that.  But even West admits that Natural Family Planning when used with modern methods and properly (which many people do not) it is almost as effective as any other medical birth control method.  And modern contraception as commonly practiced is far from foolproof.  (Still nearly 50 percent of all pregnancies are unplanned.)

So, either Catholics should reject natural family planning as a legitimate method or accept other methods.  I understand why IUD and some other medical methods are objectionable.  But not all methods are objectionable in the same ways.  What I found more concerning is that West suggests that if a person is recommended to not have children for medical reasons, then it would be recommended for a couple to just stop having sex (and be celibate) to be sure they were not violating God’s law.  This seems to be violating the covenant of marriage in order to not violate a Catholic prescription against contraception that most Catholics already reject in practice.

On the whole, I really do think that John Paul II’s theology of the body is helpful for Evangelicals to think seriously about.  His work on the couple, celibacy and the trinity as a model for marriage and marriage and singleness as a way to work out our love of God are all very helpful.

I just cannot wrap my head around contraception restrictions as the Catholic hierarchy details it.  And clearly many Catholics in the US agree, since the vast majority do not follow church practice.

Theology of The Body for Beginners Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition (Kindle Edition is a newer edition)


“This seems to be violating the covenant of marriage…”

So … the covenant of marriage has sex as a pillar? The RCC’s opposition to contraception does make a good deal of sense theologically if one both understands 1) how deep it’s view of the sanctity of life goes and 2) what submission to God means. For Catholics to ignore the Church and practice contraception is simply a reliving of what Eve and Adam did in Genesis 3 — ignore Providence and choose their own path. And look how happy it made them…

Let’s be honest: most Catholics reject the Church’s teaching because it discomfits them. Pure and simple. There’s nothing principled about it (at least, no principle that is theologically sound).

I could whip West with a wet noodle (if he were here and I had a wet noodle) for failing to dig a bit more deeply on this issue. It may take a bit more than reading JPII’s work, but it’s really not all that hard to connect the dots right back to biblical stories (e.g., Onan and Tamar comes to mind).

I have no patience for the Protestant responses I’ve paid more attention to in the last year. They all boil down to this: “I want sex when I want it and no one (including God) is gonna tell me otherwise.”

Oh, and the point of NFP is that is encourages a couple to be thoughtful and disciplined, engaging in sex at planned times rather than whenever it suits them. There is room of spontaneity of course, but within bounds (unless you want another child — looks who’s talking here!). The principle behind this is that it recognizes the life-giving nature of sex, submission to God’s essential purpose with sex (procreation, then enjoyment), and submission to one’s spouse and the marriage. By the way, I don’t think it’s a mistake that this is all much harder for the man — it’s divine irony since Adam sat back in the Garden and let the whole paradise setting crumble around him. One needn’t assume he needed to dominate Eve — a simple “Hey Honey, don’t listen to anything that damn snake says!” would have sufficed.

More please.

    First, yes, I do think that sex is an important part of marriage. Do I think it is the center, no, but yes I do think it is one of the pillars. I have done a lot of reading on marriage (albeit not a lot of Catholic reading about marriage) and I think that there are very few marriages that are healthy that are not having sex. I don’t think it is a leading indicator, I think it is a following indicator.

    I think you might be right that many Catholics reject the teaching because it makes them uncomfortable. But I would guess just as many reject it because they don’t understand it.

    Here is how I keep understanding it. No contraception because that is circumventing God’s ability to provide you with children. But I know all kinds of people where God provided a child while they were on contraception so I am not hindering God using the pill or condom any more than using NFP. I keep hearing catholics say it is about effectiveness. But West and others have said NFP is just as effective if you want it to be. So while I agree that the actual teaching isn’t contraception is effective so it is bad, that is a popular level read on the issue. And one that West didn’t really counter well. He said he was going to deal with why not other contraception methods, but there wasn’t actually anything in there that I saw.

    I agree with you, a response about sex that is just give it to me when I want it is wrong. But other than a few off the deep end complementarians don’t teach that. I think there is a wide gulf between what is taught and what people hear on both sides. Sex it a holy expression of transcendence. Almost everyone agrees with that to some extent.

    (By the way I saw a report that liberal women crave more sex pretty much no matter how much sex they are currently having. The (Christian) sociologist that was discussing this suggested that most people view sex as a transcendent activity. And for liberal women that mostly reject church and religion, it may be the only sense of transcendence that they experience.)

    It is different, but using condoms requires a bit of discipline. Even the pill is really only effective if you take it about the same time every day. IUD and patches or injections are less so.

    I will keep reading. This was clearly a brief introduction, it is less than 20% of the length the JPII’s work.

I don’t think this will offend or surprise you, so I’ll just say it: you’re thinking like a sociologist not a theologian. It doesn’t matter what the trends are or what what people can easily understand when trying to sort out theology, because theology is about discerning how God wants us to believe and behave. If it was about ease of understanding, we wouldn’t have the Trinity. If it was about trends, we would no longer uphold heterosexual mating as the revealed norm (I don’t use the word “marriage” since there’s not much biblical evidence for the institution as we understand it).

So, here, the issue is not what people say they experience or how much discipline a condom requires, but the issue of how God created our bodies and what we can determine about the sacredness of the elements of the human life and the act of intercourse within our sacred authority.

We have to build our position on this from the inside out, as it were, not the outside in.

Finally, the big difference between NFP and contraception that seems not to be part of West’s discussion has absolutely nothing to do with effectiveness, but with what happens to the seed — in one method, it goes where it’s supposed to, in the other, it’s onanized. The timing is simply how we can work with God within the bounds God has created for sex to contribute our desires for (the lack of) children. We’re still participating with God; but it’s overtly in his hands (which, as you point out with contraception, is always the case anyway, even without the explicit acknowledgment!).

You know it’s going to be hard to get around me on this issue. If you remember some discussions in the mountains, I landed on the Catholic position on this years before we entered the RCC. 😉

Thanks to all who have contributed to the discussion on this topic… I have a question that I’m a little embarrassed to ask, but here goes….

I’ve read Humanae Vitae, understand it themes and principles and believe them true. I’ve studied the Theology of the Body, both in private and at a Christopher West seminar and I’ve listened to many audio teachings on the subject.

I do have one nuance that I haven’t been able to understand logically. NFP targets those times where pregnancy is not possible or, maybe more accurately, where the chance of pregnancy is reduced. Essentially, the deposit is being made to a place where life can not occur. The intention is to avoid pregnancy.

I fail to see a difference between this method of birth control and coitus interrupts where the intention is to avoid pregnancy, the chance of pregnancy is reduced and the deposit is made to a place where life can not occur.

Any thoughts on where the differences lies?

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