Introducing the Theology of the Body

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St. John Paul II’s teachings can help students navigate through cultural confusions

When classes start this fall, our Catholic students will begin their year of growing and learning surrounded by a radically revisionist culture that opposes the Christian understanding of the human person, the body and marriage.

Whether they attend public school, private school, Catholic school or home school, they need to be prepared to respectfully and clearly face the challenges of gender ideology and gender confusion. They need to be formed well to understand and handle pressures from early sexualization, rampant pornography and dismissive attitudes toward the commitment of marriage. We parents are entrusted to be the primary educators of our children, whether we send them to school or teach them ourselves.

Luckily, there is now a theological treasure that can help amid the current confusion: St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. These teachings offer a beautiful vision of our sexuality that leads to wholeness, holiness, and true freedom — exactly the opposite of the “anything goes” approach to the body, self-determination and sexuality which the culture is proposing.

The teachings of the Theology of the Body are rich and dense. There are many books, speakers, curricula and resources out there to help unpack them, and I heartily encourage further study. Here, briefly, are a few of the core concepts from the Theology of the Body that can help our children.

Many of the core concepts are found in this verse in the first account of creation in the Book of Genesis (my translation): “God created the human person in his own image; in the image of God he created the human person; male and female he created them.”

“God created”: Creation is a gift from God. Our existence, and each human life, comes from love and is destined for love. Creation is something we receive as gift, with gratitude and awe.

Cultural idea this opposes: Atheism and radical individualism — God does not exist, and we can “create” ourselves in our own image, according to our own ideas, preferences and desires.

How to help children understand the truth: Inculcate awe and wonder at the excellence of the created world around us and point back to the Creator. One of my friends takes her toddler boys on nature walks in which they marvel at the design of spider webs and fern leave patterns. “Where did this come from?” she asks them. “I didn’t create this. Did you?” “No,” they answer. “Who did?” God did, they are reminded.

“The human person”: What and who is a human person? Matter (the dust of the earth) and spirit or soul (the breath of God), integrated. Matter is good and matter matters — it is an essential part of our humanity. What we do with our body matters morally.

Cultural idea this opposes: Dualism, promoted by René Descartes and now the culturally predominant view of the human person — body and spirit are dis-integrated, and the body is way inferior. The “real me” is what I think, my mind (or spirit), which inhabits the less-important, less-relevant body like a driver in a car.

How to help children understand the truth: It starts with normal ways to teach respect for the dignity of the body that most parents do naturally: good nutrition, hygiene and self-care teach respect for the dignity of the body. But to go further, talk to your children about how your body is you just as much as your mind.

Two more key concepts follow, but they will have to wait for a later column. For now, be thinking about how you can teach your children and teens these important truths: “In his own image he created the human person” and “Male and female he created them.”

Want help from great resources? Try these:

Northwest Catholic - September 2019

Sarah Bartel

Sarah Bartel, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner, holds a doctorate in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America, where she specialized in marriage, family, sexual ethics and bioethics. Her website is