Answering Critiques of the Theology of the Body
What we know today as the Theology of the Body began as a collection of 129 papal addresses given by Pope John Paul II during his regular Wednesday audiences. He gave these talks over the course of five years—from September 5, 1979, through November 28, 1984. These talks cover many topics, including the true purpose of life, creation as the perfect act of love, the sanctity of the marital union, and the dignity of every human being. In addition, they teach that we are all gifts and that we should treat each other as gifts, especially as we explore “the unique and holy love between a man and a woman.”
These talks have been compiled into one volume, and countless people have read and critiqued them.
Despite being both difficult to read and difficult to comprehend, these addresses remain spiritually important. Further, they serve as guides for understanding the relationship between men and women—emotionally, spiritually, and sexually. And they teach how spouses must include God in their relationship for it to thrive and fulfill God’s plan for marital love.
However, despite the fact that Theology of the Body is completely in line with Church teaching, not everyone who has read it agrees with it. Today, we’ll discuss five criticisms of TOB. We’ll explain how, even though their premises and some of their arguments might make sense at first glance, we must look past them to find the inherent truths of TOB. And we must come to understand not only God’s love for us, but also His desire for us as we embark on a loving and giving relationship with a spouse.
To form a better understanding of TOB before diving into this article, read What Is the Theology of the Body?
1) “TOB oversimplifies complex and varied emotions about sexuality.”
A writer critiquing TOB addresses his “misgivings.” In doing so, he states that these misgivings relate to “the almost mystical spiritual value it gives to sex.” He continues by saying: “This attitude presented of ‘learning about God through sex’ has always struck me as highly untraditional and problematic.”
Why problematic? Because, as he states, “the Theology of the Body seems much more inclined to turn sexuality into a totalizing narrative and thus to expect everything touched by it… to conform to a rigidly consistent “correct” paradigm (even though that’s not how emotions work).”
He goes on to say that, with the pope’s view of sexuality in TOB, “you wind up having to ‘police’ not just sex acts, but affection itself, in order to maintain the condemnation of the idea that anything personally meaningful or intimate goes. If you concede affection as the justification, but then don’t want to admit all acts based on just affection, you can only sustain this by creating notions of right and wrong affection.”
For anyone who has read TOB in its totality, these quotes seem like the author is missing the point.
While the world of sexuality can be very difficult to navigate, John Paul II does not say that acts or affections should be “policed.” Nor does he teach that there is a “right” or “wrong” affection when it comes to marital love. He understands that all people have unique reactions and feelings in different situations. And he is not trying to stifle these feelings. In fact, he’s trying to teach people to elevate them. He wants us to see love as God sees it, to see people with His eyes, and to unite our marriages in that love.
This is not limiting, but limitless, as people realize the magnitude of God’s love and can translate that love to their marriages.
2) “TOB ignores the reality of sexual pleasure and overemphasizes the ‘gift of self.'”
Many critics of TOB dislike the pope’s assertion that sexuality must be both unitive and procreative. By this, he means that the couple joins together as one and is always open to new life. Critics say that this necessity for openness may prevent the couple from enjoying their union.
In an article for Commonweal magazine, Luke Timothy Johnson agrees. He writes: “The Theology of the Body is reduced to sexuality, and sexuality to ‘the transmission of life.’ The descent to biologism is unavoidable. What is needed is a more generous appreciation of the way sexual energy pervades our interpersonal relations and creativity—including the life of prayer!—and a fuller understanding of covenanted love as life-giving and sustaining in multiple modes of parenting, community building, and world enhancement.”
Yet Christopher West, who has studied and taught TOB for many years, asks:
If man remains bound by his lusts, is he even capable of loving with a pure heart? … The teaching of John Paul II is clear: liberation from concupiscence—or, more precisely, from the domination of concupiscence… is not only a possibility, it is a necessity if we are to live our lives “in the truth” and experience the divine plan for human love.
The key lies in finding a balance. John Paul II warns about allowing lust to take over one’s life, but he does not negate the fact that the sexual union between a husband and wife is a beautiful act—one that can, and should, be enjoyed.
3) “TOB doesn’t apply to the real world.”
Criticisms abound regarding the fact that the TOB teachings aren’t rooted in an understanding of the “real world.”
In a New York Times article, journalist Kenneth Woodward, states that he believes that TOB is “a highly romantic and unrealistic view of human sexuality.”
Sebastian Moore, a moral theologian who also claimed to be homosexual, states that TOB lacked a “connection to real people in their real lives.”
Another writer states: “I think it [TOB] can have bad effects on real-world couples. I knew a couple once… who were into TOB. There was this idea that sex, every single act, had to be perfectly self-giving, totally spiritual, and so on. In other words, a standard was put in place to which the actual sex could never measure up. The fact that the couple had very different sex drives and expectations didn’t help. Eventually, they divorced, and one ultimately left the Church altogether. I’m not saying TOB caused that; but it sure didn’t help, and I think it was a big factor. I’ve heard anecdotal tales of other couples who have experienced similar problems with TOB” (emphasis in original).
Luke Timothy Johnson similarly writes that TOB has “little to say to ordinary people because it shows so little awareness of ordinary life.” He continues by saying that John Paul II “seems never to look at actual human experience. Instead, he dwells on the nuances of words in biblical narratives and declarations, while fantasizing an ethereal and all-encompassing mode of mutual self-donation between man and woman that lacks any of the messy, clumsy, awkward, charming, casual, and, yes, silly aspects of love in the flesh.”
All these men have one thing in common: They see TOB as antiquated and inapplicable to modern life. They believe that the Church should change with the times instead of the Church changing the times.
But what is the “real world”? Everyone certainly has his own perception of reality, but Church teachings do not—and should not—conform to individuals. We must conform ourselves to these teachings. And that means reading, truly understanding, and following the tenets of the faith.
TOB helps us as we move from our “real world” to the world that God wants for us.
4) “People want to hear more about love.”
This seems to be a popular mantra today. Many think that love will conquer all; the Beatles sang “all you need is love” over 50 years ago during the “summer of love.”
Love is certainly important. But it’s the understanding that love is an action in addition to a feeling that most people fail to consider. And that’s something that John Paul II teaches in TOB.
However, many people get stuck on the idea of simply “following their hearts.” They dive right into relationships that may or may not be healthy. They allow their passions to lead them emotionally and sexually. And they dismiss the fact that love must also be self-giving. They fail to understand that love is not only about getting something from someone else. It’s about what you can give as well. In fact, that’s the most important part.
We saw an example of this love-conquering-all mentality a handful of years ago when a group of 50 bishops met to discuss Church teachings. According to a National Catholic Register article, after this meeting the group “announced that they have discovered an apparently new element in Christian morality: love, as in a new ‘theology of love.’ They say it is needed to replace the tired, old theology of the body famously propounded by Pope St. John Paul II.”
The article continues: “But for the participants at… [the] meeting, these are new times, and we need a new paradigm to deal with the new ‘lived experience of the faithful.’ We need flexibility, accommodation, and tolerance. We need love.”
Indeed. We all need love. But love is not all we need.
Saying that TOB is a “tired old theology” is dismissing the very essence of what John Paul II was trying to teach. Yes, love is vital. And it’s a necessary starting place for a relationship. But there’s so much more. If a couple wants their relationship to grow and thrive, they must act on that love, for love is an action that shapes our very beings.
TOB helps the couple as they move from falling in love to expressing that love in a deep and lasting manner.
5) “What about those who don’t believe in God?”
Finally, criticisms abound for TOB from people who simply don’t believe in God. For these people, no teaching that has its premise on a belief in God will hold water for someone who has no faith.
It’s hard to refute that argument. If a person doesn’t believe in God, then trying to teach him about God’s plan for marriage seems like an uphill battle.
But should we not teach about the sanctity of marriage anyway? Regardless of a belief in God, couples who marry and intend to stay together forever should want to find ways to strengthen their marriage. A solid marriage requires a deep commitment to each other, to faithfulness, to communication, and to weathering the bad times.
Many of the tenets taught in TOB about love of spouse and the gift of self apply regardless of faith. When a couple learns to love deeper and treat each other with the respect and dignity they each deserve, the marriage will thrive.
The Importance of TOB in Creating a Culture of Life
The family is the foundation of society. When the family breaks down, so does society. We see this breakdown everywhere. We see it in sky-high abortion rates. We see it in divorce rates. We see it in fathers being absent from their children’s lives. We even see it in escalating murder rates.
Our culture does not respect marriage or family. That’s why we need TOB.
A true understanding of TOB can keep us from being led astray by a culture that cares more about the next social media post than about the love within a marriage or family.
John Paul II’s insightful words are meant to guide us, to invite us into a deeper understanding of God’s love so that we can try to recreate that love within our homes. If we allow them to, the words and the teachings of TOB enrich us. They make us stronger people. They compel us to teach others. They help us see the value in others. They help us see our own value. And they have the ability to transform us—both in our relationship with our spouse and with God. That is what God desires for us.
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Susan Ciancio has a BA in psychology and a BA in sociology from the University of Notre Dame, with an MA in liberal studies from Indiana University. Since 2003, she has worked as a professional editor and writer, editing both fiction and nonfiction books, magazine articles, blogs, educational lessons, professional materials, and website content. Fourteen of those years have been in the pro-life sector. Currently Susan writes weekly for HLI, edits for American Life League, and is the editor of its Celebrate Life Magazine. She also serves as executive editor for the Culture of Life Studies Program, an educational nonprofit program for k-12 students.