Is Theology of the Body Overly Sexualized?

Most criticisms of the Catholic position on sex comes from those who think it's too strict. However, some traditionally minded Catholics think John Paul II's theology of the body too sexual, usually the same well-meaning people who think Vatican II full of liberal ambiguities. The person emailing thinks Theology of the Body puts too much focus on sex, and overly emphasizes the spiritual aspects of sex within marriage. I've interspersed these comments in bold italics below with responses.

Are advocates of Theology of the Body into perversions and the adoration of sex

I have also heard some advocates of TOB, like Mr. West, are not against sexual perversions, like anal sex. The adore sex (within marriage) and give it a much to high position.

Christopher West was young when he released his first edition of TOB. Until that time, Pope John Paul II's writing was not very accessible to young people of this generation.

He brought his youthful appeal, along with some of his misconceptions, as well as a touch of his past which was, like many of us, not the most pure. Soon after he released TOB 1st edition, he changed his position on anal sex. He corrected it in the 2nd edition and is very clear that it is not permissible in marriage. Having said that, I agree with some of the criticisms of Mr. West that say he's made TOB a little too genital centred. Some say the original from Pope John Paul II does not take that focus. Mr. West took a period of time to meditate and explore, in prayer, the criticisms of those who say he is too "sex" centred in his interpretation of TOB.

We have an article about anal sex in marriage, and why there does not need to be a dogmatic declaration from the Vatican about it. The Magisterium holds all of Scripture to be true, and the Bible says it's wrong (Rom 1:24 etc). Period.

No good Catholic "adores" sex. Adoration is a specific type of worship reserved for God alone. Pope John Paul II would not advocate that, neither would any good Catholic, including one who advocate TOB.

How can "theology" apply to the human body?

The name TOB is somewhat strange as 'theology' comes from the Greek words Theos and Logos, the study of God. Whereby TOB is about our bodies, sexuality and reproduction.

The word "Logos" primarily means "The Word" which of course is God. However, the Word of God is the Bible, so that a more accurate definition of Theology is the study of the Word of God, which most certainly includes sex. The Bible has a lot to say about sex and a lot to say about relationships between a man and wife. It was an incredible advance in the study of the Bible for the Catholic Church, through Pope John Paul II the Great, to endeavour to study what God had to say about love, relationships and sex, particularly in light of the competing demonic sexual revolution which was raging at the same time. The Church could no longer turn a blind eye to sex, nor could it respond with the rigid "puritanical" approach it took in the prior century. It was time to face this issue head on, from a biblical perspective and Pope John Paul II did so, magnificently.

Isn't the main purpose of intercourse, the birth of children?

But the main thing is not as clearly mentioned, the purpose of intercourse is the birth of children.

The Catholic Church asserts that the Unitive and Procreative functions of sex are inseparable. Separating these two functions (procreative and unitive) always ends up in some kind of problem because they are inseparable. Usually we're dialoguing with people who are into contraception. They try to separate the procreative function of sex so they can enjoy the unitive without the procreative. This email is the opposite, separating the unitive from procreative to focus on the procreative. This is almost as problematic.

Problems with the separation of the unitive and procreative functions of sex

The Catholic Church has always asserted, although never as clearly as in TOB, the inseparable nature of the two.

Sexual revolution

The fruit of separation of unitive and procreative in the case of contraception, is moral decay, objectification of women, infidelity, abortion, and the emergence of women using their procreative functions like machines (i.e., IVF, cloning, designer babies, sex selection, abortion of disabled babies, divorce and even homosexuality which is the ultimate in contraception, etc). In this respect contraception is the grandmother of all moral decay in the last 80 years since the Lambeth Anglican conference of 1930.


However, in the case of Puritanism, the separation of the two leads to an overly austere life, which in the case of a monk who marries the Universal Church is good, but in the case of a marriage, is extremely dangerous for the intimacy of the couple. This is perhaps the reason for the sexual revolution, a reaction to Puritanism earlier in the century. The Catholic Church asserts that God created matter in a very real way. Jesus used mud to heal the blind man, then mixed it with spit. God loves the material world and all its "muddiness". He created it, and he created sex.

Doesn't the Bible teach us that abstaining from sex is better?

This contradicts 1 Cor. 7, 5 where it is shown that abstaining is fitting to get closer to God, as is the case with fasting.

The focus of the passage is not on abstaining from sex. Paul is teaching, rather, on how important it is not to deprive each other of sex. It is about how important sex is to a healthy marriage, and he is very clear in his understanding about human nature, which was created by God, in which sex normal. The phrase "for a time" is not indicative of the regular expectations of marriage. The term "for a time" could mean days during the week where there is no sex, indicating that the couple should not be having sex every day. It could even mean the period of time that couples abstain during fertile periods, where they can pray. Or it could mean an extended retreat. The passage is definitely not advocating married celibacy which is the logical outcome of interpreting this passage to say that it is holier to not have sex.

Sex is an earthly good

Intercoure is made something holy by TOB, which it isn't. It is a earthly good, just like food. But nothing holy. To the contrary. >Abstaining from food through fasting is fitting to a life close to God. As is celibacy which is better than marying (1 Cor.).

Here are a few thoughts:

  • We should first examine the word "holy". nuptial relations definitely fit many of the definitions of Holy, including "set apart, deserving special reverence and respect" etc...
  • New Catholics, are sometimes slow to see the profound implications of the Eucharist, and all it's aspects, ramifications and nuances. One of those implications is that it is God's way of consummating his relationship with us. It is why we cannot receive communion until we have fully accepted the lifelong commitment to be the spouse of Christ, (Eph 5), a member of his Church.
  • All through Scripture, God (and Jesus) describe the Church and his people as his spouse, there is a perfectly logical theological comparison of Jesus' consummation with the Church, through the Eucharist, and a husband's consummation with his wife (the beginning of the domestic Church as described in the Catechism 1655 through intercourse.
  • In both cases life flows as the result, love flows, and the pleasure of being in intimate relation is experienced

This may sound very "shrill" to someone who has a puritanical background, but it is most certainly perfectly defensible, and even more logical, than to assume the opposite, that sex is something to be avoided in marriage, or that we have to somehow be ashamed of it. Again, I'd postulate that that is Puritanism, which was a practical and theological failure.

If intercourse is holy, why can't priests be married?

If intercourse is holy, why can't priests be married?

We have an article on that here: Why priests can't marry. Peter, the first Pope was married. Jesus chose a married man. However, to be in ministry is to take on the "persona christi" and as such, the lover of the Priest must be the Church, not the spouse. It is a very specific call to care not for the domesic Church but for the universal Church in a specific community.

If intercourse is holy why did the H. Virgin Mary stay a virgin

and [if intercourse is holy why did] the H. Virgin Mary [stay a virgin]

Mary made a vow to God before she was married that she would stay chaste. The Greek language of "I know not man" is a permanent state of celibacy. So abstinence in marriage was consistent with her pre-marriage vow. Mary was the spouse of the Holy Spirit, in a very physical way, no other human has ever had that type of relationship to the Holy Spirit, she was set apart. In the area of being impregnated, the Holy Spirit has claim to Mary, no other has that claim, and since the procreative and the unitive aspects of sex cannot be separated, Mary would not be in position to have sexual relations with Joseph.

Just because God allows sex does it mean it's good?

What God has permitted within marriage does not mean it is something we should try to do as much as possible. As is the case for example with praying, which is a good work, something holy, which you can't do too much.

To use the phrase "what God has permitted" is suggesting God didn't invent sex, as if the devil created sex and God put some kind of a protection around it in order to make the dastardly deed possible in marriage, so children can be born. This is the logical conclusion to turning sex into something “permitted”. If it was created by God, then it would be “encouraged” not “permitted", which is kind of the view of Puritanism, which was a grievous disaster and led to the sexual revolution. I would postulate that this is a profound misunderstanding for a number of reasons:

  • The devil cannot invent ANYTHING. He can only pervert something that God has created. This truth is accepted by every theologian. The devil is not very creative. Only God can create, the devil can only pervert
  • Everything God created is good, if it used in the context for which it was created . Therefore sex within marriage is good. It's not a "necessary" evil. It is good and right, "he saw that it was Good"
  • When God formed woman in Genesis, God created the clitoris of a woman. It was his idea. No one else thought of that, him alone. It has absolutely no physical purpose whatsoever, except to give sexual pleasure. So the pleasure of sex is inherent in it. God created it that way. Surely, we don't want to envy African tribes that mutilate teenage girls who hit puberty.
  • No good Catholic would say that sex is something you should do "as much as possible". That's like saying food is good so we should eat as much of it as is possible. Moderation in all things. Prayer is important for married couples, sex is important for married couples, food is important for married couples. Single people are called to serve the Church, the Universal Church. The husband and wife are called to serve primarily the domestic Church.

Isn't Natural Family Planning (NFP) just like contraception?


In other words, having sex regularly practicing NFP inside marriage with close to 100% certainty you will not get kids (NFP is reliable almost as much as the pill) without proper reason is sinfull too.

It would be very careless to put words into the mouth of Pope John Paul II. One shouldn't say "in other words" when speaking about TOB. We should stick to TOB itself, not even Christopher West. Catholic teaching is clear that abstaining from sex during fertile periods is only permissible for good reason. There must be a good reason to practice NFP. The Church provides some guidance on that in Humanae Vitae and elsewhere. Being Catholic is like being married. The marriage day is just the first day of a lifelong journey into unity with our spouse. The first day we become Catholic is the first day of our lifelong commitment to be the spouse of God. There is much to learn after the initial commitment, and in order to fully appreciate the gift of the vocation and to become more and more in full communion with Christ and his Church.

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