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From Humanae Vitae to the Theology of the Body

 

Humanae Vitae Giving Day 2018

We are very glad to share this excerpt from Christopher West’s newest book which he debuted at our conference earlier this month, Eclipse of the Body: How We Lost Sight of the Meaning of Sex, Gender, Marriage, and Family and How to Regain It.

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by Christopher West

Soon after Pope Paul VI died in August 1978, the cardinal archbishop of Krakow came to Rome to help elect a new pope. He brought with him a lengthy handwritten manuscript that he had been prayerfully crafting for nearly four years. It was almost complete and he wished to work on it, when he could, during the conclave. Page One bore the unusual title (in Polish): “teologia ciala”—“theology of the body.” The hundreds of pages that followed held perhaps the most profound and compelling biblical reflection on the meaning of our creation and redemption as male and female ever articulated—the in-depth mystical insights of a modern saint that had the power to change the world, if those insights had an opportunity to reach the world, that is.

After the election of Pope John Paul I, Cardinal (Karol) Wojtyla returned to Krakow and completed his manuscript. Soon after that, to the astonishment of the whole world, he emerged from the second conclave of 1978 as Pope John Paul II. And his “theology of the body”—delivered as a series of 129 Wednesday talks between September 1979 and November 1984 rather than being published as a book—became the first major teaching project of his pontificate.

John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (hereafter, TOB) was inspired by something Paul VI had said in Humanae Vitae: he had observed that, in order to understand Christian teaching on sex and procreation, we must look “beyond partial perspectives” to a “total vision of man and of his vocation.” This is what John Paul II set out to do in his TOB—provide the “total vision of man” that would enable us to understand and live joyfully the Church’s teaching on the meaning and purpose of human life (humanae vitae).

The operative term here is vision. John Paul II understood that, while the people of the modern world were obsessed with looking at the human body, “They look but do not see” (Matt 13:13). His TOB was an invitation to every human being to “Come, and become one who sees” (John 1:39).

Inadequate legalistic formulations of moral theology coupled with disparaging treatments of sexual matters by some previous churchmen had led countless people to turn a deaf ear to the Church whenever she spoke on sexual matters. John Paul II was confident, however, that he had something to say that could make a difference. He believed he could demonstrate that Humanae Vitae was not against man but unstintingly for him; that Humanae Vitae was not opposed to erotic love and sexual pleasure, but called men and women to the most spiritually intense experiences of them. To get there, however, questions surrounding sexual morality needed to be reframed. Instead of asking, “How far can I go before I break the law?” we need to ask, “What does it mean to be human?” “What is a person?” “What does it mean to love?” “Why did God make me male or female?” “Why did God create sex in the first place?”

In short, John Paul II’s long-studied answer to that final question is this: human sexuality is a sign—in fact, a sacramental sign—that’s meant to proclaim, reveal, and enable human beings to participate in the “great mystery” hidden in God from all eternity.

— Be sure to check out Christopher West’s Cor Project and their wonderful Humanae Vitae 50th anniversary page for free audio, video, articles, Christopher’s speaking schedule and much more highlighting Pope Paul VI’s prophetic and courageous letter! 

 

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