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No, You Can't Skip to the Good Part
Chastity Talks, Sex Talks, and Where Teaching the Theology of the Body Went Wrong
Hi. I’m Emily. Welcome to my Substack, where I write about Jesus, the Catholic Church, and the life of faith. I’ve been writing about these things for the Catholic press for 20 years. Now, while I’m raising my babies (ages 4, 2, and 2), I write here. What you’re about to read is normally behind a paywall, but this week, as I celebrate my 48th birthday, I’m unlocking some of my favorite essays to share with everyone. I would love it if you joined me here. For the cost of one fancy cup of coffee a month, you’ll receive monthly essays like this one, as well as my weekly free newsletters, which are packed with reflections on Church documents and practical catechesis. If you love this essay, but $6 a month isn’t in your budget, then please join me as a free subscriber and consider sharing this post on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter (or just emailing it to some friends). And if nothing else, say a prayer for me—for sleep, for energy, for patience, and for my heart. God bless you for being here.
In March 2001, I was hungry. I had been hungry for six years. And tired. And scared. And full of hate, mostly at myself. I hated my body, that always wanted to be curvy, never straight. And I hated my mind I couldn’t quiet, my opinions I couldn’t temper, and my tongue I couldn’t tame. So, at the age of 19, I started punishing myself for my imperfections by denying myself food.
All through college and for several years after, I kept on punishing myself, sometimes eating more, sometimes eating less, but with my hatred for my body and myself never wavering. That’s how I felt when I returned to the Church in December 2000, and it’s how I felt on a March day in 2001, when I wandered into a bookstore near The Catholic University of America and saw a table covered in books authored by Pope John Paul II.
I’d been a little girl during the first decade of John Paul II’s pontificate and away from the Church through the next decade. By the time I returned, he was disappearing behind the mask of Parkinson’s. I had missed most of his papacy, and looking at the table of books that day, I realized I had no idea what I’d missed. I didn’t know he was philosopher or a poet or a playwright. I didn’t know how much he’d written at all. I wondered if maybe I should put the Chesterton, Sheed, and Dawson down for a bit, and read something by the pope instead. So, I looked more closely at the book table. One title jumped out. It was called The Theology of the Body.
How funny, I thought, that a pope would write about the body. What could he possibly have to say about it? More important, could whatever he had to say help me? Without knowing anything about the book beyond its name, I bought it, took it home, and began to read it that night.
What I read saved me and changed me. It not only changed how I saw my body, but how I saw food, friendship, work, motherhood, and this whole wonderful, mysterious created universe. It did that for a lot of people.
But not for everyone.
A decade ago, when I would write about the theology of the body, I primarily encountered either Catholics who, like me, said it had changed their lives, or Catholics who knew little to nothing about it. These days, however, whenever I mention the theology of the body on social media, I still hear from plenty of Catholics who love it and are grateful for it. But I also hear from many faithful women who say they feel only anger, bitterness, and resentment when they hear the words “theology of the body.” They’re hurting, and they want nothing to do with it.
The theology of the body was supposed to be a time bomb. That’s what George Weigel famously called it. It was supposed to blow up in the most magnificent of ways, changing how men and women everywhere saw themselves, their bodies, and the beauty of married love. But that hasn’t quite happened yet. Not culture wide. Not even Church wide. It has helped many, including me. But the promised explosion has yet to come. Or fizzled out. And I’ve been listening to a lot of people this past year, trying to figure out why.
Some of what I hear points to the culture. Perhaps it was already too far gone for the theology of the body to make a difference. Some people also indict the Francis papacy, with its gutting of key institutions whose job was to help spread the theology of the body, like the John Paul II Institute in Rome. Then, there’s just normal fallen human nature. Hearing the truth can be hard and changing our lives to conform to that truth even harder.
But more fundamentally, the problem seems to have something to do with the message. Not the message of the theology of the body. But rather with the way some of those who sought to popularize John Paul II’s teachings presented or misrepresented the theology of the body, especially in stand-alone talks to young people, the so called “chastity talks” that have been so widespread these last 20 to 25 years.
The misrepresentations that did the most damage seem to be two-fold: Some people focused too much on what the theology of the body has to say about sex and not enough on the actual theology of the body. Likewise, many of those same people presented too narrow of a picture of married love, hyper-focusing on one dimension of it—sexual pleasure—and distorting the beauty and fullness of marital communion in the process.
An Anthropology, Not A Sexology
A little history: John Paul II began introducing his theology of the body in 1978, as part of his regular Wednesday audiences. It took almost five years to deliver it in full, and for another 15 years after that, almost no one outside of academic circles paid attention to it. Then, in the first years of the 21st century, popular talks about it began springing up everywhere—from high school assemblies to major international conferences.
Some of those talks were beautiful, powerful, and compelling. Others were less compelling. Regardless of how good the talks were, though, nearly all of them left people thinking that the theology of the body was a theology of sex.
But it’s not. The theology of the body is not a sexology; it’s anthropology, a study of what it means to be a human person, made in the image of God and called to communion, in heaven and on earth. John Paul II wrote that anthropology not to start a revolution, but to respond to one already taking place: the sexual revolution. More specifically, he wrote it as a response to what happened in 1968.
That year, Pope Paul VI released his encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reiterated the Church’s ancient prohibition of contraception and outlined why the Church continued to teach what it does. The encyclical itself was a response to the release of the hormonal contraceptive pill, which some hoped might be approved by the Church. It wasn’t, but while the Church deliberated and the pope deliberated some more, Catholics began embracing the Pill. By the time Humanae Vitae finally came out, most people were no longer interested in what the Church had to say on the issue. En masse, Catholics had disregarded Church teaching and gone on the Pill. Most weren’t about to stop, regardless of what the pope said.
It was that widespread disregard for Church teaching that led John Paul II to write what would become known as the theology of the body. He believed people had rejected Humanae Vitae because they didn’t understand the Catholic vison of the human person—of man and woman’s dignity and vocation. People didn’t know who they were. They also didn’t understand the Catholic vision of the world. They had lost what the Church calls “the sacramental worldview.”
The sacramental worldview is hard to sum up in one essay, let alone, one sentence. But, in essence, as I explain in These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body, to have a sacramental worldview is to recognize that:
“Matter is never just matter. Dirt is never just dirt, butterflies are never just butterflies, and flesh is never just flesh. All were created by God. As such, all communicate something about God. Everything in the universe—every star, every tree, every body—proclaims some truth about its Maker. They are all… a metaphor. They are all a revelation. Every atom in the universe is pregnant with mystery, pregnant with grace, capable of helping man discover the truth about himself and God.
That’s how Catholics are supposed to see the world. It’s a unifying vision, connecting faith and reason, truth and goodness, matter and mystery, Scripture and Tradition, culture and home. It helps make sense of life, and it helps make sense of Church teaching. But in the wake of modernism, post-modernism, and a whole bunch of other “isms,” many Catholics lost that understanding of the world. They no longer saw the world as Catholics. And without that vision, Church teachings like those in Humanae Vitae simply didn’t make sense.
So, John Paul II decided to try a different approach, integrating the wisdom of King Solomon and the writings of the desert fathers, the Trinitarian theology of St. John Chrysostom and the Carmelite spirituality of St. John of the Cross, the systematic theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and the neo-Thomism of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, the phenomenology of St. Edith Stein and the personalism of Dietrich von Hildebrand. He drew on it all, attempting to rearticulate the ancient Catholic way of seeing God, man, and the world, not by introducing a new teaching, but by picking a new starting point: the human body and human experience.
John Paul II’s hope was that this new way of articulating the sacramental worldview would help Catholics learn to see the world with Catholic eyes once more, which in turn would help them make sense of Humanae Vitae. He stated that explicitly towards the end of the theology of the body, the section dealing with Humanae Vitae:
“If I draw particular attention to these final catecheses, I do so not only because the topic discussed by them is more closely connected with our present age, but first of all because it is from this topic that the questions spring that run in some way through the whole of our reflections. It follows that this final part is not artificially added to the whole, but is organically and homogeneously united with it. In some sense, that part, which in the overall disposition is located at the end, is at the same time found at the beginning of the whole.” (133:4)
John Paul II didn’t write an hour long talk about sex. He wrote a whole theology to help us make sense of the Church’s teachings about sex. But many people who think they have heard about the theology of the body, have only heard the hour-long sex talk. It’s like those Instagram reels set to the words “Can we skip to the good part?,” which show you a dumpy kitchen one second and a gorgeously renovated space the next. Too often, popular presentations on the theology of the body tried to skip to the good part. They went straight to the sex talk, without giving the sacramental worldview talk.
I understand why they did that. Sex is sexy. It gets people’s attention. It’s also the most obvious area of deep woundedness in our culture. People absolutely need to hear what the theology of the body has to say about sex, and if you only have one hour with an audience, you want to deliver the most urgent, soul-saving message you can.
But the reason people need to hear that message is not simply because they don’t know the Church’s teachings about sex. More fundamentally, they don’t know who they are. They don’t know their great dignity. They don’t know what it means to be a man or a woman. They don’t know what it means to be made in the image of God, in body and soul. And they definitely don’t know how these bodies of ours—these messy, funny, fragile, mortal bodies—can be holy, icons of the divine, destined to rise again on the Last Day.
That’s why John Paul II didn’t just write a theology of sex. He could have spared himself a few years of Wednesday audiences if a good sex talk was all people needed. But he knew people needed more. He knew skipping “to the good part” wouldn’t work. And it didn’t.
Some of the speakers who did that, without first laying a solid foundation in the dignity of the human person and the sacramentality of the body, led people to a shallow or wrong understanding of what the Church teaches and why. They put the focus on sex (or lack thereof), not the person, often conflating chastity with continence and holding chastity up as the ultimate good, not as a means to helping people achieve the ultimate good: union with God. That, in turn, led to the horror stories that fill my inbox when I write about the theology of the body: speakers who compared unmarried women who’ve had sex to old chewing gum—a used up, worthless, dirty thing—or who told women that the greatest gift they could give their husband was their virginity—not their hearts or their minds or themselves, but an intact hymen.
Hearing those messages can create all sorts of inner conflict in the newly married when continence is no longer required and that which they were told was “forbidden” and “sinful” is suddenly allowed and supposed to be good. Not everyone makes the switch easily, especially if they had bought into the idea that their worth was tied up with their virginity. That hurts marriages, creating tension and disappointment where there should be only the joy of discovery. It also breeds resentment at the theology of the body. It’s an unfair resentment. It’s not the theology of the body’s fault some speaker skipped to the good part with disastrous consequences. But humans aren’t always fair in how we direct our resentment.
It wasn’t only chastity being held up as the ultimate good that caused problems though. It was also the depiction of chastity as a means to achieving the ultimate good. Only that good wasn’t God.
It was a really great sex life.
The Point of Union
In recent years, I’ve frequently heard the complaint that some theology of the body speakers and writers oversold the joys of marital intimacy. They talked about what married love was made to be—a sign of the life-giving Triune God and a foretaste of the joy in the life to come—but not about what married love often is in a fallen world between two fallen people. They proclaimed the beauty of the ideal, but not the messiness of the reality, raising expectations too high and leading single people and engaged couples to expect some sort of perpetual transcendent bliss, in their relationship and their bedroom. Then, when those expectations didn’t immediately come to pass, disappointment followed.
This seems to be especially true for couples who played “by the rules” and expected an amazing sex life to be their reward for “being good.” When marital love is more challenging than amazing—when it’s painful and awkward and messy, when libidos are different, when enjoyment is one-sided, when guilt or memories of past sins linger, when babies don’t come or come faster than expected, when circumstances dictate abstaining and desire is difficult to discipline, when any one of 100 perfectly normal difficulties arise—some people feel like they have been sold a bill of goods. Others blame themselves, thinking something is wrong with them.
Sometimes that disappointment is out in the open, driving a wedge between the couple. But sometimes it stays hidden, as one or both spouses go through the motions, keeping their struggles to themselves and doing what they have been taught to do by a pornified culture: pretend. Or, more accurately, perform, playing a role like an actor would, faking pleasure, faking desire, keeping their difficulties with sex to themselves. But few things are as destructive to marital love as performative sex. Like contraception, it makes the language of the body a lie. And that too drives a wedge between the couple.
This is why so many people have gone sour on the theology of the body. They blame it for their own disappointment and alienation from their spouse. They say it raised the bar too high. But it would be more accurate to say that the wrong bar was raised by some people in their presentations of the theology of the body. They didn’t oversell the joys of married love (it’s hard to oversell them; they are pretty darn great). But they did truncate and flatten them, conflating the joy of married love with the physical pleasure of married love and reducing the complex layers of intimate self-gift within marriage, which together echo the inner life of the Trinity, to one moment within the marital act—the moment of peak pleasure.
Don’t get me wrong: Pleasure is good. Sex is and should be enjoyable—really enjoyable. Pleasure is not just a fruit of union; it’s a motivator to union. That’s by God’s design. If the marital act weren’t a heck of a lot of fun, we would not be quite as interested in being fruitful and multiplying. But pleasure is not the point of union. The point is procreation and communion. And, by God’s grace, in this fallen world, communion can happen even when no pleasure is had. In fact, the lack of pleasure can become an occasion for fostering greater communion.
This is because communion is not born of one moment of pleasure. Communion is not born of any one moment at all. Communion is born of countless moments of intimate vulnerability, of giving and taking, talking and listening, looking and laughing, failing and succeeding. It’s born of time and tears and interruptions and frustrations. It’s born as much of learning to respond in the right way to all that can go wrong in the bedroom, as it is of enjoying all that goes right. And those moments take place inside the bedroom and outside of it. They take place in the context of an entire life together, of which physical love is a highlight, but not the whole.
Pure physical enjoyment of sex comes quickly for some and slowly for others. Just as learning to live together can take time, so can learning to love together. But it’s all those moments of learning—the hard conversations, the laughter, the mercy extended and received, the sacrificing for one another and choosing to trust one another, the daily acts of service and affection, and the nightly sharing of bodies—that allows for real intimacy between husband and wife to blossom.
That intimacy is not what everyone enters into marriage looking for or even wanting. But it is the type of intimacy for which we were all made. It is the type of intimacy that makes possible even greater physical joy, but also transcends the physical. It is the type of intimacy where both spouses are deeply known by each other and fully free with each other. It is the type of intimacy that recovers something of what was lost in Eden: to be naked and not ashamed, to be seen for who you are and know that you are loved as you are.
That’s the real joy of marital love. Greater physical pleasure can be the fruit of that kind intimacy, but it’s not the substance of it. The real payoff for rejecting the culture’s lies about sex and marriage, letting your heart and mind be shaped by the sacramental worldview, and growing in maturity in Christ isn’t simply pleasure. It’s to be able to be yourself and give yourself and receive the gift of another who is able to be themselves with you.
That type of intimacy does not happen overnight, no matter how enjoyable sex may or may not be on the wedding night. It requires time and effort to even realize that’s what we’re looking for, let alone to achieve. And it can’t be achieved without both spouses continually dying to themselves for the good of the other and dying to their own pride as they communicate their needs, fears, and struggles.
The work is worth it, though. A rich, warm, free, joyful, ecstatic marital intimacy is a much more complex reward than an orgasm. but it’s also a much fuller sign of the inner life of the Trinity, where each Person gives themselves completely and receives the gift of the Others completely, where each Person is fully known by the Others and fully loved by the Others, and where the love exchanged is always life-giving, sustaining the whole wondrous universe in being. We don’t live in Eden. So, it’s in the moments of a marriage’s shared brokenness, as well as the moments of shared joy, where that kind of self-gift and the call to communion written into our beings is answered and realized.
Humans are humans. Which means we never do anything perfectly. We don’t talk perfectly, write perfectly, listen perfectly, love perfectly. So, no matter how good our presentation of the Gospel and the sacramental worldview and the theology of the body are, they won’t be perfect. And even the very best presentations will be heard by humans who filter the message through their own wounds, sins, struggles, and fears. Everyone presenting it will be misunderstood by someone.
But we can still do better. Those who truly want to help people live God’s plan for human love can go back to the basics and give a more thorough catechesis of the dignity of the human person, the body, and the sacramentality of the created world. We can give a fuller, more whole, and more realistic picture of the beauty of married love in a fallen world, too—helping people connect the life lived outside the bedroom with the love shared inside the bedroom and normalizing the work it takes to bridge the ideal of sexual union and the reality of sexual union. Lastly, we can stop doing one hour chastity talks and instead focus our greatest energy on giving parents the tools they need to slowly introduce their children to the sacramental worldview and how men, women, desire, and vocation fit into that.
Some people are already doing this very well. The Ruah Woods Institute in particular, with its wonderful curriculum for teaching the full theology of the body to children of all ages is a model for how to present the theology of the body in a layered, measured, complete way. There are others out there doing similar good work. But more need to follow their example.
That won’t be easy. Like marital intimacy itself, teaching the theology of the body this way will take a lot more time and work than the one-hour chastity talk. It’s less simple, less catchy. It requires more of everyone, both speakers and listeners. It’s necessary, though. We live in a world filled with so much confusion—about sex and personhood, marriage and friendship, work and food, masculinity and femininity, about meaning itself. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI sounded the alarm about how a mechanistic, materialistic view of the human person, lived out in the bedroom, would change individuals, relations between the sexes, marriages, and entire cultures. Every prediction of his has come to pass.
The theology of the body is a powerful tool that can help change the dangerous course our culture has taken. It has done great good these past 45 years. But it can do much, much more good. And we need to help it do that good. Before it’s too late.