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The Theology of the Body: Part I

April 9, AD2017

theology of the body

1979 was an exciting year.

My wife was pregnant most of that year with our third child. This was not an entirely pleasant experience for her, although it was greatly ameliorated by her hopeful anticipation of a girl.

Thankfully, our first daughter after two boys was born in late August of that very hot summer. She was adorable and laid-back, unlike our very active and rambunctious boys.

Then, on October 4, 1979, we traveled with our expanded family to see Pope St. John Paul II when he celebrated Mass in a farmland near Des Moines, Iowa. It was cold and rainy until the Pope arrived by helicopter to sunny skies and 340,000 believers who had gathered to welcome the Pilgrim Pope to the Midwest.

That year was also the fourth of nine years we lived in a Catholic religious community that welcomed married and single laity, as well as sisters and priests. This was a great way to live out our call as a family to an active as well as contemplative spirituality. This experience formed me for my later call to the permanent diaconate.

Finally, I learned that year about the theme of St. John Paul II’s Wednesday Audiences that began on September 5, 1979 and continued after his assassination attempt and until November 28, 1984.

This five-year series of 130 Wednesday Audiences (four years if you exclude the length of his recovery and extensive travel schedule) was phenomenal! Eventually, this series of talks was entitled The Theology of the Body.

Father Flanagan and SOLT

A priest friend of mine began studying these teachings in the published accounts in L’Osservatore Romano. Recognizing the unique perspective that the Holy Father brought to the issues of human sexuality and marriage, this priest presented these reflections to a small group of married couples over a number of months.

I was privileged to be part of this group receiving these teachings from the late Father James (Jim) H. Flanagan, Founder of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT). This was the community in which we lived for nine years, and with which I have remained involved.

Father Jim had attended the University during the 1940s and played football under legendary coach Frank Leahy. He interrupted his studies to enlist in the Navy during World War II and served as one of the first Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) divers. The UDT was the precursor to the Navy SEALs.

Flanagan and other brave men cleared the beaches of mines for the Normandy amphibious landing on June 6, 1944. Many of the UDT divers died in this dangerous mission. Flanagan returned to Notre Dame after the war, and again played football until he was called by God to the priesthood. He was given an inspiration by Our Blessed Mother to develop a new community of priests, religious, and laity to serve the Church and the world. After five years of serving in the Archdiocese of Boston, Fr. Jim was permitted to begin forming Our Lady’s community, which took root in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, high in the Sangre de Christo Mountains.

SOLT was established so that, in God’s grace, members of the Church could fulfill their endowed desire for a life of full Communion with the Most Holy Trinity within a family-oriented community. The model of perfectly living this relationship of Communion to the Trinity was our Blessed Mother, as expressed in her discipleship to the Trinity, and in which she served a key role in SOLT spirituality.

Theology of the Body and SOLT Spirituality

Interestingly, The Theology of the Body offered a complimentary and intimate glimpse to SOLT spirituality and how God formed us in our humanity as spiritual beings intended to live in heaven as well as on earth in the Trinity. This understanding of man and woman gave the human body a sacramental reality. Therefore, according to Pope St. John Paul II:

“The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it.” (Man Enters the World as a Subject of Truth and Love, 19th Wednesday Audience, February 20, 1980.)

This personalist approach was radically different from the scientific approach that had colored and influenced the secular world and the Church’s standing in that world since the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Certain tenets of Catholicism had been (and still are) criticized as merely historic and man-made. A rich Catholic apologetics attempted to defend the Church from this onslaught of Modernism, and a theological approach to return to the biblical, apostolic, and patristic sources of the faith (ressourcement) culminated in the Second Vatican Council, which ran from 1962 to 1965.

Pope St. John Paul II helped to elucidate the Church’s vision for modern man and the world as given in the documents from Vatican II. He saw his mission to further develop the Church’s philosophy and theology to bring the beauty of God’s plan for humanity back to its original vision. This required an anthropological and personalist turn that exhibited the divine image in each person’s integrity and dignity. This was a profound deepening of the Church’s mission for the New Evangelization for its Third Millennium. This was probably one of the reasons Father Flanagan found these teachings so fundamental and critical for SOLT spirituality, so that we could deepen our Marian-Trinitarian spirituality and live it more authentically in the secular world.

The Foundations of the Theology of the Body

Pope St. John Paul II taught that marriage was a gift from God from the beginning of creation, as found in the two creation accounts in the Book of Genesis. We were made for unity and for procreation, for self-awareness and making moral choices. All of these fundamental dimensions of our common humanity were given to us as gifts from God to realize our Communion with the Trinity. This is expressed through giving ourselves exclusively to our spouse in marriage, and to others in a spousal relationship with the Trinity. In marriage, we then enter into the intimate life of the Trinity through our unity in marital oneness and in our fecundity in bringing new life into the world.

When we discussed the teachings of St. Pope John Paul II as presented by Father Flanagan, I was deeply touched by the vision that The Theology of the Body offered to me in my own marriage. I found great meaning in exploring the remnants of the “original solitude” enjoyed by Adam and Eve before they sinned in the Garden of Eden. The other couples were excited and moved by this new teaching as well that helped us to better recognize the deep mystery of our call to sacramental married life.

There were four parts to The Theology of the Body. The first part was entitled Original Unity of Man and Woman. These initial talks were completed on April 2, 1980, and were published in a single volume in June 1981. As soon as this book was available, SOLT secured a number of these books for married couples, and couples in formation, to study. The book was hard reading because of its complex philosophical language and some difficulties with its translation into English. But most of all, I had to re-read it several times in order to re-orient my incomplete understanding of the philosophical approach that had been prevalent throughout my entire educational history. The scientific approach to philosophy that had taken hold in the Enlightenment could no longer be adequate for a post-Vatican II world where personalism and a deeper understanding of the human person was required.

Diving Deeper

Our monthly SOLT discussions often lasted several hours. The SOLT Sisters watched our children so we could have quiet time to reflect on the mysteries expounded during these monthly retreats, and to delve more deeply into The Theology of the Body.

At the end of the monthly discussions, I would be so excited to see our children again. I was given a grace through these teachings to incorporate into my family life what I had learned each month.

There was something beautiful about living in a graced-filled marriage and in a community where other couples, as well as priests, sisters, and single laity would find common cause to pursue holiness. Married couples were no less important than other vocations in the SOLT community life. In fact, married couples were full members of the SOLT community.

And even though the SOLT families lived in their own private houses, we had many opportunities to interact with other vocations in SOLT. The most intriguing of these was what Father Flanagan called “ecclesial family teams”.

These teams operated wherever SOLT served in the world, and were usually formed around one or more married couples. They would meet regularly, usually around a meal in the family home, and pray and discern together how to better live the SOLT spirituality. This consisted of liturgy prep, SOLT Spiritual Exercises, and support of the SOLT missions (then in Belize, the Philippines, Haiti, Ethiopia, a traveling ministry for Spanish migrant workers, and in poor and distressed apostolates in the US such as orphanages, jails, and native tribal lands).

Living It Out

I have tried to live the SOLT spirituality within the remarkable vision of the New Evangelization that is based on The Theology of the Body. Married couples and families have a tremendous role to play in this New Evangelization, which can leaven and renew the world in its relationship to the Most Holy Trinity. Like George Weigel noted in Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, The Theology of the Body is like a “kind of theological timebomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.”

That, my friends, is now.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Deacon Jim Dougherty, Ph.D. is a married permanent deacon for the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) on temporary loan to the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware. He and Karol have been married 42 years and have four children, three of whom live in Hawaii, one of whom, Aaron, in eternity. Their six grandchildren also live in Hawaii. Dougherty is the author of an unpublished memoir, "A Place for Us to Meet", about healing after tragic loss.

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