When you hear the phrase “Theology of the Body” (TOB), what comes to mind? I’m sure it will depend on your background and will vary greatly. Is “TOB” just a vague buzz-word that you—like a majority of Catholics—have heard but have no direct experience with? Have you actually read Blessed Pope John Paul II’s work? Have you read other authors’ works on the Theology of the Body? Are you a catechist who thinks “Theology of the Body” is just another term for “chastity education”? Do you dissent from Church teaching on contraception? Do you consider yourself to be a “traditional” Catholic or among the “traditionalists” found within (or perhaps just schismatically outside) the Church?
If you felt like we just turned a corner by mentioning “traditionalism,” we did. Here’s why: I would assert that, while others in the Church might admit either ignorance, familiarity, or apathy toward the Theology of the Body, those with a “traditionalist” mindset make up the majority of those in the Church who remain openly and energetically critical of Blessed John Paul II and the Theology of the Body.
Making things murky, however, is the fact that, like other big-tent terms like “Christianity” or “Judaism,” the use of “traditionalist” is by no means monolithic—it represents a dizzying array of flavors, from full-blown schismatic sedevacantism to faithful children of the Church who appreciate, support, and at least occasionally attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. Needless to say, such a multi-faceted group will also have varying levels of affinity for someone like the late Blessed Pope John Paul II. Reactions to his papacy among “traditionalists” have ranged from those openly calling him a heretic to those staunchly defending him and his teaching.
In this swirl of opinion, the Theology of the Body has never fared too well. Extreme traditionalist claims of heresy, false teaching, modernism, novelty, and magisterial discontinuity have dogged TOB teachings from the beginning. Particularly, the claims of “discontinuity” and imprudently “oversexualizing” Church teaching on marriage seem dominant themes even among the more kind critiques. Not to point fingers or name names, but online research would yield clear examples. In fact, even before Pope John Paul II’s beatification in 2011, some traditionalists (including some firmly in full communion with the Church) openly petitioned against naming him “Blessed.”
Getting Caught in the Middle
Among those in the traditionalists’ “contra-TOB” crosshairs, veteran Theology of the Body presenter Christopher West has always loomed large. The more extreme traditionalists have consistently viewed West as a thorn in the flesh for successfully popularizing erroneous papal teachings. As we’ll see, in the heady mix of traditionalism, one’s evaluation of West seems dependent upon one’s own traditionalist “narrative.” For the radical schismatic, West is merely accurately presenting the “modernist heresies” of Karol Wojtyla.
But, if one is a not-so-radical traditionalist in full communion with the Church, who wishes to distance one’s self from such troubling claims against the late Holy Father, there is a tempting and maybe slightly unconscious alternative: adopt the view that the “real” problem with the Theology of the Body is West’s presentation of it—not the original work itself. By focusing on West and not Theology of the Body, the faithful traditionalist is able to resolve the tension inherent in the generic traditionalist suspicion toward the Theology of the Body and its papal author. After all, there is one thing that West is guilty of, from the traditionalist view: his presentation style is “culturally incorrect.” West’s willingness to engage secular culture, meet it where it is, and point us to the kernels of truth he finds there along the way? That is an instinct clearly (almost by definition) not found under the rubric of traditionalism.
Keep in mind that such a tension regarding Theology of the Body appears to exist nowhere else in the Catholic community. It’s not there among the uninformed. It’s not there among those dissenting from Humanae Vitae (since they simply disregard TOB as well). It’s not there among those who know the original TOB corpus is both true and is being faithfully expressed by Christopher West. No, this is a tension that is uniquely evident in the stew of traditionalism because, while the stew includes some who accuse the pope of modernist heresies, it also includes those who, while sensitive to issues like the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” and “oversexualization,” do not believe Pope John Paul II is a heretic.
And it is this landscape upon which a particular powder-keg blew back in May 2009, when “Theology of the Body” met “Nightline” on a national stage—via Christopher West. In this case, the secular arm-wrestled with the sacred, and the secular won. The edited “Nightline” visit with West misrepresented his teaching, but became the launchpad for a vivid Catholic in-house and mostly online “debate” about West and the TOB corpus that temporarily caught the attention of a much larger cross-section of Catholics. In this climate, momentum grew for a traditionalist perspective that claimed the problem was with West and not Theology of the Body, despite the numerous assurances to the contrary from bishops and TOB scholars that West’s work was theologically blameless.
Assessing the Status Quo
Now, five years later, where are we with all this?
Thankfully, Christopher West continues his fine work as an expositor of the thought and teaching of Blessed Pope John Paul II. He has continuing episcopal support, and his catechetical work bears the imprimatur and nihil obstat. He also has the support of those in the Catholic academic community who have open-mindedly read his own writings in comparison to the TOB corpus.
Yet, for many with a traditionalist mindset, West likely remains “culturally incorrect.” His style can’t be said to comport with basic traditionalist sensibilities. Further, there continues to be a need within traditionalism for those who are not “anti-Blessed John Paul II” to distinguish their views from the more extreme criticisms of both of the Theology of the Body itself and its original author. Thus such a thread of thinking can still be found in traditionalism today, seeking to distinguish what I’ve seen referred to as “TOB Inc” or “Big TOB” (organized popular efforts to present the Theology of the Body) from what Pope John Paul II supposedly “really” wanted to teach us.
Fortunately, in my view, the Theology of the Body landscape is stabilizing. The very few voices I’ve encountered that vigorously continue to criticize West, for example, are voices from within the general traditionalist sphere. Other Catholics who paid attention to the debate a few years ago seem to have moved on, apparently satisfied that most criticisms of West ultimately devolve to opinions about style and do not really touch on theological substance.
Within traditionalism, however, much more work needs to be done—and not just for West’s sake, though he has a right to an accurate portrayal of his work. Rather, the more daunting work involves rehabilitating the reputation of a pontiff, not a mere presenter. The Theology of the Body will only get a fair hearing from within traditionalism when both West and soon-to-be Pope St. John Paul II are properly understood.