Theology of the Body — The missing piece in my understanding of gender and sexuality
By: Jessica Bailes
When I went home for Christmas break, my mom and I decided to work a few jigsaw puzzles. It’s an activity we’ve done leisurely throughout the years, but this time I more passionately dove into it. I wasn’t quite out of “go mode” coming out of the school year, and snapping those little pieces of cardboard together made me feel like I was still working my brain, still accomplishing something.
We had just bought a nicer puzzle. Nothing too fancy, but the pieces connect more precisely than some dollar store sets we had worked. The cheaper ones always come together to form a picture, but you can never be sure each portion is right until the end because of how they are questionably cut. One slight shake of the table and a few pieces are sure to come apart.
In a world full of dollar store attempts at the Truth, the Catholic Church’s morality satisfies like a fancy puzzle. If God tasked me with anything as a young adult, it was to put that puzzle together for myself.
I’ve always had a strong passion for morality. Beginning at age thirteen, a friend’s questions sparked this passion, and I found myself avidly seeking answers to all the questions on which the world and the Church had different stances. I needed to know who was right.
These questions began with challenging whether God, who I thought to be potentially the source of morality itself, was even there at all. Once I concluded that He was, I started asking about the Church’s positions on everything from abortion to euthanasia to the death penalty. I was blessed to have teachers in high school who met my repeated questions with an abundance of knowledge. I continued to gather pieces of the puzzle that fit together perfectly.
Sexual sin was the last part of the picture to arrange, and a few of the pieces were seemingly impossible to find. I eventually got to a point where at least the Catholic teaching on sex before marriage made sense, if only because I could see how sex distracts from the most important aspects of discerning marriage while dating.
Despite this, I still got stuck on the Church’s definition of marriage:
“The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life […] by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (CCC 1601, emphasis added).
It seemed like everyone outside the Catholic Church, even many within the Christian church, tended to disregard gender as a defining factor of marriage. And why not? I certainly knew through my own experiences with same-sex attraction that it did not take a man and a woman for two people to feel mutual romantic love, so why was the Church clinging so strongly to this portion of the definition? The fact that sex was intrinsically linked to marriage made sense to me, so I began to fixate upon this verse from the Catechism presented to me in response to my question, “Why?”
“Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter […]. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility.” (CCC 1643).
So, from the Catechism, I knew that marriage needed to unite the couple and be open to life, but I didn’t see why a same-sex couple could not have sex that was unitive. And I didn’t see why a same-sex relationship couldn’t be as open to life as a married man and woman who couldn’t have children due to medical reasons. I didn’t see why they couldn’t be open to life by adopting a child or serving those in their community.
I continued to ask questions of the wisest Catholics I knew. Some days, these questions took the form of patient and curious inquiry, but they were more frequently passionate and desperate arguments against the Catholic Catechism coupled with a hope that someone, with all the reason surrounding the Catechism verses, would prove me wrong in a way that I would understand. Everything that I had read and heard about our Church’s theology made sense, in a way, but I continued to struggle with why it was so important.
Yes, having a female and male role model in a child’s life is influential, but is it so influential that a same-sex couple can’t have that role model be among other family members or friends?
Sure, the act of creating a child through a couple’s mutual love is wonderful, but how does that wonder detract from the partnership of others who are biologically incapable of creating together with their bodies?
And yeah, men and women have distinct, complementary characteristics, but can’t people of the same sex have complementary characteristics, too? Or isn’t the complementarity of the genders within society as a whole good enough? Why must it be present in every marriage?
I felt like I was hitting a dead end. I wanted to keep working the puzzle, but there were some parts of the picture that weren’t in the box. I was restless.
I told anyone who asked (and sometimes anyone who didn’t) that I didn’t agree with what Catholics claimed to be the definition of marriage, but I stayed fervent in faith. I thought the magisterium, the living teaching office of the Church, made a mistake along the way. I figured it would change slowly and knew that everything else about the Church was legitimate and true.
I recognized that, for some, this would be a breaking point, an ultimatum. The Church’s call to chastity is hard for anyone. It is quite difficult for those with same-sex attraction who can’t see why it’s necessary and seems nearly impossible for those who don’t trust in the Church’s authority. Despite this, I never once thought about being anything but Catholic. Though I could not see the whole picture, all of the pieces I’d found so far snapped together too well for me to miss the fullness of truth present in the universal church.
As I neared the end of high school, this trust in the Church solidified the more I met people living authentically holy lives. Though I was quite logically driven, I began to understand how my friendships with others could be clarifying pieces to the puzzle. Seeing goodness in others as a result of their faith reassured me of the goodness present in the totality of the gospel. I began college with a lessened urgency about seeking the Truth in my mind because of the trust that these relationships had formed in my heart.
But there was still a missing piece.
I still didn’t understand why the Church’s definition of marriage was so important.
There was one phrase rattling around in my brain that I hadn’t yet examined as closely as I desired, Theology of the Body. Among the many Catholic podcasts I had listened to on long drives home in high school, this collection of talks by St. Pope John Paul II was praised highly as a response to confusions about gender and sexuality. Looking back, I’m astonished that I didn’t examine the work sooner. In the Catholic faith where there is so much beauty and so many people talking about it, it is easy for crucial ideas, even those that receive ample attention, to get lost in the mass volume of quality, highly acclaimed works.
I did find the works important enough to buy a copy of the 800-page collection of the papal sermons the summer before I started college. Throughout my freshman year, I heard a bit more about how revolutionary John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB) was without hearing too much about what exactly it was, except that it related to sex and marriage.
Fast forward to March 2020, and I could make time to read a little bit of TOB every day, an hour at a time. Not only did this provide structure at a time when I desperately needed it due to the pandemic, but it also revealed to me the missing piece. It revealed to me the beauty of God’s plan for marriage.
Here are a couple of striking examples of this beauty from his work:
“Man, whom God created male and female, bears the divine image imprinted on his body ‘from the beginning.’ Man and woman constitute two different ways of the human ‘being a body’ in the unity of that image” (TOB Jan. 2, 1980).
“Marriage […] is the sacrament in which man and woman, called to become ‘one flesh,’ participate in God’s own creative love. They participate in it both by the fact that, created in the image of God, they are called by reason of this image to a particular union […], and because this same union has from the beginning been blessed with the blessing of fruitfulness” (TOB Dec. 15, 1982).
I was in awe! To have the divine image itself imprinted on my body?! To participate in God’s creation and His love together?!
I only realized it in retrospect, but I had been missing a third of what I needed to know. I had spent years gaining knowledge of the truth and how to approach this issue with a spirit of love, willing the good of others and myself. Despite this, I was missing the beauty I found in this twentieth-century teaching of the pope.
Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, known as the three transcendentals, are truly all one. Something good must also be true and beautiful. Something cannot be beautiful if it is not good. God is Truth. God is Beauty. God is Goodness. We talk about these three individually to aid the limited human mind in its understanding of a limitless God.
Similarly, JP II’s work seemed limitless. It provided me with my share of eye-opening moments, but there were also times when it felt like I would trudge through many pages unable to absorb much at all. I’ve always enjoyed learning about my faith. I had previously found time for a bounty of Catholic podcasts but exactly zero theological documents longer than ten pages.
It was tough, but I was persistent. And by the will of God, Ashley, one of the staff members at St. Augustine Church, decided to offer a virtual Theology of the Body class when I was about halfway through the text. This class (along with a class on Love and Responsibility, another one of JP II’s works) made TOB much more approachable and sealed my trust in the Church and the beauty of her teaching.
So that’s how I found the piece of the puzzle I was missing. If this metaphorical puzzle represents the fullness of God’s love, I can’t see the whole picture. Clearly, none of us here on earth can, or we would die with delight. Nonetheless, this pivotal piece reassured me that the puzzle will be complete for all to see when we are (hopefully) united with our heavenly father at the end of our lives. For now, we must simply trust that it is there.
That trust in God remains a frequent struggle. It often seems that the more I learn to trust Him, the more I discover ways in which I am skeptical of his Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. Regardless of this constant battle, I now find solace in Theology of the Body as a teaching to which I can turn to remind myself of God’s Beauty and how that Beauty has a purpose and plan for my life. TOB is where I can turn when I need to remind myself why I can’t pursue every desire, even those the evil one disguises as good. I don’t mean to glorify St. JP II as the source of Truth only God can be, but finding the person who communicated that Truth in an effective way makes all the difference. If you are Catholic, but still questioning, about anything, I urge you to pursue your missing piece. I promise it’s out there. It might not be the ideas found in Theology of the Body, but maybe it is. I implore you not to run away if you have any inkling that TOB is the part of the gospel you need to hear. I challenge you to seek God’s timeless, unyielding Truth in a troubled world.
Resources on Theology of the Body
Okay, so what next? I’ve told you why I’m super excited about the deep impact of Theology of the Body, but I doubt reading any of this has revolutionized your thoughts on the sacrament of matrimony, same-sex marriage, sexual sin, modesty, or anything else. That would be beyond the scope of this blog post. What I do hope is that it has left you somewhere between slightly curious and desperately hungering for more when it comes to the writing of Pope St. John Paul the Great. If that’s the case, here’s where you can turn to next:
Classes at St. Augustine Church and Catholic Student Center
Ashley still offers TOB and Love and Responsibility classes about once a semester at St. Augustine, which I highly recommend. If you’re interested in either of these, or if you think you’d just have time for a brief conversation about TOB you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fr. Mike Schmitz on YouTube
“Why God Gave Us Bodies” is a great introduction to TOB. Fr. Mike Schmitz does a great job in breaking down the most important pieces of the work in a way anyone can grasp.
Things to Read
If you’re ready to go a bit more in-depth, I recommend Christopher West’s book Theology of the Body for Beginners: Rediscovering the Meaning of Life, Love, Sex, and Gender for a summary of the teaching in a little over two hundred pages.
The Theology of the Body is also available for free online as a pdf as listed below,
Eden Invitations is a Catholic ministry for people with same-sex desires and gender discordance. They wonderfully minister to adults through virtual bible studies and in-person retreats and encounters. Their compassionate staff comes together to provide a space to meet people who have these shared experiences. You definitely don’t have to understand everything about yourself or the Church to join, in fact, it’s expected that you likely won’t. You just have to be willing to take the leap and contact them!
If you’re interested, they are having a book club that will be beginning the week of February 22 (Lent 2021), and they will also be having retreats in the coming year. Here is their website, so you can check out more if you are interested!