About a dozen years back, I attended a diocesan workshop given by Christopher West on Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” During the question-and-answer period I remarked that he had talked about moral theology all day without once using the word “conscience.” I noted that when I took a diocesan institute’s course on moral theology in the very same building, the instructor spoke often about the role of conscience in Catholic moral teachings.
I don’t recall the response given by West, a layman who has written and lectured extensively on St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. What I do remember is that after the session, quite a few people in the audience—largely made up of deacons and their wives—thanked me for speaking up.
On September 19, Pope Francis announced a decision that I hope will help address situations like this: he will revamp the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. The pope is re-affirming the Theology of the Body, but beginning a process of responding to some of the questions that have been raised about it. I see it as an effort to better connect John Paul’s ethereal talks to the realities of everyday life, in which we all wrestle with conscience and circumstance.
The Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II’s teachings on human sexuality delivered at 129 audiences from 1979 to 1984, has proven influential at the diocesan level; hence my encounter with Christopher West’s workshop. It has reshaped marriage preparation programs. Its upbeat exaltation of married sexuality provided a boost to advocates of Natural Family Planning, which young couples are more open to than might be expected.
There is much beauty in the late pope’s Theology of the Body. In a section of his document Amoris laetitia (The Joy of Love) on “the erotic dimension of love,” Francis quotes John Paul’s Theology of the Body lectures to praise sexuality as a gift from God. It is no surprise that the dean Francis appointed to run the new John Paul II Institute, Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri, said to reporters that the Theology of the Body will remain part of the new institute’s program. He called it a “treasure.”