Pope Francis blesses new spouses while celebrating marriage rite for 20 couples during Mass at Vatican in 2014.

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.”

Outlets that once prized obedience to the papacy continue to present Pope Francis and his appointees through a veil of suspicion.

This did not allay fears expressed in conservative Catholic media that John Paul’s teachings were being put aside. Outlets that once prized obedience to the papacy continue to present Pope Francis and his appointees through a veil of suspicion.

In this case, it is presumably because the pope indicated in his announcement that he wants the institute, which John Paul II founded in 1981, to take a broader view:

We must be informed and impassioned interpreters of the wisdom of faith in a context in which individuals are less well supported than in the past by social structures, and in their emotional and family life. With the clear purpose of remaining faithful to the teaching of Christ, we must therefore look, with the intellect of love and with wise realism, at the reality of the family today in all its complexity, with its lights and its shadows.

Francis provided a more detailed appraisal of the institute’s work when he spoke to its faculty last October. For portions of his talk, he sounded much like his predecessors. “The affirmation of a culture that exalts narcissistic individualism, a conception of freedom disengaged from responsibility for the other, the growth of indifference to the common good, the imposition of ideologies that attack the family project directly, as well as the growth of poverty that threatens the future of so many families, are all the more reasons for the crisis of the contemporary family,” he said, according to a translation by Zenit.

He added, “we must learn not to be resigned to human failure, but let us sustain the rescue of the creative plan at all costs.”

But there is more.  Quoting Amoris laetitia (36), he said:

It is right, in fact, to recognize that at times ‘we have presented a theological ideal of marriage that is too abstract, almost artificially constructed, far from the concrete situation and of effective possibilities of families as they are. This excessive idealization, especially when we have not reawakened confidence in grace, has not made marriage more desirable and attractive, but all the contrary.’ God’s justice shines in fidelity to His promise. And this splendor, as we learned from Jesus’ revelation, is His mercy.

He didn’t cite the next paragraph, but it completes the thought:

We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

I don’t know if it’s what he intended, but in re-arranging the John Paul II Institute, Francis seems to be responding to critics of the Theology of the Body, keeping what he sees as valuable while looking to fill in the gaps some theologians have written about.

A good example of some of these criticisms is found in an article Luke Timothy Johnson wrote for Commonweal.

Johnson wrote that in his Theology of the Body lectures, John Paul:

seems never to look at actual human experience. Instead, he dwells on the nuances of words in biblical narratives and declarations, while fantasizing an ethereal and all-encompassing mode of mutual self-donation between man and woman that lacks any of the messy, clumsy, awkward, charming, casual, and, yes, silly aspects of love in the flesh. …. In the pope’s formulations, human sexuality is observed by telescope from a distant planet. Solemn pronouncements are made on the basis of textual exegesis rather than living experience. The effect is something like that of a sunset painted by the unsighted.

Will the new institute—now called the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Matrimonial and Family Science—answer such concerns? It will if it is to follow through on Amoris laetitia, which so far is being absorbed into the bloodstream of the U.S. Catholic Church very slowly.

Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.