Theology of the Body and Natural Family Planning

Remarks of Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila

Family Celebration Dinner for NFP Teachers

Centro San Juan Diego

February 8, 2015, 6:30-7:15 p.m.

 

It is wonderful to be here with all of you and I am grateful to be here with you who are so dedicated to spreading the truth about the beautiful gift of human sexuality. You are truly a leaven in the Church and in the world.

Most people do not think that a bishop talks about sexuality. After all, they say, ‘He’s celibate, so why would he talk about that?’ But the truth is, the Church has many positive things to say about the gift of our sexuality.

Did you know that when the Sistine Chapel was being renovated, Saint John Paul Great told the restorers to remove the fig leaves placed on some of Michelangelo’s figures?

When the restored frescoes were unveiled in 1994, St. John Paul II recalled Genesis 2:25, which says, “The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame.” This was the state of original innocence. Adam and Eve both experienced a level of communion with each other that was immersed in interior and exterior peace. They were undisturbed by sinful inclinations to see each other as anything other than a person made in the image and likeness of God.

As he looked out upon the story of salvation painted by Michelangelo, St. John Paul II declared, “The Sistine Chapel is precisely – if one may say so – the sanctuary of the theology of the human body. In witnessing to the beauty of man created by God as male and female, it also expresses in a certain way, the hope of a world transfigured, the world inaugurated by the Risen Christ….”[1] This world is one in which we are able, through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, to return to purity.

 

This evening I want to spend my time with you discussing two things that are essential to understanding how Jesus Christ redeems our sexuality. First, I will speak about the meaning of the Theology of the Body and its importance in our time. And second, I will look at how the Theology of the Body can positively impact the way you teach and practice Natural Family Planning.

Before I share my reflections on the Theology of the Body, I must tell you this. If you desire to experience and impart the joy and beauty of Natural Family Planning, then you must understand the Theology of the Body. This is why I have established guidelines for marriage preparation in the Archdiocese of Denver that say all programs are to include instruction in the Theology of the Body and NFP.

I am thoroughly convinced that both are one of the best kept secrets of the Catholic Church. I am also thoroughly convinced that they must be presented to our young people, and especially those who are being formed for marriage.

Without the Theology of the Body, NFP can become a kind of “Catholic Contraception,” something which is really a contradiction in terms. What makes the Theology of the Body unique is that it brings true joy to relationships, marriages and friendships. The secular approach to sexuality focuses almost exclusively on pleasure and self-fulfillment, and in doing so, promotes objectification; it dehumanizes the human person and others by making self-centered gratification the highest priority, rather than our sexuality being a selfless exchange of love—a total self-gift to another. Those who have a Catholic understanding of human sexuality understand how confused our society is about the truth, goodness and beauty of human sexuality and the three goods of marriage.

So with that said, I’d like to give you some background to the Theology of the Body and explain its basic principles.

The term “Theology of the Body” has been used by theologians and scholars to describe the series of teachings on the human person and human sexuality that St. John Paul II gave between September 5, 1979, and November 28, 1984. In total, he delivered 129 of these talks, which he later said could be titled “Man and Woman He Created Them.”

The fact that God guided him to give this teaching to the Church shows His care for us. It also shows that St. John Paul II fully understood the implications of the sexual revolution that happened in the 60s and 70s. Generation Xers and Millennials – which includes some of you – have experienced the consequences of that dramatic rejection of a Christian sexual worldview. We have seen an increase in infidelity, a surge in divorce, more dysfunctional families, a decrease in children’s psychological well-being and a boom in single-parent households, just to name a few consequences.

In his encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI predicted this meltdown in the family. He expected that the widespread use of contraception and the rejection of Christian sexual values would lead to an increase in “infidelity and the general lowering of morality,” a loss of respect by men for women, the abuse of power by governments to promote contraception, and the acceptance of the belief that man should have “unlimited dominion” over his body.

Over the last 40 years these attitudes and actions have all become a sad reality. Not surprisingly, great numbers of people find themselves dissatisfied with the culture of meaningless sex and objectification. However, there too is the ongoing problem when we see a film that is about to come out on Feb. 14—“50 Shades of Gray.” In reading the synopsis, I was shocked by how dysfunctional our culture has truly become. And especially in reading responses from women and men, saying there was no problem with this pornographic book, and what I assume to be, a pornographic movie. What is amazing is the main actress in the movie said publically “I would not want my parents to see this movie.” And that says it all. But of course, she still starred in it. None of this makes sense. We must be those people who help people come to understand the gift that God the Father created us in his image and likeness; we were created and called into being to love and be loved, not to be used, not to be an object for someone else’s fantasy.

This is why George Weigel describes the Theology of the Body in his best-selling biography of St. John Paul II as a “theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences sometime in the third millennium of the Church… .”[2]

At the heart of St. John Paul II’s teaching on human sexuality is the sacramental view of reality. This means that the things that we are able to see have deep meaning and purpose that go beyond the visible. In the case of our bodies, this is especially true. Certain bodily actions are connected to certain spiritual actions and realities.

To quote one of his early Theology of the Body catechesis, the Holy Father stated: “The body, and only the body, is capable of making visible the invisible realities: the spiritual and divine.”[3] Put another way, our bodies have a “language” that can teach us about ourselves and about the mystery of God’s inner life.

As Pope John Paul II explained, the body “was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the invisible mystery hidden in God from time immemorial, and thus to be a sign of it.”[4]

Here it might be helpful for me to offer some concrete examples.

The larger bone structure and faster metabolism of a man indicates that he is designed to protect and provide. The physique of a woman indicates that she is oriented toward drawing others in and toward nurturing. These physical traits point to the emotional and spiritual realities of who we were created to be.

More obviously, perhaps, is the way that a man’s sexual organs are shaped for initiation, while a woman’s are oriented toward receiving. A man is made for a woman, and a woman for a man. I can still remember at World Youth Day in 2013, as a catechist bishop, when I was speaking with young people who were raising all sorts of questions about same-sex unions. Some of them in support, some of them opposed, and asking, why does the Church teach what she teaches? And I mentioned Theology of the Body, and they looked at me, not having heard of it, and I said it is one of the most important teachings of the Pontificate of John Paul II. And I said, the simplest answer I can give you is one that may be a little bit graphic, but I ask you very simply, look at your bodies. And a man’s body is made for a woman, and a woman’s body for a man. And the light flipped. Some of them gasped. And I said, a man’s body is not made for a man, just look at it. Or a woman’s body is not made for a woman, just look at it. Mouths dropped open, and you could see the lights going off. But they did not ever think about their bodies, and the language of their bodies. Our bodies, in other words, reveal who we are as persons, which is why Adam recognized Eve from her body. “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh… .”[5]

When Jesus was asked about Moses allowing divorce, he went back to the Creation to teach that “from the beginning it was not so.”[6] For that same reason, to understand the language of our bodies and the spiritual dimension of our being, we must look to Adam and Eve’s existence before they sinned.

Adam knew that he needed another person able to receive the gift of himself, another person to exist in a profound communion of love, and he experienced becoming “one-flesh” with Eve. Only in the union of man and woman is it possible for one flesh to come about.

But what does this teach us about God? By looking at how we were created to communicate love, we are able to learn about the life of the Trinity. We see that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit fully and faithfully give and receive love from each other. This exchange of love is also fruitful, giving birth to Creation and mankind. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Each of the sexes is an image of the power and of the tenderness of God, with equal dignity though in a different way.”[7]

When a couple’s relationship is characterized by a love that is free, total, faithful and fruitful, then they are able to experience the joy God intended for them and so reflect God’s love to the world.

But Scripture tells us that once Adam and Eve sinned and damaged their relationship with God, their “eyes were opened and they knew they were naked.” In their original state of innocence, the purity of their hearts prevented them from viewing each other as objects of selfish desire. But with the Fall the temptation to use each other and treat each other as objects arose. This is the world we live in now. And the use of contraception that has become so prevalent has made this temptation even easier to fall into.

Saint John Paul II introduced a new and helpful way of understanding why using contraception is wrong. He compared human sexual activity to the speaking of a language and the act of contraception to lying. Let me explain.

When a couple makes their wedding vows, they commit themselves to freely, faithfully, and fully love each other and to remain open to the children that may come from that love in accordance with God’s will.

The commitment is what John Paul II means when he speaks of reading the truth about marriage in the language of the body. Married couples, he says, should “read” that same language again when they engage in the sexual act. In other words, the marital act should be a participation in and recommitment to their marriage vows. When this is the case, they “say” with their bodies once again what they said on their wedding day. ‘I freely and faithfully give myself to you; I gratefully receive your self-gift to me; and together we open ourselves to receiving any and all children that God wills to give us. With their bodies, they participate in and communicate God’s plan for men and women; they conform to the truth about human love revealed by Christ, and by conforming to that truth, they will be set free in their love for one another, and they read the language of the body in that truth.

But when a couple uses contraception, they contradict that message of total self-giving and receiving. They “say,” rather, ‘I give you part of myself, but I also deliberately withhold part of myself.’ By withholding their fertility from each other, they also say, ‘we are not open to new life.’

This is how using contraception is like lying. With their bodies the couple performs an action that has the objective meaning of: ‘I give my whole self to you.’ But the reality is that the couple does not give everything to each other; they hold back a part of themselves. This is why the act of contraception is deceptive.

The modern sexual worldview twists the “language of the body” into a language of selfish self-gratification. Rather than giving oneself and receiving and treasuring the other, I grasp the other person like an object and then discard them when I’m done. Pope Paul VI’s predictions have unfortunately been realized. Women and men are no longer people to be loved but things to be used and controlled for the sake of pleasure. This is the environment that is forming the men and women you are teaching about NFP.

For that reason, I would like to mention two ways that the Theology of the Body can influence the way you teach and practice Natural Family Planning.

I recently read an article on CNN[8] about two factors leading more women to use NFP. The first reason is that they don’t like the negative physical side effects of hormonal contraception, and the second is the growing number of smartphone apps like Kindara, Glow or Ovuline that are making charting easier.

Many of the women using these apps are doing so because they are worried about putting hormonal birth control into their bodies. They believe that what is natural is best. And this provides an opening for the Church’s teaching about men and women being called to free, full, faithful and fruitful love–the way we were naturally made. The message of not telling a lie with the language of our body might also ring true with this same desire to be natural.

Although they may not express it this way, the inclination comes from the Natural Law–those truths that God wrote on our hearts when he created us. When you teach NFP to couples, I encourage you to use the principles of the Theology of the Body to move them beyond avoiding things that are unnatural to desiring the joy-filled relationships they were created for.

There is also a second aspect of Natural Family Planning that is tied into the Theology of the Body, and that is discerning the number and spacing of children. Marriage is not just about one person; it’s about a communion of two people. In the sexual act the two truly become one in the gift of their children. In the same way, the process of discerning what God is calling both of you to do with the blessing of your fertility should be an experience of communion.

Because married couples image the communion of life and love found in the Trinity, they are called to strive for that same communion in their discernment by seeking physical, spiritual and emotional unity.

Achieving this union requires self-mastery, intimacy within the heart of the Trinity, and an awareness of each other’s emotional needs. When a couple begins the process of discerning whether God is calling them to welcome another child or to decide for serious reasons not to pursue pregnancy, all these needs must be taken into account.

 

The key is to avoid the extremes of deciding without God or leaving the decision to God without true discernment. In her book Theology of the Body Marriage Preparation, Monica Ashour explains the different extremes well. On one hand, there is the idea of “deciding without God.” This makes any kind of contraception acceptable and also violates human nature, especially our fertility. On the other hand, there is the idea that “God decides without us.” But this approach is deficient because it sees even NFP as wrong and it ignores the gift of reason that God gives to us, of his desire that we be co-creators with Him.

It is truly wondrous when one ponders the depth of God’s eternal love for man and woman – He makes them co-creators with Him. God gives man and woman the possibility to cooperate with Him and to seek His will first in their married life, in the bringing forth of children.

Couples should decide with God, taking into account their physical and psychological health, their existing duties and responsibilities, especially other children, as well as their financial circumstances in the decision to have children. Practically speaking, this means prayerfully approaching the decision, using your reason, respecting the gift of your fertility and considering the various obligations you already have.

It is important to note that the Catechism says the desire for delaying pregnancy must be “just” and “not motivated by selfishness but … in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood.”[9]

This is not easy. Just as it is not easy to live virtuously in a secular culture that regards sexuality and people as something to be used, not to be loved. St. John Paul acknowledges this in his 1994 Letter to Families.

Love is demanding. It makes demands in all human situations; it is even more demanding in the case of those who are open to the Gospel. Is this not what Christ proclaims in “his” commandment? Nowadays people need to rediscover this demanding love, for it is the truly firm foundation of the family, a foundation able to “endure all things.”[10]

After he returned from the Philippines a couple weeks ago, Pope Francis emphasized how an openness to life is needed for a flourishing society.

“It gives consolation and hope to see many large families who welcome children as a true gift of God,” he said. Large families are not a cause of poverty, he insisted. “I can say, we can all say, that the principle cause of poverty is an economic system which has removed the person from the center, and has put in his place the money-god; an economic system that always excludes children, elderly, the unemployed, and creates the culture of waste in which we live.”

Modern Western society, modern American society, is being threatened by the growing number of people who only live for themselves. As teachers of Natural Family Planning, you can play a pivotal role in helping couples experience the true lasting joy that comes from living for others.

You can help them experience the freedom that comes from living out their sexuality as an image of the Trinity and from seeing children as gifts born of love, not as accessories or commodities.

I know that I have mentioned a lot of theological terms this evening, but permit me to mention one more. When you include the concepts of the Theology of the Body in your teaching, even when it’s not in explicitly religious, you are participating in the New Evangelization.

The New Evangelization initiative is strongly tied to St. John Paul II, although its roots go back in many ways to earlier popes. It can be defined as bringing the Gospel to modern society with renewed enthusiasm, using new methods and new expressions. Being a part of the New Evangelization requires every believer to first pursue their own ongoing conversion, where they will find the joy and enthusiasm of knowing Christ, and then placing all of their talents, skills and creativity at the service of the Gospel. This is what it means to encounter Christ, to give oneself completely to Him, letting Him form our hearts, our minds, our thoughts. I hope that all of you will look for ways to do this!

I would like to conclude my remarks by giving you a challenge.

As you teach couples about Natural Family Planning, invite them to enter into the mystery of their bodies, and the body of the “other.” Share with them your experience of practicing NFP and help them better understand the unique, unrepeatable masterpiece God has created in each of us. Do not be afraid to tell them about the difficulties and joys of discerning when they are being called to welcome new life and when they are being called to wait. They need to know that although practicing NFP is not always easy, it is worth the joy that it brings to their marriage.

As loudly and as persistently as our disbelieving culture proclaims its view of sex and happiness, a simple look around reveals the sad truth: too many people are left alone in the dark, searching for and failing to find love. We need to proclaim even louder and more persistently: God has the best, richest and fullest plan for the happiness of married couples.

Love is a Person, and He has written a wonderful design for human love into each of our bodies and hearts. Tonight, as your Archbishop, I entrust you with the essential task of communicating His love to those who are forming our future society, because, in the words of St. John Paul the Great, “as the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”

I thank you for your willingness to teach couples NFP. You are truly a blessing to the mission of Christ and the Church. You fill my own heart with joy when I hear from young couples their joy at coming to know Natural Family Planning. May the Father bless you abundantly, give you his wisdom, help you live with joy and give you courage to speak the truth with love!

 

[1] Homily of St. John Paul II at the Unveiling of the Restored Frescoes of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, paragraph #6, April 1994.

[2] George Weigel, Witness to Hope, 1999, p. 336, 343, 853.

[3] St. John Paul II, Wednesday Audience in St. Peter’s Square on Feb. 20, 1980.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Genesis 2:23, NRSVCE.

[6] Matthew 19:8.

[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2335.

[8] http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/08/health/fertility-awareness-methods/

[9] CCC, 2368.

[10] St. John Paul II, Letter to Families, 14.