Today’s first reading at Mass from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans offers a robust critique of the fallen world’s *anti-theology of the body,* to use the popular and ubiquitous Theology of the Body (TOB) nomenclature given to those sexily presented versions of Catholic sexual ethics that have swept the U.S., especially over the last ten years.
St. Paul says, referring to the ignorant idolaters who confuse creature and Creator:
Therefore, God handed them over to impurity
through the lusts of their hearts
for the mutual degradation of their bodies.
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie
and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the Creator,
who is blessed forever. Amen.
For St. Paul, the distorted use of sexuality is fundamentally grounded in fallen humanity’s mis-read of God’s moral order, the script written into our fleshy hearts that bears the amorous exigencies of the law of love. To conform one’s life to that inspired inscription is to worship God, which, as the TOB-ers like to say, makes scripted sex into a quasi-liturgical reality.
By ‘sexy ethics’ I, of course, mean that TOB often seeks to make Catholic ethics attractive, enticing, even seductive to a generation that finds churchy morality a real sleeper.
Some find that trend somewhat troubling, while others see it as evangelically useful.
Dawn Eden has offered some of my favorite of TOB’s declensions. Her first Thrill book was a largely autobiographical theo-narrative, a tale of erotic degradation and redemption. Her upcoming 2012 book is more ponderous, offering a path to chaste wholeness that returns to some basic catechetical tropes; but does not make them utterly boring by calling them catechetical tropes.
Dawn also does a fine job debating her views on chastity in the public square. We need more of that!
Theologies of the Body
That said, I think one of the most important fruits of the TOB movement has been a deeper look at the question of the broader implications of embodied-ness on human dignity. In this development, we are seeing the development of not just a Theology of the Sexual Body, but of the Social Body, the Suffering Body, the Poor Body, the Disabled Body, the Unborn Body. And so on.
On that note, I recall a moral theology teacher of mine saying on this topic, ‘The face of a starving child is a divine command, an ethical imperative to feed.’
Pope John Paul II, who coined the *TOB* phrase, clearly laid the groundwork for an integrated theological vision of embodied-ness that does not succumb to the Western temptation to sexualize theology, but rather integrates sexual identity in the many matrices of human identity.
Orthodox theologian David B. Hart offered a thickly thought out example of JP2-style integration in his fascinating 2005 article in the New Atlantis. [N.B. thickly thought = ‘What the Hell is He Talking About?’]
Bishop Laffitte offered a little thinner thinking of these things, which you might find a tad easier to read. [N.B. thinner thinking = ‘Now I get it’]
Remember, Catholic means ‘according to the whole.’
So you see, in the end the Catholic always say, It’s the Whole Truth, Stupid.
Well, maybe not the stupid part. Unless your patron is St. Jerome.