Pope John Paul II leaves legacy as sex educator

His 'theology of the body' made teachings accessible


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When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, admirers cited his inspiring of multitudes the world over and his role as the spiritual catalyst of the non-violent overthrow of Soviet-bloc communism.

Critics saw him as a reactionary who bolstered the papacy's authoritarian grip, upheld male and clerical privilege and responded slowly to the crisis of sexually abusive priests and the bishops who enabled them.

But some of John Paul's greatest admirers say his legacy is growing in an area that got scant mention in his obituaries nine years ago: as a sex educator.

Pope Francis probably won't put it quite that way on Sunday when he proclaims John Paul to be a saint along with a predecessor, John XXIII. But Catholic schools and parishes are increasingly teaching user-friendly versions of the "theology of the body" -- the sum total of 129 short talks that John Paul gave early in his papacy on God, sex and the meaning of life.

"The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible, the spiritual and divine," John Paul said. Citing the Christian teachings that humans were created in the image of God, who became human in Jesus Christ, "the body entered theology," he said.

"The theology of the body is what John Paul II is going to be known for," said the Rev. James Farnan, pastor of St. Thomas More Church in Bethel Park, who draws on the teachings in marriage preparation sessions. "It's somewhat philosophical, but for anyone who has studied it, it's changed their life."

At the exhibit hall of the National Catholic Educational Association convention this week at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, a booth offered an array of books and videos on "Theology of the Body for Teens," with specific editions for middle- and high-school levels and for their parents that aim to put John Paul's teachings into accessible language.

"John Paul II gave us such a gift with the theology of the body," said Kate Camden, brand manager for the materials, published by the West Chester, Pa.-based Ascension Press. A large exhibit poster says, "If Sex is on their minds, put Truth in their Hearts."

"Kids love it," said a visitor to the booth, Cathy Hannon, who coordinates religious instruction at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Davenport, Iowa. "Parents love it because they know it's good Catholic teaching" and it opens the door for them to talk about sex with their teenagers.

A curriculum outline said it aims to teach not just abstinence but also a positive view that "our bodies are very good and have been designed by God for communion with him and with each other."

Neither Ms. Camden nor Catholic researchers have statistics on how many parishes or schools around the country are using the relatively new materials on the theology of the body, nor on what effect they're having on teen behavior and attitudes.

Older programs teaching abstinence have taken criticism in an era when many teens and adults become sexually active outside of marriage.

"While those schools have every legal right to choose what their curriculum will be, they are in this case choosing ideology over the health of their students," said the Rev. Harry Knox, a Protestant minister and president of the national Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a multi-religious group that includes Catholics who dissent from church teachings on contraception and abortion.

He said sex education needs to include information about condoms and the prevention of pregnancy and disease.

"Knowledge is power, and young people cannot be expected to make good moral decisions if they don't have all of the information they need," he said.

And John Paul's teachings won't surprise anyone who recalls him as a traditionalist.

He upheld conventional gender roles and the call to celibacy for priests. He opposed artificial birth control, a principle that bishops acknowledge is widely ignored by Catholics, and sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, which runs counter to the growing acceptance of gay marriage in the West.

What John Paul was trying to do, though, was get beyond a prudish list of thou-shalt-nots.

While his teachings are thick with the vocabulary of philosophy, anthropology and biblical scholarship, John Paul talked candidly about marital sex as an icon of divine love -- akin to the way Catholics believe that the physical stuff of bread, wine and water convey a spiritual power in the sacraments.

In his marriage counseling, Rev. Farnan asks couples the reason they are getting married, then says, "Now let me tell you the theological reason."

He tells them of John Paul's comparison of the self-giving love of a husband and wife to that of the persons of the Trinity in the Christian concept of God.

"It's a wonderful treatise on the design of God," Rev. Farnan said.

Christopher West, author of "Theology of the Body for Beginners" and related books, said the late pope's teachings on sexuality also address another of his legacies -- his call for a "new evangelization" of those who are distanced or estranged from their Catholic upbringing.

"We need to walk into fraternity parties where people are getting drunk and seeking illicit sex and say, 'Do you know what you really want here? You want the Eucharist and Marriage, and the Catholic Church has them to give to you,' " Mr. West wrote.

George Weigel, author of two extensive biographical works on John Paul, wrote that the late pope was seeking to counter the sexual revolution of the late 20th century as well as the historic legacy in Christian circles of treating sex as shameful or at best a necessary evil.

"If it is taken with the seriousness it deserves, John Paul's theology of the body may prove to be the decisive moment in exorcising the ... deprecation of human sexuality from Catholic moral theology," Mr. Weigel wrote in the biography "Witness to Hope."

Luke Timothy Johnson, professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, and a Catholic, disputes that assessment.

For "all its length, earnestness, and good intentions, John Paul II's work, far from being a breakthrough for modern thought, represents a mode of theology that has little to say to ordinary people because it shows so little awareness of ordinary life," he wrote.

He lauded John Paul's stances for a "culture of life" and for restraint "in a time of sexualized identity and rationalized permissiveness."

But Mr. Johnson said John Paul's ideals fail to reckon with the "messy, clumsy, awkward, charming, casual, and, yes, silly aspects of love in the flesh."

As for homosexuals and others who don't fit these ideals: "Are they left outside God's plan?" Mr. Johnson asked in a 2004 Commonweal magazine article, which he reaffirmed in an email this month.

Gerard Magill, a professor in the Center for Healthcare Ethics at Duquesne University, said when he teaches on the theology of the body, students are "often very puzzled" about its philosophical explorations.

"It's going to be the task of good teachers to translate that work," he said.


Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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