Christopher West has become a regular name in Theology of the Body circles and recently returned from a year-long sabbatical with a new book, At the Heart of the Gospel. Christopher graciously took the time to do an interview with Aquinas and More.
You have written and spoken extensively about the Theology of the Body for years. Why a new book now?
Well, since John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB) examines infinite mysteries, there is never a lack of something to explore and unfold. More specifically, in recent years people have raised important questions about that nature of the TOB and they’re looking for answers. What did John Paul actually teach? Is it new? Is it all about sex? What is sex all about? How can we best reach our sexually confused culture with the teaching of the Church? Wanting to provide thoughtful answers to these and many other questions is what inspired me to write this book at this time.
You took a long sabbatical from speaking to reflect on your message. What conclusions did you reach?
Teachers of the faith are under a lot of pressure to “be perfect” and sometimes we place that pressure on ourselves. No one can live up to that. I think the greatest fruit of my sabbatical in 2010 was coming to a deeper appreciation of how God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, as St. Paul says. When I started this work almost twenty years ago, I think out of fear of facing some of my own brokenness, I convinced myself that I had some “strength” to offer the Church and the world. The Lord, in his mercy, has been helping me see that all I really have to offer is my weakness. He’s been helping me to see that holiness is not about “getting our act together.” Holiness is about keeping all of our brokenness open to the merciful love of the Father. He loves us as we are – in all of our brokenness – and it’s a deep knowledge of that love that progressively transforms us.
Marriage today is under assault from all sides with cohabitation, the homosexual “marriage” debate and no-fault divorce. How do we bring the teachings of Theology of the Body to our secular society without having it rejected as “just Catholic stuff?”
We might start by remembering ourselves, as Catholics, that the very word “catholic” means “universal.” When we understand Catholic teaching about marriage and sexuality properly, we readily recognize that it is an affirmation of simple, universal truths. The fact that we are created male and female and that there is a very important meaning to the sexual difference is not something the Catholic Church made up. The fact that sex leads to babies and babies’ needs are best met by a mother and father who are faithfully committed to each other is not something the Catholic Church made up. Furthermore, the fact that human sexuality holds great mysteries that point to something transcendent and even divine is both “catholic” in the universal sense and Catholic in the capital C sense.
The dove-tailing of the popularity of Shades of Grey and Magic Mike seem to be a red flag about the brokenness of our society. How can Theology of the Body respond to mainstreaming of porn in America and can we actually pull society back?
I was reading an article in Time Magazine last week about the boatloads of erotic literature being produced and sold to women in the wake of the whole 50 Shades of Gray phenomenon. The author said it’s no wonder women buy these novels by the case. “Where else,” he asked, “are their longings examined with as much fervor, acceptance and compassion?” Good question! Do we, as a church, even have the ability anymore to speak to people’s deepest longings? If all we say is “that’s bad!” or “that’s a sin!” we’re only giving people the negative side of the story. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “sin no more,” but he also showed her his tender love, compassion, and mercy. He showed her the love she had been looking for in a misguided way.
If we are to respond effectively to the pornographic culture, we must not be reactionary. We must not simply shout at the darkness. We have to turn the lights on. We must proclaim the splendor and glory and beauty of God’s plan for sexual love. Only then can we be saved from the counterfeit vision promoted by our pornographic culture. That’s where TOB is a tremendous help.
“You see, man strives for eternal joy,” says Pope Benedict, “he would like pleasure in the extreme, would like what is eternal.” But when we take God out of the picture we “must now create something that is fictitious, a false eternity,” he says. That’s what porn is. It’s a false heaven. And, as I say in my book, this “false heaven” ends up creating a living hell.
The unbridled pursuit of pleasure is “a sign of the times,” Pope Benedict tells us, “that should be an urgent challenge to us, especially as Christians.” How should Christians respond to this urgent challenge? “We have to show – and also live this accordingly,” says the Pope, “that the eternity man needs can come only from God ... so that a genuine coin can stand up against the false coin – and in this way the cycle of evil can be broken and stopped.” Porn is the false coin. The Theology of the Body reveals the true coin we’re all looking for.
At the Heart of the Gospel has been chosen as one of the titles for the CatholicSummerReading.com program this year. How would you recommend that readers approach your latest title?
First, let me thank you for including it on the list. I take that as an affirmation that you see how important John Paul II’s TOB is, especially with all the pressing challenges the Church is facing today. I’d recommend that readers approach this title not so much as an intellectual or academic study, but as a journey into the mystical treasures of our faith. Whenever we read a book we use our minds, our intellects – our “heads,” if you will. That’s important, of course. But I would encourage readers to approach this book more with their hearts. Mystical theology is less about thinking and more about drinking.
Well, I always recommend, if you have the aptitude, to read John Paul II’s TOB directly. Go straight to the horse’s mouth. If you find that daunting, as many do, there are lots of great resources available these days by many fine authors that can help unpack it for you. For a guided tour of the Pope’s catechesis from start to finish, you may want to read my commentary called Theology of the Body Explained. There is also the “Cliff Note” version: Theology of the Body for Beginners.
When people are interested in getting involved with your apostolate, how can they stay in touch?
Pennsylvania is beautiful but we know you miss real mountains. When are you moving back to Colorado?
Ah! Colorado is a great place to live. And I do miss the skiing to be sure. But I grew up in PA and there’s no place like home.
Thank you so much for all you have done to spread Blessed John Paul's message.
As Jesus said, when we do what we are asked to do, we should say, “I’m only an unworthy servant.” And so I am.