At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization

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9780307987112: At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization
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The sexual revolution brought a terribly distorted vision of the body and sex into the mainstream. How should Christians respond? With his illuminating Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II challenged the modern world not to stop at the surface, but to enter the depth of the “great mystery” that the body and sex reveal: a mystery that lies at the heart of the Gospel itself.
Since he first discovered John Paul II’s teaching in 1993, Christopher West has devoted himself to sharing its life-transforming message with the world. In this highly anticipated work, West leads us into the depth of Christ’s “nuptial union” with the Church, demonstrating how authentic Catholic teaching on the body and sex saves us from both the libertine perspective of popular culture and the cold puritanism that has sometimes infected Christianity. In the process, West provides a blueprint for reaching our sexually broken world in the “new evangelization.”

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About the Author:

Christopher West is recognized around the globe for his work teaching and promoting John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. He serves as a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is the founder of the Cor Project, a global outreach devoted to cultural renewal through the “new evangelization.” He and his wife, Wendy, have five children and live near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 
 Foreword

By making us male and female in the divine image, God established a set purpose for our sexuality, ordering us to the intimate sharing of our very being with another person that’s open to participating in the creative power of God in bringing about new life. To proclaim this truth today requires courage and strength. And few have dared to engage the culture with Catholic teaching on human sexuality as Christopher West does. For this we can be grateful.
When I was named a bishop, I took as my Episcopal motto, “Mary the Model, Jesus the Center.” Mary is the model of openness to Jesus. She is the one who shows us how to bear Christ to others. True to his name, Christopher West is an authentic “Christ-bearer,” effective as a teacher and an evangelist. Through an understanding of Pope John Paul II’s teaching on the human person, made popular and taught throughout the globe by Christopher West, persons have come back to the practice of their faith, marriages have been strengthened and saved, and vocations to the priesthood and religious life have been fostered and renewed.

Through nearly twenty years of service to the Church, Christopher West has gained a hard-earned wisdom born of a constant “confrontation of doctrine with life,” as John Paul II put it (LR, p. 15). In his latest work, At the Heart of the Gospel, West shares that hard-earned wisdom with the rest of us, mapping a path toward an effective and “new” evangelization.

In our efforts to share Christ with the world, much is at stake in the way we understand (or fail to understand) the meaning of our bodies. Ours is a faith of “incarnation,” in which spiritual truths are revealed in the fl esh. Indeed, it is the human body “in all its materiality,” as Blessed John Paul II wrote, that reveals “who man is (and who he ought to be)” (TOB 7:2). It is in the body, in all its beauty as male and female, that we see a sign of the ultimate vocation of every human being to become “one body, one spirit with Christ.” In Jesus, the Word made flesh, God has revealed that man and woman’s future is not limited to this world but that we have an eternal destiny in the Marriage of the Lamb (Rev 19:7).
 
In this way, as Christopher West illuminates so beautifully for us, John Paul II’s Theology of the Body takes us to the heart of the Gospel itself. The “great mystery” of spousal love frames the entire biblical story. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church observes, “Sacred Scripture begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God and concludes with a vision of ‘the wedding-feast of the Lamb’ ” (CCC 1602). Christ is the ultimate Bridegroom and the Church is his Bride. In turn, the “entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist” (CCC 1617).
 
This means we must allow John Paul II’s Theology of the Body to inform our understanding not only of the sacrament of marriage, but of all of the sacraments, and of every state of life. We must allow this beautiful theology of spousal love to inform our understanding of the liturgy, the tenets of the Creed, our personal prayer life, our works of charity, and our hope in heaven.
 
Scholars will explore, expound, and penetrate the finer points of John Paul II’s theology for centuries. However, if we are to become authentic witnesses to Blessed John Paul II’s teaching, we must take it up not only as a project of academic study, but also (and even more so) as a “project of the heart.” At its deepest level, the Theology of the Body offers a mystical kind of wisdom. And this means that a merely academic approach can only take a person so far.
 
As Saint Bonaventure wrote, if one wishes to receive “mystical wisdom,” he should “ask grace, not instruction; desire, not understanding; the groaning of prayer, not diligent reading; the Spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness, not clarity; not light, but the fire that totally inflames and carries us into God by ecstatic unctions and burning affections” (The Soul’s Journey into God ).
 
In Jesus Christ, God comes to us in a way that we can relate to and understand: through a human body, through human love, and through human language. Similarly, if the treasures of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body are to become accessible to those who need them most, they must be put in a language that average men and women can relate to and understand.
 
Christopher West has been a pioneer in this task. As he himself admits, finding the right approach and successfully navigating it has been a challenging process. West’s determination to persevere is our gain. West’s teaching helps the Church to “reclaim the body for the new evangelization.” With great clarity and great charity, At the Heart of the Gospel shows us how.
 
At the Heart of the Gospel is the work of a theological mind, but also the fruit of a contemplative heart. Far from a superficial glance, we benefit, as Christopher West has, from prayerfully “receiving” John Paul II’s teaching and pondering it deeply. As West makes clear, if we are to live the full truth of our sexuality according to our particular state in life, we must persevere on the interior journey: we must learn to embrace God’s purifying fire, find divine strength in our weaknesses, and boast of nothing but the cross of Christ.
 
Christopher West is an authentic witness to this journey. He is to be commended for the courage and strength of conviction with which he proclaims, upholds, and defends the spousal vision of the Church, particularly as it’s articulated in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. It’s with great enthusiasm as his diocesan bishop that I endorse this magnificent book and recommend it to a wide, wide readership.
 
Most Reverend Joseph P. McFadden
Bishop of Harrisburg Chairman, USCCB Committee on Catholic Education 


 
 Introduction

I remember the first time I read John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB) in the early 1990s. I was convinced that if this glorious vision of human life and divine love were delivered to people in a comprehensible and engaging way, it could change the world dramatically for the good, even rescue us from the downward spiral of the “culture of death.” In short, I was convinced I was holding a revolution in my hands and I knew I would spend the rest of my life studying it and sharing it with others as part of the “new evangelization.”

While the late pope’s teaching does present some bold theological developments, we must affirm, of course, that “revolutions” do not occur in Catholic teaching itself. That would imply a fundamental change and, although our understanding of the Gospel can and does deepen with time (see CCC 66, 94), the essential witness of the Church is the same yesterday, today, and forever (see TOBE, pp. 599, 601). Yet, in responding to the particular crises of their times, the saints bring “new impulses into the world,” observes Pope Benedict XVI; and through these new impulses, he says, the saints bring about “revolutions”—“revolutions for the good” (LW, p. 158). Blessed John Paul II’s TOB is just such a revolution: it’s bringing “new impulses” into the world, making the often hidden glories of the Gospel accessible to men and women of our times.

“New impulses,” of course, create waves. Not surprisingly, certain circles in the Church have witnessed some spirited debate in recent years about John Paul II’s TOB. What did he really teach? Is it all about sex? What is sex all about? What is the place of this TOB in the theological tradition of the Church? What is the role of the body, sexuality, and marriage in understanding the Gospel itself and the sacramental life of the Church? Is it really possible on this side of heaven to overcome our tendency to lust and “see” the human body as a revelation of human dignity and as a sign of the mystery and beauty of God? What is the best language and approach to use in communicating John Paul II’s scholarly teaching in the “new evangelization”?

In the midst of these conversations, my work as a popularizer of John Paul II’s teaching has been the subject of some rather harsh critiques. During an extended sabbatical in 2010,1 I reflected prayerfully on the various challenges my work has received, seeking to glean as much as possible from what various authors were saying. This book is the fruit of those reflections. I offer it not only for those who have followed the discussion and in the hopes that it will clarify some of the debated points; I offer it also and even more so as an invitation to all those involved in the “new evangelization” to reflect on the challenge, hope, and promise that John Paul II’s TOB represents for the Church and the world at the beginning of the third millennium.

In light of John Paul II’s beatification in May of 2011, we have all the more reason to examine (or re­examine) his “masterwork” and allow its healing rays to penetrate our hearts more deeply. As Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete expressed it in his endorsement of this work: “The beatification of Pope John Paul II is more than the Church’s official recognition of his sanctity. John Paul II’s teaching is now bequeathed to the Church in a new way—not only by his authority as Pope, but also by his personal experience of sanctity.” This book is offered as a celebration of his sanctity and as an invitation to follow in his footsteps. If we do, we cannot help but become ever more effective witnesses to Christ’s love in the new evangelization.

At the heart of John Paul II’s TOB is the call to love one another in the image of the Trinity, and that means establishing a genuine “unity in diversity.” Our differences, even our theological differences, can and should serve to unite us in our common journey towards the fullness of the truth. Very often the resolution of theological debate involves finding the right balance between what appear to be competing truths, but are rather complementary aspects of the whole truth that must be held together in their proper “tension.” Finding that proper tension is like tuning a guitar—we inevitably go sharp, then flat, then back again until we find just the right tension in the string. When we understand this, we come to see how we need one another’s different emphases. Push-back from either direction is a healthy thing, so long as it’s offered charitably, and with a willingness to affirm the truth the “other side” is rightly seeking to uphold.

Dominican author Simon Tugwell observes that our hope in Christ is one of “total integration” in which no truth is lost and “nothing is left hanging.” And this, he says, “is why truth can never finally be served or peace proclaimed by taking sides . . . The church is called ‘Catholic,’ and this means she is committed to saying ‘Yes’ to the totality of God’s truth.” He concludes by observing that any “serious and useful undertaking produces a crop of different opinions and schools of thought, and it is from a careful scrutiny of all of them that a man becomes genuinely wise . . . Even the opinions we reject make their own contribution to our vision and understanding” (BSCT, pp. 117-118, 119).
The Theology of the Body is the sophisticated work of a mystical theologian. Discovering its gems and absorbing its subtleties is an ongoing process. One never “arrives.” There is always more to learn, always more to appreciate, always more to see. Along the way of this journey, the different emphases of various thinkers can only add to our overall understanding, as Father Tugwell expressed. This is why I believe the spirited conversation that the TOB has engendered in recent years represents a positive development and an important catechetical moment for the Church. The signs of the times continue to underscore how desperate is the need—both in and outside the Church—of recovering a vision of the “great mystery” of divine love revealed through our bodies.

With gratitude for all I have gleaned from a host of “different opinions and schools of thought,” my goal in this work is simply to unfold what I believe John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are teaching about this “great mystery” and how we are to share it with the world in the new evangelization. While this work represents a new stage in the development of my own thinking, I also quote from my previous works to show the continuity of my thought and to summarize what I have presented over the years.

It’s my sincere hope that all who read this work will enter more deeply into the “great mystery” that lies at the heart of the Gospel and come away all the more compelled to “go into the main streets and invite everyone to the wedding feast” (Mt 22:9).

—Christopher West
Chapter 1
 
The Great Mystery

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church. (Eph 5:31-32)

At the Heart of the Gospel

t the heart of the Gospel lies the “great mystery” of the marriage of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. In the fullness of time, the two— God and Man—became one in the flesh of the God-Man. Our belief in the Incarnation of God’s Son “is the distinctive sign of Christian faith” (CCC 463). It’s a mystery so resplendent and grand, so captivating and magnificent, it never ceases to ravish the hearts of those who glimpse its glory. But there’s more . . .

As if God’s visitation in the flesh weren’t enough, this astounding visitation is itself an astounding invitation. At the heart of the Gospel is the God-Man’s gratuitous offer to every human being to enter into this same nuptial exchange. God became one in the flesh with us so that we might become one in our flesh with him. “The Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature,’ ” proclaims the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Then, quoting St. Athanasius, the Church boldly declares that “ ‘the Son of God became man so that we might become God’ ” (CCC 460). Christ humbled himself to share in our humanity so that we might share in his divinity. What a glorious exchange of God and man; what holy nuptials!

Pope Benedict XVI observes that it is man’s “primordial aspiration” to “enter into union with God” (DC 10). Yet we rightly intuit that our hearts are too impure to enter so sublime a union. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8). As we persevere on our journey with the Lord, we gain confidence to enter the “holy of holies”—the inner sanctuary of union with God—not on our own merits, but only “by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the veil, that is, through his fl esh.” So let us draw near to this “great mystery,” let us enter confidently into these holy nuptials...

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