The Catechesis on Human Love

CNA has published an extraordinary interview with Bishop Jean Laffitte, secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family on “The Theology of the Body,” or what he prefers to call, more accurately, “The Catechesis on Human Love.”  A large part of his interview is spent discussing the ongoing debate occurring in “English speaking countries.”

On What Words Mean

On his preference of terminology Bishop Laffitte states:

“Theology of the Body” is not a wrong expression on the condition of respecting the intention of John Paul II, that he was talking about human love and not only a partial focus on the body and on sexuality, being a bodily expression of love. . . .

Personally, I don’t agree with contemplation of the sexual phenomenon without providing the entire context of the mystery of creation, the mystery of God’s calling to experience and to live human love.

The English translation of Blessed John Paul II’s doctrinal teaching as “Theology of the Body”, while not incorrect in a strict sense, does not typify the entirety of his Catecheses on human love. The Catecheses were originally what the Blessed Pope himself chose in 1985 to be the first critical publication made by the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome . . .

So, “Theology of the Body” is not wrong.  However, if people have no formation on creation, on God’s design, on the anthropology of man and woman, or on the differentiation of the sexes, they then have no ability to defend against the gender ideologies rampant in our secular world today.

He makes a simple and very important point.  The whole way the “Catechesis on Human Love” has been cast in English speaking countries has swung the emphasis to body talk.  Never mind that “Theology of the Body” sounds both esoteric and erotic, how about synthesizing the catechesis under the title “Naked without Shame.”  His advice to swing back to the middle by identifying the pope’s work as accurately as possible will change the terms of the discussion.

On “Mystagogery”

Bishop Laffitte also addresses the question of sexual mysticism.  He stresses the fact that every human body belongs to a person and that sexuality is the ordaining of the union of one person with another in a bodily manner through the sacrament of marriage:

When Pope John Paul II talks about the body, it is crucial to understand that we are talking about an animated body, which is the body of a person.  He stresses the concrete fact that “[t]he desire here is to be united not with just any person, but with this person in particular: This is my wife, this is my husband.”  Thus, the experience of “Theology of the Body” as the language of the body in marriage is ordered to a single person to which one is joined in holy matrimony.  If there is a kind of “mysticism” associated with the language of the body, this is where it is experienced:

If we develop a mysticism of sexuality, in a reduced meaning of the word, then we could make the argument of an interchangeable sexuality.

And why not? If sexuality were wonderful only in this aspect – mere intercourse between a man and a woman – then why should it not be the same for this man and another woman, and another, and another?

No – it’s not like that at all. It’s a personal event. Such union is between two persons, one made for the other in God’s Providence . . . .

Personally, I don’t agree with contemplation of the sexual phenomenon without providing the entire context of the mystery of creation, the mystery of God’s calling to experience and to live human love.

On Vulgarity

Bishop Laffitte concentrates on the manner in which we discuss Blessed John Paul II’s “Catechesis on Human Love”: 1) he is refutes the idea that it is fitting to lift the veil off sexuality in order to communicate the beauty of married love to the modern world; 2) he is suggests that the nature of the pope’s catechesis defies being dumbed down to a purely “vulgate” presentation.  To do so is to falsify it.

First, on the tendency to unveil sexual values:

There is a danger of vulgarizing here a crucial truth of our Faith that needs rather to be contemplated.   It requires a silence. Sometimes in reading Blessed John Paul II’s Catecheses, you read only half of a page and then have to stop … you cannot continue … because it provokes within you a kind of loving meditation of what God has made. You enter into the mystery. . . .

The beauty of the body reflects the presence of the spirit, which is a mystery. And yet, we still have to contend with the reality of sin.

Man and woman have sinned, and in our bodies we bear the consequences of this wound in our nature.

That’s why it’s unrealistic – even a kind of angelism – to imagine that we can discuss or express our sexuality in an indifferent manner.

Secondly, on the tendency to “over-popularize” the “Catechesis on Human Love”:

Personally, I am against any notion that we should reduce all difficult thought, or any difficult articulation of ideas, assuming in advance that people are unintelligent.

Perhaps at times we may encounter people who are not cultivated, who may not enjoy the habit of dealing with philosophical and anthropological topics on a regular basis.

However, a person of good faith always is able to be sensitive to mystery, because a person lives and experiences without necessarily knowing how to describe it.

Even when a person cannot read and write, when he falls in love with someone he enters into an extraordinary mystery — exactly the same mystery experienced by someone who might be able to describe it with more finesse.

The problem involves not the formulation, but rather the respect for the mystery with which we are dealing.

It is essential to present these teachings with reverence, with meditation, with silence. We’re dealing here with an endeavor in genuine education, not merely a strict transmission of knowledge.

The Catecheses of which we speak are not a “gnosis” only understood by an elite, but rather they serve as  an extraordinary deepening of human understanding, in what every man and woman is called to experience.

Every single person within any culture can understand the questions: “What do you want in your life? What are your deepest desires?”

The transmission must be a holistic one – it means being conscious of the nature of the person. You wouldn’t speak to a 15 year-old in the way you would a 20 year-old, or a married couple or an elderly couple.  But all of them can understand the nature of the mystery.

This is what I was trying to say in my own poor way in the Inside the Vatican article, namely, that before “The Theology of the Body,” is a corpus of teaching, it is the language of the body, a symbolic language, that it is spoken because we are men and women and experience each in that way, without having to focus on body parts and sexual acts.  If we just live the faith, avoid the extremes and allow ourselves to be further enlightened according to our abilities in a reverent way, we will be catechized in the ways of authentic human love.

I am very grateful for the words of Bishop Laffitte.

10 thoughts on “The Catechesis on Human Love

  1. Father – I don’t think you addressed this previously in a poor way! I think it’s because of people like you who refused to give up the fight that Rome finally decided to step back and take a looksie. I like the Bishop’s statement here: “It is essential to present these teachings with reverence, with meditation, with silence. We’re dealing here with an endeavor in genuine education, not merely a strict transmission of knowledge.”

    I think this is what was missing in “Naked w/o Shame”.

    Sometimes, thankfully, good things DO happen for those who wait! 😉

  2. Pingback: Vatican – do not oversexualize theology of the body « A Blog for Dallas Area Catholics

  3. Am I wrong here in saying I don’t remember JPII even using the term “theology of the body” in the first place? I seem to remember he called it a “pedagogy of the body” did he not?

  4. I believe the Pope used the term “theology of the body” over 100 times in his catechesis. Look at the end of his second catechesis to see one example.

  5. Some original stuff in the bishop’s words (relative to the common arguments we are used to in these web debates). The whole problem of the TOB debates is pretty much how to explain the distinction between “sexual mysticism” and sex having a “mystical dimension” or mystical perspective. This is the distinction the bishop made. What do they mean? Is it a distinction with a real difference? And if so what is it?

    Also, I found it remarkable because his words seemed to be a sort of anti-gnostic argument, in which he refutes the gnostic impulse via an appeal to experience (open to every man and woman). This stuck out for me probably because I’ve been thinking so much about this already in the Harry Potter context. How strange that there may be parallels between West’s approach to TOB and John Granger’s to HP.

  6. In speaking about virtue, it is often said that it “stat in medio” or in a paraphrase, virtue lies between the extremes of vice. For example, hope lies between presumption and despair. Or, to use a more common example: courage lies between foolhardiness and cowardice.

    Aristotle, among others, has noted that the “mean” of virtue between the extremes of vice is not some material center point. That is to say, courage isn’t exactly half-way between foolhardiness and cowardice; rather it actually tends to be closer to foolhardiness.

    Take, then, the example of chastity. Does it lie exactly half-way between profligacy and prudery? Or does it tend more to one or the other? In fact, it tends more towards prudery. That is a fact often left out of this discussion. It seems that Fr. Angelo, together with many others, has tried to restore that sense of Christian decency to the discussion of human love, rather than indulge in filthy talk.

    fr. mgc

  7. Hi Father, I just wanted to ask you a question which is unrelated to this post. Is there an article that you can refer me to, which explains the distinction between total consecration and unlimited consecration?

    Thanks,

    Mickey

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