In the light of John Paul II’s landmark teaching on human love in the divine plan, called Theology of the Body, there has been a recent effort in the United States to repackage the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality in “more positive” terms. It is said that the Holy Father was reacting against “prudish Victorian morality,” especially prevalent in the United States, much in the same way that the sexual revolution was a reaction against “sexual repression.” The difference, we are told, is that John Paul II’s teaching consists of a beautiful vision for marriage, not the world’s pernicious justification of lust.
Now while this modern sex-saturated age benefits from the beauty of the truth of God’s original plan for conjugal love, we run the risk of going off the rails if we make prudery the bogeyman for our pornographic age. Modern man is not preoccupied with fear of the body and of sexuality. Modern man is largely afraid of suffering and of dying. This is also true within the Church.
Pope Benedict XVI critiqued modernity’s obsession with erotic love in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est without denying a real problem with prudery:
Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will (5).
The answer to this problem is not a new “holy” focus on all things erotic, but a subordination of eros to agape. In the Benedict XVI’s language eros is “possessive love,” not bad in itself, but in need of being put in the service of agape or “oblative” (sacrificial) love (7). God wants us all to be happy, but the way to happiness is through sacrifice.
The place we learn this more than anywhere else is at the foot of the cross, where the Hearts of Jesus and Mary are united in the wedding banquet of the Lamb and through which we are united to God by our participation in these mysteries in the reception of Holy Communion. But first of all, the cross is the mystery of oblative love. The Hearts of Jesus and Mary are opened for all mankind through the suffering and sorrow of their sacrifice. Theirs is a battle against our ancient enemy. While mankind has generally been the loser in this struggle, this new Man and Woman conquer by means of their fortitude, that is, by means of their willingness to face death. This is more agape than eros.
But the fruit of agape is eros, because victory leads to joy and life. Christ the King with His blessed Mother the Queen reign forever in the bliss of heaven because in this place of exile they overcame the enemy. This must be the standard of our own effort to subordinate eros to agape.
Most Catholics are not afraid of their bodies. They are afraid of death. By definition, the virtue of fortitude is endurance in the face of suffering and death. In reference to the cross and our participation in its mystery St. Bonaventure says: “Whoever loves this death can see God because it is true beyond doubt that man will not see me and live” (Itinerarium Mentis in Deum 7.6, quoting Ex. 33:20). Modern man needs to continue in the struggle against lust while striving also to see the beauty of God’s plan for love. The focus of our lives needs to be on the cross where we find the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
It seems to me that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and Benedict’s XVI’s analysis of eros and agape fit hand in glove. We should avoid using the profound insights of either pope to conduct a local crusade. In the real battle we cannot afford to lose our focus.
Cross-posted here from Dawn Patrol.