‘We are gift, so how should we act?’ What I learned at a Theology of the Body course

Pope John Paul II with a couple of young Maoris in 1986 (Getty)

Until last week, I thought I had a good basic understanding of Theology of the Body, St John Paul II’s teaching on human sexuality. But ten minutes into last week’s London symposium, I realised I knew practically nothing. Studying the subject, you realise how deep it is – but you can also feel as though your head is about to explode.

Yet one of John Paul’s central insights is a simple one: that the deepest desire of the human heart is to be loved. One speaker, Sr John Mary of the Sisters of Life, poignantly illustrated this with the story of a Catholic soldier killed in Afghanistan. The soldier was shot through the neck, just above his bulletproof vest; as he lay dying in the arms of his commanding officer, he uttered his last words: “Tell me I’m loved.”

The main lecturer, Dr William Newton, an Englishman who teaches philosophy at Franciscan University in Ohio, kept up to 65 participants enrapt for three days (without Powerpoint!). The pace was fast, and the only sound as he spoke was of frantic scribbling. Theology of the Body, it quickly became clear, is very much an “iceberg” subject.  At the tip, there are the Church’s well-known rules about sexual conduct. But the rest of the iceberg – the underwater part, you might say – is the rich anthropology of man, from which the rules arise – not because “the Church says so”, but because of the nature of creation itself.

Gaudium et Spes tells us: “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.” When one stops to reflect on the meaning of that simple line, it’s quite awe-inspiring – and challenging. St John Paul II unpacks this and applies it to human sexuality. As Dr Newton put it: “We are gift, so how should we act? As gift. All the way down to the sex act – in fact, uniquely and in particular in the sex act.”

I’d come across the “Language of the Body” quite often and accepted it on an intellectual level without fully understanding it, which was deeply frustrating because it is fundamental to the Church’s teaching on contraception. Presented afresh by Dr Newton, it finally clicked. If the sex act says ‘I am all yours’ then the use of a condom or the pill really does make it into a lie: “I am all yours except I don’t actually want you to have all of me/to have all of you right now.”

I spoke to many attendees who said the symposium was “fantastic” or “such a blessing”. Magda, an MD studying at Oxford, called Theology of the Body “a recipe of how to be happy and fulfilled”. Nikita, an Economics PhD, said how grateful she was that “God gave me this time – that I didn’t have anything else to do – or I wouldn’t have come. This course is so needed and I learned so much.”

Dr Newton said he was “blown away by the high intellectual background of the participants, and their diversity. There are PhDs here in science, law, medicine – and they all see the potential for the truths of Theology of the Body to help them do a better job in their professions; to help mankind.”

As that suggests, vocation was an important theme of the symposium. Dr Newton repeated the Church’s teaching that consecrated life is a higher calling than marriage; but he clarified that married life is the default vocation of everyone. Consecrated life is something out of the ordinary which comes about when God gives someone the grace to live a higher state of life – and they are able to embrace that state.

The symposium was interspersed with a healing service and times of Eucharistic Adoration. Ultimately, as Dr Newton said: “We want to know what is true so we can have contact with Him who is Truth.”

I think Fran, a member of the Wellspring community, summed it up best: “It all finally makes sense! This is the truth of what we’re made for. I want everyone I know to be here!”