Christopher West is convinced that the Theology of the Body (TOB) is “the cure for the world’s cancer.”
West, the co-founder of the TOB Institute, was one of dozens of presenters at the third annual TOB Congress and the first held in Southern California, September 23-25, at the Ontario Convention Center. Attended by a record number of nearly 1,000 participants, its theme was both ambitious and timely: to explore “love, mercy, and the gift of the family” in the context of Pope St. John Paul II’s seminal work—his teaching known as the “Theology of the Body.”
Along with West, the Congress featured speakers Jason Evert, Matt Fradd, and Dr. Edward Sri, as well as numerous clergy, laity, and apostolates involved in threading the teachings of TOB into practical life for Catholics of all ages, whether single, married, clergy or religious. “We live in a time of unprecedented confusion on gender, marriage, and family life,” said Jen Settle, managing director of the TOB Institute, headquartered outside Philadelphia, PA. “TOB is for everyone.”
John Paul II honed his teaching on the body for years. As a young Polish priest in the 1950s, he formed Rodzinka, “little family,” a parish young adult group. During outdoor excursions such as kayaking trips, the group discussed how best to fulfill human sexuality as taught by Christ and the Church into everyday life. These thoughts were later formulated in the future pope’s 1960 book, Love & Responsibility, in a decade that saw radical social change towards sexual and moral ethics.
Assuming the papacy in 1978, John Paul II was ready to fully present his grand vision of Christian love as the only true alternative to moral relativism. Spanning over five years, from 1979 to 1984, the Pope utilized the Wednesday General Audiences as his platform. By the end, the discourse amounted to 129 sessions, a staggering work on the beauty of the conjugal union between husband and wife, the virtue of chastity, the meaning of celibacy: a theology of the body. Its density and breadth proved a formidable response to the post-sexual revolution era. TOB expert Michael Waldstein calls this teaching series “John Paul II’s catechesis par excellence.”
Today, spreading the message remains a major task, the impetus for launching both the Theology of the Body Institute and convoking its annual congress. Keynotes and workshops covered the gamut in addressing how to integrate the truths of the Church’s teaching on human love, sexuality, and relationships explored in TOB. In addition to discussing marriage and family life, topics ranged from educating teenagers on the fruits of chastity, living TOB in the single life, and combating the ravages of pornography.
“TOB is a lifeline in a time of crazy sexual confusion,” West said, citing three practical steps for the Catholic to live out the Theology of the Body: prayer, penance, and the Eucharist. “TOB illuminates all three of these,” he said, that shows us “our bodies are both theological and biological.”
“The conference presented love, marriage and sexual ethics in a refreshing new light,” Diocese of Orange Vicar for Faith Formation Fr. Jerry Horan, O.S.M. said, “and it offered an integrated, synthetic presentation to these important concerns.” Interrelating TOB with the ongoing Jubilee Year of Mercy was also a primary goal of the Congress, to usher in John Paul II’s vision of a joyful perspective of love of God and each other in the age of Pope Francis’s call for merciful accompaniment.
In doing so, the Congress highlighted the remarkable unity in papal teachings, particularly in the three most recent pontificates of Francis, Benedict XVI, and John Paul II. None of them have shied away from proposing the beauty of the Catholic perspective of love and the human person. Building upon what John Paul II offered, Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, 2005’s Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) served in essence as a spiritual sequel to TOB. As for Pope Francis, to date his most discussed contribution in the subject has been his 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). All owe their inspirations to Blessed Pope Paul VI’s landmark treatise from 1968, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), which confirmed the Church’s position on human reproduction.
“There is without a doubt,” John Paul II wrote in 1984, “an ignorance of the theology of the body.” The third annual TOB Congress sought to reintroduce a radical teaching left far too neglected, but a worthy antidote to the identity crises plaguing nations and peoples. “It was edifying to see the depth of serious concern for the realities of the day, the importance of ethical decision-making and the value of faith-based living as we face challenging new issues,” Fr. Horan said.
Most urgently, the TOB Congress reminded its participants of the vital stages of human life, what John Paul II centrally addressed throughout his papacy: people are gifts first as daughters and sons, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers—in that order. “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live,” the future saint once said.