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Christopher West on the Theology of the Body
By Candace O'Donnell
Following the lead of Pope John Paul II, one Catholic husband and theologian teaches people to embrace sexuality.

Q U I C K S C A N

Spreading the Word
Divine Mystery
Theology as Metaphor
Journey to Discovery
Blending Family and Theology
Meeting the Holy Father
The Next Challenge


Author and speaker Christopher West has turned Pope John Paul II’s sometimes lengthy and difficult “Theology of the Body” series into a more straightforward analysis of love and sexuality.
PHOTO BY RICHARD HERTZLER

“I knew I was holding a revolution in my hands!” Christopher West says as he remembers 1993, the year he began studying a series of 129 talks Pope John Paul II delivered at his Wednesday addresses between 1979 and 1984. This series came to be known as the “Theology of the Body.” It was the first major teaching project of the Holy Father’s pontificate.

“It was like discovering a cure for cancer,” Christopher reminisces. “There was a fire in my belly. I thought, If this is Catholicism, why haven’t I heard about it before?

Spreading the Word

Since then, Christopher has devoted himself to, in a sense, translating John Paul II’s lengthy, cerebral and, at times, difficult meditations into a more succinct message comprehensible to Catholics and others of all ages, all marital states (single, married and consecrated celibate), all over the world.

Through numerous books, CDs, seminars, parish workshops, an internationally syndicated column, radio interviews and appearances on EWTN, Christopher is spreading the good news about the Church’s truly joyous and life-affirming view of love and sexuality.

Although living in rural Pennsylvania with his wife, Wendy, and their children and working at The Theology of the Body Institute in Exton, Pennsylvania, Christopher travels nearly every weekend, evangelizing about the sacramental beauty of the nuptial union. He journeys all over the country and as far away as Brazil, Australia and Europe.

Christopher has written and spoken millions of words to “unpack” the Holy Father’s meaning. It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into this deep and multifaceted theology, but here’s a brief summary.

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The thesis statement of John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Pauline Books & Media) is: “The body, in fact, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus to be a sign of it....Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh, the body entered theology through the main door.”

Far from seeing human sexuality as inherently ugly, forbidden or sinful, John Paul II exalted the human body, particularly in the nuptial union. He saw it as a sign of “God’s own mystery, the sublime icon or symbol of Christ’s love for His bride, the Church.”

It is from this perspective that John Paul II wants to study the human body; not merely as a biological organism, but also as a theology, a study of God. Christopher clarifies the distinction, saying, “The body isn’t divine. But it is a sign of the divine mystery.”

“People cannot live without love,” the Holy Father proclaimed. One way to express that love is through the self-donating vocation of marriage. Another way is “the consecration for the kingdom” freely chosen by celibates.

Perfect self-donating love explains Adam and Eve’s complete comfort with their bodies and lack of shame before the fall. Of course, Satan, realizing the awesome importance of the sexual embrace, cleverly tempts us into perversions and abuses of God’s plan for sexual desire. That leads to distortions which harm the innocent, such as broken families, abortion, AIDS, pornography, clergy sex abuse and homosexual marriage, which are undermining the sanctity of marriage, particularly in today’s society.

As Christopher puts it, “Welcome to the world in which we live.”

In perhaps his most compelling analogy, Christopher West refers to this modern corruption as “eating from the Dumpster.”

Because of his international reputation as an interpreter of the Holy Father, Christopher was interviewed by Geraldo Rivera on the occasion of John Paul II’s death and used this metaphor in this sound-bite opportunity.

“All of us are looking for love, but some of us look for love in a Dumpster. The Holy Father introduced us to a sumptuous feast, the banquet of consecrated love. Why would you eat from a Dumpster when you’re invited to a banquet?” asked Christopher.

In his presentations inviting his listeners to the banquet, Christopher applies all the talents that God has given him. He couches abstract theology in concrete human terms. He leavens profound thought with earthy one-liners that evoke loud belly laughs. He thoroughly engages his audiences, often addressing questions directly to individuals or couples in the crowd.

He sprinkles his talks with pop-culture allusions from Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady—“Could it be... Satan?”—to rock songs such as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, which Christopher—as the former lead singer of a band—doesn’t hesitate to belt out himself.

Nor does he shy away from specifics. He explains, thoroughly and explicitly, why “every contracepted act” keeps us from the love we really long for.

Prefacing this bombshell with, “Are you ready for this? This pope is no prude. Brace yourselves,” he shares John Paul II’s way-ahead-of-his-time advice to husbands to delay their climax to coincide with their wives’. The advice is from the book Love and Responsibility, written by John Paul II in 1960, long before he became pope.

Christopher was raised in a Catholic family and attended Catholic schools from third grade on. He describes the sex education in this system as “woefully inadequate, an incomplete ‘Don’t-do-it’ mantra.” In fact, he recently ran across a paper he wrote in high school in which he attempted to refute Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Christopher’s spiritual evolution received a jolt, even a jump-start, from an ugly incident his freshman year at a highly regarded Catholic college.

“I came back to my dorm late one night to find my roommate drunk on the floor, passed out in his own vomit. The stench was so awful that I left to try to get some sleep in another room,” he recalls. “There I witnessed the horror of a date rape. This was a pivotal moment for me. I remember crying out to God, ‘You gave us these hormones, and they seem to get us into so much trouble. What is your plan, God?’”

After a painful breakup with his high school girlfriend, Christopher recalls, “I gave my life to Christ, convinced of his love. I heard a still voice telling me, ‘Trust me. Jump and I will catch you.’”

He began studying the Scriptures intently, looking for the meaning of our creation as male and female. In this period he also transferred to the University of Maryland, where he earned a degree in anthropology while pursuing a career as a rock musician.

Over time, he came to see what he now calls “the grand spousal vision” of the Scriptures. “God wants to ‘marry’ us,” West explains, “and he stamped this invitation right into our bodies as male and female.

“By discovering this spousal vision, Scripture and the sacraments which I had heard about all my life came alive for me.”

In 1993, a teacher at his sister’s high school introduced him to the Theology of the Body. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1995 he began his graduate studies at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Washington, D.C. That same year he married Wendy, whom he met while she was a nursing student at The Catholic University of America. Without a doubt, they were meant for each other.

Clearly, Wendy’s upbringing had prepared her for a mission living and spreading the Theology of the Body with Christopher. As he explains in Theology of the Body for Beginners (Ascension Press), “I never knew my father-in-law; he died before my wife and I met. But I admire him tremendously because of the following story.

“At Mass the day after his wedding, having just consummated his marriage the night before, he was in tears after receiving the Eucharist. When his new bride inquired, he said, ‘For the first time in my life, I understood the meaning of Christ’s words, ‘This is my body given for you.’”

Today Wendy and Christopher have five children: John Paul (10), Thomas (eight), Beth (five), Isaac (one) and a new baby, Grace. Christopher has designed his busy schedule to maximize family time. Except when he is conducting seminars abroad, he typically travels to his speaking engagements to parishes, diocesan and academic groups, and, recently, Protestant Bible colleges on Friday and Saturday and returns in time for Sunday Mass. During the week he writes and studies at home so he is available to the children.

The West home contains many icons to the beauty of the human body such as statues of Our Lady of La Leche and prints of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. (At its restoration John Paul II ordered the removal of many of the loincloths which had been painted over Michelangelo’s magnificent nudes. Indeed, the Holy Father called the Sistine Chapel the “sanctuary” of the Theology of the Body.)

“We have no illusions that our children won’t go through their own struggles,” Christopher admits. “But when the true meaning of the body is presented to children with reverence, there is a much better chance of sparing them from the Dumpster. When the banquet is properly presented, even children can recognize the Dumpster.”

When Thomas was only seven, he came home from a trip to the grocery store with his mother and announced, “Papa, I saw some magazines that were not respectful of women. It troubled my heart.”

Obviously, the seeds are being planted.

“We talk to our babies in the womb and tell them we love them in front of their older siblings,” Christopher says.

“When we tuck our kids into bed, we pray, ‘Jesus, we thank you for this day. We thank you for making Mommy to be a woman and Daddy to be a man. Thank you for making John Paul, Thomas and Isaac to be boys. Help them to grow into strong men and to give their bodies away in love. Thank you for making Beth and Grace to be girls. Help them to grow into strong women and to give their bodies away in love.’”

Christopher has been honored with two papal audiences with John Paul II. In 2001, he was invited to Mass in the pope’s private chapel on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The Holy Father expressed gratitude for West’s efforts on behalf of the Theology of the Body and thanked him for a copy of Good News About Sex and Marriage (Servant Books). But Christopher was even more impressed by John Paul II’s keen interest in his family.

“I showed him photos of my family. He blessed them and sent home extra rosaries for the children,” Christopher says. “He was much more interested in how I was living out my faith in my marriage and family life than he was in my promoting his work.”

As Christopher speaks and writes, inviting his listeners and readers to the banquet of Christ’s love incarnated in human love, he seems unrattled by the occasional criticism leveled at him from both ends of the religious spectrum. “Most people are receptive, but some conservatives say, ‘Keep sex away from God,’ and some liberals say, ‘Keep God away from sex.’

“Actually, I like to take the challenging questions from my audiences. I prefer that to people who are lukewarm. The people who fight the hardest against the truth remind me of myself the way I used to be. And I know that once they’re convinced, those are the ones who will be strongest in their belief.”

When asked about the most difficult concept to convey, Christopher answers, “To get across the integral reality of the body and soul. We tend to see the body as an appendage.”

One of Christopher’s latest projects is heralding Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est. “In a way, Pope Benedict is even more daring than Pope John Paul II!” Christopher exclaims. “Benedict says very plainly that God’s love for us is not only agape—it is also eros. God loves us with the passion of a husband for his bride.” Christopher has distilled these erudite concepts into laypeople’s terms in his book The Love That Satisfies (Ascension Press).

Although he’s clearly articulate enough to popularize many varied Church doctrines, Christopher is confident that concentrating on the Theology of the Body will provide him with a fulfilling lifetime of study.

“These are the most compelling, revolutionary insights our faith has to offer today’s sexually confused world,” he insists. “The Church will be unpacking this for centuries!”

Candace O’Donnell is busy writing, singing, acting and enjoying her eight grandchildren. She has written and performs monologues on Sarah Bernhardt, Carrie Nation and Abigail Adams.


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