Book by professor-priest aims to right theology of the body misinterpretations

New text seeks to help TOB educators, underscores JPII’s link with Aquinas, Vatican II

Roxanne King

From 1979 to 1984 St. John Paul II gave 129 general audience talks on human sexuality and the human person that came to be called the “theology of the body.” Hailed by scholar George Weigel as “one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in centuries,” theology of the body is “original” in that it “goes back to the origins,” asserts Father Angel Perez-Lopez, assistant professor of philosophy and moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. A native of Spain but ordained a priest for the Denver Archdiocese, the professor outlines his position in his new book, “Procreation and the Spousal Meaning of the Body: A Thomistic Argument Grounded in Vatican II” (Pickwick Publications). Father Perez-Lopez spoke to the Denver Catholic about the book following a lecture on it at the Cardinal Stafford Library last week. The interview has been edited for clarity and space.

Denver Catholic: Why did you write “Procreation and the Spousal Meaning of the Body: A Thomistic Argument Grounded in Vatican II”?

Father Angel Perez-Lopez: I wrote it because I saw that my philosophical formation in Rome gave me an insight into theology of the body that was not common and that could be helpful to people, both those who teach it at the popular level and those who teach it at the academic level. I wanted to help people to be more faithful to the teachings of St. John Paul II. I felt many people of goodwill end up teaching things that are not accurate—I wanted to go back to a true and authentic interpretation of the teachings of St. John Paul II.

DC: Who is the book for?

FA: The book is meant for teachers. Four different types of teachers can profit from it: those who have a solid catechism formation education, that is, any religious education or marriage prep instructor—Archbishop Samuel Aquila has made it mandatory to teach theology of the body as part of marriage preparation—then, teachers with a bachelor’s degree in theology, then those with a licentiate or doctorate in theology, and, finally, scholars of Karol Wojtyla (St. John Paul II). The first four chapters are for a more academic audience; chapters 5-12 anyone can easily understand.

DC: What is theology of the body?

FA: It is a series of talks St. John Paul II gave to explain the teachings of Pope Paul VI regarding the Church’s position on contraception. (In theology of the body) St. John Paul II offered a scriptural, theological and philosophical justification of Pope Paul VI’s teachings in “Humana Vitae.”

DC: What is the single most important thing the average person should know about theology of the body?

FA: In theology of the body you find a roadmap on how to have a good marriage, not just how to have a valid marriage, but how to have a good one.

DC: How can an understanding of theology of the body help a person?

FA: Theology of the body is an encounter with the beauty and depth of God’s love and salvation for people, which is helpful for all but especially for married people. Christianity is not a philosophy—it is an encounter with God. Through St. John Paul II’s teachings on theology of the body one can have an encounter with God and their life can be transformed.

DC: Is there anything you would like to add?

FA: I would advise married people to get a printed copy of their marriage promises, to reread them often and to live their life in accordance with those promises. (My book explains them in detail.) Doing that would enrich and strengthen their marriage. The marriage promises are the core essence of marriage spirituality.

COMING UP: 500 years later, who was Luther?

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Hero, villain, heretic, saint, reformer, corrupter, man of integrity, bombastic glutton. Which image of Luther should we believe? Because Luther primarily sought not to reform abuses in the Church but to reform the Church’s beliefs, Catholics cannot recognize him as a true reformer or a holy man. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that Luther played a major role in shaping the modern world. With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement he initiated approaching on October 31st, we have been given a number of new books to assess his legacy.

Paul Hacker, Luther’s Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion, preface by Pope Benedict XVI (Emmaus, 2017).

Hacker’s book provides an in-depth, theological analysis of the issue that stands at the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Pope Benedict’s preface tells us that the Reformation dispute fundamentally concerned Luther’s “turning away from the center of the Gospel” (xxii). Emmaus released a new edition of Hacker’s book for the anniversary this year. It was published originally in 1970 (in English translation), the fruit of Hacker’s own intense study of Luther’s teaching on faith that led him into the Catholic Church from German Lutheranism.

Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith. The key issue of dispute, which Hacker reveals, is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin. Hacker describes Luther’s faith as reflexive, that is turned back on oneself, by emphasizing subjective experience and personal surety more than anything else. He describes how Luther differs from the Catholic position: “Faith is the way to, or the perquisite of, salvation, but Luther makes it coincide with salvation itself. This becomes possible because he has first identified salvation with the consciousness of being saved or the certitude of salvation, and then he equates this consciousness with faith” (71). Hacker shows us how this view of faith negated the Church’s authority, the sacraments, and even the need to love God.

Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).

For those looking for a more general and accessible book, Brad Gregory gives us a broader narrative of how Luther’s troubled conscience exploded into the crisis that tore Christendom in two. The first section looks at Luther’s own story, tracing step by step his conflict with Church authority. The second section explains how Luther’s teaching spawned a multitude of new sects and divisions, all interpreting the Bible in their own fashion. Greggory explains: “What the early Reformation shows so clearly is that scripture and the Spirt can be interpreted and applied in radically divergent ways. Once the papacy and the Catholic Church are thrown off, there are no shared authorities to adjudicate disagreements” (137). The final section looks at how the Reformation set the tone for the development of a secular culture. Though not intending these consequences, Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformers “led indirectly to a profound diminishing of Christianity’s public influence in Western societies. The religious disagreements and conflicts that followed the Reformation set the stage for religion’s eventual separation from the rest of life” (2).

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017).

Metaxas, who wrote a monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, provides us with a different perspective on Luther. His book seems poised to capture the largest audience for the anniversary this year. While I can’t agree with his view of Luther as a hero of faith, I can appreciate his presentation of a more sympathetic and thorough look at a man who has inspired many Protestant Christians. It is helpful to recognize why Luther is such an important figure for so many people. This book definitely provides many more details on the life of Luther (with over 450 pages). However, I would exercise caution, because it unfortunately also contains many gross misrepresentations of the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation.

For instance, even though Metaxas shows us many ways that Luther encountered the Bible in his early life, he still claims that the Bible and Church had no connection in the early 1500s and that “the study of the Bible per se was simply unheard of” (52). Luther himself was a theology professor and throughout the Middle Ages the Bible was the primary text for teaching theology. Brad Gregory makes clear in his book on Luther that there were even “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible . . . published in German . . . by 1518” (29). Metaxas presents a false picture of Catholics as ignorant, afraid to pray to Christ, and thinking they must earn their salvation through works. Good historical research could easily dispel these myths, such as the books of Eamon Duffy, but we see Protestants continue to project Luther’s own scruples (hating God and spending six hours in Confession, 47) onto the Church of his time.

Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017).

What could have Luther been if he had chosen faithful reform? The answer is a saint. There is no doubt that the Church was in need of serious reform in the 1500s. We have a number of great saints who show us that fidelity to God does not contradict fidelity to His Church. They stood against corruption and initiated deep and abiding reform. The Augustine Institute has release both a book and video series on true reformers, who boldly spoke out against abuses and led to a deeper realization of the truth found in the Bible, read in harmony with the Church. These figures—Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Charles Borromeo, for instance—continue to inspire us to take up the task of genuine reform today.