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: Relationship, not sacrifice is at the heart of Lent

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When we began Lent on Ash Wednesday, the Lord said to us, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments and return to the Lord, your God.” (Joel 2:12-13).

During Lent we strive to unite ourselves with Jesus’ experience of conquering temptation in the desert and pursuing the Father’s will, so that we can fully experience the joy and victory of Easter. The Scriptures and Fathers of the Church consistently recommend three forms of penance that help us on this journey: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

But before we can fruitfully carry out these forms of purification, we must rend our hearts. In the Jewish tradition, ripping one’s garments – known as keriah – is done when mourning a relative who has passed away. Today, some Jews specifically rip their clothes over their hearts if the deceased is one of their parents. The Scriptures mention this expression of grief several times, including Jacob mourning his youngest son Joseph when he thought he was dead, or King David rending his garments at hearing that Saul had died.

Even more important than this outward expression of grief is returning to God with our whole heart, tearing it away from any unhealthy desires and attachments. In his 2018 message for Lent, Pope Francis offers some insights into the ways people develop unhealthy attachments today by reflecting on the passage from Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus warns, “Because of the increase of iniquity, the love of many will grow cold” (Mt. 24:12).

The Holy Father echoes Jesus’ warning that there will be many false prophets who lead people astray. One kind of false prophet, which he calls snake charmers, are those “who manipulate human emotions in order to enslave others … with momentary pleasures” like dreams of wealth or the belief that they are self-sufficient and don’t need others. Pope Francis also alerts us to “charlatans” – people who offer “easy and immediate solutions to suffering that soon prove utterly useless.” Their traps include drugs, disposable relationships and the temptation of a “thoroughly ‘virtual’ existence, in which relationships appear quick and straightforward, only to prove meaningless!”

But despite these snares laid by the Devil and his false prophets, God the Father declares through the Prophet Joel that he is “gracious and merciful … slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (Joel 2:13). God’s mercy and love for us can transform our hearts, if we are willing to open them to him and deepen our relationship, especially through the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

When it comes to prayer, pursuing a deeper relationship with God means going beyond our first inclination, which is to make ourselves the focus of our prayer and to even boast of our accomplishments. Instead, we should ask God to help us know him better, to experience a greater intimacy with each person of the Trinity. The great Doctor of the Church, Saint Teresa of Avila, calls this kind of prayer “mental prayer.” “In my opinion,” she said, “mental prayer is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”

If we pray in this way, then our fasting and almsgiving will naturally flow from us as acts of love for Christ in others, rather than being a set of tasks or Lenten requirements to fulfill. Our hearts will be rent, and not merely our garments.

Fasting is another way for us to draw closer to God. Saint Augustine observed this when he wrote, “Fasting purifies the soul. It lifts up the mind, and it brings the body into subjection to the spirit. It makes the heart contrite and humble, (and) scatters the clouds of desire … .” By denying our appetites and giving up distractions, we can more clearly hear God’s voice and place ourselves at his service.

The final practice of Lent that conforms our hearts more to Jesus’ Sacred Heart is almsgiving. Pope Francis notes in his Lenten message that almsgiving “sets us free from greed and helps us to regard our neighbor as a brother or sister. What I possess is never mine alone.”

This other-centered approach will help us to draw closer to the heart of Christ, particularly if we follow the advice of Saint Mother Teresa. “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving,” she was known to say.

As we seek to rend our hearts this Lent in preparation for Jesus’ Resurrection at Easter, let us remember that God desires to draw each of us closer to him. He is waiting for us to seek him out so that he can pour out his mercy, love and kindness upon us.