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: Q&A: Cardinal Stafford: “The Eucharist has been the center of my life”

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On the dawn of his 60th anniversary of priestly ordination, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, archbishop emeritus of Denver, reflects on the origins and fruits of his vocation. He will celebrate a Mass in thanksgiving with Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 17, at 10:30 a.m.

DC: What were your desires as a young man and how did God call you to the priesthood?            

Cardinal Stafford: Images of God arose very early in my life. From my parents’ encounter with Jesus in the confessional, concrete impressions developed into images. Those images spoke to me of God’s holiness and beauty. I understood that He was great and forgiving.

Reality became complex with more birthdays. The brutality of the 20th century… insinuated itself into my world-view. I was bewildered by the horror of that era… A few years later I also discovered St. Augustine’s joy in reflecting upon the beauty of the Creator of the world in his Confessions… I learned that the love of Christ transforms our unloveliness into God’s beauty.

Both the beauty of the Ancient One and the rub of evil have coexisted in my faith and experience. Jesus’s invitation, “The laborers are few”, resonated in my soul.  The fact that the priestly vocation is totally given over to the “ministry of reconciliation” became the North Star of my life.

Archbishop J. Francis Stafford blesses the altar of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Aurora, Colo. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: What practices have helped you remain faithful to your vocation during these 60 years?

Cardinal Stafford: When awakening each morning, I recite a single verse from Psalm 51, “Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Three times it is repeated. Thereafter, the grace of God sets the day on the right track. It becomes a song of praise to God. With hard practice it daily gathers momentum. It places front and center the most beautiful mystery of the Christian faith: The Triune God. The love and beauty of the Most Holy Trinity light up the whole day even when God appears more distant than near.

The psalmist has been a great catechist. He has taught me that human beings are doxological (people of praise) by nature especially in the Dark Night – not only as individuals, but also within community… Doxological prayer has led me to appreciate why St. Augustine wrote, “The goal of all Christian watchfulness and all Christian progress is a pious and sober understanding of the Trinity.”

Cardinal James Stafford holds a relic of St. Teresa of Calcutta during a Mass celebrating her feast day at St. Joseph’s Parish on September 5, 2016, in Denver. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

DC: What have been some of the challenges and highlights of your priesthood?

Cardinal Stafford: The challenges: Christians in Europe and North America are struggling with the “juggernaut” of secularization… Generally, its roots are found in the fact that most Europeans and Americans today find themselves thrust into the universe without any foundation for living. Most imagine themselves in a free-fall through space with unintelligible entrances and exits. The challenge is how to confront this unprecedented reality. The pastoral solutions have seldom been forthcoming.

The highlights of my priesthood: Visiting the home-bound. They are the hidden pillars of every local Church. Beyond the home-bound, I have always felt that Colorado’s response to the invitation to celebrate the 1993 World Youth Day was the measure beyond all measure. In other words, the event was from God… [and] God was delighted with Coloradans.

Pope John Paul II thanks Cardinal Stafford for his leadership in organizing World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Who have been your greatest role models and how have they impacted your vocation?

Cardinal Stafford: My mother and father have been my greatest Christian role models. Their love and friendship were life-long and mutual. The two were the best of friends. Their life together, ten years after their marriage, was tested severely… [Tuberculosis] struck [my mother] with extreme severity.

She required prolonged hospitalization that included three major surgical operations over a period of nearly three years. Throughout that time her faith, courage and love remained ever-present signs along the road. My father’s love for his wife never faltered during her hospitalization… His presence to her was reassuring, quiet, and unassuming.  The grace of the sacrament of marriage sustained both of them and was an enormously important witness for me.

Cardinal Stafford celebrates Mass during World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by James Baca/Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Reflecting on your priestly experience, what practices are essential to the Catholic priest of the New Evangelization?

Cardinal Stafford: The Eucharist has been the center of my life… Over the years, I learned that priestly celibacy was related to the eschatological nature of the Eucharist.  In 390 AD bishops at the Council of Carthage underlined this connection, “That holy bishops and priests of God…. observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us endeavor to keep.”

I’ve reflected for over four decades over the forthrightness of their statement. I still ask myself why the ancient bishops chose the phrase “in all simplicity.”  Their choice was related to the priest’s acting “in the person of Christ”. That’s Eucharistic and the Eucharist is doxological. Their assertion that clerical celibacy had apostolic origins surprised me.

Finally, a lay friend taught me one of the greatest graces of these sixty years, “Gratitude for the gift is shown only by allowing it to make one fruitful,” from Meister Eckhart. That is my prayer in celebrating my 60th anniversary of priestly ordination.