An Interview with Christopher WestCHRISTOPHER WEST
I remember holding those four little books in my hands (Pauline originally published the Theology of the Body in four volumes) and saying to myself "This is a revolution for the Church and the world, yet it seems nobody knows about it. Nobody is talking about it." I knew then I would spend the rest of my life studying the Pope's thought and sharing it with the world.
- How did the concept for this book originate?
Because of John Paul II's scholarly approach, for most people the text of the ToB reads almost like a foreign language. I travel around the world promoting the ToB and yet I can't recommend that the average person actually read the text. There has been a "loud cry" ever since I began my work for a book that guides readers through the ToB, making the Pope's extraordinary insights accessible to normal people. This is the first book ever to give readers an explanation of the entire catechesis. I have tried to leave very few stones unturned.
- Can you tell us how you received your calling to teach in this area?
Having been swept away by the sexual counterfeits of our culture, I set out on a journey to understand God's plan for making us male and female in the first place. About two years into my search I discovered the ToB and was amazed at the insights of this "celibate old man." I remember holding those four little books in my hands (Pauline originally published the ToB in four volumes) and saying to myself "This is a revolution for the Church and the world, yet it seems nobody knows about it. Nobody is talking about it." I knew then I would spend the rest of my life studying the Pope's thought and sharing it with the world. I just gave my yes, and God has done the rest.
- Theology of the Body Explained can be helpful to so many. In what ways have people told you they will use the book?
There are hundreds and maybe thousands of people out there who have purchased the ToB text but after reading a few pages put it down in frustration. I think this is the audience that is most anxious for the release of my new book. Theology of the Body Explained can stand alone, but having read it, people will be much more confident in reading the actual text of John Paul II. There are also hundreds of ToB study groups sprouting up around the U.S. and the world. These groups have also been looking forward to the release of my book. Finally, since I speak at many colleges and seminaries, I know there is a demand among faculty and students for a text that guides students through the whole of the Pope's catechesis. I've been telling my audiences that this book is coming for almost three years. It was a big project and it's taken a long time, but I think it will have been worth the wait.
- Who, then, would be considered the target audience for this book?
This may sound a bit broad, but anyone and everyone who is interested in understanding the marvelous insights of John Paul II's ToB. The Pope's catechesis on the body is one of the greatest theological contributions to the Church in the last several centuries. The numbers are growing, but very few people in the Church have been exposed to it. Even many theologians have a difficult time understanding the ToB. Those who have been exposed to this liberating vision of human life and authentic sexual liberation are part of a growing sexual counter-revolution. I'm hoping this book will help kick that revolution into high gear. Readers familiar with my first book, Good News About Sex & Marriage, will notice that this book is a bit more scholarly in character, and yet it is still very accessible. George Weigel's biography of John Paul II, for instance, has had wide popular appeal, and yet it is also a great resource for JP II scholars. I wrote this book primarily with interested "lay people" in mind. And yet I think it will also be a helpful resource for those involved in more formal study of John Paul II's work.
- The theology of the body was delivered between 1979 and 1984. Why do you think it is only "catching on" now?
The Pope delivered these 129 talks very quietly at the beginning of his pontificate. I think you're right to say that it seems they didn't really catch on at first. But I'd imagine the Pope himself knew it was only a matter of time. And that time has now come. A friend and comrade in promoting the ToB once told me that she thought the spread of the ToB is one of the graces of the Jubilee year. I think she's exactly right. My speaking career has been non-stop since the Jubilee.
This may sound a bit odd to some, but I also think the spread of the ToB is connected in some way with the promises of Fatima and their fulfillment. In 1994, John Paul wrote in Crossing the Threshold of Hope that "at the end of this century," Mary's words delivered in Fatima "seem to be close to their fulfillment." When John Paul was shot on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima in 1981, he was on his way, presumably, to deliver another address on the ToB. He also had planned that day to announce the founding of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family which is largely responsible for the dissemination of the ToB throughout the world. I, myself, am a graduate of one campus and a visiting faculty member at another. A few months later, when the Pope announced the founding of the Institute, he dedicated it to the protection of Our Lady of Fatima. The promise of peace given at Fatima can only be fulfilled when there is peace in the male-female relationship and in woman's womb. The ToB gives us the road map for this peace.
- John Paul II has given us extensive teachings on numerous topics. Why do you think he made the theology of the body the first major teaching project of his pontificate?
The ToB sets the stage in some way for understanding all that the Pope has given us. We simply haven't penetrated the gift of his pontificate if we haven't penetrated the ToB. The fact that this was the first major teaching project of JP II's pontificate speaks very clearly about its importance. In short, the goal of JP II's pontificate has been to help the Church and the world build a culture of life. As he wrote in Evangelium Vitae, "It is an illusion to think we can build a true culture of human life if we do not ...accept and experience sexuality, love, and the whole of life according to their true meaning and close interconnection." In other words, if we don't understand and embrace God's plan for the male-female relationship, we are spinning our wheels in any attempt to build a culture of life. The union of the sexes is the wellspring of culture.
As the Pope has said repeatedly, the reason society is sick is because we don't understand who man and woman are as persons. We don't understand the grandeur and glory of their call to union. This is why the ToB was JP II's first major teaching project. There is no other adequate starting point for building a culture of life. We must understand how Christ reveals the full truth about man and woman and their call to communion. In this sense, the ToB is nothing but an extended commentary on JP II's favorite teaching from Vatican II: "Christ fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear."
- Do you think your new book might help the Church to heal from wounds caused by the recent sexual scandals?
In simple terms, the crisis the Church has faced in recent times in our country (and other parts of the world) is part of the fallout of the sexual revolution. For such a time as this have we been given John Paul II and his theology of the body. The Church looks at the sin of Adam and proclaims, "Oh happy fault that won for us so great a redeemer." We can look at the error of the sexual revolution and say "Oh happy fault that has won for us so great a theology of the body." The root causes of the recent sexual scandals in the Church find their antidote in the ToB. The answers – the deep penetrating answers – are already there. The Church just needs to embrace them. And in order to embrace what JP II has given us, the Church's bishops, priests, catechists, and other teachers must first understand what JP II has given us. This is where my new book can be very helpful.
- You travel all over the world, speaking and teaching. Have you been particularly well received in any area of the globe?
My family and I recently returned from a month in Australia. The Catholic landscape is quite different there. Compared to the U.S., there is really no "Catholic speaker's circuit" to speak of. As a result, it seems there is even more of a hunger there for solid catechesis. At one of my events in Perth, nearly 600 people crammed into a room designed for about 250. I actually had to give my lecture standing on the table to make room for people to sit on the floor.
John Paul II's "theological time bomb" is certainly ticking in Australia. Not that there isn't also some resistence, but I see great hunger for the Pope's teaching everywhere I travel. The whole world is a mission field ready to soak up the Pope's ToB because we have all been so wounded by the sexual revolution. People are beginning to wake up to this and they are yearning for answers to their questions and, even more, healing for their wounds. This is what the ToB affords.
- A quote about you reads, "West says marital love is a reflection of how God loves. It is free, total, faithful and fruitful." That is a beautiful message, and one that people everywhere would certainly benefit from hearing. What is the most important part of your message that someone who picks up a copy of your book or attends one of your seminars should grasp?
The basic message of the ToB is that an image of God's eternal plan of love and communion – or, using the spousal analogy, God's eternal plan to "marry us" – is stamped right in our bodies as male and female, right in our sexuality. So many people have been erroneously trained to think of their bodies and of sexuality as an obstacle to the "spiritual life." This is the enemy's constant deception.
At the heart of Christianity is the principle of "incarnation." We live the truth of the Spirit in and through our bodies. There simply is no other way for us as human beings. Far from being an inherent obstacle, the body has a central place in creation, redemption, and even eternal life. This is why the deceiver so violently attacks the body. When we reject our bodies because of the gross distortions of sexuality in our culture, we do not overcome the deceiver's lies, we actually fall for them.
The Pope's ToB is a clarion call for Christians not to become more "spiritual," but to become more "incarnational" – to live an incarnational spirituality. This is only possible through the redemption of the body. There is real power flowing from the death and resurrection of Christ enabling us to reclaim God's original plan for creating us male and female. This is the central message of the ToB. It is not a message of condemnation, it is a message of salvation. It is good news of great joy.
- You encourage people to ponder some challenging topics, questions of life like: Is there a real purpose to life and if so, what is it? Why were we created male and female – and does it really matter if you're one sex or another? Why were man and woman called to communion from the beginning and what does the marital union of a man and woman say to us about God and his plan for our lives? What is the purpose of the married and celibate vocations? What exactly is love? What is man's eternal destiny? Whew! Those are a lot of important topics to cover, do you really touch upon them all in one book?
Yes, this is exactly what my book covers – not exhaustively, of course, but it does address all of the most important questions we ask about life. It's so important to realize that the Pope's ToB is not just a catechesis on sex and marriage. It is that, but it is so much more. The Pope uses God's plan for sex and marriage as a lens through which to view the very mystery of the universe – the mystery hidden from eternity in God and revealed right from the beginning in our creation as male and female and our call to union.
As St. Paul says, the "one flesh" union is a great mystery, and it refers to Christ and the Church. Our creation as sexual beings and sexual union itself is meant to be a sign in some sense of God's eternal plan that we would be one in Christ forever. This "great mystery" is precisely what the Pope's ToB unfolds.
As an extensive commentary on the ToB, my book is really a book about the meaning of human existence. Why do we exist? What is my ultimate destiny and how do I achieve it? Why is there evil in the world and how do I overcome it? These questions are intimately connected with questions of sexuality. No book can offer an exhaustive treatment of such huge questions, but, guided by JP II, I do try to tap into the deepest stirrings we all experience in our hearts.
Christopher West "An Interview with Christopher West." Daughters of St.
Reprinted with permission of Christopher West.
Christopher West is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute. Christopher has lectured around the world and on a number of prestigious faculties, offering graduate and undergraduate courses at St John Vianney Seminary in Denver, the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and Creighton University’s Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha. He is the
author of Theology
of the Body for Beginners: A Basic Introduction to Pope John Paul II's Sexual
News about Sex and Marriage: Answers to Your Honest Questions about Catholic Teaching, Heaven's Song: Sexual Love as It Was Meant to Be,
of the Body Explained: A Commentary on John Paul II's "Gospel of the Body".
Christopher West is married to Wendy and has three children. Visit his web site here.
© 2005 Christopher West