Pope Francis made headlines in recent days by pointing out that there is more to the teaching of the Catholic Church than a few contentious issues, however important — fundamental, even — they may be. Christianity calls followers to a radical life of freedom in encounter with God. How do we live this encounter in our daily lives? John Paul II, during his tenure as shepherd of the world’s Catholics, gave a series of talks known as the theology of the body, about living an integrated life. Emily Stimpson, in a book released today, These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body, talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about its timely, practical implications.
kathryn jean LOPEZ: Your book seeks to unpack the theology of the body for the lay man and woman but that sounds so . . . theological. Why should non-theologians keep reading?
LOPEZ: How much does the theology of the body actually have to do with sex?
STIMPSON: It has a lot to do with sex. It has many beautiful and powerful things to say about the physical dimension of human love. But it’s not only about sex. It also has lots to do with eating and drinking, dressing and dancing, work and friendship, liturgy and prayer. The theology of the body isn’t a sexology; it’s an anthropology, a meditation on what it means to be a human person, a union of body and soul, made in the image of God. As such, it has something to say to everything that we humans do in these bodies of ours.
LOPEZ: What’s so special about the “bone church” (Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini) in Rome?
STIMPSON: Describing the Capuchin bone church in any way that doesn’t make it sound creepy and macabre is nearly impossible. I mean, the church features the bones of 4,000 dead monks turned into candelabras and ceiling medallions. How can it not sound spooky? But, oddly enough, it’s actually quite beautiful. It’s beautiful in its design, but more fundamentally, it’s beautiful in what it signifies. It’s beautiful to see bodies that were “temples of the Holy Spirit” in life become part of a literal “temple” in death. It’s also beautiful in the reminder it gives that these bones won’t always be bones. Someday, God willing, they’ll again belong to living bodies, resurrected bodies. And the more perfectly each of those monks imaged Christ in this life, the more beautiful his body will be in the next. The same holds true for all of us . . . although most of aren’t likely to spend the interim between death and resurrection as a chandelier.
LOPEZ: “Life,” you write, “is about God. It’s about falling in love with him and becoming like him so that we can be with him forever.” Is “falling in love” girl language? And does it work at a time when that phrase is in danger of taking on pop-song meaning at best.
STIMPSON: Admittedly, I think women tend to have an easier time than men with the concept of “falling in love” with God. That’s probably why you’ll find more women than men among the Catholic Church’s greatest mystics. But, male or female, we’re all called to love God with a single-mindedness that surpasses even that of the love between man and woman. That love, the love of a soul for Christ, is the real deal. It’s complete, transformative, and enduring. It’s eternal. The measure of the rest, of all the other loves we experience on this earth, is how closely they image that love and have been touched by that love.
LOPEZ: How is the theology of the body most significant in the life of a busy mom? Maybe a stay-at-home mom who is often made to feel she is not making the most of her life?
STIMPSON: One of the core teachings of the theology of the body is that each of us is called to make a gift of ourselves in love. And honestly, I can’t think of a more beautiful way to do that than as a mother. A mother gives her body as a gift to her child, nurturing him before he’s born. She then continues to give her body as a gift to that child after he comes into the world. She feeds him from her breast, bathes him with her hands, and comforts him with her arms. She cooks for him, cleans for him, educates him. Her whole life — from washing sippy cups to helping her child learn to say “please” and “thank you” — is a gift, a labor of love. The more love she pours into even the littlest actions, the more of herself she gives. In the end, résumés are tossed, promotions are forgotten, money comes and goes. But the work of nurturing and nourishing a life, with all the physical and spiritual effort that entails? Work doesn’t get more meaningful than that.
LOPEZ: How is chivalry important in our lives?
STIMPSON: For most of us, it’s rarely enough to just know something in our heads. We also need to express it with our bodies. That expression serves as both a reminder of important truths and a proclamation of what we believe. For example, when we pray we kneel, in order to both remind ourselves that God is greater than us and proclaim our reverence for him.
Something similar is true of chivalry. As Christians, we believe that one of the outcomes of the fall of man was the war between the sexes. Original sin has made it harder for men and women to love each other rightly. Little acts of chivalry, however, like men opening doors for women or offering to carry heavy packages, help counter that problem. In doing of those acts, men remind themselves and others that it’s better to serve than to be served and that their strength is a gift they’re supposed to use to help others, not harm them. At the same time, in letting men do those things for us, women remind ourselves that we don’t always have to be in control. In some ways, it’s an exercise in vulnerability, in letting down the walls we put up to protect ourselves. Ultimately, chivalry teaches us to better care for one another. It’s not about men dominating women or women taking advantage of men; it’s simply about learning to love.
LOPEZ: How are you so sure pornography is dark and evil?
STIMPSON: Besides the horror stories told by the men and women who’ve escaped the porn industry — stories of abuse, STDs, drugs, depression, lies, and suicides? Or besides the stories of relationships irreparably harmed by one partner’s porn habit — of sex lives destroyed, addictions, feelings of betrayal and abandonment, even divorces? You know what they say about trees and their fruit, right? Still, you could set all that aside and from principle alone say that any activity that reduces another person to an object, a pure means for our own sexual enjoyment, is dark and evil. People aren’t objects to be used. They’re subjects to be loved. And whenever we cooperate in treating a person as less than the beautiful, important, valuable human being they are, evil can claim a victory.
LOPEZ: What is a “sacramental worldview”?
STIMPSON: It’s looking at the world and seeing meaning in everything. It’s seeing grace in everything. It’s recognizing that everything was created by God and, in some way, reveals something about God — his strength, his beauty, his majesty, his love. The sacramental worldview tells us that the whole world in some way is a metaphor for God. It also tells us that the whole world has been touched by him and can be a means for grace, a means for coming to know and love him more fully and to grow more completely into the men and the women he made us to be. And it shows us the plan inherent in creation — the way things were meant to be — and calls us to respect that plan, to live in accord with it.
LOPEZ: This book is obviously Catholic. Does it have a purpose for others?
STIMPSON: Yes. In fact, it’s because it is Catholic that it has a purpose for others. The literal meaning of “catholic” is universal, and These Beautiful Bones is about the struggles that are almost universal in our culture: a dissatisfaction with work that feels more stressful than meaningful; the challenge of maintaining important relationships in a mobile, busy society; the anger and selfishness that simmers below the surface of so many of our day-to-day interactions; plus the more basic issues of caring for our bodies, seeing their value even when they’re not young or thin, and living lives rich with meaning in the midst of a culture of distraction. Whatever your faith, the theology of the body offers commonsense wisdom to those problems and more. It’s an accessible gift from the Church to the world.
LOPEZ: What does T.S. Eliot mean when he writes: “You must not deny the body” in his Choruses from the Rock, and why do you quote it? My impression is that most of the world thinks Catholicism is all about denying the body!
STIMPSON: That’s the funny thing. The world thinks it’s the Church that denies the body, but it’s really the culture that does that. The culture tells us that bodies don’t matter, that we can do whatever we want with our bodies — nip them, tuck them, starve them, gorge them — as well as give our bodies to whomever we want, in whatever ways we want, whenever we want, and that there will be no lasting consequences for our lives. Our culture views the body as an object to be used or manipulated. But the Catholic Church thinks the body is sacred, that it is somehow an image of God. It also recognizes the union between the body and the soul. It sees that they’re connected, and teaches that what we do in the body and with our bodies can profoundly affect our souls, for good and for ill. It doesn’t deny the body at all. It affirms it as something real that matters eternally.
LOPEZ: Does Pope Francis’s style make it possible for us to talk about these things with more freedom and with more of a chance of being understood?
STIMPSON: Maybe for a little while, for as long as the media’s fascination with him lasts. The cynic in me says that they’ll eventually discover that he’s different in style, not substance, from the Catholic Church’s other 265 popes, and then it will be back to business as usual. But maybe not. I’d like to be wrong on this one.
LOPEZ: You write: “As John Paul II made clear, the theology of the body, at its core, is a study of what it means to be a human person made in the image of God. In other words, it is an anthropology, not a sexology. John Paul II used that anthropology to defend Humanae Vitae and the Catholic vision of love, but it can be used just as effectively to address the other great questions and struggles of human existence. . . . When we reduce the theology of the body to a theology of sex, we truncate the lessons John Paul II was trying to teach through those Wednesday audiences. We . . . end up with a theology with a rather limited application.”
But how do we propose to the world a new anthropology when sex is something we, as well as our critics get stuck on, and so we get nowhere?
STIMPSON: It starts with small steps. I think we need to say, “You don’t agree with what the Catholic Church says about same-sex attraction? Fine. But maybe consider what the Church has to say about serving the poor or being kind to your neighbor or caring for your body. Start there. See if following her wisdom in another area of life — work, prayer, friendship, eating — makes your life any better. Give it a whirl. If it pays off, sample some more of her advice. Eventually you might decide the world’s take on how to love isn’t doing much for you. Then, maybe it will be time for you to consider the Church’s point of view on those questions. Also, in the meantime, whatever you do, get to know Christ. Read about him. Talk to him. Ask for his help.”
Sexuality is only the sticking point if we let it be. Everyone comes to faith in Christ in different ways. For some people, the sexuality piece is the first one. For others, it’s the last piece. God is patient with us. We need to be patient with others. In the meantime, one of the most important things we can do is start practicing what we preach. The Church’s teachings on sexuality are life-giving and beautiful. Those of us who trust in the wisdom of those teachings need to embrace them and live them so that others can see just how beautiful they are.
LOPEZ: What do you hope everyone takes away from These Beautiful Bones?
STIMPSON: An understanding of who you are — of what it means to receive life as a gift and give yourself as a gift to others — as well as the ability to then apply that understanding to whatever situation you find yourself in or whatever challenges life presents to you. Ultimately, what the theology of the body does is teach us to see the world as it is, in all its tragedy and glory. Get the vision piece right, and getting the rest right becomes a whole lot easier.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor at large of NRO.