Has Pope Francis revived Pope John Paul II’s controversial “Theology of the Body” approach to sexual ethics? In an article for Commonweal, Paul Moses examined Pope Francis’ recent decision to revive that project. Moses noted the following development:
“On September 19, Pope Francis announced [his] decision… he will revamp the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. The pope is re-affirming the Theology of the Body, but beginning a process of responding to some of the questions that have been raised about it. I see it as an effort to better connect John Paul’s ethereal talks to the realities of everyday life, in which we all wrestle with conscience and circumstance.”
The Theology of the Body is a series of teachings by Pope John Paul II that were delivered by the Pope in 129 audiences between 1979 to 1984. The teachings specifically address human sexuality and range from teachings about Genesis and the Creation story to the sacrament of marriage.
Pope Francis, while agreeing with and affirming the general notion of Theology of the Body, wishes to broaden the focus of the discussion. The pope is quoted as saying:
“We must be informed and impassioned interpreters of the wisdom of faith in a context in which individuals are less well supported than in the past by social structures, and in their emotional and family life. With the clear purpose of remaining faithful to the teaching of Christ, we must therefore look, with the intellect of love and with wise realism, at the reality of the family today in all its complexity, with its lights and its shadows.”
Francis has appointed Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri to run what was formerly the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, which will now be called the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Matrimonial and Family Science. The pope’s main concern is that the Church’s theological concepts of the body remain too “abstract.” In Amoris Laetitia, the pope says:
“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
In summary, the pope would like to see a greater emphasis on the reality, in all its messiness, of marriage and sexuality. Abstract concepts are often not helpful in the context of real-life relationships. That is why he calls us to trust the role of conscience in people’s lives.
Conscience is quite an interesting connection for the pope to make here. For many LGBTQ Catholics, conscience is a crucial aspect of moral theology when it comes to maintaining a healthy spiritual life. When faced with the question of how one could justify being an LGBTQ Catholic, a potential answer could the that the moral justification comes with an informed conscience.
With this shift in focus from abstract ideas to affirming the messiness of concrete reality, perhaps the “revamp” of this institute will make space for the consciences of the LGBTQ Catholics who are usually excluded from conversations around Theology of the Body. For instance, the Theology of the Body’s notion of mandatory “chastity” for non-heterosexual people has harmed many LGBTQ Catholics: the call to be “chaste” looks more like a call to “not be,” as theologian James Alison puts it.
We need to be asking more questions about the reality of LGBTQ people. When “chastity” hits the ground, will it actually do more harm to our Catholic LGBTQ siblings than good?
Perhaps Francis’ call to put more trust in the consciences of married people could also extend to LGBTQ people, who are just as “capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations.”
—Lizzie Sextro, New Ways Ministry, October 26, 2017