George Weigel, the biographer of Pope John Paul II, has remarked that one of the most exciting "ticking bombs" of Catholic thought (set to go off sometime in the 21st Century) is John Paul's teaching on the Theology of the Body.
What is the Theology of the Body? In a nutshell, John Paul draws on the most basic message of the entire Christian tradition--"The Word became Flesh"--to make clear that the body is not a mere machine, or an unusually clever piece of meat, or an apparatus used to gain a particular sensory experience, or a Tupperware container for the soul, or a thing completely unrelated to the true union of souls, or the mere "animal" part of us unrelated to our "heart" or "mind". Rather, the body is the very window of the soul, with its own language that speaks more deeply than we can with words. When God wished to speak his ultimate Word to us he sent, not a telegram, but a baby--at Bethlehem. The ultimate form of speech is the Body. And so the Body and the things we say with it matter. This, says Pope John Paul, is why sex outside marriage is such a cruel violation of the nature of the human person. Because, in the language of the body, sex means (and can only mean) "I give you all of myself, body, soul, and spirit, in self-sacrificial love." To say that with the body, and then vanish the next morning is to tell a terrible and wounding lie.
Teaching our children to recognize this "language of the body" is therefore vital to helping them grasp a really central truth of life and faith. The body matters in many ways beyond sex, and we can begin to help our children see that at a very early age.
For instance, at dinner time, we can show our little ones the difference between the language of the tongue and the language of the body by tasting a bit of lemon and saying (with our tongue) "That's really sweet!" while saying with our puckered faces the truth about the lemon's tartness. Then we can ask our young child, "Do you think the way I talked with my lips matched up with the way I talked with my face?" From there, it's possible to show that our words and the language of our bodies have to line up. We can talk about how God gave us our bodies as good gifts that are meant to give good to others and to speak the truth to others, not just with our words but with every part of us. We might even look at the gospel story of the two sons who were asked to work in the Vineyard. The one said "Yes" but didn't go. The other said "No" and went. The point of the story is that what we do with our body matters more than what we say with our words (though, of course, both are important).
For adolescents, caught in that period between childhood and adulthood, the stress forces can be powerful. It is the appropriate task of adolescence to leave childhood behind, but not childlikeness and not virginity. Our culture, deeply hostile to childhood is, for the same reason, deeply hostile to virginity, for it hates innocence. This makes it particularly attractive and intimidating to adolescents, because it promises instant maturity through easy sexual license and various material goods. The adolescent, who wants to grow up and who is desperately afraid of being "the last virgin" can easily be cowed into believing this.
The Theology of the Body speaks to this by striking two very strong chords: truth and heroism. Adolescents have very strong Bunk Detectors. And they are passionately desirous of heroism. We can speak to our adolescents by pointing out that sex is a promise of complete self-giving to another and that when we make that promise lightly, not out of real love for another, but out of fear of what our friends think, we are lying. More than that, we are being taken in by the advertisers and corporate greedheads who use these cultural messages to manipulate us. We can emphasize that virginity is the truly counter-cultural and heroic act.
We can build on this essential message for our older children as they approach the time to leave the nest by pointing out that sex, in addition to being a kind of language, is also something that is ordered by God toward their good, just like the rest of their body. On the positive side, this means that a sexual relationship, entered into in the context of a full Christian marriage, is one of most pleasurable and powerful binding forces in the universe and a joy like nothing else. On the negative side, uncommitted sex with multiple partners is like adhesive tape: if you apply it and then tear it off over and over, it eventually loses to power to stick. And the tragedy is, that loss is usually permanent, even if you do get married. Sexual dysfunction and infidelity among couples who practiced pre-marital sex (especially with more than one partner) is a documented fact.
The Theology of the Body is one of John Paul's richest gifts to the Church. Like a miraculous river, it is shallow enough for an ant to wade in and deep enough for an elephant to swim in. Whether your child is 5 or 25, it has something to offer us as we seek to grow in love and truth with God and with each other.