An interview about Blessed John Paul II’s teaching on the human person and its role in the new evangelization
by Columbia Staff
In his Wednesday audiences from 1979 to 1984, Pope John Paul II systematically presented what has become known as the "theology of the body." The 129 reflections that make up this catechesis examine basic questions about human existence.
In his book The Human Person According to John Paul II (Pauline, 2010), Father J. Brian Bransfield presents the theology of the body in a broad context, explaining that the teaching "is not an island that can be separated from the wider teaching of John Paul and the teaching of the Church in general."
Father Bransfield currently serves as the associate general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 2006, he received his doctorate in moral theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Columbia spoke with Father Bransfield about how Pope John Paul II's insights relate to the new evangelization.
Columbia: In your book, you describe the convergence of the industrial, sexual and technological revolutions as "the perfect storm." Why do these three revolutions present such a challenge to us today?
Father Bransfield: Though the industrial and technological revolutions brought some good things, the three taken together — interpreted in a secular and skeptical mindset — form what might be called an anti-anthropology that leads us to say that the meaning of the human person is simply to acquire pleasure quickly. The accent on acquisition and consumerism comes from the industrial revolution; the accent on pleasure comes from the sexual revolution; and the accent on doing all of this quickly comes from the technological revolution.
We apply this mistaken understanding of the person to our education, our recreation, our occupations and our families. When we do this, we end up hurting the most voiceless and vulnerable among us, especially those at the beginning of life or at the end of life.
The call of Blessed Pope John Paul II is to reverse that, to see that the meaning of the human person comes not from acquiring pleasure quickly but from giving beauty slowly. We are each an unrepeatable, irreplaceable gift and are called to treat each other that way.
Columbia: What made the pope's theology of the body catechesis unique, and what role should it have in evangelization?
Father Bransfield: In the theology of the body, John Paul II used a unique method, bringing together classical metaphysics and contemporary phenomenology to reveal an enlightening understanding. He started from Scripture and went on to explain the most basic realities.
The theology of the body is the cornerstone of the new evangelization, which calls us to return to the original sources and re-propose the faith to people that have heard it but have drifted. The question that is at the basis of all the others is: What does it mean to be a human person, and how is that meaning related to my everyday life as a Christian?
Columbia: How does the theology of the body relate to the rest of John Paul II's writings?
Father Bransfield: In a way, the theology of the body underlies all of John Paul II's other teaching because it articulates an understanding of a communion of persons, an idea that is a key to all of his other writing. His catechesis on Genesis lays out in a detailed fashion the theological anthropology that is his abiding contribution. Throughout his plays, his lectures at Lublin, his pre-papal writings and his magisterial milestones, we see a continual line of development that comes all the way through.
Columbia: According to polling by the Knights of Columbus, the majority of Americans agree that our society is facing a moral crisis. What was John Paul II's analysis of this crisis?
Father Bransfield: I think he saw it in much the same way that Pope Benedict is seeing it — in terms of relativism and secularism. As a philosopher-pope, John Paul II answered the question of the current crisis not simply in the moment, but by looking back to its beginning. And he pointed to the enduring hunger of the human heart for authentic communion.
The moral crisis we are seeing goes back at least to a splintering characterized by René Descartes in the 17th century. His separation of mind and body results in the reduction and isolation of each. We have seen this play out over the centuries since Descartes — especially in the 20th century — as nominalism and nihilism allowed people to say, "I am totally in charge of my body." This dualism has led to horrible results that we see in abortion, the decline of marriage and fatherhood, and the rise in adultery, promiscuity and contraception.
John Paul II calls us to a union to show the authentic relationship between mind and body. Through a life of grace and virtue, we need to go back and heal the original divisions. It is not Cogito ergo sum — I think, therefore I am. It is Totus tuus sum ego — I am totally yours in an authentic gift of self.
Columbia: How has Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate complemented that of John Paul II?
Father Bransfield: One place I see a real connection is in the Christmas homilies and in the homilies of Trinity Sunday, where Pope Benedict says that God is not a solitude — emphasizing the Trinitarian relations. We also see a consistency when Pope Benedict speaks about marriage and family, and in his encyclicals, where he treats the virtues of love and hope as the actual means to unity that Pope John Paul was talking about.
Columbia: As an alumnus, how would you describe the contribution of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family?
Father Bransfield: I think the John Paul II Institute has a very direct and immediate role in the new evangelization. It provides a very thorough articulation of John Paul II's anthropology and combines it with a very unique ability to read the modern age. It allows this teaching to be translated into parish programs and ministry on the local level.
The mistake that everyone makes about the John Paul II Institute and the theology of the body is thinking that they are only about marriage and family. The theology of the body is a systematic theology of moral theology. The good thing about the institute is that you get both sound systematic and moral theology. If we don't tie systematic theology and moral theology together, both are impoverished, and moral theology simply becomes a list of do's and don'ts. Then people sit back and say, "Why shouldn't I?" or "Why should I?"
The people in the pews don't simply want to know what line they can't cross. In addition to the list of do's and don'ts, they want a sense of the mystery and the deeper answers.
Columbia: How can parishes, families and lay organizations like the Knights of Columbus work to pass on the faith more effectively?
Father Bransfield: We must begin by expressing the mystery of revelation in ways that people can understand. As teachers, we make the mistake of giving in to the curse of knowledge — saying what we know, but forgetting what it is like not to know it. Our answers tend to stay at the last grade level we completed — often master's level or beyond — while their questions are really about basic, everyday realities. Our responses often escape to the cerebral and forego touching earth. We have to remember that people very often want to hear the mystery from the very beginning, but we start in the middle or at the conclusion.
We are called to show the mystery in its original beauty in a way that is accessible to people, using words and phrases that relate to people's daily experience.
That is our goal — not just to have all our notes prepared and know everything that we think we need to say, but also to express it in a way that can really be internalized by people, such as those who drifted, did not fully complete a religious education, or did not experience the benefit of such education.
Columbia: In your book, did you find it difficult to make Pope John Paul II's teachings accessible for everyday readers?
Father Bransfield: I found it challenging, but I was very eager to do it. From my experience as a high school teacher and as a parish priest, I really wanted to give something to people that they could receive because I had seen their hunger. In many cases they are wounded by the culture. When you see people in those moments of hunger and woundedness, there is an eagerness to bring something that will nourish and heal.