A Note on Eve Tushnet and Theology of the Body

Eve Tushnet recently wrote a post titled, “Catholic People’s Histories, Gay People’s Futures.” In a brief aside, she said that the Theology of the Body “is so beautiful and so unaccommodating to me, though that’s a very provisional assessment since I’ve only read the addresses once.”

A prominent Catholic writer and academic shared her post on Facebook, and another Catholic writer commented, “Her love for God and the Church is edifying and a sign of hope, as it should be. Same with her love of beauty and fine art. But her comment about ToB is telling—Anthropology remains the obstacle. Reality can be ‘unaccommodating’ to one who has other commitments.”


Of course, Eve is free to clarify her meaning however she likes. (I would note that reading the Theology of the Body—even only once—is more than most Catholics have done; Eve is not criticizing out of complete ignorance here.) As someone who has spent a lot of time studying the Theology of the Body, I would like to make a couple of points.

To begin with, in the context of Eve’s article, it makes no sense to suppose that the accommodation she wants is support for same-sex marriage, or any similar revision of the Church’s moral teaching. As her first sentence proclaims, the article is about “orthodox gay people, seeking to live in obedience to the Church.” So what might Eve mean when she says that Theology of the body is “unaccommodating” to her?

Theology of the Body and Homosexuality

First, the Theology of the Body only explicitly mentions homosexuality once, in General Audience 36, from August 20, 1980:

It is perhaps useful to add that in the interpretation of the Old Testament, while the prohibition of adultery is marked—one might say—by a compromise with the concupiscence of the body, the opposition to sexual deviations is clearly defined. The relevant prescriptions, which impose capital punishment for homosexuality and bestiality, confirm this opposition.

A lot of lay Catholics are very enthusiastic about the Theology of the Body because—along with its lay popularizers—it engages with questions connected with marriage and sexuality in much greater depth than previous magisterial teachings (e.g. Humanae vitae or Casti connubii). Instead of just proposing rules, it does more to enter into the phenomenology of marital life.

Prior to being elected Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyła wrote (in Love and Responsibility) that,

although it is easy to draw up a set of rules for Catholics in the sector of ‘sexual’ morality the need to validate these rules makes itself felt at every step. For the rules often run up against greater difficulties in practice than in theory, and the spiritual advisor, who is concerned above all with the practical, must seek ways of justifying them. For his task is not only to command or forbid, but to justify, to interpret, to explain.

And in both Love and Responsibility and the Theology of the Body, he sought to provide this kind of practical pastoral guidance for marital love.

Thus, where married Catholics—and Catholics who hope to marry—are treated to hundreds of pages of explicit pastoral and theological reflection on their situation and calling, the only explicit reference to the situation of gay Catholics is a reminder that the Old Testament specified capital punishment for homosexual acts—a remark that seems to fall solidly in the category of commanding and forbidding, and not at all in the category of justifying, interpreting, or explaining.

Insofar as Theology of the Body seeks to accommodate the desire of married Catholics to have the Catholic teaching on marriage explained, it fails completely to accommodate the desire of “orthodox gay people, seeking to live in obedience to the Church” to have Catholic teaching on their situation explained. This is not necessarily a bad thing—every document has its limits, and homosexuality was not as pressing of a challenge for the Church at the time the Theology of the Body was composed. But married Catholics—or priests and religious who have taken vows of celibacy—who have found the Theology of the Body helpful should not presume that Eve or other orthodox gay Catholics will find it equally helpful.

Involuntary Celibacy

Second, Eve has spent a lot of time trying to understand how God calls those who are celibate involuntarily. In Matthew 19:11-12, Jesus says, “Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” I have long argued that we not only need theological reflection on the voluntary celibacy of those who “have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” We also need to reflect theologically on involuntary celibacy.

When John Paul II focuses on these verses, in General Audiences 73-81, he only briefly mentions the three classes of eunuchs in General Audience 74, and gives almost all of his attention to the vocation of those who voluntarily make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

Although the Pope speaks at length (and correctly) of the Old Testament’s preference for marriage, his dismissal of eunuchs who have been made so involuntarily ignores perhaps the most important Old Testament passage on the subject:

[L]et not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:3b-5)

And one need not go thousands of years back to find explicit consideration of the vocation of those who are involuntarily celibate. World War II killed a disproportionate number of young men, and so after the war, many young women in Europe faced a life of involuntary singleness. Addressing a group of Italian women, Pope Pius XII said,

When one thinks of the women who voluntarily renounce matrimony in order to consecrate themselves to a life of contemplation, sacrifice, and charity, immediately there comes to one’s lips a luminous word: vocation!

[But] this vocation, this call of love, makes itself felt in very diverse ways . . . The young Christian woman who remains unmarried in spite of her own desires may—if she firmly believes in the providence of the heavenly Father”recognize in life’s vicissitudes the voice of the master: Magister adest et vocat te—the Master is at hand, and is calling you . . . . In the impossibility of matrimony, she discerns her vocation.

The idea that there can be spiritual fruit in involuntary celibacy, then, goes back as far as the Old Testament, and continues to be affirmed by the modern papacy. Yet it receives short shrift in the Theology of the Body. Again, every document has its limits, and Theology of the Body is a valuable contribution to the Church’s teaching on marriage and on voluntary celibacy.

But it is silent on topics which—Eve points out—can be found elsewhere in the Catholic tradition, and which speak more directly to her situation and concerns.

I cannot, of course, speak for Eve. But as one who has studied the Theology of the Body in more depth, I think there are good reasons to suggest that the Theology of the Body is significantly less helpful for “orthodox gay people, seeking to live in obedience to the Church” than it is for those who are married (or who aspire to marry) and priests and religious who voluntarily choose to become celibate for the sake of the kingdom.

The Pope’s reflections offer a great deal of insight—which I have benefited greatly from studying. But the Theology of the Body does not exhaust the riches of the Catholic tradition, nor does it cover every aspect of Catholic anthropology in equal depth. To say that the Theology of the Body does not accommodate “orthodox gay people, seeking to live in obedience to the Church” is not necessarily to reject reality. It is rather to point out that the Theology of the Body is neither a complete account of reality, nor of Catholic anthropology.

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