What the Pope Taught Me About Food, Sex, and God

When I was 19, I stopped eating. Not entirely. Just mostly. For the better part of six years, I survived on lettuce, tuna, and frozen yogurt. It’s not a diet I recommend, but at the time, it made me feel safe and in control.

I hated my body back then. I hated its softness, its feminine curves, its absolute refusal, no matter how little I ate, to be as long and angular as the models in the magazines.

I wasn’t so fond of my soul either. I didn’t know what to do with all the opinions that came so easily or the tongue I couldn’t tame.

So, I tried to hide them behind a frame I made increasingly fragile. If I were small, I posited, no one would mind the smarts so much. And if I starved my body, I hoped, perhaps I could starve my temper and tongue as well.

In many ways, my plan worked. I never managed to starve the smarts or the opinions out of me, but in what I ate and how much I exercised I found a way to control my world. I also found a way to punish myself for not being the person I wanted to be.

Throughout those six years, there were better times and worse times.  The year 2001 was a “better” time: I’d put on weight and generally ate like a normal human being.

But I still hated my body, and I still hated food. They frightened me. I wanted to be better, but the eating disorder had taught me to see my flesh and the food that nourished it as the enemy. They were problems to be managed, evils to be combatted.

An Encounter

 That’s where I was when I started finding my way back into the Catholic Church.

And that’s why, when I walked into a Catholic bookstore one Saturday afternoon in March 2001, John Paul II’s The Theology of the Body caught my eye: It had the word “body” in it, and I wanted a theology of the body. I wanted to know what this Church of mine had to say about the flesh I despised.

So, I bought it, went home, and started reading.

In its pages, I found grace. And truth. And healing. In it, I found an entirely different way of seeing not just my body, but God, the world, and everything Creation contained, food included.

The Theology of the Body taught me that my body was not some hunk of flesh encasing my soul; it was me. It expressed me. It made me present to the world, enabling me to love and be loved.

It also taught me that those curves I despised were gifts, reflecting my feminine heart and God himself, who nourishes and nurtures his people with more tender care than any mother who nourishes and nurtures her child.

And it helped me see food not as something to be feared, but as a perpetual witness to that nourishing love of God’s. It unlocked the power and beauty of the Eucharist and changed every meal into a natural foreshadowing of One, Holy, Sacrificial Meal.

Perhaps most impressively, it did all that in the first reading.

A Question

Now, fast-forward a year to 2002, when, as a graduate student at Franciscan University, I headed off to a lecture by Christopher West. I had no idea who West was, but he was speaking on the theology of the body, so off I went.

Two hours later, I left the lecture confused.

“Did we read the same book?” I asked my roommate. “’Cause I don’t think we did.”

It’s not that I disagreed with West. He had lots of powerful things to say that plenty of people in that audience needed to hear.

But there was so much more to say, so many more truths to talk about—truths that I thought were more foundational than what I heard that night.

I mean, yes, of course, married sex is good and holy and helps us understand the life-giving love of the Trinity. I got it.

But how do you live sexual integrity, inside and outside of marriage, if you don’t first understand what the body is or who the human person is?

How do you even talk about those things in a way that respects the beauty and dignity of the marital act, if you don’t already understand the beauty and dignity of the human person?

How do you express the truth of the redemption of the body in the bedroom, if you can’t express it standing over the kitchen sink?

After all, there are 24 hours in a day, and the overwhelming bulk of that time is spent vertical. Becoming who we’re called to be and living how we’re called to live is mostly about that time. That’s where the real work is done, the work that shapes our eternity, as well as those horizontal hours.

An Answer

 John Paul II understood that and he gave us a blueprint for that work in The Theology of the Body.

But, in recent years, in the midst of all the talk about sex, a lot of people have missed the blueprint. They’ve equated the theology of the body simply with the Church’s teachings on sexuality, seeing them as one and the same.

Again, that’s understandable. Sex is shiny. It captures our attention oh so easily. It’s also an area in which countless men and women have been profoundly wounded. People have needed the healing the theology of the body’s teachings on human sexuality can bring. For helping them find that healing, I applaud Christopher West and many others.

But (and this is a huge, all-caps, bolded kind of “but”), without learning the rest of what the theology of the body has to say, that healing can only be, at best, incomplete.

That’s why I wrote my newest book, These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Bodyto start a new conversation about the theology of the body, one that (hopefully) can help us live a fully and authentically Catholic life outside the bedroom, as well as inside.

That’s also why, for the next few weeks, I’m going to try to engage in that conversation here.

Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”

I think the same can be said of Catholics and the theology of the body. Many hate (or don’t care) about what they think it is. But it’s almost impossible to hate what it really is.

Because to hate what it is, is to hate seeing a world teeming with grace and rich with meaning. It’s to hate seeing the world with Catholic eyes. It’s to hate the truth about yourself and God.

And that truth…it’s beautiful.


Nude Woman, by William Adolphe Bouguereau

  • Phil Steinacker

    I understand what you are saying about Christopher West seeming overly-focused on the sexuality aspect to the Theology of the Body. I don’t disagree, actually, but folks like Alice von Hildebrand , Dawn Eden, and yourself are among those with a redeemed, spiritually healthy understanding of sex and its place in TOB and Church teaching.

    However, as one who was thoroughly inculcated into the secular, hypersexual culture (multiple sex partners, 40 plus years pornography addiction) I must tell you that it was West’s “Theology of the Body for Beginners – an Introduction” which dislodged me from my addiction in such a way that it led very quickly to direct intervention by Jesus Himself to free me completely to my slavery to sexual sin.

    I intend no disprespect to anyone nor do I hole anyone responsible per se, but it is not vob Hildebrand or Dawn Eden or anyone who shares their criticism of West who did that for me and others like me because the deeper, broader understanding of JP II’s TOB you and they cite means nothing to those drowning in the sexual culture. Thomist theology and the richness of Church teaching about marriage and family life; indeed, all its teachings are unable to surmount the prison walls of addiction to fallen sexuality.

    On the other hand, West meets people like me (or my former self) where we are in a way that can better penetrate the falsehoods of the Father of lies and loosen the grip of his taloned chains around our hearts. Once Christopher West showed me the Father’s plan for man and woman in marriage then I found myself yearning to be an active part of that plan even when the implications for me as a single man were that total abstinence was required to do so. I had not yet succeeded in that, but Jesus then approached me and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, as the saying goes (I’m not just kidding around). If you have never suffered through the inablity to free yourself from slavery to sin of any kind – sexual or any other – then you will never grasp why West’s work is so important. To his critics he appears to focus too much on the sexuality aspect of TOB because our culture is obsessed with the sexual to such a degree that we are now witnessing the dismantling and destruction of marriage and its eventual elimination entirely, to be followed by the elimination fo the age of consent or at least its reduction to an absurdly low level like 10 or 12.

    I believe the rest of TOB you are presenting is more easily accessible to those with a redeemed understanding of marriage, family, and human sexuality within Church teaching,, and it gradually becomes more so for folks like me only after we have been broken out of the shackles which have for so long ensnared us.

    I have been nursing these thoughts for several years as I have read one critic after the next repeat ideas about West and his work which I find unfathomable, or perhaps i should say I understand the points being made but the collective take that he is only telling part of the story completely misses that reality that the rest of that story continues to be rejected by the culture at large – including those immersed up to their eyebrows in the hypersexual culture.

    If you want to be of service to the preponderance of folks in that sexualized culture you need to show them why they are pursuing idols rather than icons. West understands the main currents of the culture unconsciously crying out man’s yearning for connectiveness to our Creator God, and its expression in myriad ways through music, art, film, and popular expressions. I do not mean to be unkind in the least, but only a relative handful will respond to the cleaned up approach advocated by West’s critics; the majority culture will not respond positively to anyone unwilling to climb down and meet them in their sin, as Jesus and His Apostels and disciples over time have demonstrated.

    God bless you. I wish your new book success and will look to buy it soon, but my comments are intended as a loving fraternal correction to several years of unwarranted criticism of West by those who don’t get what he’s able to accomplish.

    Please consider the possibility

    • http://www.emilystimpson.com Emily Stimpson

      Phil, Thanks for thoughts. As I’ve said about 5000 times already though, I’m not criticizing West. Heck, I’ve spent the better part of the past couple years defending him and in the actual article you’re commenting on, I said I applaud him for the very reasons you state. Helping people see that there’s more to TOB is not criticism. Sorry if I’m being snappish, but I’m getting a bit sick of repeating myself on this one.

    • K

      Phil, thank you for your thoughts! I found them very helpful and hopeful! Thank you, God, for healing! …It’s interesting how both you and Emily were slaves to a certain way of thinking/living, and the Theology of the Body freed you individually, uniquely. Praise God!

  • Cpt Frank Augustin

    Thank you. I look forward to readi g yiur book once I can get it in malaysia. I am incharye of the Confirmation Ministry 15 to 17yo here in malaysia. The age group where sexuality is discovered and explored. Our arch diocease roll out if TOB does seem to focus on sexuality which I agree is somwhat skewed.

  • http://www.catholicfword.com Christine Dalessio

    So glad to have you in the dialog! West does a great work with what he has been called to do, yes. And there’s so much more. Female voices are needed to ask hard questions… There’s very little that makes me crazier than hearing the TOB described as “the church’s teaching on chastity”!
    My doctoral thesis will center on this beautiful effort of JP II, and I am happy to know the conversation is continuing in the church and the world. Good luck with your book!

  • Nick Redd

    Great insight! I actually just got your book in the mail today. I look forward to reading it. As for now, all I can say is that it has a nice feel. Really! I don’t think I have ever included how the book felt in a review. I look forward to reading about TOB through your unique paradigm, and plan on writing a review. With regards to this post, I couldn’t agree more. My counterpart with “Out of Eden” – a ministry we founded that “Challenges men and women to walk in the truth of their creation” – were talking about this last week. She has always struggled with Christopher West’s slant on things. We were discussing how it takes a couple hundred pages before JPII even begin discussing the conjugal act in his book. Of course we have both gained a lot from West’s work and love what he is doing, but I am very excited to read your book. Also, for those interested this book looks a lot more manageable in size. Keep up the good work Emily!



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