Interview With Father Anthony Percy

GOULBURN, Australia, SEPT. 28, 2006 ( Pope John Paul II responded to the sexual revolution with his innovative teachings on human sexuality, says the author of a new book on the theology of the body.

Father Anthony Percy is the author of “Theology of the Body Made Simple,” published in Australia by Connorcourt Publishing, by the Daughters of St. Paul in the United States, and by Gracewing in Great Britain. It is being translated into Chinese, Spanish, Italian and German.

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Percy speaks of John Paul II’s contribution to the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.

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Q: Some say that since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the Church has been challenged in a way it has never been before to defend its teachings on sexuality. In what way?

Father Percy: Most cultural commentators would agree that the sexual revolution began in the 1920s. In fact, G.K. Chesterton said of the sexual revolution that there was “more madness coming out of Manhattan than there was out of Moscow!”

He perceived that the next heresy the Church would have to deal with would be of a sexual nature. We, now living in the 21st century, surely have no problems in recognizing the immense challenge before us.

But “today” is our starting point and not “yesterday” or “tomorrow” — what might have been or what might be. And the starting point — or so it seems to me — is this wonderfully intriguing and inviting teaching called the theology of the body.

Q: What role has John Paul II’s theology of the body had in this rising to this challenge?

Father Percy: In my opinion, what John Paul II has bequeathed to us is something similar to what Pope Leo XIII handed on to us with his groundbreaking encyclical letter “Rerum Novarum” in 1891.

The Industrial Revolution began in the mid-18th century, but it took the Church at least a century to respond to the problem. Also, the Church tends to respond to critical changes in society and tries to avoid reacting to changes.

This is what Leo XIII did and so, too, John Paul II. With his background in philosophy; with his frequent dealings with many married couples in Poland as a young priest and bishop; with his deep faith and with his brilliant and creative mind, the Pope put together the theology of the body.

John Paul II gave his theology of the body addresses under the form of Wednesday catechetical talks in Rome, from 1979 until 1984.

Q: John Paul II didn’t change any of the teachings of the Church on sexuality, so what is so new about the theology of the body?

Father Percy: The approach the Pope takes is rather innovative. The modern mind does not accept easily what we might call deductive reasoning. People in the modern age don’t tend to start from principles and move to conclusions.

Rather — because, no doubt, of the influence of science — we tend to think inductively. That is, we gather up all the information from our human experience and begin to think about it all and thus reach conclusions about how we should behave, for example.

This is the approach of John Paul II. He is very sensitive, because of his pastoral sensitivity and because of his philosophical background, to human experience.

If you read Pope Paul VI’s document “Humanae Vitae,” you can see that the approach is different. It argues from principles to conclusions. John Paul II, however, appeals to experience and then finds a conclusion. We can immediately see that this approach will be attractive to the modern mind.

Secondly, and I think quite importantly, John Paul II has quite an original insight into sacred Scripture, and because the Church these days is more focused on the word of God, this too, is very important in rising to the challenge of the sexual revolution.

The word of God does shed light, not only on God and who he is, but it also sheds light on who we are and how we are to relate to each other.

Q: What is the key idea of John Paul II on human sexuality?

Father Percy: The sexual revolution, like all “isms,” takes things out of their proper context. The sexual revolution takes sex out of the context of human relationships and simply focuses on the pleasure of sex — the thrill of it.

But John Paul II places sex right within the context of human relationships. He says, quite radically, I think, that our human bodies are “more relational than they are sexual.”

In other words, sex is supposed to serve lasting and fruitful relationships. Through the unitive act of a man and woman in marriage, both husband and wife are meant to come to a new and fresh realization of who they are as creatures made in the image and likeness of God.

Sex thus serves human relationships. Sex is important to the theology of the body, but the body is made for relationship and then, and only then, does sex find its true meaning.

This is why celibate people receive a great affirmation with the theology of the body. Relationship takes pride of place, and then sex finds its true place.

Q: In your book you talk of how the young people view sex as a “casual indoor sport.” What are the particular challenges of talking to this generation of the theology of the body? In what sense might there be hope?

Father Percy: There is a lot of hope as we enter more deeply into the 21st century. We are living, as a lot of people have observed, in the postmodern age where there is almost a complete lack of meaning for the new generation.

But they perceive it and are therefore looking for values that will steady them in life. This reality is clearly symbolized by World Youth Days and the explosion of growth in youth ministry in the Catholic Church.

Q: In the Pope’s writings he talks about three original experiences that no one had talked about before, could you explain these?

Father Percy: The theology of the body, as you may be aware, is quite a revolution in this regard. Let me put it this way, as I have done in my book, the “Theology of the Body Made Simple.”

If I were to ask you to complete the following phrase, what would you say? The phrase is: “Original …?” Naturally you would answer: “Original sin.” Pope John Paul II, with his eye on the Scriptures and his sensitivity to human experience, has created three original human experiences that are prior to original sin.

George Weigel in his biography of John Paul II, “Witness to Hope,” said that the theology of the body is a “theological time bomb.” In my opinion, he is correct.

For what John Paul II has done is to give us three original experiences that were part of Adam and Eve’s experience, but can also be part of our human existence if we so desire.

John Paul’s point is that we should want to have these three experiences — create the necessary conditions for them to flourish — since they lead us to what God had originally intended for us in “the beginning.”

We all have an experience of original sin. To paraphrase St. Paul, we do the things we don’t want to do and the things we want to do we find difficult! Original sin is not hard to identify.

But with the theology of the body we now have these three original human experiences, which are positive and not negative: original solitude; original unity; original nakedness.

Getting youth to experience solitude will help them realize that their bodies are symbolic, and this means that sex is symbolic and not at all a “casual indoor sport.” Sex is more than pleasure. It is that symbolic act whereby a husband and wife totally accept each other and totally give themselves to each other.

Helping the young to have an experience of unity, love, means that young people will come to realize that their bodies, and sex, are made for love and not just a fleeting, “pleasure seeking” escapade.

In his first encyclical, John Paul II mentioned that we cannot live without love. I think the Pope’s development of this second original experience called original unity goes a long way to addressing the crisis of love — that is, the lack of it — that is deeply embedded in our culture.

And then there is the fascinating original human experience called original nakedness. This experience will help young people to understand the meaning of their freedom, not simply as mere choice, but rather as the mysterious power we have received to surrender our lives to each other and to the Lord.

Q: What does “Theology of Body Made Simple” have to offer to those who have stumbled, or simply have trouble living the teachings of the Church?

Father Percy: It is clearly true that many have found the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage difficult. But her teachings are the teachings of Christ. So it doesn’t follow that what is difficult is thereby impossible. Grace follows the truth and grace is surprisingly tangible at times.

What the theology of the body will do, however, is give us greater clarity and confidence in proclaiming the truth about marriage.

To my mind, those original experiences discussed in the previous question are crucial. Living, as we do, in a culture of death; a culture of deception; a culture of noise; a culture of speed, etc., makes living life as it was meant to be lived, quite difficult.

John Paul II offers a new way of looking at life through the original experiences and this will all help all those who have stumbled. They can still “run the race” and win it.

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