The 2016 Theology of the Body (TOB) Congress will be held Friday, September 23, through Sunday, September 25 (with a “Pre-Congress” Thursday, September 22) at the Ontario Convention Center in Southern California. The event will include keynote addresses and workshops by prominent Catholic speakers on Theology of the Body and related family life topics. Keynote speakers include Christopher West, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, Damon Owens, Dr. John Grabowski of Catholic University of America, Dr. Edward Sri, Msgr. Brian Bransfield, and Sr. Regina Marie Gorman, among others. For a complete list of speakers and topics, visit www.tobcongress.com.
The event is organized by the Theology of the Body Institute in Downingtown, Pennsylvania; this is the first year the congress has been held in California. Spaces are still available; register online or walk in.
Ahead of the congress, CWR spoke to Jen Settle, managing director of the Theology of the Body Institute, and Jason Evert of the Chastity Project, one of the featured speakers.
CWR: What is Theology of the Body?
Jen Settle: It is Pope St. John Paul II’s first work of his pontificate that explained human love: our identity, our vocation, and our calling. He wanted to answer two questions: number one, who am I? And number two, how do I find happiness?
CWR: What is the TOB Institute?
Settle: We are an educational institute established 12 years ago to help people come to a deeper conversion to Christ through the TOB. We’ve welcomed over 5,000 people from all over the country for TOB courses and we send our speakers all over the world to speak at universities, parishes, and other venues. We offer a clergy program to help priests apply the TOB to their priesthood. And, every two years, we offer a congress. The Ontario congress is our third; our previous two were in Philadelphia.
CWR: How are you funded?
Settle: Fees collected from those attending our courses help defray our costs, but mostly we rely on donations. We have eight people who work on our staff full time.
CWR: What oversight do you have from the bishops?
Settle: We have an episcopal advisory board with 15 bishops. Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput is its chairman.
CWR: How can the TOB lead people to have a healthy view of human sexuality?
Settle: The goal of the TOB is to lead people to a deeper intimacy and relationship with Jesus Christ. When we have this, we know who we are through God. It helps us to re-order our sexuality to the true, the good, and the beautiful. We are able to re-orient our desires to be how God intended us to be from the beginning.
CWR: What benefits have you seen from the work of the TOB Institute?
Settle: I’ve been with the institute for eight years. During that time, I’ve seen priestly vocations renewed, marriages in distress saved, and people who have been able to overcome sexual addiction. I’ve witnessed many miracles.
CWR: How did you select your speakers and topics for the congress?
Settle: We looked for speakers who are top-notch in their fields in the area of the TOB or the family. There have been two Synods on the Family during the pontificate of Pope Francis; hence the focus of our congress this year is love, mercy, and the family. We looked for speakers who could touch on these themes. We’re fortunate to be welcoming 34 outstanding speakers who bring a depth of knowledge.
CWR: Why did you decide to have the congress in California?
Settle: It’s mission territory for us. After twice being in Philadelphia, we looked around for parts of the country where we thought we could introduce the TOB to many who might be unfamiliar with it. We thought Southern California would work well, so we reached out to San Bernardino Bishop Gerald Barnes and he was pleased to welcome us.
We’ve had our best-ever response, with more than 800 registered. There is still room for people who decide last minute; they can register online or on-site. They can come for just one day, or the whole congress.
CWR: You’re a congress speaker. Your topic is the TOB and the single life. Why should unmarried people have an interest in TOB?
Settle: There is the idea out there that the TOB is just for married people or priests and religious who work with married people. But that is incorrect. The TOB is for everyone, including single people. It helps single persons, such as myself, answer the question: what does it mean to offer the gift of self?
In my talk, I plan to offer the witness of my own life and discerning my own vocation. When a person is single, family and friends can pressure you to get married, become a priest or religious or simply to discover what your vocation is. I, myself, had a deep desire to be married and have a family. Before I was familiar with the TOB, I idolized marriage and thought my identity would come from being married. But the TOB teaches me that my identity comes from being a daughter of God.
Hence, I am becoming a consecrated virgin, living in the world for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. I will take vows before Archbishop Chaput on February 2. I don’t believe I’m called to live in a religious community; I believe I’m called to live in the world. My vocation is to be a bride of Christ, but living in the world.
My vocation will be promoting the TOB, as well as intercessory prayer and spiritual motherhood for priests.
CWR: Which relates to your other talk at the congress, “Called to Love: TOB & Vocation.”
Settle: Yes. I’m going to focus on how the TOB can help you form your vocational discernment. I will discuss the concept of offering a gift of self, as well as answering the questions: what is discernment? What is vocation?
CWR: Pornography is the topic of at least three of the congress presentations. Why is pornography a focus this year?
Settle: It is a focus because pornography is an epidemic in our culture. It affects the very young to the old. It can have devastating effects on marriages and families. We’re going to focus on how men and women get into porn, and how an understanding of the TOB brings a true understanding of masculinity and femininity and can lead to a path out of porn.
A pornography addiction can be traced back to a disordered sexual desire. The TOB can help the individual re-order that desire as God intended. I know of a couple, for example, in which the wife found out that the husband had been addicted to pornography for years. They had children together, and the addiction threatened the stability of the family. They came to us, and the husband was able to find a wealth of understanding and healing through the TOB. He’s currently undertaking the steps he needs to undertake to overcome his addiction.
CWR: Who ought to attend the congress?
Settle: The majority of the people coming are those who work in parishes, dioceses and family life offices. But, it is really for anyone who wants to learn what the Church teaches about human sexuality, love and their vocation.
CWR: You also offer Mass, confession and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
Settle: Yes. All we do is surrounded by the sacramental life of the Church. We provide a lot of information for people’s heads, but we want it to travel to their hearts. This happens through prayer.
CWR: One of your special guest speakers is Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Cordileone.
Settle: Yes. He is taking the place of Archbishop José Gomez, who was called to the Vatican. Archbishop Cordileone will talk about the synods, the first of which he participated in.
CWR: The TOB has its critics. In 2009, Alice von Hildebrand said Christopher West has become “much too self-assured and has lost sight of the extreme sensitivity of the topic.” She spoke of the “tremendous dangers” of concupiscence. How do you respond to critics?
Settle: With all theology, everyone comes at it from a different perspective and experience. Sometimes a speaker attempting to reach the general population will speak one way, or to a university population in another. I think Christopher West was trying to bring the TOB to the average person in the pew.
CWR: How can those unable to attend the congress hear the presentations?
Settle: Our keynote speakers will be livestreamed through the Shalom Network. And all talks will be recorded through Ascension Press; people can purchase one or more afterward. I think people will find it to be an outstanding event and well worth their time.
CWR: Why did you want to participate in this TOB congress?
Jason Evert: In my travels to speak to young people on six continents, I’ve witnessed a tremendous amount of hurt and confusion that has been caused by the misuse of the gift of sexuality. One reason I don’t lose hope is because I believe that the TOB is the antidote to this suffering. Saint John Paul II truly loved young people, and listened to them. His theology does not only stem from his world-class intellect, but from his giant, fatherly heart. When young people discover his teaching, they often rediscover themselves in the process. It’s a joy to witness, and I want to do all that I can to help every person experience this.
CWR: You’re going to speak on “Homosexuality and the Theology of the Body.” What are a few highlights of your presentation?
Evert: Our culture has hyper-sexualized everything—from relationships to cheeseburgers—and now is trying to hyper-sexualize our identities. In other words, who we “are” as human beings is who we are sexually attracted to. The TOB offers us a much broader and balanced understanding of the human person. While many people assume the Church is forbidding people who experience homosexual attractions to love one another, the Church is in fact the only institution that is challenging them to truly love one another. However, our concept of love often is in need of healing and redemption. Through the lens of the TOB, we can discover how all people are called to make a gift of themselves in a unique way.
CWR: You’re part of a panel discussion titled, Theology of the Body and Youth. What are a few of the points you hope to make? Why should the TOB be important to young people?
Evert: While at World Youth Day in Krakow, a young woman shared with me how her college application to Stanford required her to check a box to signify her gender. There were 18 boxes to choose from and “male” and “female” were not options. Young people today need a guiding star to navigate through the cultural chaos, and I believe that John Paul II’s insights in his TOB offer them this. Some people say that the Theology of the Body isn’t just about sex, and in a sense this is true. But when the Church talks about sex, it’s not talking about an activity, but an identity. Our “sex” in the language of the Church is who we are as male and female. It’s not what we do, but who we are as sons and daughters of God. If we don’t understand this, we won’t understand what it means to be human.
CWR: Anything else you’d like to share about the congress?
Evert: I’d like to encourage those who are unable to attend the TOB Congress to obtain the audio recordings of it through Ascension Press following the conference. There’s a great lineup of presentations, and especially as a speaker, I look forward to deepening my own understanding of the topic by listening to the other seminars.