Matter Matters: On the Need for a Pastoral Theology of Radical Particularity

We like to pretend as if we have total control. “Measureless acquisition, consumption, or economic growth in a finite environment is a literally nonsensical idea; yet the imperative of growth remains unassailable, as though we did not really inhabit a material world,” writes Rowan Williams in “Embracing Our Limits,” an analysis of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. “The plain thereness of the physical world we inhabit tells us from our first emergence into consciousness that our will is not the foundation of everything—and so its proper working is essentially about creative adjustment to an agenda set not by our fantasy but by the qualities and complexities of what we encounter.”[1]

To give one imperfect but illuminating example of this kind of reality check: living in Rome unearthed to me a certain brand of humility inherent to its people, likely owing to the ancient history bursting at the seams of the dusty city. It’s easy to feel awe, to feel little in the face of a history as sprawling as Rome’s. It is also easy to feel frustrated, if you come with any expectation of efficiency in the necessary mundane tasks of taking public transportation to work, for instance. Such a place defies desires of control in the daily ins and outs of navigating life. And so its residents’ characteristic humility also stems from a certain realism about those expectations and the obstacles that may well arise—about the “plain thereness” of the city’s complex environment.

The physicality of existence creates certain bounds within which to understand ourselves, and—as in the Roman example—our daily lives will inevitably be impacted by “the complexities of what we encounter” concretely. Matter matters, whether in regards to the environment or our physical bodies. Our bodiliness therefore means something; it shapes our identities as people, as men and women. As a Church, we cannot say otherwise, because to do so would negate the foundational, scriptural belief in a God who created the world and called it good. Just as Christ took on our flesh, a Church that aims to be pastoral must take up the physical realities of life in its theology and its practice, drawing those particularities into its self-understanding as Christ’s Body alive today. A pastoral theology of radical embodiment could serve to counter certain bad habits and problematic theories that currently influence both the Church and society.

In this essay I will begin from a view of how a disregard for the physical manifests itself, both in regards to the world we live in and the bodies we inhabit. This will entail a brief analysis of how we can incorporate the physical aspect of existence into an understanding of personhood and identity. If bodies matter, this inevitably informs an understanding of sexual difference, and so I will address how some of the ramifications of living in relation as male and female plays into the kind of pastoral theology at hand. Emerging from these discussions will be a more practical and personal reflection on embodiment and the pressing need for a more robust pastoral theology of women, as one crucial part of an overarching theology of radical particularity.

The Embodied Self in Creation and Relation

The materialistic approach to nature that Williams describes in “Embracing Our Limits” is, paradoxically, a “deeply anti-material thing.” He shows that when personal desire reigns supreme, the limits presented by the physical world become nothing more than pesky obstacles to be overcome. We have reached a point at which “the naked fact of personal desire for unlimited acquisition is the only ‘given’ in the universe. . . . It is this fantasy of living in an endlessly adjustable world, in which every physical boundary can be renegotiated”[2] that Williams warns against, via Francis.


If we place God at the center and maintain the goodness of creation, then ravaging the earth’s resources is a travesty of the same order as regarding our own bodies as anything less than God-given.

The implications of this way of thinking rule out a Christian view of humanity and faith, making Williams’ diagnosis applicable not only to how we should view the earth but also each other and God: “The material world tells us that to be human is to be in dialogue with what is other: what is physically other, what is humanly other in the solid three-dimensionality of other persons, ultimately what is divinely other.”[3]


[caption id="attachment_609" align="alignleft" width="324"] Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan) Photo: Antonis Lamnatos; CC BY 2.0[/caption]

From a Christian vantage, then, the dynamics of those relationships circumscribe reality—the lines of relation with a divinely other Creator; with other humans created in his image; and with the created world and its creatures. To bless the physical is to see our own selves as inherently good (because inherently and radically God’s own), without placing ourselves at the center of a microcosmic universe—without building a “tiny, skull-sized kingdom,” as David Foster Wallace would call it.[4]

If we place God at the center and maintain the goodness of creation, then ravaging the earth’s resources is a travesty of the same order as regarding our own bodies as anything less than God-given. When operating under the illusion that “the naked fact of personal desire” is the only true non-negotiable, God is swept out of self-understanding—along with a belief in our creation in his image—and the rest of personhood is seen as malleable, customizable. As Benedict XVI stated:

Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be.[5]

Possessing free will is not the same as possessing the power to create ourselves or our environment. Rather, existing in dialogue with what is other means operating within an interplay of desire and circumstance.


Parsing Personhood

What are the non-negotiables of personhood, then, if this illusion of unlimited malleability and control falls short of taking reality into account? In his book, What is a Person?, sociologist Christian Smith puts forward a theory of persons as “ensouled creatures” with defined essential characteristics. Smith’s overarching thesis is that what has traditionally been called a ‘soul,’ ‘heart,’ or ‘spirit’ must be recognized, with the mental and emotional aspects of experience taken into account, as well as the fact that humans are


material, embodied animals, nurtured and sustained in a physical world governed by causal powers and laws and their natural effects that we cannot simply deconstruct away. When it comes to the human, therefore, reductionistic moves toward either the physical or the mental, the material or the ideal, the corporeal or the spiritual are unacceptable and self-defeating. Humans are embodied souls who can only be well understood and explained in light of that complex reality.[6]

Today, it has become countercultural to say that the body is intimately and inextricably connected with those intangible elements of self (social, emotional, psychological, spiritual), and thus to maintain a wholeness or unity to the person. To hold this is to be able to ascribe real meaning to concrete actions, whether they fall under the realm of religious or mundane.


In building a theory of personhood, Smith also critiques the current sociological trend of constructionism. He points out that, while on an academic level there is a wide spectrum of the degree to which sociologists and philosophers would tie selfhood to social constructs, on a cultural level the strongest version of the theory—that which would claim that we are completely products of our environment—is what in effect influences current mainstream discourse.

In a description of strong constructionism, Smith cites Michel Foucault, who writes that social power “produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth,” with the individual person understood as “‘a reality fabricated’ by disciplinary ‘technology of power.’”[7] Contemporary psychologist and philosopher Rom Harré provides another prime example of the self in completely relativized form: “The singularity we each feel ourselves to be is not an entity. Rather it is a site, a site from which a person perceives the world and a place from which to act.”[8] The similarity of this language to that which we use for internet domains is perhaps a telling one, in that both are only virtual locations from which to engage the world, locations that in themselves lack a real physical identity.

“Selves are grammatical fictions,” Harré continues, “necessary characteristics of person-oriented discourses. . . . What people have called ‘selves’ are, by and large, produced discursively. . . . Selves are not entities.”[9] Selfhood, in this understanding, is merely linguistic and thus severed from the physical. The self has disintegrated completely in this view, in a disposal of the person in any scriptural or even just holistic sense of the word. As Benedict described it:

The words of the creation account: ‘male and female he created them’ (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female—hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist.[10]

Strong constructionism, then, is a deeply anti-material approach to reality, which calls for one’s mind and soul to rise above the limits of bodiliness by, for instance, naming “male” and “female” to be mere social constructions.


Dynamics of Sexual Difference

Dismissing the differences between the sexes can only distance those ministering in the Church from the practical, lived reality. Yet this is often the approach. “The attempt to minimize gender distinctions into practical insignificance can take the form of an explicit promotion of the undifferentiated interchangeability of male and female, or it can be expressed in the principled avoidance of [gendered] language altogether,” writes Fr. Daniel Scheidt.[11] On the one hand, acknowledging the veracity of the categories of male and female shouldn’t mean dismissing what positive steps have been taken as a society to bring women’s dignity and equality into perspective. Nor should it entail a romanticizing of the past, for past cultural interpretations of female identity have not always led to human flourishing. On the other, we cannot romanticize the current state of how the sexes are understood today, as if a blurring of male and female has itself produced truly equitable circumstances. Much of the language around women’s status, both politically and theologically, stems from the kind of constructionism that sees all boundaries of physicality as disposable. It is one thing to say that men and women should have equal rights and equal pay; it is another to call men and women essentially the same.

If we wish to avoid an anti-material understanding of existence and instead assert a fully incarnational, embodied account of identity, then we must take sexual difference seriously. In Laudato Si’, Francis writes that the very fact of our physical being “establishes us in direct relationship with the environment and other living beings,” and adds that:

valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.”[12] (LS §155)

Part of knowing the self as a created being is acknowledging these identities of male and female. A rootedness in physical identity means knowing from whence you speak in the dialogue that makes up our encounters with God and others. In other words, to know the self is to be better able to give it away in love.

Acknowledging the significance of sexual difference can also bring about some key risks. As a Church, it is a disservice to fall prey to these risks, in one extreme or the other. That is, we cannot say that men are biologically and inevitably a threat to women, thus breeding a male self-loathing that can only undercut their chances of entering into truly loving relationships. On the other hand, we cannot deny that there are deeply-rooted problems in the ways men understand themselves in relation to women—working within ill-constructed social identities, for example—for such a denial would refuse to acknowledge the skewed tendencies that so often lead to the objectification and denigration of women. Ours is indeed “a culture in which so many men and women are so deeply wounded by countless distortions of true engendered bodily relation.”[13] That does not make our bodies inherently dangerous, nor are we served in attempting to dissociate from them in the kind of parsing of the self as discussed above.

To know the self is to be better able to give it away in love.

Brokenness is not the same as hopelessness, however. The very existence of the sacrament of marriage means the Church possesses a real hope in the possibility of lasting love between a man and a woman. Pastorally, then, if we wish to credibly uphold marriage as the union of a man and woman and to lift up the family as the nucleus of society—if we want to say these social structures matter deeply, then we need to flesh out the framework of those lines with a compelling “why.” And those elaborations on “why” need to stem from the kind of theology that takes up the physicality of human experience and embraces it in all of its detail—just as Christ did in the ultimate affirmation of our physicality by entering our world bodily and ascending into heaven flesh and all. Scheidt writes:


The solution to the problems associated with the flight into theological androgyny must begin with recognition that God can and does redeem wounded human experience by the very mysteries of his revelation, which transcend—even as they embrace—human experience. These healing, salvific mysteries of revelation have as their center Jesus Christ, who is not a humanly constructed metaphor used for the conferral or denial of power, but the divine Person who, in his incarnation, becomes the living form and measure of what being human truly is.[14]

What both women and men need—as individuals and in relationship with each other—is a pastoral theology infused with a sense of radical particularity, which draws into itself even the last detail of who we are as human beings created in God’s image. As Laudato Si’ has it: “It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet” (LS §9).[15]



A Pastoral Theology of Women: Bridging a Gap

[caption id="attachment_610" align="alignright" width="340"] Photo: Wayne S. Grazio; CC BY-ND 2.0[/caption]

If the Church upholds that being female or male is an important, God-given part of one’s nature and not just a social construct, then it must live out that belief by walking with those men and women in the challenges and joys particular to their experiences as such. Here I speak from my own experience in highlighting the shortcomings and potential paths for a pastoral theology of women. There is an imperative need to have a robust theological account of womanhood at work as an overarching presence in the pastoral life of the Church.[16] Take, as a major example, a woman’s relationship with her fertility. This will inevitably be an integral, unavoidable part of her corporeal experience, no matter her vocation in life; and for the majority of women, maneuvering the dynamics of fertility in the context of relationship will be a huge factor in her physical, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing. Is her potential to bear a child seen as a burden or a miracle, or perhaps a bit of both? This reality of fertility in itself is enough to warrant a theology of women, given how pivotal those choices of how to understand and live with her body will be, not only for an individual woman, but for those around her as well, since they are tied up in the creation of new life.

Within the example of fertility, the Church’s position against contraception is widely known and discussed. Even the term “birth control” itself nods to the kind of illusion of control that Francis warns against in Laudato Si’. But what of the positive side: what of the real options that exist that fall within the scope of Church teaching? Ignorance reigns when it comes to those concrete, scientifically-based options that can serve as indispensable tools for family planning, or simply for navigating women’s health (i.e., treating conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome, repetitive miscarriage, post-partum depression, etc.). Such options as the Creighton, Marquette, or Billings method give a woman a detailed awareness of the intricacy of her own body and fertility—both on the practical level of women’s health as well as on the theological level of understanding herself as a being with the potential to co-create in the most real sense of the word. Why are these tools such well-kept secrets? While the Pill enters into every public forum imaginable, discussions around viable alternatives to it are found mainly through word of mouth, the rabbit holes of online forums, or Catholic marriage preparation sessions. Today, it is perhaps more likely that a woman stumble across alternatives to the Pill in a search for a “greener” route than hormonal contraceptives than it is for her to discover natural family planning via a practicing Catholic context.[17] The widespread assumption is that the Church leaves women who want to follow its teaching to use the “rhythm method,” when in reality there is evidence-based medical support in the form of NaPro technology and its ilk. And yet, in our parishes these alternatives are hardly spoken of.[18] As a tool, women can take them or leave them, but the fact that they hardly know of them as options—within the Church and without—is a failure.

There is an imperative need to have a robust theological account of womanhood at work as an overarching presence in the pastoral life of the Church.

The status quo within the Church in this case strands women in its failure to share with them crucial knowledge that can help them navigate the bodily experience of being a female disciple of Christ. It hides the lamp under a basket. It also makes the Church out to be an unkind Mother—preaching openness to life (even including it in marriage vows) without giving her children the fundamental tools they need to learn how to put that openness into practice. It betrays an assumption that women should separate themselves from their bodies. This expectation is a systemic problem, exemplified by the lack of mandatory paid maternity leave in the U.S., including Catholic-run institutions. A deeper theology of women would give us sturdier legs to stand on when arguing, for instance, against the commonly-leveled accusation that being pro-life only entails being pro-unborn baby, and not pro-woman. Society sees us as a Church of “no’s,” of rules and limits that are simply imposed for the sake of exercising power or to proliferate outdated notions of self and relationship. In reality, our faith is a faith of “yes’s,” of rules and limits that exist to foster right relationship—with self, other, and God. In practice, however, the steps of translating belief into action and of tying particular “yes’s and no’s” to a reasoning that stems from care for the whole person aren’t laid out effectively. Laypeople in the Church need those gaps to be bridged.

Much of the lack that I’ve discussed here is also symptomatic of a need to foster women’s fellowship within the Church. Indeed, when envisioning practical steps towards improving pastoral care of women, it is not so much a matter of discussing the ins and outs of women’s experience from the pulpit so much as it is recognizing the need for this kind of fellowship and acting on it. Whether it comes to our cultural imagination (as manifest in film, for instance), our workplaces, or our church communities, this dearth of genuine friendship among women is all too easy to note. And the corresponding legacy this creates for our daughters, with its absence of healthy models to emulate, is no small problem. A fuller understanding of who we are as women and what that means can only help. Starting from some of the physical realities that so many women experience would help to ground the conversation. We cannot pontificate, we cannot romanticize; we must enter into the realities of womanly experience to draw out the potential for women to draw closer to Christ—in the Passion of pregnancy or that of infertility, for instance—to draw closer to each other in fellowship, realizing that each is not alone in both the trials and the empowering victories. This would not only serve to boost a sense of vocation individually but also to bring women closer to one another and to God.


I have spoken of a need for a pastoral theology of radical embodiment, based on an understanding of the person that sees the corporeality of existence not as something to be overcome or controlled, but rather as the locus through which to participate in God’s created goodness. A pastoral theology of this kind might give flesh to a more robust understanding of self, relationship, and the incarnational nature of Christian faith. As a woman, the deeper my awareness of who I am in the eyes of the Church, the better I will be able to daily carry out my vocation as a wife and mother, daughter and friend.

In order to find clarity in vocation, Catholics today thus need to guard against a disembodied, relativistic vision of self and relationship, one that attempts to usurp his role as Creator. Pope Francis pulls together much of what I’ve attempted to elucidate above when he writes:

The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. (LS §155)

Laudato Si’ therefore highlights the need to see the earth and our bodies as God-given and rife with meaning—not objects to which we are entitled. This perspective applies to all areas of life, but the work of applying it practically and pastorally, especially in regards to lay men and women, is still very much a work in progress.

We need not look far for models of this self-giving way of being in the world. In Jesus’ story we find a Father whose Son took on our flesh and even brought it up into heaven at the Ascension. This was only possible through his Passion, through the “not my will but yours be done” that he offers to his Father. Mary, too, is assumed bodily into heaven, after having received the grace to make her entire life a giving over to God in the flesh—to make of her body a tabernacle. “Carried up into heaven, she is the Mother and Queen of all creation. In her glorified body, together with the Risen Christ, part of creation has reached the fullness of its beauty” (LS §241). In Christ’s Ascension and Mary’s Assumption we are given a magnificent affirmation of the goodness of our physical existence on earth. And in their chosen relinquishment to let God’s will shape their concrete lives, we find a model for radically embodied discipleship.

Featured Photo: Maciej Zygmunt; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

[1] Rowan Williams, “Embracing Our Limits,” Commonweal (September 23, 2015).

[2] Rowan Williams, “Embracing Our Limits.”

[3] Ibid.

[4] David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” as cited in Medi Ann Volpe, “The Virtue of Tenderness: David Foster Wallace and the Practice of Love,” Church Life, Vol. 3.4.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, “Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia” (December 21, 2012).

[6] Christian Smith, What is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010.) 22.

[7] Ibid., 128.

[8] Ibid., 129.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pope Benedict XVI, “Christmas Greetings.”

[11] Daniel Scheidt, “The Seminarian, Father-to-Be,” Crisis Magazine (November 1, 2000).

[12] Here citing Pope Francis’ “General Audience” (April 15, 2015).

[13] Daniel Scheidt, “The Seminarian, Father-to-Be.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Here citing Patriarch Bartholomew, “Global Responsibility and Ecological Sustainability,” Closing Remarks, Halki Summit I, Istanbul, (June 20, 2012).

[16] This is not to say there are not threads of this kind of theology found in Catholic circles today, but the room for expansion is vast, and the need is imperative.

[17] The rising popularity of the secular Fertility Awareness Method is one example. See for instance this couple’s story via The Catholic Catalogue.

[18] I do not mean to imply by my insistence that the option of NFP should be common knowledge for Catholics that NFP provides an easy, smooth path to couples. I do believe, though, that it provides the absolute healthiest option for a woman considered as a whole person—body, mind, and spirit. For a more candid discussion of using NFP, see Simcha Fisher’s The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning.


Tania M. Geist

Tania M. Geist is the associate editor of Church Life.

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