Fr. Dan Janasik, associate pastor at St. Francis Borgia Parish, Cedarburg, has studied Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” an integrated vision of the human person – body, soul and spirit. From 1979 to 1984, the pope gave 129 Wednesday audiences explaining how the physical human body contains answers to some of life’s most burning questions, including the true meaning of love.

“Growing up, I think we all hear the long list of no’s,” Fr. Janasik explained. “But a long list of no’s doesn’t really inspire anybody. If you just hear a long list of no’s, I think the natural human tendency is to just say, ‘Well, I’m going to do what I want to do. Who are they to tell me what I can’t do?’ I think a lot of us grew up, myself included, we knew what the church teaches but we really don’t know why.”

‘Culturally driven by feeling’

Pope John Paul II’s teaching on human dignity is key to transforming interactions with others, according to Fr. Janasik. He became interested in Theology of the Body while attending Marquette University. On a weekend retreat facilitated by Christopher West, a renowned expert on the topic, Fr. Janasik became familiar with many of West’s analogies to describe what Pope John Paul II meant.

“I use that analogy of the movie ‘Super Size Me,’” Fr. Janasik said, naming the documentary from 2004 about a man who eats nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days. “I think it’s a perfect analogy of our culture because it’s gorging ourselves on fast food, it’s something that’s not very healthy, something that’s just kind of readily available, it’s always there for the taking; it’s not healthy but it promises to give some kind of satisfaction to the hunger, but just kind of makes us sick in the long run.

The priest said that analogy applies to the “hunger for love” he sees in our culture.

“I think we kind of stopped believing maybe that authentic, sacrificial kind of love exists, that we were made for someone who would love us unconditionally and forever. I think we just settle for lesser versions of love because we don’t deep down believe that the authentic thing exists,” he said, adding that this is especially hard to convey to teenagers and young adults who are just beginning to gain life experience.

“They’ve been formed in a society that kind of implicitly tells us the only thing that matters is feeling,” Fr. Janasik said candidly. “So, we’re very much culturally driven by feeling rather than reason. They can either ignore that or try to work with it, because authentic love will somehow leave ramifications on our feelings, and you know authentic love will somehow leave ramifications on our feelings. I think it’s helpful to point those things out, especially to younger groups. I don’t have to look long and hard to find a teenager who’s been hurt by some kind of inauthentic version of love, something that pretended to be love but wasn’t.”

When Fr. Janasik speaks to people about Catholic teachings on sexuality, many times something talked about will strike a chord in them, he said. One topic is pornography.

“People who start looking at pornography (do it) slowly, maybe occasionally, in small doses, but constantly need bigger and bigger doses to satisfy their hunger. That just kind of leads them feeling trapped and enslaved by the addiction. So instead of offering some kind of solution, it just creates a bigger problem,” he said.

“But what John Paul II would say about pornography is that, ‘The problem isn’t that it shows too much of a person, but that it shows too little of a person.’ Because it shows just a body and not somebody. … You see just a thing to be used and not a person to be loved, so I think the effects of pornography go far, far beyond just issues of sex. I think it really reorients our way of viewing the human person, because you don’t see a body revealing a person to be loved, it just trains us in a way to see people as a thing to be used and discarded and then to move on from that.”

‘The hook-up culture’

Premarital sex and “hook-ups” are not only common, but sometimes expected among teens and young adults. Hooking up is a common but, generally undefined, phrase that sometimes leads to confusion between genders and among various age groups. However, it’s usually interpreted as any kind of remotely sexual action, whether it be making out or having sexual intercourse, with the only rule being that there are no expectations afterward.

According to a 2007 study conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, nearly 65 percent of high school students had at least one sexual partner by graduation, although TV shows such as “Degrassi High” and “Gossip Girl” have made it appear to be a much larger percentage than that.

However, the study also found that “although intercourse among youths is common, most sexually active teens wish they had waited longer to have sex.” This is why guidance by the church regarding sexuality is so important, according to Fr. Janasik.

“There are so many common examples of teenagers being pressured somehow into a sexual experience thinking that it will make my relationship with my boyfriend grow even stronger, it will make that person love me more, it will make that person respect me more, but then what happens? The opposite is the result. There is less respect, there’s a weakened relationship, and usually a breakup isn’t too far after,” he said, adding that this is the opposite of that for which a teenager is searching.

“So many of our biggest decisions in life, I think, are guided by that constant quest for love, to give love and to receive love,” Fr. Janasik explained. “I think of the main insights of John Paul II is that love is always a self-gift, but half of another, and in a sense we find ourself by giving ourselves away. It’s the weird paradox that you find fulfillment by in a sense emptying yourself.”

Sam Johnson, 25, a member of St. Robert Parish, Shorewood, said it wasn’t until his senior year at Marquette University that he began to seek out the church’s teaching on sexuality. While he acknowledges that a priest isn’t necessarily who he would consider the number one expert on the subject of sex, he does think they do know a lot about the topic.

“I think they’re good because they’re human; they love, and I sometimes think maybe just the understanding of love is kind of enough, to think things through in your mind and find out what’s right,” Johnson  said.

“It’s something that you kind of have to look into,” he said when asked if he was formally taught about Theology of the Body. “From my experiences, it’s never something that someone says, ‘Oh, we’re going to talk about this.’ You kind of have to be part of a youth group or something, where they might talk about it.”

While living one’s Catholic faith in a secular world can be difficult, Johnson has come up with plenty of ways to reaffirm his beliefs and keep himself pure.

“I would say seek out information about it, because a lot of times if you are either in church or with your parents, or in school if you went to a Catholic school, all that stuff was just kind of like ‘You’re not supposed to do it,’ and that’s all you ever got,” he explained. “So, if you keep hearing that it’s OK to do it wherever else, it kind of skews your mind either way; you might not consciously think about it when the situation comes up. So just actively seeking out the information yourself would probably be good, just to help clarify your ideas on it and what your beliefs are.”

Emily Kowalski, 23, a Milwaukee native living in the Twin Cities, used to belong to Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Milwaukee. Growing up, sex was an open topic in her family, but the theology behind it was generally overlooked, as the case can sometimes be for many young people growing up in the Catholic Church.

“Well, I know we started talking about sex in school, because I remember being in a religion class, which is kind of strange,” she about her experience in sixth grade at Blessed Sacrament, Milwaukee. “I remember it being kind of a supplement to one of our religion books, and I don’t remember anything being weird, anything standing out as being ‘Oh, that’s different from what I believe.’

“It was more just being like the nuts and bolts of it all, but other than that,” I wasn’t taught much else, she admitted.

When it comes to what she thinks about what the Catholic Church teaches about sex, Kowalski is unsure in her final analysis.

“I don’t really know,” she admitted. “I know they talk about abstinence and things like that…. But I don’t think they ever really had classes that were gearing to talk to kids about sex.”

When it comes to keeping pure before marriage, Kowalski believes it’s all about who you hang out with.

“One thing is definitely just to find someone that agrees with whatever you agree with,” she explained. “So, if you both agree that you shouldn’t have sex before you’re married, then they should be together. But if one person really wants to have sex before they’re married, and you’re kind of on the fence, that’s obviously going to push you one way or the other.”