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The Pope's Theology of the Body


The Holy Father presents a vision of marriage and sexuality never before articulated, but few people have been exposed in any depth to his revolutionary insights.


Many simply find his scholarly approach too difficult.

This doesn't mean that his message is reserved for the elite. It does require, however, a particular effort from those who present his teaching, and from those who wish to understand it, if the Pope's words are to become bread broken for all. That being said, as this series of articles seeks to make some of John Paul's sublime catechesis more accessible, be prepared to expend some mental energy. I assure you, it will to well worth the effort. Once you've comprehended what he is saying, you will never see the world the same way again.

Discussing moral issues of the day, a European cardinal recently raised eyebrows by saying contraception is "way down the list" of importance. Contrast this with Cardinal Wojtyla's statement on the tenth anniversary of Humanae Vitae that the issue of contraception is a "struggle for the value and meaning of humanity itself" (Lateranum 44, 1978). What did he mean?

As a young priest, bishop, and later a cardinal, Karol Wojtyla devoted himself to pondering the mystery of conjugal love. He was gifted with remarkable insight. Little did he know that just a few months after making the above statement, he would bring his gifts to bear on the world stage as Pope John Paul II. Twenty-one years later, over two-thirds of what the Church has ever officially said about marriage and sexuality has come from his pontificate.

John Paul devoted his Wednesday audiences between September 1979 and November 1984 to presenting an in-depth biblical explanation of the mystery of marriage and human sexuality. It's this series of audiences that is collectively known as the "theology of the body." It was inspired by Paul VI's statement in Humanae Vitae that the problem of birth regulation must be considered in light of a "total vision of man" (cf. n. 7). John Paul's catechesis on the body provides this "total vision of man," or what he calls an "adequate anthropology." His insights offer a whole new context for understanding the teaching of Humanae Vitae and demonstrate that – far from being "way down the list" – this issue is of crucial importance.

A new synthesis of the Gospel

In trying to present the good news of the Church's teaching to others, how often have you been met with resistance such as: "That's so abstract," or, "The Church just isn't 'in touch' with real life experience?" Without even knowing it, perhaps, most of us have inherited a way of explaining the faith that is rooted in the objective, principled formulations of Thomas Aquinas. However, because the modern mindset is very subjective and experiential, traditional formulations of the faith are typically seen as abstractions that have little to do with a person's own experience.

There is an inherent danger in the modern mindset that appeals to subjective experience as the sole judge of reality. We see this in the rampant moral relativism of the day. However, this "turn to the subject" is not altogether bad. We can learn a great deal about who man is as a person by examining authentic human experience. This is precisely what John Paul does in his theology of the body. This philosophical approach to understanding man (phenomenology) allows him to penetrate the mystery of the human person with unprecedented clarity and precision. He helps us make sense of the movements of our innermost being. The result is a new synthesis of the Gospel to which the modern mind can relate. The honest person can't help but recognize his own heart being laid bare. It simply rings true. "I can identify with this," he responds. "This is the way I experience life."

This new "personalist" synthesis is by no means a departure from the Church's heritage, but an authentic development of it. It marries the objective and subjective world views for a "total vision of man." In bringing the two together, John Paul avoids both abstraction and subjectivism and gives us a new language with which to express the faith – a new language for a new evangelization.

As Fathers Hogan and LeVoir point out in their book, Covenant of Love, the link between these two world views is the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God. "This is an objective truth which is at the same time central to man's experience" (p. 33). In coming to understand our own experience, then – subjective as it is – we come to understand something of God because we are images of God. In turn, it's in God that we find the ultimate truth about ourselves. The link in this movement from man to God and God to man is, of course, the God-man. Jesus Christ "fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (Gaudium et Spes n. 22). John Paul's entire catechesis on the body could simply be considered a commentary on this passage from Vatican II.

The content of the theology of the body

The theology of the body consists of a searching analysis of biblical texts that reveal the mystery of the body, sexuality, and marriage at three critical "levels" of human experience: as man experienced them "in the beginning" before sin (Original Man); as man experiences them in human history affected by sin, yet redeemed in Christ (Historical Man); and as man will experience them in the resurrection of the body (Eschatological Man). This forms his "adequate anthropology." He continues his catechesis by analyzing scriptural passages that reveal the meaning of Christian celibacy and Christian marriage in light of this "total vision of man." He then concludes with a reflection on Humanae Vitae demonstrating that "the doctrine contained in this document . is organically related to . the whole biblical question of the theology of the body" (General Audience 11/28/84).

According to John Paul, by reflecting on these three levels of "experiencing" the body, sexuality, and marriage, we discover the very structure and deepest reality of human identity – we find our place in the cosmos and even penetrate the mystery of the Trinitarian God. How is this so through contemplating the body, sex, and marriage? As John Paul shows us, the question of sexuality and marriage is not a peripheral issue. In fact, he says the call to "nuptial love" inscribed in our bodies is "the fundamental element of human existence in the world" (General Audience 1/16/80). In light of Ephesians 5, he even says that the ultimate truth about the "great mystery" of marriage "is in a certain sense the central theme of the whole of revelation, its central reality" (General Audience 9/8/82).

This is to say that everything God wants to tell us on earth about who he is, the meaning of life, the reason he created us, how we are to live, as well as our ultimate destiny, is contained somehow in the meaning of the human body and the call of male and female to become "one body" in marriage. How? Pointing always to the Scriptures, the Holy Father reminds us that the Christian mystery itself is a mystery about marriage – the marriage between Christ and the Church. Yes, God's plan from all eternity is to draw us into the closest communion with himself – to "marry" us! Jesus took on a body so we could become "one body" with him (which we do in the Eucharist).

This eternal plan of God is inscribed in (and revealed through) our very being as male and female and our call to become "one body" in marriage. As St. Paul says, quoting from Genesis, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, cling to his bride, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a profound mystery, and it refers to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:31, 32).

As this series on John Paul's theology of the body continues, we will come to see that God created the "one flesh" union of man and woman to be the fundamental revelation in the created world of his own divine mystery – the mystery of his Life and Love, and his plan for us to share in this Life and Love through Christ. And some claim this Pope is down on sex.?

It may seem peculiar, at first, that the Pope speaks of the body as something "heavenly," that he speaks of it as a theology. Central to the Christian mystery, however, is the stunning belief in the embodiment of God, the Incarnation.

God has revealed himself to man through the human body. So it shouldn't surprise us that John Paul deals with the body as a theology. As he puts it, "Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh the body entered theology ... through the main door" (General Audience 4/2/80).

The Holy Father challenges us to see that the human body possesses a "language" which enables it to proclaim and make present the eternal plan and mystery of God. "The body, in fact, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine," says John Paul (General Audience 2/20/80). In other words, we cannot see spiritual things with our eyes. They are by nature invisible. But the body makes them visible. The body reveals the spiritual nature of the person. But not only the human person. Let us remember that as body-persons we are made in the image of the invisible God. John Paul says, "[the body] was created to transfer in the visible reality of the world the invisible mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it" (General Audience 2/20/80). This striking declaration brings us to the summit of John Paul's anthropology (his understanding of man), crystallizing everything he has to say about the body. The human body reveals the mystery of God!

But what particular characteristic of the body allows us to understand it this way? The answer is its sexuality, its unifying complementarity as male and female. Here, in an extraordinary development of Catholic thought, John Paul takes us beyond traditional understandings of what it means to be a human person made in the image of God.

While medieval philosophers developed a relational notion of the Persons in the Trinity, they didn't translate this to their understanding of human persons. John Paul does. For him, since God is a life-giving Communion of Persons, "man became the 'image and likeness of God' not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning" (General Audience 11/14/79).

"Communion of persons" (communio personarum in Latin) is a key concept for John Paul. The marital embrace is not merely a union of bodies, but a communion of persons brought about through the body. And this communion of persons in "one flesh" is an icon of the inner-life of the Trinity!

This is a beautiful and profound truth, but we need to be careful not to misunderstand what is being said. The fact that the male/female communion reveals something of the mystery of the Trinity's Communion does not mean that God is sexual. God is not made in man's image as male and female, but man is made in God's.

These are all objective truths about the human person that can be gleaned from the first creation account in the book of Genesis. These truths are confirmed and more deeply realized in the subjective experiences of Adam and Eve in the second creation account (here we begin to see how John Paul masterfully marries an objective and subjective world view for a "total vision of man," as discussed in Part I of this series).

"In the beginning"

When the Pharisees questioned Jesus about divorce, he pointed them to man and woman's perfect unity "in the beginning." "Haven't you read that in the beginning God created them as male and female and said 'the two will become one flesh.' Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate"(Mt 19:4-6). It's because of Christ's words that John Paul turns our attention to the Book of Genesis. God's intention for original man is the norm for marriage. But to comprehend it, we, as historical man (man tainted by sin), must follow the deep "echoes" of our hearts into our "pre-history." Here, in a world untainted by sin (a world admittedly hard to imagine), we rediscover the experiences of original solitude, original unity, and original nakedness.

Having named all the animals, man realized he was alone in the world as a person. He alone was aware of himself as a "self," and was free to determine his own actions; he alone was called to love. But there was "no helper suitable for him" (Gen 2:20). This is the experience of original solitude. It's common to all human beings. We know instinctively that we are alone in the visible world of creation. We experience that we are qualitatively different from "the animals" (the word that sums up this difference is person). Further, we all experience a longing to live in communion with other persons, to love and be loved. For man, precisely as male and female, is made in the image and likeness of God "who is love" (Gen 1:27, 1 Jn 4:8). Love is, therefore, man's origin, vocation, and end.

This is why "it is not good for the man to be alone" (Gen 2:18) – he has no one to love. So, to create a "helper suitable for him," the Lord caused the man to fall into a deep sleep. Taking a "rib" from his side, he fashioned woman. John Paul points out in a footnote that the word "rib" in the original biblical language is a play on the word "life" (General Audience 11/7/79). In poetic fashion the biblical text is indicating that woman comes from the very same life as the man. In other words, she, too, is a person.

As the Pope explains, "there is no doubt that man falls into that 'sleep' with the desire of finding a being like himself. In this way, the circle of the solitude of the man-person is broken, because the first 'man' awakens from his sleep as 'male and female'" (General Audience 11/7/79). Immediately the man declares: "At last this one is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh." (Gen 2:23). That is to say, "Finally, a person with whom I can share the gift of life. Finally, a person I can love!"

It is for this reason (because they are both persons created for each other) that a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his bride and the two will become one flesh (Gen 2:24). This is the experience of original unity, an experience that both confirms their solitude (in the sense that it confirms their person-hood, their "aloneness" in the visible world of creatures), and breaks their solitude (in the sense of finding someone to love).

The nuptial meaning of the body

Man and woman's common humanity is revealed through the body – "flesh of my flesh." Yet the body also revealed their complementary differences. It was through their experience of original nakedness that they knew they were called to love each other (cf. General Audiences, Jan., Feb., and Sept. 1980). Nakedness revealed: "We can give ourselves (our bodies) to each other and live in a life-giving communion of persons" (i.e. marriage). This was the only desire the body conjured up in their hearts – a desire to love in the image of God. Hence they were both naked and felt no shame (Gen 2:25).

Original nakedness reveals the "nuptial meaning of the body," another important theme that runs throughout the Pope's catechesis. The nuptial meaning of the body is "the [body's] capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift and – by means of this gift – fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence" (General Audience 1/16/80).

Let's pause just for a moment to drink in what the Pope is saying here. If we live according to the truth of our sexuality, we discover and fulfill the very reason for our existence (Who's looking for the meaning of life? Well, here it is!). This is so because, as the Second Vatican Council taught, "man can only find himself by making a sincere gift of himself" (Gaudium et Spes n. 24). It is precisely in and through our bodies, in and through our sexuality, that we realize we are called to make this sincere gift of self. Thus, John Paul can say, "we are convinced of the fact that the awareness of the [nuptial] meaning of the body . is the fundamental element of human existence in the world" (General Audience 1/16/80).

Again, we must pause to take this in. Our Holy Father is saying that the truth of our sexuality is the most basic, essential element of our existence in the world. Could our sexuality possibly be any more important than this? Twisted as it has become, man's perennial fascination with sex speaks of how fundamentally important it is.

This raises an important question. How did it become so twisted? John Paul's theology of the body offers some original and profound insights in answer to this question. We'll seek to unpack some of them in Part III.

In part II of this series, we sought to follow the deep "echoes" of our hearts into our "pre-history." There we discovered man's experience of his body as male and female before sin in what John Paul called original solitude, original unity, and original nakedness. What we experience now after sin is in some way the "negative"of the image whose "positive" had been these original experiences (cf. General Audience 2/4/81).

Through the nuptial meaning of their bodies, the first man and woman experienced Love. They realized that their very existence, and all of creation, was a gift, and that Love (God) was the source of that gift. In this state of original innocence, their nakedness revealed that they were called to share in this Love by being "gift" to one another. In union with God's Love, their love would re-create the mystery of creation (pro-creation). Before sin, this was the very sentiment of sexual desire – to love as God loves in total, fruitful self-giving and receptivity (marriage).

All of creation had been created for their sake, and they were called to have dominion over it (Gen 1:28). The human person, however, is created "for his own sake," (cf. Gaudium et Spes 24). Persons cannot be ruled or dominated by others. So the first man and woman had no desire to grasp or possess each other – only to give and receive each other in what John Paul II calls "the freedom of the gift."

In this freedom they saw and knew each other "with all the peace of the interior gaze, which creates… the fullness of the intimacy of persons" (General Audience 1/2/80). Since they lived in complete accord with their dignity as persons, "the man and his wife were both naked and felt no shame" (Gen 2:25).

Original sin & the entrance of shame

Shame enters only upon their denial of Love as the source of creation. The serpent tempts them to believe that God is withholding himself from them – "For God knows that when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] will be like God knowing good and evil " (Gen 3:5). The implication: God doesn't want you to be like him – God is not Love, God is not "gift." If you want to be like God, you must grasp this likeness to God in order to possess it for yourself. How tragic! Man had already been freely given this likeness to God as a gift – a gift he need only receive – but a gift now denied in his heart (cf.General Audience 4/30/80, CCC n. 397).

While the experience of original nakedness revealed to them the very meaning of "gift," now their experience of nakedness changed. Through the denial of the gift in God, they subsequently denied "the interior dimension of the gift" in themselves (if man and woman deny God's Love in their hearts, they no longer have the ability to love one another – you cannot give what you do not have).

Lacking God's Love, lacking trust in one another to give and receive in "the freedom of the gift," sexual desire, too, became a desire to grasp and possess. The other came to be seen not as a person to love, but as a thing to use for one's selfish gratification. Thus, "The difference of the male sex and the female sex was suddenly felt and understood as an element of mutual confrontation [rather than communion]" (General Audience 6/4/80). In this way, nakedness in the presence of the other – and in the presence of God – became an experience of fear, alienation, shame. "I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid" (Gen 3:10).

As John Paul points out, the experience of shame now connected with nakedness has a double meaning. It betrays a loss of respect in man's heart for the nuptial meaning of the body, and an inherent need to preserve it. Because of lust – the desire to grasp, possess, use – they lost the "peace of the interior gaze" associated with original nakedness. Man is ashamed of this loss. He is ashamed, not of the body itself, but of the lust in his "heart." However, still knowing that they were persons created by God "for their own sakes," they were keenly aware that lust violated their dignity. Covering their sexual organs demonstrated an inherent need to protect the body from the degradation of lust. This is a positive function of shame.

Experience confirms the Pope's observation, and history tells the tale of sin's effect on man and woman's relationship ("Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you" – Gen 3:16). The "heart" has become a battlefield between love and lust, habitually threatening the nuptial meaning of the body. As John Paul says, because of concupiscence (man's disordered passions), "The human body in its masculinity and femininity has almost lost the capacity of expressing this love in which the person becomes a gift…" (General Audience 7/23/80).

Thus, if historical man is to live according to the nuptial meaning of his body and thus "fulfill the very meaning of his being and existence," he must win the battle in his heart over lust. He must come to see the body, once again, as the revelation of the eternal mystery of God. This, according to the Holy Father, is the very meaning of purity of heart (cf. General Audience 3/18/81). Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8) – in the body!

Let's ponder that for a moment. The pure man does not eschew his sexuality. The pure man sees the revelation of the mystery of God in his sexuality, despite the endless ways man warps it. The pure man is able to take the "negative" image and allow the Holy Spirit to develop it into the corresponding "positive." This positive image makes visible the invisible mystery of God (cf. General Audience 2/20/80). In this way, the pure man sees God in the human body. How tragically misguided are those forms of spirituality that tend to equate holiness with a puritanical attitude toward sexuality!

The redemption of the body

This is the purity to which Christ is calling us when he says, "…if you even look at a woman lustfully, you have already committed adultery with her in your heart" (Mt 5:28). By giving us a command beyond our own ability to live, Christ sets the stage for our redemption. "For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Co 12:10).

John Paul poses the question: "Are we to fear the severity of [Christ's] words, or rather have confidence in their salvific content, in their power?" (General Audience 10/8/80). Their power lies in the fact that the man who utters them is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29). Whoever allows these words to act in his heart will hear an "echo" of God's original plan for sexuality. He will taste the freedom that he lost and long for its restoration. He will feel in the depths of his heart the tragedy of sin and cry out in repentance, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ will save him.

This is the Good News of the Gospel. While we can't return to the state of original innocence, we can live as God intended "in the beginning" if we appropriate the redemption of our bodies (Ro 8:23). Experiencing this redemption is the call of every man and woman, married or unmarried. It's a mistake to think marriage somehow provides a "legitimate" outlet for our disordered sexual desires. In a clarion call for husbands to uphold the dignity of their wives, John Paul stated that a man can commit adultery "in his heart" even with his own wife if he treats her only as an object to satisfy concupiscence (cf. General Audience 10/8/80). Despite what the secular media had to say, the Pope was in no way suggesting that the marital relationship is itself adulterous. In a world that encourages sex merely to gratify disordered instinct, John Paul was calling spouses back to God's original intention of self-donation as the norm for sexual relations.
This is a difficult calling. Even the most devoted of spouses must face the reality of mixed motives and imperfect desires. But Christ has definitively revealed, fulfilled, and restored the nuptial meaning of the body by making a "sincere gift" of his own body to his Bride on the cross. This means loving as Christ loves is truly possible through the power of the Holy Spirit who has been poured into our hearts (Ro 5:5).

Through his "sincere gift" of self, Christ "fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (Gaudium et Spes n. 22). Man's supreme calling is that he is made for nuptial union with Christ! It's written in his very being as male and female. The tragedy of sin is that, rather than thanking God for such a great gift, man let his trust in this gift die, and sought to grasp God for himself. But the glory of the Gospel is that "he who was God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped." Instead, he humbled himself, taking on flesh, and in thanksgiving (eucharistia) for the gift of the Father, became obedient unto death – even death on a cross (Phi 2:6-8).

Redemptive suffering

Because historical man is tainted by sin, living according to the truth of the body must lead him to the cross. We must go into the "dark room" if we ever hope to have the "negative" image developed into the "positive." This means suffering.

Christ, the New Adam, paves the way by reliving the same experiences of the first Adam. His words, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Mt 27:46), speak of his experience of solitude, a solitude of intense suffering. Still, believing in the gift of the Father (unlike the first Adam), this solitude led him to the ultimate gift of himself. In his nakedness he endured the cross, heedless of its shame (Heb 12:2). And through the cross, Christ re-establishes unity between God and man.

Our redemption is won! In Christ's own words, "It is consummated" (Jn 19:30). What is consummated? The mystical marriage of the New Adam and Eve. Christ is put into the "deep sleep" of death, and "the woman" (Jn 19:26) is immaculately conceived from his side in the flow of blood and water: figures of Baptism and Eucharist. And their mystical union gives "new birth" to the beloved disciple ("Behold your mother" [Jn 19:27]). Creation is recapitulated!

In light of the cross, how can we continue to deny God's gift – "this is my body given up for you"? All we need do is receive it. Our model in doing so is "the woman" whose fiat finds fulfillment at the foot of the cross: "Let it be done unto me according to your word." As we make her words our own, we conceive new life in us through the Holy Spirit. And as much as concupiscence blinds man and woman to their own truth and distorts the desires of the heart, so much does this "life according to the Holy Spirit" permit man and woman to find again the true "freedom of the gift" united to the nuptial meaning of the body (cf. General Audience 12/1/82).

But this is not the end of the story. God's work in Creation and Redemption is only a foreshadowing of the consummation of all things at the end of time. What does the theology of the body tell us about the final resurrection?

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Christopher West "The Pope's Theology of the Body." Couple to Couple League.

Reprinted with permission of Christopher West.

The Author

Christopher West is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute. Christopher has lectured around the world and on a number of prestigious faculties, offering graduate and undergraduate courses at St John Vianney Seminary in Denver, the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and Creighton University’s Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha. He is the author of Theology of the Body for Beginners: A Basic Introduction to Pope John Paul II's Sexual Revolution, Good News about Sex and Marriage: Answers to Your Honest Questions about Catholic Teaching, Heaven's Song: Sexual Love as It Was Meant to Be, and Theology of the Body Explained: A Commentary on John Paul II's "Gospel of the Body". Christopher West is married to Wendy and has three children. Visit his web site here.

Copyright © 2001 Christopher West

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