Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage by Mary Shivanandan(The Catholic University of America Press, 1999, 324 pages, $24.95)

Mary Shivanandan's new book Crossing the Threshold of Love should establish her as a recognized scholar, theologian and expert on Pope John Paul II's anthropology.

Don't let the clever title fool you. This is not light reading. Shivanandan, who holds a doctorate in theology from the John Paul II Institute, where she also teaches, offers one of the most scholarly assessments of the Pope's anthropology ever written. A difficult read for most, but a gold mine for students of John Paul's thought.

Beginning with the plays he wrote as a young man, Shivanandan traces the evolution of Karol Wojtyla's anthropology through his life's work. Included are such sources as his dissertation on St. John of the Cross, his critique of philosophers Immanuel Kant and Max Scheler and his book Love and Responsibility. His understanding of man found full flowering in his “theology of the body,” which he presented to the world after becoming Pope John Paul II.

In retracing Wojtyla's steps, one wonders, “Is this really a book about marriage?” But like any full-grown tree, John Paul's new vision of marriage has deep roots. Shivanandan uncovers those roots, allowing the reader to see the masterful mind of this future Pope in the making.

She quotes Henri Bergson: “The great philosophers have only one word to say and spend their whole life saying it.” “For Wojtyla,” she adds, “that one word is person.”

In this century, phenomenology — a philosophical approach which examines human experience in order to understand man as a personal subject - has allowed philosophers such as Wojtyla to extend our understanding of the human person to include relationality.

While medieval philosophers developed a relational notion of the Persons in the Trinity, they did not translate this into their anthropology. With the shift from a philosophical to a theological anthropology inspired by Vatican II, Wojtyla makes this neglected translation with ease. Gaudium et Spes, 24, marks Wojtyla's turning point: “Man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself.”

“New horizons closed to human reason” (Gaudium et Spes, 24) are discovered through faith in God's revelation that he created man in his own image as male and female (Genesis 1:27). Here John Paul takes us beyond the traditional understanding that man's imaging of God is seen in the fact that the human person is “an individual substance of a rational nature” (Boethius). For John Paul, “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, Nov. 14, 1979).

How can John Paul speak of a theology of the body?

The union in “one flesh” makes visible the invisible mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and becomes a sign of it. This is the mystery of God's own life and of his plan for man to share in this life through Christ. As St. Paul says, the union of man and wife in “one flesh” is a profound mystery that refers to Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32).

This is why John Paul can speak of a theology of the body. As he explains, “Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh the body entered theology through the main door” (General Audience, April 2, 1980). This brings us to the other key text of Vatican II for Wojtyla: “Christ fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling” (Gaudium et Spes,22).

As Shivanandan points out, the significance of John Paul's contribution is that he roots this “most high calling” of man in the body. The body has a nuptial meaning because we can only fulfill ourselves through the “sincere gift of self.” This is lived out either in the sacrament of marriage, or in celibacy “for the kingdom” (Matthew 19:12). In the resurrection, the nuptial meaning of the body is lived out “in the meeting with the mystery of the living God … ‘face to face’” (General Audience, Dec. 9, 1981).

Tragically, because of original sin this truth of the body has become habitually threatened. Contraception is one such threat. Rather than speaking the truth of God's life and love, contracepted intercourse actually speaks a lie. Shivanandan notes, “the interplay of experience, the human sciences, and biblical and philosophical reflection has enabled John Paul II to place in a whole new context the Church's perennial teaching on the inseparable connection between the procreative and unitive dimensions of conjugal love.”

In part two of her book, Shivanandan demonstrates how the research of social science on the regulation of births is critically affected by differing anthropologies. In a materialist view, such research is not concerned with who man is as a person made in the image of God, but only with the easiest and most effective ways to limit births. Contraception, then, becomes a “logical” solution to a host of social problems.

She contrasts this approach to methods of research that give greater recognition to the subjectivity of the person and the legitimacy of experiential learning. Actual research shows — as Shivanandan demonstrated in her landmark 1979 book, Natural Sex- that the lived experience of natural family planning fosters mutual love. It enables married couples to speak the “language of their bodies” in truth.

This is an exceptional study. Shivanandan not only offers a tour de force of the evolution of John Paul's thought, but also demonstrates its far-reaching implications for the lives of couples, families and whole societies. She unmasks the deception of our “safe-sex” society by demonstrating that only when we come to see the body and sexual intercourse as the expression of the transcendence of the person will we be able to “cross the threshold of love.”

Christopher West is the director of the Office of Marriage — Family Life for the Archdiocese of Denver..