It is important to remember that the theology of the body was not written to provide a program for teaching chastity. John Paul II wrote it to establish a biblically based anthropology adequate to defend the teaching of Humanae Vitae. That is, he tried to show how Scripture could provide us with an understanding of the human person that would help us understand why the Church condemns contraception. This led him to meditate deeply on the meaning of the human body as a means of revealing the truth about God and man.
John Paul II establishes that our bodies reveal that we are meant to make gifts of ourselves to others and receive others as gifts. John Paul II explains that Adam and Eve were able to be naked and without shame because they were without sin; they understood and lived the “spousal meaning” of the body. They respected each other as persons and were not capable of using each other. Sin brought disordered passions, fig leaves, and the ever-ready possibility of sexual misuse.
John Paul II, like Jesus, was not interested only in our external behavior, but even more so in our “subjectivity” or the quality of our interior life. He wrote chapters on Christ’s words, “Whoever looks upon a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-8). John Paul II viewed the source of sin as being in the “heart” rather than in the body: in our thoughts, emotions and commitments. Sin comes from the inside of man and moves outward.
John Paul II teaches that Christ was not so much accusing human beings of wrongdoing, but making an appeal to us to live in the spirit of the redeemed body. Christ came to bring us the graces to enable us to live morally upright lives, not only in respect to our external behavior, but also in respect to the interior movements of our hearts.
John Paul believes that we still have, in the deepest layer of our being, a potency to live in accord with the spousal meaning of the body (49:6). He implored us not to hold our hearts under constant suspicion, but to have confidence that the redemptive graces of Christ can restore purity to our hearts: “In mature purity, man enjoys the fruits of victory over concupiscence” (58:6). Without purity we will “use” those we wish to love: “Purity is a requirement of love. It is the dimension of the inner truth of love in man’s ‘heart’” (49:7).
In order to achieve chastity or purity, two things are necessary: 1) a proper understanding of the meaning and purpose of sexuality, and 2) the ordering of the passions in accord with that understanding. In the theology of the body, John Paul II is primarily establishing the right understanding of sexuality; he says very little about what needs to be done to achieve “mature purity.” His description of it as “a combination of the virtue of temperance and of piety, a gift of the Holy Spirit” provides guidance. Acquiring virtue is largely a matter of habituation; those who would achieve “mature purity” must avoid the occasion of sin; for instance, they must avoid looking at or listening to entertainment that leads to impure thoughts and actions. Acquiring the gift of reverence (and here John Paul II means “reverence” for the gift of one’s sexuality and the gift of another person) is largely a matter of growing in love of the Lord, which one does through praying with Scripture, receiving the sacraments, and engaging in any activity that promotes spiritual growth.
John Paul II, however, focuses on how proper understanding of sexuality can be of enormous assistance in achieving mature purity. Many who were quite enslaved to sexual sin report that once they came to understand the vision of sexuality that John Paul II spells out in the theology of the body, they were rather quickly freed from immoral sexual behavior and thoughts. Many people, of course, will not experience an easy transformation, but will eventually find a new way of thinking and behaving sexually.
John Paul II explains that married couples who practice the abstinence required by natural family planning are highly likely to achieve “mature purity,” for they are ordering their sexual lives to the proper goods of sexuality. Indeed, I know many married couples who practice their Catholic faith devoutly, who understand and live the spousal meaning of the body, and who, in fact, have achieved a very high level of “mature purity.” Their love for their spouses has led them to discipline the movements of their “hearts” and “thoughts” so that they no longer experience any serious attraction to anyone but their spouses. They, in fact, are experiencing the “redemption of the body” that Christ promised to those who follow him.
Any chastity program based on the theology of the body would provide extended instruction on the state of man before the Fall, the challenges faced by fallen man, and the hope we have for mature purity in the light of redemption. It would need also to lay out a program for growing in the virtue of temperance and the gift of reverence. The promise that those who come to possess “mature purity” will become God-like and able to truly love their spouses and others should provide marvelous motivation for living out the spousal meaning of the body.
Janet Smith, Ph.D., is the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.