From September 1979 to November 1984, Pope John Paul II gave 129 lectures that are known collectively as the theology of the body.
The Holy Father's inspiration for delivering this unified series of live presentations was to give form and substance to what Pope Paul VI referred to as the “total vision of man.”
On Nov. 28, 2001, President Bush created the President's Council on Bio-ethics and named Dr. Leon Kass its chairman. At the council's initial meeting on Jan. 17, 2002, the president spoke of the need to explore how medicine and science interface with the dignity of life and that the ultimate source of life is the Creator.
Kass spoke of his vision as chairman by referring to “the need to provide an adequate moral and ethical lens through which to view particular developments in their scope and depth.”
This “ethical lens” for both the Pope and the president is the nature of the human being. The Holy Father's theology of the body is seen through an anthropological realism that firmly establishes his subject in reality.
That the president's council has made a similar effort is evident from its December publication, Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics. Both the Pope and the council are dedicated to a true humanism that will serve as a realistic and universally acceptable basis for dealing with contemporary moral issues. The popularity of these two efforts is clear.
With regard to the Pope's theology of the body, innumerable conferences, seminars, classes, study groups and home discussions have been organized throughout the world. The Theology of the Body International Alliance has served as a successful facilitator for such events. On the other hand, the unforeseen demand for Being Human cleaned off the government shelves within a few months. The book is currently unavailable, though interested purchasers may add their name to the waiting list by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catholics will be pleased to note that President Bush has named to the 18-member council such Catholic stalwarts as Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard University, Robert George of Princeton University and Alfonso Gomez-Lobo of Georgetown University.
In addition to ascertaining a true understanding of human nature, the Pope and the president's council have a number of other basic interests in common. Those with only a passing acquaintance with the Pope's theology of the body know it affirms three fundamental realities: 1) that man is a bodified being; 2) the essential dignity of the human person; and 3) that human beings, though inevitably imperfect, strive to be better.
It is most encouraging, in reading through Being Human (628 pages long), to see how these points are affirmed and developed. Editor Kass begins his introduction to Chapter 4, “Are We Bodies?” with the following words: “We begin in this chapter by acknowledging that we have both corporeal and non-corporeal aspects. We are embodied spirits and inspirited bodies, (or, if you will, embodied minds and minded bodies).”
Expressing his congeniality to those whose concept of true humanism includes a relationship with the Creator, Kass opens the final chapter, “Human Dignity,” with these words: “The religious among us may locate the origin of our special dignity in our God-given origin and Godlike being.” Included among the readings in this chapter is the Book of Genesis.
In his introduction to the first chapter, “The Search for Perfection,” Kass states: “Seemingly from the beginning, human beings have been alive to the many ways in which what we have been given falls short of what we can envision and what we desire. We are human but can imagine gods. We die but can imagine immortality.”
Pope John Paul II begins his theology of the body by citing Matthew 19:3, when Christ says to the Phari-sees, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female?”
In citing this passage, the Holy Father inaugurates his theology of the body with an integration of the Old and New Testaments as well as an integration of morality and nature. He goes on to describe the loss of innocence in Adam and Eve, their fall from grace and their need for redemption. Kass is as unabashedly Jewish as the Holy Father is unabashedly Catholic.
But this Jewish-Catholic synthesis is also an essential part of the Pope's theology of the body.
Being Human and the Pope's theology of the body have much in common and affirm man's nature, his bodily reality, his dignity, his imperfection and his need for something greater. The theology of the body is, of course, more unified and comprehensive than Being Human. Nonetheless, it is heartening to see that Being Human and the president's council have such evident affinities with the theology of the body.
It is also most encouraging to observe a much-welcomed narrowing of the gap between the Catholic and the secular visions of what it means to be human. Together, these two works offer a measure of hope for international and interdisciplinary unity in the areas of both intellectual thought and its application to contemporary moral issues.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario, and adjunct professor of Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.