St. John Paul II on God’s Plan for Marriage

Submission to love is not scary. It is a balm to our human hearts.

This 1983 portrait of Pope St. John Paul II by Guido Greganti is displayed in the Chiesa dei Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi by Guido Greganti.
This 1983 portrait of Pope St. John Paul II by Guido Greganti is displayed in the Chiesa dei Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi by Guido Greganti. (photo: Shutterstock)

One of the most striking passages in the Gospels is when Jesus’ disciples, upon hearing that marriage is not meant to end in divorce, muse, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry” (Matthew 19:10). Jesus tells them, “Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given” (Matthew 19:11). The Church has taken nearly 2,000 years to understand more deeply what Christ meant when he said, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). Now, this is not an essay on divorce and remarriage, but on the phrase “in the beginning it was not so.” Pope St. John Paul II helped the Church understand the great gift the Lord gave us by raising marriage to a sacrament and how we can, through grace, live free of the curse that was put between husbands and wives because of the Original Sin. Spouses married in the Church, to whom sacramental marriage has been given, can live as equals mutually submitting to the love given through the self-gift of each other. In the beginning this was so.


In the Beginning

The words of Scripture in the first creation story (Genesis 1:26-27) show the equal creation of man and woman:

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

He created us in his own image, with the prefallen grace of being in his likeness, a likeness which we lost through sin but can regain through grace. He meant for men and women to have dominion over lower creatures, not each other. John Paul II, in what is popularly known as the theology of the body, explained that our humanity, that is, being made in God’s image, is prior to us having gender. When Scripture reads “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him,” it is referring to the human person being created. The “him” here is not referring to a masculine man; it is referring to a human person. Only secondarily does Scripture tell us that “male and female he created them.” Notice the shift to the plural them. Scripture goes from talking about humanity as a whole to two genders, both of which image God.

The man and woman lived as “two different ‘incarnations’” both who were “created ‘in the image of God,’” and did so for a period of time before their first sin (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 8:2). They were created to love and serve God as individuals. John Paul II, explains, “Before they become husband and wife […] man and woman come forth from the mystery of creation first of all as brother and sister in the same humanity.” He goes on to explain that they were free to give themselves to each other as spouses, that the whole meaning of their call to be spouses was that they received their lives and bodies as a gift and that they were meant to give themselves while at the same time receiving their spouse. They were meant to both give and receive, “and the two will be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). In John Paul II’s words:

The understanding of the spousal meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity reveals the innermost point of their freedom, which is the freedom of the gift. It is from here that the communion of persons begins in which both encounter each other and give themselves reciprocally in the fullness of their subjectivity. (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 18.5)

This beautiful ability to give and receive as complete gifts to each other was lost with the first sin, which threw disorder into all of creation.


Curses of the Fall

We all know how the story goes: The man and the woman disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When they did, “they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7), and they lost the ability to be “reciprocally a disinterested gift, as they were for one another in the mystery of creation” (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 18.5). They were cursed with a disorder existing between man and woman in which their natural differences, which were meant to be a gift to help one another, became a curse that caused division between them. The Lord speaks to the woman, “yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).

All we must do is glance back into our own lives, our families and all of human history to recognize the results of this curse. A relationship that was meant to be one of loving reciprocal self-gift was transformed into a tense struggle of desire and domination. John Paul II explains:

At the same time, the man is the one for whom shame, united with concupiscence, was to become an impulse to ‘dominate’ the woman (‘he will dominate you’). Later, the experience of such domination shows itself more directly in the woman as the insatiable desire for a different union. From the moment in which the man ‘dominates’ her, the communion of persons — which consists in the spiritual unity of the two subjects who gave themselves to each other — is replaced by a different mutual relationship, namely, by a relationship of possession of the other as an object of one’s own desire. (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 31:3)

This is why the disciples thought it would be impossible to marry without the possibility of divorce. Because, outside of grace, they could not live out the demands of marriage. 


Grace Restores What Was Lost

We are brought into existence inheriting Original Sin. But through baptism the Lord has created a way to free us from Original Sin so that we can live a life of grace. However, we still have to live with the struggle against concupiscence, our own inclination to sin. The Lord has given us the other sacraments to help us strive against our temptations toward committing personal sins. Jesus, as is clear in Matthew 19, wants to restore the relationships of men and women in marriage to a state of grace in which we could live the prefallen call to mutual self-gift and reciprocity. It is clear in Scripture that Christ held women at a level equal to men, though he had to work within cultural bounds.

John Paull II, writing after the sexual revolution, saw the truth in their claim that men and women were equal and the evils that occur in relationships between men and women when this truth is denied. He focused on the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus speaks of the Sixth Commandment, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). John Paul II explained this passage this way:

What Christ demands from his actual and potential listeners in the Sermon on the Mount clearly belongs to that interior space in which man — precisely the one who listens — must rediscover the lost fullness of his humanity and want to regain it. This fullness in the reciprocal relations of persons, of man and woman, is what the Teacher demands in Matthew 5:27-28, having in mind above all the indissolubility of marriage but also every other form of shared life of men and women, the shared like that makes up the pure and simple guiding thread of existence. (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 43:7)

I reiterate that Christ wants us to “rediscover the lost fullness of [our] humanity and want to regain it,” which is “the reciprocal relations of persons, of man and woman” in marriage and “every other form of shared life.” He does not intend for us to wallow in the curses of the Fall, but hangs on the cross, blood pouring from his wounds, asking us to step under the flow of his sacrificial love and accept the grace to live redeemed marriages. Our marriages can be full of grace in which a husband and a wife submit to one another in love and to each other’s love.

As I wrote in a previous essay, the Church’s understanding of texts on the relationships of husbands and wives in marriage has developed. The Church has had to grow in an understanding humanity had of men and women from the very beginning, which only began to shift with the raising of marriage to a sacrament. So it makes sense that we would read Ephesians 5:21-25 differently now than we did even 200 years ago. St. Paul wrote:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.

John Paul II speaks of this redeemed state of marriage, not as one in which the husband dominates the wife, like the Lord said humans would do to lower animals, but rather as a place of love and mutual self-gift and submission. He explains so beautifully:

Love excludes every kind of submission by which the wife would become a servant or slave of the husband, an object of one-sided submission. Love makes the husband simultaneously subject to the wife, and subject in this to the Lord himself, as the wife is to the husband. The community or unity that they should constitute because of marriage is realized through a reciprocal gift, which is also a mutual submission. (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 89:4)

And he says further:

Although the spouses should be ‘subject to one another in the fear of Christ,’ [...] nevertheless in what follows, the husband is above all the one who loves and the wife, by contrast, is the one who is loved. One might even venture the idea that the wife’s ‘submission’ to the husband, understood in the context of the whole of Ephesians 5:22-23, means above all ‘the experiencing of love.’ This is all the more so, because this ‘submission’ refers to the image of the submission of the Church to Christ, which certainly consists in experiencing his love. (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 92:7)

Failing to submit to and believe in the love of another are the first and last failures of humans living in a fallen world. We are afraid to submit, so we dominate. We are afraid to believe in a love, so we refuse to give of ourselves. But this submission to love, as described by John Paul II, is not scary. It is a balm to our human hearts. It shows that it is possible to exist as John Paul II saw the first woman living:

She therefore finds herself in her own gift of self (‘through a sincere gift of self,’ Gaudium et Spes, 24.3) when she has been accepted in the way in which the Creator willed her, namely, ‘for her own sake,’ through her humanity and femininity; she comes to the innermost depth of her own person and to the full possession of herself when, in this acceptance, the whole dignity of the gift is ensured through the offer of what she is in the whole truth of her humanity and in the whole reality of her body and her sex, of her femininity. (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 17.5)

The Lord has redeemed marriage so that we can find ourselves in a gift of self in this sacrament and this vocation. I pray that all married couples can come to live in this life of sacramental grace and stop settling for living in the curses of the Fall, for this redeemed life has been given to us.