Why St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body Is More Important Than Ever
Looking back, on the feast of St. John Paul, on the many contributions that great Pope left to the Church during his more than quarter-century on the Chair of Peter, one stands out as particularly relevant to our times: the “theology of the body.”
For four years, from 1981 to 1985, Pope John Paul II dedicated his Wednesday general audiences to a progressive exposition of the meaning of the human body and human sexuality. The theology of the body was something new, fresh, even revolutionary.
Papal biographer George Weigel, in Lessons in Hope, tells us that the late Pope was especially pleased with how this catechesis was received: “The linchpin of the whole structure, though, was the Theology of the Body, and the Pope was happy to hear that it had made an impression on young people who didn’t expect to be impressed by a papal reflection on sex and love” (155).
The Pope was not “happy” because youth found his ideas exciting — they were not, in the end, his ideas, but an exposition of what Scripture itself contained — but because he always recognized sexual morality to be where the Christian viewpoint was especially under assault: As the future Pope said in Sign of Contradiction, his retreat for Pope Paul VI, “In recent years, there has been a striking increase in contradiction. ... One has only to recall the contestation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae or that provoked by Persona Humana [the 1975 declaration reaffirming the immorality of masturbation, fornication and homosexual acts]. These examples are enough to bring home the fact that we are in the front line of a lively battle for the dignity of man.”
I remember somewhere John Paul saying that, if man wants to understand himself, where he came from, why he’s here and where he’s going, he should return to the first pages of the Bible. John Paul himself did that in 1981-82, expounding on the meaning of Genesis 1-3, showing just how profoundly human dignity is rooted in the first pages of Genesis, which include, among other things, the teaching “male and female He created them.”
Sexual differentiation, says Genesis, is the result of God’s will to make the human person in the Divine image. Sexual differentiation was not, pace Aristotle, a flaw: Woman was not a “misbegotten male,” a boy with parts missing.
That such a core value of the Judeo-Christian patrimony at the heart of our civilization is under assault is a telling indication of the cultural rot that puts believing Jews and Christians today “in the front line of a lively battle for the dignity of man.”
“Male and female He created them” contends with Fifty Shades of Grey. Overcoming the “gender binary” is proclaimed a civil-rights imperative against which the Genesis heritage is regarded as vicious discrimination to be extirpated.
The mentality that gives rise to contemporary attacks on the normativity of sexual differentiation is not, however, contemporary — no matter how much it quotes Michel Foucault, Alfred Kinsey or Dr. Ruth. Its roots are at least as old as Christianity. Depreciation of sex lies in devaluation of the body, and that finds roots all the way back in the Gnosticism, dualism and Manicheanism of antiquity. It’s no paradox that libertinism is coupled with denial of sexual difference: Epicureanism and hedonism also flourished in the ancient world, because if the body is irrelevant, it really doesn’t matter what you do with it.
The theology of the body reminds us, however, that the body is an essential part of the person, and not just because body and soul form the human compositum, but because by his body the human person is called to communion.
“Man cannot live without love,” John Paul wrote in his first encyclical, Redemptoris Hominis. Man realizes himself only when he makes himself a gift to others, the Polish Pope taught, and he does that precisely through the body.
The sexual structure of the human body points to the Creator’s design for the spousal gift, a gift consummated in parenthood. The theology-of-the-body gift reminds us of two facts modern society forgets: that humans are social beings, not isolated individuals, and that the body is a gift — from God and for others — not “my body, my own.”
But parenthood is also under modern assault, starting with the very sexualized terms “father” and “mother.” Summarizing the June 2017 Supreme Court decision that forced Arkansas to issue birth certificates to lesbian couples, Mark DiGirolami and Kevin Walsh put it bluntly: “Pavan pierces the pretense that one can dispense with husbands and wives relative to marriage without also dispensing with fathers and mothers relative to children born within marriages. Changes in marriage and birth certificates illustrate this starkly. ‘Spouse’ replaces ‘husband’ and ‘wife,’ while ‘parent’ replaces ‘father’ and ‘mother.’”
So, on this feast of John Paul and reflecting on his legacy in matters sexual, what should we do? Three thoughts:
- The theology of the body provides an intellectually solid and defensible response to the gnostic vision of man and sexuality being aggressively pushed widely today. We should reacquaint ourselves — or acquaint ourselves — with this catechesis. For those who want to do so, I recommend Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, translated by Michael Waldstein (Pauline Books and Media, 2006).
- We should make sure young people know the theology of the body. As Weigel notes, John Paul was moved by the fact that young people valued those insights. At the same time, today’s youth are in greatest danger of becoming “Nones,” i.e., former Catholics and others who deny any formal religious affiliation. That is usually accompanied by a perverted kind of “Whom am I to judge?” when it comes to addressing the challenge posed by those who would deny the social relevance of sexual differentiation, especially regarding marriage. There are plenty of folks counting on the actuarial table to eliminate resistance to the new sexual ethic.
- It’s long past time for Catholics to say non possumus — “we can’t, and won’t.” We won’t pretend that sexual differentiation is irrelevant at best and discriminatory at worst. We need to say non possumus first and foremost, in the public square, to the culture. Our mission, from baptism and confirmation and beyond, is to be leaven for the world. We used to teach candidates that confirmation was about “bearing witness,” and confirmation candidates even got a little episcopal slap to remind them of what they might experience by bearing witness. Perhaps we need to steel ourselves to expect some of those slaps to bring us back to reality in our own country. If we hesitate, pray to John Paul: His witness brought down the Iron Curtain.
John M. Grondelski is a moral theologian writing from Falls Church, Virginia.
All views expressed herein are exclusively his.