A Matter of Communio

What are the past, present and future of theology of the body?

In the early autumn of 1979, Pope John Paul II introduced to the universal Church his teaching on the theology of the body during a series of general audiences. As Karol Wojtyla, he had already published in Poland Love and Responsibility and The Acting Person and given lectures on the family and parenthood as a community of persons. These lectures are now available in English in Person and Community.

The Past 50 Years

Thus, for 20 years before his general audiences on TOB, he had been developing philosophical and theological arguments about the nature and identity of human persons, called into integral relations in ways specified by a particular vocation.

Two interrelated concepts are developed in the general audiences on theology of the body between 1979 and 1984: communion of persons and complementarity.

First, human persons, a man and a woman, are called to a communion in likeness to the divine communion of persons, as “‘from the beginning’ not only an image in which the solitude of one Person, who rules the world, mirrors itself, but also and essentially the image of an inscrutable divine communion of Persons.” (Quotes are taken from Michael Waldstein’s new translation of the Pope’s general audiences.)

Second, a man (as essentially male and masculine) and a woman (as essentially female and feminine) are “two reciprocally completing ways of ‘being a body’ and at the same time of being human — as two complementary dimensions of self-knowledge and self-determination and, at the same time, two complementary ways of being conscious of the meaning of the body.” Integral complementarity involves the whole human person as a woman or as a man.

Finally, real communion needs relations of authentic complementarity. The two ways of being a human person, a man and a woman, are called to be in union in mutual self-gift in sacramental marriage. They discover the hidden meaning of their masculinity and femininity through their fatherhood and motherhood, spiritual and biological. This union constitutes the first form of the communion of persons.

The Dynamic and Controversial Present

The threefold dynamic of Creation, Fall and Redemption penetrates the communion of man and woman called into a complementary union from the beginning: “After the breaking of the original covenant with God, man and woman did not find themselves united with each other, but rather more divided or even set against each other because of their masculinity and femininity.”

Instead of mutual submission to one another out of love for Christ, we discover attitudes of: “I will not serve”; “I will be god”; “I will possess for myself.” The tendency in a fallen world towards attitudes of self-absorption and solitude are found in marriages and families and among persons with different vocations, professions or backgrounds. In the dynamics of the contemporary world, there is a great need for redemption.

Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, walked on the earth with a human body; and he redeemed us by his sacrifice on the cross. He gave us an example of a life of Christian virtue; and he sent his Holy Spirit to help each of us seek the unique graces and gifts of the particular vocation the Father has given to us.
The human body was described by Cardinal Wojtyla in The Acting Person as “the territory … or … the medium whereby the person expresses himself. Strictly speaking, the personal structure of self-governance and self-possession may be thought of as ‘traversing’ the body and being expressed by the body.”

Cardinal Wojtyla offered criteria for distinguishing authentic from inauthentic interpersonal relations (The Acting Person, Part 4) and distinguishing attitudes of utility and hedonism from genuine betrothed love (Love and Responsibility). These criteria were applied by John Paul II to the meaning of reverence for another person, for the work of God, and to “reciprocal submission” of husband and wife to one another in Christ in the virtue of chastity and practice of periodic continence.

Sacramental marriage and its gift of sexual intercourse for the husband and wife need to be placed in the larger horizon of “the new meaning of the body … as is clear from these words: Marriage — ‘the union in which, as Genesis says, the man will … unite with his wife, and the two will be one flesh’ [Genesis 2:24], a union proper to man from the ‘beginning’ — belongs exclusively ‘to this world.’ Marriage and procreation do not constitute man’s eschatological future.”

Challenge for the Future

“The introduction of the term and concept of ‘theology of the body’ was necessary to set the topic ‘The Redemption of the Body and the Sacramentality of Marriage’ on a wider basis,” the Pope explained.
Suffering and death are part of this wider basis or horizon, as are the complementarity of vocations in the Church. It expands through St. Paul’s “ecclesiological thinking, according to which the Church is the body of Christ.” There is a direct reference to “the complementarity of marriage and continence for ‘the Kingdom of heaven’ in their meaning and manifold importance.”

The communio


model of vocations was ardently defended by John Paul II as his pontificate drew upon the principles of integral complementarity in equality of dignity and significant difference. “The equal dignity of all members of the Church is the work of the Spirit, is rooted in baptism and confirmation and is strengthened by the Eucharist,” he wrote in Vita Consecrata. “But diversity is also a work of the Spirit. It is he who establishes the Church as an organic communion in the diversity of vocations, charisms and ministries.”

Theology of the body has many interpreters among members of the different vocations in the Church: married men and women, priests, deacons and consecrated religious men and women. Members of each vocation need to guard against claiming a solitary superiority for one interpretation or another, or for the superiority of persons who are called to one vocation or another.

It is important to recognize the unique sign-value of each vocation for the other and of the fuller reality of the communio reality of the Church. At different times in history, members of one kind of vocation seemed to be more valued. However, John Paul II called us all to the greater reality of communio, of the call of human communions of persons to ever greater likeness to the Holy Trinity through complementary relations of love and knowledge.

Each one of us, living the theology of the body according to our own proper vocation, may ask ourselves how effectively we are acting in service of one another for the growth of the body of Christ in its mission in the world.

Sister Prudence Allen is a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma. She is distinguished professor emerita at Concordia University, Montreal, and professor of philosophy at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, Denver. She is the author of the two-volume work on The Concept of Woman (Eerdmans Press).

This is the fifth installment of a special report on Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. Starting March 13, the Register will feature essays by Christopher West, Michael Waldstein, Sister Helena Burns, Stratford Caldecott & David Schindler and Father Jose Granados.