Integrated Thought

Saturday Book Pick: William E. May on the theology of the body.

Among the still fully-to-be-appreciated gifts of Pope John Paul II’s teaching legacy is undoubtedly his “theology of the body.” The Pope’s highly creative and original insights, expressed in the addresses he gave at 129 Wednesday general audiences from 1979-84, provided biblical, anthropological and moral foundations for a Catholic understanding of sex.

While several authors have sought to apply the theology to contemporary situations, it is fair to say that the radical significance of these insights has only begun to be tapped and applied. The fact that otherwise serious people, for example, can actually believe that two men or two women can constitute a marriage is just one example of how basic is the need for the theology of the body.

Moral theologian William May shows the profound continuity in the thought of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II on sexual issues. He uses five sources in this book to demonstrate that continuity: the pre-pontifical book Love and Responsibility; the papal documents Familiaris Consortio, Mulieris Dignitatem and the “Letter to Families”; and, of course, the theology of the body texts.

May notes that Wojtyla’s engagement with sexual ethics stemmed from his pastoral work as a priest-professor: “[I]n his pastoral work a priest often encounters the problems facing men and women seeking to live good lives, and spouses who are doing their best to be good husbands and wives. [Wojtyla] then says that is how the book came about, as a constant confrontation of doctrine, i.e., Catholic teaching on sexual morality and marriage, and life. His purpose is to show why this teaching is true and rooted in the truth about the human person and the goods that fulfill them.” That same spirit drove John Paul’s persistence in defending marriage, sexuality and family life: “Theology of the body has a twofold purpose. The first is to defend the reality of the human body, a truth crucial to an adequate anthropology or understanding of the human person as a creature whose body is integral to his being as a person. The second ... is to defend the teaching of Humanae Vitae.”

May traces numerous themes — the meaning of love, the antitheses of love and use as ways of relating to another, the significance of chastity and shame, the relationship of marriage and parenthood, the meaning of “vocation” — as they developed consistently in the 35 years between Love and Responsibility and the “Letter to Families.”

For at least 45 years May has been defending orthodox Catholic sexual ethics. This book is a masterful presentation of just how consistent and integrated John Paul’s thought in this sphere has been. May’s book might not be the best starting point for those who want to learn about the theology of the body; it might be better to delve into the texts themselves, guided by good commentaries. But once one gets a good handle on them, May’s work will help to expand the reader’s horizons beyond theology of the body to the amazing breadth and profundity of John Paul’s thought.

John M. Grondelski writes from Bern, Switzerland.



Genesis and Growth

By William E. May

Pauline Books and Media, 2010

168 pages, $16.95

To order:

(800) 836-9723