Theology of the Body

A Register symposium examines Pope John Paul II's rich catechesis.

(photo: CNS PHOTO)

Shortcuts can appear very enticing.

Society, particularly in the West, took a troubling shortcut in the middle of the 20th century.

The combination of secularism, materialism and hedonism led to a disturbing societal shift. At the time of the sexual revolution, society sidestepped the authentic meaning of both human life and married love. Dulled by sin and its effects, a lifestyle emerged that cast practical doubt on the meaning of the human body. Human meaning was equated with the mere satisfaction of appetites and cravings.

In the midst of this confusion, the catechesis of the Servant of God Pope John Paul II charted a new course. The theology of the body is his guide back from the shortcut, back to the inviolable dignity of human life and the beauty of married love. Pope John Paul II’s teaching is, in fact, a grammar of life and love, expressed in an original catechetical style. His words are a touchstone of pastoral effectiveness for the evangelization of culture.

The important series of articles on the theology of the body in the following days is an effort to show the pastoral effectiveness that is within the Holy Father’s rich catechesis. The theology of the body is not over our heads. It is deep in our hearts.

Teachers do not take shortcuts. In fact, every great teacher patiently leads the student from the known to the unknown. Pope John Paul II began with the known, that is, the familiar teaching of Jesus as recounted in the 19th chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew. The Pharisees want to take a shortcut around Jesus. But there is no shortcut around Jesus, who is the beginning, the center and the goal of history. Nonetheless, the Pharisees pressure him with the question, “May a man divorce his wife for any reason whatever?” Jesus responds that there are no shortcuts when it comes to the meaning of marriage. In fact, Jesus insistently teaches that to understand the truth about marriage we must go back “to the beginning”; we must go back to the moment of creation. Jesus refuses the shortcut and firmly responds: “Have you not read that from the beginning ‘the Creator made them male and female’ (Genesis 1:26-27). … ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and unite with his wife, and the two will be one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24)?”

Pope John Paul II proceeded step-by-step. He dedicated careful, thorough and extensive consideration to the words of Jesus in the Gospel of St. Matthew, the Book of Genesis and the teaching of St. Paul. John Paul offered a refreshing and new perception of the meaning of the human person as a gift. The teaching contained in the theology of the body corresponds to the deep hunger of the human person. In the 30 years since the Holy Father proclaimed this catechesis, there has been a strong and widespread grassroots reception of its content.

The careful expression of the theology of the body in everyday language must preserve the important nuances in the original teaching.

John Paul showed us that “from the beginning” man is a being with the capacity to know and to love. Man uses his capacity to know and to love as a search for the “other.” This search is not meant, however, to be self-centered. This search is not about us satisfying ourselves, but about fulfilling the authentic and genuine meaning of human life and love. This search has no shortcuts. There is only one way to find such real and legitimate fulfillment. Man can only find this other (and himself) through a total gift of self. This is because man is a gift. Since he is a gift, man can only be fulfilled by being a gift. His body is a gift and is meant to be a gift. A gift is never a shortcut.

Human nature exists as either male or female in an irreducible difference. The fundamental meaning of sexual difference, male to female and female to male, allows for a true union, that communion of persons which arises from the complete and total gift of self in marriage and also in virginity/celibacy. The gift of self can never be abbreviated or treated as a mere means to an end.

Pope John Paul II’s catechesis points out how sin is a false shortcut. It is a detour around the call to authentic communion of life and love. The Holy Father taught that sin and its effects weigh down and attack the image of God in man. Sin always seeks to sabotage the gift of self and to turn self-giving into self-seeking. Society offers many counterfeits to the gift of self. And at the center of them all is the attempt to falsify the meaning of the body.

Promiscuity, adultery, contraception, illicit means of human reproduction and pornography are not true paths to fulfillment. The proposal that persons of the same sex can “marry” disregards the spousal meaning of the body. These shortcuts always distort the true meaning of the gift of self and the gift of life.

Pope John Paul II showed us that the Holy Spirit is the wise guide who leads us back to the path of life. The Holy Spirit brings to each one of us the saving effects of Jesus’ sacrificial self-gift on the cross and in his glorious resurrection. The graces of the sacraments strengthen us to live the life of virtue so that we may truly be pure of heart. The Holy Spirit points us to hope for the redemption of the body.

Pope John Paul II gives extensive consideration to the teaching of St. Paul on the redemption of the body (Romans 8:32). The Holy Father does so to describe at least two central realities of the catechesis on the theology of the body. First, there is the final victory over death at the end of time. Second, there is the invitation of Jesus to overcome concupiscence even in the depths of our hearts and in our everyday choices and actions. To choose the path of Jesus is to answer his call to follow him for the long haul.

We know that there is no real shortcut around life and love. No matter how far we may have strayed onto a perilous shortcut, the grace of Jesus Christ has opened a road for us. The teaching of Pope John Paul II reveals all shortcuts as dead ends and redirects us to the way of Jesus. The guidepost for “the new evangelization” is found at the intersection of the inviolable dignity of the human person and marriage as the permanent, faithful and fruitful union of one man and one woman. These foundational teachings are the essential elements upon which all society rests.

I am happy to introduce this series of articles that seeks to further open this important teaching and gather us all onto the path to the civilization of love and the culture of life.

Tomorrow: Colin Donovan, STL, answers the question, How does theology of the body fit with Church tradition?