On Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body

Have you ever considered that to truly understand God’s plan for human life, we need to look beyond societal norms and see the human body as it was created, naked and without shame? Would you believe that the key to unlocking the mystery of God lies in the masculine and feminine aspects of the human body and our call to sexual union?
At first, you might think this perspective is a bit obsessed with sexuality and nudity, perhaps influenced by our current pornographic culture. However, these are the teachings of Pope John Paul II in his catechetical project known as the "theology of the body." Through a series of 129 audience addresses given between 1979 and 1984, he developed a scriptural reflection on the human experience of embodiment and our yearning for union.
The theology of the body is divided into two main parts. In the first, the Pope develops an "adequate anthropology" based on the words of Christ, which requires us to look at our experience of embodiment in the beginning, in our history, and in our destiny. The second part applies his distinctive Christian humanism to the vocations of celibacy and marriage, as well as to moral issues raised by Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae.
Obviously, we can only scratch the surface of the wealth of knowledge presented in John Paul II’s catechesis in this brief article. But let’s start with his central idea.

The Pope’s perspective, if we allow ourselves to absorb it, has the potential to transform our understanding of the human body and sexuality. According to John Paul, "the body, and only the body," has the ability to make the spiritual and divine visible. It was created to reveal the invisible mystery of God, which has been concealed from time immemorial, and to serve as a sign of it in the visible reality of the world (Feb 20, 1980).

This may sound like complicated academic language, but what it essentially means is that as physical beings, we are unable to directly see God since he is purely spiritual. However, God made his mystery visible to us by creating us in his image as male and female (Gn 1:27). This image is meant to reflect the Trinity, which is an inscrutable divine communion of three Persons (Nov 14, 1979). Therefore, John Paul’s groundbreaking conclusion is that man becomes the "image and likeness" of God not only through his own humanity but also through the communion of persons between man and woman from the very beginning. Moreover, the blessing of fertility is bestowed upon this communion, and human procreation is linked to this image.

The body has a "nuptial meaning" because it reveals man and woman’s mutual gift to one another, which is fully expressed in their "one flesh" union. The body also has a "generative meaning" which, if God wills, brings a third person into the world through their communion. In this way, marriage is a "primordial sacrament" that conveys the mystery of God’s Trinitarian life and love to the husband and wife, their children, and ultimately to the entire world through the family.

Adam and Eve’s experience in the beginning was of sexual desire as God intended it – a sincere gift of self in love, which is the summary of the Gospel. If we live according to the nuptial meaning of our bodies, we fulfill the very meaning of our being and existence. The unity of the sexes flows from the human being’s experience of original solitude, as man realized he alone was aware of himself and free to determine his own actions. On this basis, man experiences erotic desire and his longing for union. When the man saw the woman, he knew she was a person he could love because her naked body revealed the mystery. Prior to the fall, the body enabled them to see and know each other with all the peace of the interior gaze, creating the fullness of the intimacy of persons. The experience of original nakedness was untainted by shame.

The onset of shame signifies a profound shift in how humans experience their bodies. This marks the loss of grace and holiness and the transition from “original man” to “historical man,” who must confront the presence of lust in his heart. Lust is the absence of God’s love in erotic desire, and Jesus’ teaching that looking at someone with lust is equivalent to committing adultery in one’s heart (Matthew 5:28) underscores the severity of this sin. However, John Paul argues that Christ’s words are powerful, as He is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Christ’s death and resurrection offer more than just coping mechanisms for sin; they effectively liberate us from the domination of concupiscence, which is the inclination to sin.

Therefore, if we open ourselves again to the “breath” of the Holy Spirit, we can experience a “real and deep victory” over lust and rediscover the original nuptial meaning of the body. This liberation from lust is crucial for living in truth and for experiencing all aspects of life in a fulfilling manner (Oct 8, 1980).

Regarding our experience of embodiment and longing for union in the eschaton, it’s true that Christ said there won’t be marriage at the resurrection (Mt 22:30), but this doesn’t mean our longing for union will disappear. Rather, it will be fulfilled. The sacraments are earthly signs pointing us to heavenly realities, but in heaven, we’ll be in direct communion with God and won’t need signs.

In heaven, we’ll experience the eternal consummation of the marriage between Christ and the Church. This is the ultimate purpose of our creation, and the "one flesh" union from the beginning (Eph 5:31-32) points to this reality. In the resurrection of the body, we’ll rediscover the nuptial meaning of the body in an eschatological dimension, as we meet the living God face to face (Dec 9, 1981). This will be a completely new experience, but it won’t be alienated from what humanity has experienced since the beginning, including the procreative meaning of the body and sex (Jan 13, 1982).

To properly understand how man should live, it is crucial to grasp his original, historical, and eschatological nature. With an "adequate anthropology" in place, we can then have a correct comprehension of the Christian callings of celibacy and marriage.

Those who choose celibacy "for the sake of the kingdom" (Mt 19:12) are embracing the heavenly marriage while still on earth. They are bypassing the earthly sacrament to participate more directly in the ultimate reality. This act allows them to transcend history, while still within its bounds, and proclaim that the kingdom of God is present (Mt 12:28). Genuine Christian celibacy is not a rejection of sexuality or a denunciation of marriage. Instead, it is a declaration of the earthly manifestation of the ultimate purpose and meaning of marriage.

Marriage, as a vocation to holiness, is designed to prepare individuals for heaven. However, for it to be an adequate preparation, the model must accurately reflect the divine prototype. The sacrament of marriage, therefore, manifests the eternal mystery of God in a "sign" that not only proclaims but also achieves it in the spouses (see Sep 8, 1982).

This sign is visible throughout married life, but it is most strikingly evident when husband and wife become "one flesh." Just as the body reflects the soul of a person, the "one body" that the spouses become during sexual intercourse reflects the "soul" of their married life. According to the Pope, the very words "I take you to be my wife – my husband" can only be fulfilled through conjugal intercourse (Jan 5, 1983).

The teachings of John Paul II bring a fresh perspective to the Church’s views on sexuality, particularly with regards to contraception. This topic is crucial to sexual morality, as separating sexual union from its procreative nature can lead to justification of any means to sexual climax, as evidenced by the sexual revolution of the 20th century.

According to the theology of the body, the morality of sexual behavior depends on whether it accurately embodies God’s love. Thus, the fundamental question in all sexual morality is whether a behavior is truthful or not. Those who comprehend the divine mystery of nuptial union would find contraception inconceivable, as it contradicts the very essence of this union’s purpose. Nuptial union is intended to proclaim God’s life-giving love, as well as symbolize Christ’s union with the Church sacramentally.

However, contraception transforms the “language of the body” from prophetic to false prophecy, denying the creative love of God. The physical must correspond to the spiritual for sacraments to convey spiritual realities accurately. Therefore, a sterilized act of intercourse is a counter-sign of Christ’s union with the Church, contradicting the very essence of the sacrament of marriage. Thus, contraception can never fulfill the purpose of nuptial union.

According to John Paul II, the body is the only means of communicating the mystery of God’s love to us. Satan, the enemy of God, attempts to counter God’s plan of salvation by corrupting the sacraments, starting with the "primordial sacrament" of sexuality. By scrambling the language of our bodies, Satan has been successful in making people believe that the body and sexuality are not places to look for the presence of God. This failure to understand the language of our bodies is not only important in regard to marriage, but also for the understanding of humanity in general. John Paul II emphasizes that the theology of the body is the foundation of the most suitable education in what it means to be a human being. The battle over sexual morality in the Church and in the world is a battle for the very meaning of human existence. Therefore, the theology of the body should not be considered a minor discipline but rather the perspective of the entire Gospel and Christ’s mission.

The theology of the body urges the Church to embrace an incarnational approach, rather than a purely spiritual one. It calls for us to let the Gospel permeate our physical selves. This allows us to see the Church’s sexual morality teachings not as oppressive rules, but as the foundation of a liberating ethos. We are called to experience the redemption of our bodies and to rediscover the true meaning of sexuality, which is the very meaning of life. This is the first step in renewing the world.

John Paul II believed that the call for man and woman to form a communion of persons is the deepest substratum of human ethics and culture. The dignity and balance of human life depend on how we treat one another. A culture that does not respect the truth about sexuality is doomed to be a culture that does not respect the truth about life. It will be a culture of death.

This is why John Paul II made the theology of the body the first catechetical project of his pontificate. At the heart of the new evangelization, and at the heart of building a civilization of love and a culture of life, is marriage and the family. And at the heart of marriage and the family is the truth about the body and sexuality.

Let us live and proclaim this truth. If we do, we will not fall short of renewing the face of the earth!

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