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Pope St. John Paul II and the ‘Theology of the Body’ by Andrew Cannon

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Essay

Pope St. John Paul II and the ‘Theology of the Body’

A statue of Pope Saint John Paul II outside of the Cathedral of La Almudena in Madrid.

Photo: Image by ddzphoto from Pixabay.

The Catholic Church is the nemesis of all movements that seek to redefine the family, marriage, and sex. All these concern the body—and the body is fundamental to the Christian faith. Any reduction of family, marriage, or sex is a reduction of Christianity. As George Hayward Joyce wrote in 1933, Western civilization—“the civilization of which we are the heirs”—was founded on Christian marriage. And as attacks on her vital interests increase, the Church must proclaim the Gospel anew, clarifying her doctrine, strengthening the faithful, and drawing all men to Christ. 

Pope Saint John Paul II did all this in his Theology of the Body, a series of catechetical talks he gave between 1979 and 1984. In them, he proclaimed the Church’s moral doctrine and developed her theology of marriage. He responded to attacks on the body by explaining the Christian understanding of family, marriage, and sex according to their ultimate spiritual and mystical meaning. 

The true source of human dignity

Christian anthropology holds that man is created in the image of God and that this is the source of human dignity. This teaching recognizes the image of God in man’s rational soul, his intellect, and his free will. At the same time, the Church has always pondered the relationship between the family and the Blessed Trinity. John Paul’s Theology of the Body develops this latent Trinitarian anthropology by examining a personal dimension—in God and in man—that is also integral to the image of God in man. It focuses on what the anthropology in the book of Genesis reveals about man as a person and the persons in God. Two examples serve to illustrate how this ‘personalist’ account of Genesis supports a Trinitarian anthropology. 

The first example is the passage in which God declares his intention to make man in our image, followed immediately by “man and woman he created them.” This is Scripture’s first revelation of more than one person in God. “Man and woman he created them” is also plural and reveals that God created man as a plurality of persons. The Theology of the Body advances the idea that this plurality of persons in man reflects the image of the plurality of persons in God—and this is integral to man’s imaging of God.

The second example is the passage revealing that man and woman become one flesh in marriage. The Theology of the Body advances the idea that two persons becoming one flesh—that is, a personal plurality and a oneness—parallels the personal plurality and oneness of the Blessed Trinity. Christ reinforced this personal plurality and oneness in his dialogue with the Pharisees, concerning the indissolubility of marriage reported in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. 

Austrian Biblical scholar and theologian Michael Waldstein edited this critical translation of Pope John Paul II’s various talks on the ‘Theology of the Body,’ presenting his full vision of the human person and human sexuality. The book, published in 2006 by Pauline Books, includes a preface by Austrian Cardinal Schönborn, a foreword by Christopher West, and a Scriptural index.

In addition, the idea is advanced that conjugal love—a communion of persons in mutual self-gift—is a type of its prototype: the divine communion of persons in the Blessed Trinity. In this way, the Theology of the Body proposes a theological anthropology of human personhood that images the personhood of the Blessed Trinity. According to this understanding, marriage and the conjugal act proper to it were given to man in the mystery of Creation as a primordial sacrament of the Blessed Trinity—a sacramentality integral to the image of God in man and to human dignity.

A commentary on Humanae Vitae

In John Paul’s concluding talks he made it clear that all the preceding talks constituted an extensive commentary on the moral doctrine of Humanae Vitae, Pope Saint Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on the inadmissibility of contraception. John Paul stated that Humanae Vitae and the Theology of the Body form one homogenous, organic unity. The first step to understanding the central idea of the Theology of the Body, then, is to understand that it develops the anthropology underlying Humanae Vitae’s moral doctrine. 

The next step considers what theology knows about anthropology and about the Blessed Trinity. First, anthropology is fundamental to theology. Anthropology affects theology as a whole because the way we understand man—who is made in God’s image—affects the way we understand God. Second, a sacrament of the Blessed Trinity is a sacrament of God’s immanent (that is, interior) life and of God’s economic (that is, external) activity.

Consequently, the final step to understanding the central idea of the Theology of the Body is to recognize that as a primordial sacrament of the Blessed Trinity, the conjugal act and/or marriage is, unavoidably, a sacrament of all Christian Mysteries—Creation, Redemption and Sanctification—and is foundational to the entire sacramental order and the order of grace.

Evaluating doctrinal developments

This is a remarkable teaching. But it is bound to arouse skepticism, since we haven’t been taught this way before. It raises the question: Could this possibly be a genuine development of doctrine? Let me briefly consider three criteria for evaluating genuine doctrinal developments: their power of assimilation, continuity with sacred tradition, and affirmation by the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful). 

Power of assimilation means that genuine doctrinal developments are mutually affirming of other doctrines or at a minimum cannot contradict or be contradicted by another doctrine. The Theology of the Body teaches that from the beginning, prior to the Fall, in the Mystery of Creation, conjugal love—as a communion of persons in mutual self-gift—is a primordial sign and sacrament of the Blessed Trinity. 

As a sacrament of the interior life and the external activity of the Blessed Trinity, marriage is a comprehensive sacrament of all Christian Mysteries and foundational to all sacraments and all grace. It is a sacrament of the Mystery of Creation and the means by which the Mystery of Creation continues through history. It is a sacrament of the Mystery of Redemption that Saint Paul calls “the great mystery” of Christ’s love for the Church. It is a sacrament of the Mystery of Sanctification and our eternal union with God, in the wedding feast of the Lamb. As doctrine, and as a comprehensive sacrament, it assimilates with all other doctrines.  

The late pope praying at Lourdes in 1983.

Photo: Courest of Ireneed, licensed under CCA-Sa 3.0 Unported.

The other two criteria for evaluating genuine doctrinal developments—continuity with sacred tradition and affirmation by the sense of the faithful (sensus fidelium)—are satisfied by history. Sacred tradition is replete with anthropological proposals that draw parallels between the family and the Blessed Trinity. Through the early Ecumenical Councils, bishops and the faithful considered family models to explain the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Church Fathers, Doctors of the Church, and theologians—including Gregory Nazianzus, Athanasius, Richard of Saint Victor, Bonaventure, and John Chrysostom, to name a few—reflected on this sense and the relationship between the family and the Blessed Trinity. Augustine and Aquinas likewise considered family analogies. 

Augustine and Aquinas both rejected family analogies in their own Trinitarian theology. At first glance, many see this as a decisive blow to the Theology of the Body’s proposal. However, Joseph Ratzinger’s critiques of Augustine’s Trinitarian theology and of Aquinas’ anthropology identify incompletions that the Theology of the Body completes. Ratzinger dismisses Augustine’s psychological analogy (in which he likened the Blessed Trinity to the mind, knowledge, and love) as an error because it locks the Blessed Trinity within an individualistic frame that excludes the Trinity’s personalistic and communal dimension. Ratzinger also characterizes Aquinas’ theological anthropology as defective because, while Aquinas’ Trinitarian theology develops God’s personalistic and communal dimension, his theological anthropology does not develop man’s personalistic and communal dimension. Thus, Ratzinger’s critique suggests that neither Augustine nor Aquinas could have recognized a strong affinity between the family and the Blessed Trinity. 

Then there is the question of whether the Theology of the Body’s proposal can be dismissed as a corruption of doctrine. Saint John Henry Newman specified seven criteria for identifying corruptions of doctrine, none of which disqualify the Theology of the Body’s proposal. 

The conjugal act, marriage, and divine love

In the end, the Theology of the Body focuses on the conjugal act and marriage and sees them as mutually inextricable. The conjugal act consummates marriage—and sex outside marriage is not conjugal. Colossal dissent from Humanae Vitae called for the intense focus on the conjugal act that the Theology of the Body provides. Nevertheless, most theologians stand by, wary of John Paul’s remedy, but impotent to combat the libertine anthropologies dismantling Christian culture today.  

Eventually, theologians will realize that John Paul diagnosed our malaise, seized the high ground, and set forth a path for renewal. He identified an inadequate theological anthropology as the source of the problem. He did the ‘heavy lifting’ in philosophy and theology to remedy the inadequacy, and opened new horizons for theological anthropology and the theology of marriage. 

Today we await an awakening to this profound gift. In John Paul’s own prescient words: “What is at stake here is an authentically ‘humanistic’ meaning of the development and progress of human civilization.” As the world descends into chaos, Pope Saint John Paul proclaims that every human person is incarnated through a gift given to us in the Mystery of Creation, a sacrament of the Blessed Trinity, a sign and a participation in divine love. This anthropological reality applies to every human person ever born—and this is very good news, indeed.

Andrew Cannon is the author of Mere Marriage: Sexual Difference and Christian Doctrine (Alphonsus Publishing, LLC, 2020). It is available at MereMarriage.com.

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