Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body

Freedom, Truth, Gift, Communion, Dignity, Love… By Anastasia Northrop

Freedom, truth, gift, communion, dignity, love, person, meaning: these are all themes which are continually found throughout the writings of Pope John Paul II. They were there even before he became Pope. As Cardinal Karol Wojtyla he was influential in the writing of several documents from Vatican II, not the least of which was Gaudium et Spes — the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World — from which he never tires of quoting in his many encyclicals and apostolic letters.
“Man is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, [and he] cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (Gaudium et Spes 24)

How important it is to live our sexuality in a way which upholds and affirms the other person! Indeed, the true lover will never use another person or treat her as a means to an end.

We must first know the purpose of our existence and what we were created for if we are to live a fully meaningful life. Pope John Paul II explores the purpose of our existence in his Theology of the Body, which consists of 129 general Wednesday audiences delivered by him during the first five years of his pontificate.

Prior to his election as pope, John Paul II wrote a book, Love and Responsibility. In Love and Responsibility Karol Wojtyla presents the Catholic Church’s teaching on love and sexuality in a way that makes sense to modern man. Wojtyla stresses the dignity of the person and shows how important it is to live our sexuality in a way which upholds and affirms the other person. Indeed, the true lover will never use another person or treat her as a means to an end.

In his Theology of the Body John Paul II digs deep into the meaning of being a human person based on Scripture. As a person with a body and soul, made in the image and likeness of God, we find the meaning of life through finding out what it means to image God and what our bodies have to do with it.  We not only image God through the gift of free-will, but also through being in communion with others. “To be human means to be called to interpersonal communion.” Why? Because God himself is a communion of persons in the Trinity. He explains, “Man became the “image and likeness” of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning.” (TOB, Nov. 14, 1979)

“Man Cannot Live Without Love”

A “communion of persons” occurs when two people freely give themselves to each other and accept one another in love. In fact, true love consists precisely in this mutual self-gift. As we see in the Gospels, the main point of the Christian life is to love.  John Paul II’s other favorite quote from Gaudium et Spes tells us that, “Christ…fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” What does Christ reveal but that, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”? (Jn. 15:13)
It is Christ himself who reveals to us our basic vocation as persons by giving himself to us in his death on the Cross. Through his Theology of the Body, John Paul II seeks to present to us the Gospel message of love in a new, deep, and profound way. He knows that love is what all people seek. He goes so far as to say, “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience love and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” (From the encyclical, Redemptor Hominis — “Redeemer of Man”)

What does the human body have to do with all of this? In a world which so often portrays the body as an object for one’s pleasure or as a machine which doesn’t have much to do with our spiritual side, John Paul II again seeks to present the truth as it is found in Scripture.

The body is not some little “add-on” to creation. Rather it is a vital part of who we are as human persons. Why? Because the physical body reveals the spiritual part of the person. For example, you can tell that someone is happy through the smile on his face. Happiness is not a physical, tangible, visible thing, so you need a physical sign to express it.

“Adam and Eve could see…they were called to union and communion”.  In the same way, Adam and Eve could see from the difference in their physical bodies (remember that they w e re naked) that they were called to union and communion – that they were called to LOVE, to give themselves in a total gift to each other, both body and soul, in the most complete way possible for a human being, i.e. sexual union.

This physical union points to and expresses a deeper spiritual union. In the same way that a smile is empty if one is not really happy, sexual union is empty without spiritual union. Not only does their physical communion point to an invisible communion between the man and woman, but it actually shows us that this love, this self-gift, is what we are called to, what we were created for.
John Paul II says that God created our bodies the way He did specifically to show us that we are called to love, thatour reason for existence is to love, to make a gift of ourselves to others. He calls this the “nuptial (or spousal) meaning of the body.”
He explains, “The human body includes right from the beginning…the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift – and by means of this gift – fulfills the meaning of his being and existence.” (TOB Jan 16, 1980) (This pope is not “down on sex”!)

“Through sexual union the body speaks a ‘language’ …this language must be spoken in truth”

Perhaps even more surprisingly for some, John Paul II goes on to say that conjugal union itself is meant to be a sign of God’s desire for complete union with us (which is intimate, though not sexual). It is a sign of Christ’s love for his bride the Church.

How crucial it is then, that couples live their relationships as they were intended to in order to accurately image to the world God’s eternal plan for mankind. St. Paul instructs, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her…” He then refers back to the beginning, as Christ does in the Gospels and says, “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church.” (Eph. 5:25, 31-32)

John Paul II explains that through sexual union the body speaks a “language” and that this language must be spoken in truth. Since the very nature of the conjugal act as designed by God includes both the interpersonal union of the couple as well as the potential for pro c reation, man and woman cannot contracept their union without violating their dignity as persons and the dignity of the conjugal act itself.

Because of his continual concern for what is truly worthy of man, John Paul II uses the Theology of the Body to further explain the reasons behind Pope Paul VI’s controversial encyclical on contraception, Humanae Vitae:

“Man and woman carry on in the language of the body that dialogue which, according to Genesis 2:24,25, had its beginning on the day of creation. This language of the body is something more than mere sexual reaction. As authentic language of the persons, it is subject to the demands of truth, that is, to objective moral norms. Precisely on the level of this language, man and woman re c i p ro c a l l y express themselves in the most profound way possible to them…Man and woman express themselves in the measure of the whole truth of the human person.” (TOB Aug. 22, 1984)

“A Manner Truly Worthy of the Person”

If the procreative aspect of conjugal union is excluded, then that truth of the person and of the act itself is destroyed. On the outside it may look like the man and woman are completely giving themselves to each other, but in reality they are not since they refuse to accept everything about the other, including his or her fertility. On the other hand, exercising self-mastery and promoting respect for each other and the conjugal act, couples are called to practice responsible parenthood and in this way act in a manner truly worthy of the person.

The other way of living out the self-gift to which each and every human person is called is through the vocation of celibacy. The celibate person shows the rest of the world what we are ultimately called to and destined for in heaven: complete union with God. Contrary to what many people think, celibacy is not a repression of one’s sexuality. Rather, celibate men and women are called to use their sexual energy to make a gift of themselves to others in different ways: in service, in evangelization and spiritual parenthood, to name only a few.

John Paul II knows that living either calling is not easy. It is not even possible without the grace of Christ’s redemption. But, through the power of his death and resurrection, living true purity of heart in relationships is really possible, and not only possible, but necessary!
John Paul II is telling us we cannot let lust weigh us down!

John Paul II is telling us that we cannot let lust weigh us down! Christ does not condemn us but calls us to purity. “[Man] is called precisely to that supreme value that is love. He is called as a person in the truth of his humanity, therefore also in the truth of his masculinity or femininity, in the truth of his body. He is called in that truth which has been his heritage from the beginning, the heritage of his heart, which is deeper than the sinfulness inherited, deeper than lust… The words of Christ, set in the whole reality of creation and redemption, reactivate that deeper heritage and give it real power in human life.” (TOB Oct. 29, 1980)

Christ appeals to our hearts and calls us to freely choose a life that is in accord with our dignity as persons made in the image and likeness of God! Only in living our true dignity as men and women created in the image of God will we be truly fulfilled, will we be happy in the deepest possible sense, because this is the life that we were designed and created to live from the beginning.