Theology of the Body
May 18, 2020

Today is the centenary of the birth of Pope John Paul II, who was far and away the greatest Christian leader of the twentieth century. In honor of his birth, here are some notes on the first section of his monumental Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 133 addresses delivered at the Vatican between 1979 and 1984.

For Protestant readers, one of the most striking things about this work is the Pope’s reliance on Scripture. He addresses contemporary philosophical questions, and frequently remarks on the way that Scripture anticipates these questions, and presents a subtle and profound response to questions that arise in the most sophisticated of modern cultural contexts. There is a confidence in Scripture here that would do any Protestant proud, an expectation that the ancient word of God will provide guidance in addressing today’s problems.

The first twenty-three homilies develop a fundamental anthropology and theology of the body. Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:8 provide the starting point: “from the beginning it has not been this way.” Jesus distinguishes between the situation that was in force when Moses gave permission for divorce and the situation at the “beginning.” He distinguishes between man as created or “theological” man and “historical man.” There is a boundary between the two, and there is no return to the beginning.

At the same time, it is critical for John Paul that it is possible for us “in some sense [to] pass beyond the boundary that runs, in the Yahwist text of Genesis, between man’s first and second situation.” He reaches back beyond the fall for the standards of relations between the sexes. The original order of nature is still in force, such that we can draw normative conclusions from it (3.4); there is a continuity in man despite the discontinuity (4.1).

John Paul emphasizes that man participates in history of sin and salvation and that human experience stops at boundary, at the gate of Eden, as it were. He acknowledges that this experience is indispensable: experience in a world of sin. Following the lead of Jesus, he also insists that the boundary cannot be the stopping point for the theological understanding of body or sex. In fact, we cannot understand the situation of historical man without passing beyond this boundary, without recognizing that the state of historical man is a departure from the original state of innocence (4.2) and outside the history of redemption, of which man is a “subject and co-creator” (4.3).

We need revelation to pass beyond that boundary. Without that revelation, we are left only with the depressing and tragic experience of historical man.  Only the reality of a beginning gives us confidence in the future redemption of the body.

One of the things we learn “from the beginning” has to do with Adam’s original solitude, which is the basis for John Paul’s emphasis on subjectivity, individuality, and interiority. Before he can define himself over against another of his own kind, Adam discovers himself in knowledge of the creation, by recognizing that he cannot find a suitable mate among the animals. Creation is a source of self-knowledge (5.6), and that is inherently a knowledge of his own body: Adam’s body is incompatible with the bodies of the animals. The difference of Adam from the animals is evident in bodily actions and structures. John Paul speaks of the “superiority” of Adam to the creation revealed in the structure of the human body, which enable Adam to be capable of specifically human activities (ch. 2).

Adam’s original solitude is also the revelation of a surplus in man that goes beyond his relation to creation or even to other human beings.  Consciousness of his body and of his body’s difference from that of the animals is the source of his self-consciousness as a person, the first dawning of his subjectivity (6.4). Adam’s isolation as originally created reveals his subjectivity. 

The beginning also reveals the truth of sexual differentiation. Once again the focus is on the body. Adam and Eve both have bodies that contrast with the bodies of the animals. The fact that man is a body prior to the differentiation of their bodies leads the Pope to conclude that the “fact that man is a ‘body’ belongs more deeply to the structure of the personal subject than the fact that in his somatic constitution he is also male or female.” This sets John Paul for his later points concerning the eschatological role of the body and the fact that even in a state of continence one can have a spousal body.

The bodies of Adam and Eve not only point to sexual differentiation, but the correspondence of the different bodies of Adam and Eve manifest the fact that they are created for one another. Eve is created as a “helper suitable” or “corresponding to” Adam. They are created for union as persons, for personal community, and this created intention is marked in their bodies. A woman’s body is made for a feminine self-gift to a man; a man’s body is made for masculine self-gift to the woman. The theology of the body is a theology of sexuality, but not only that. It is not only in sexual intercourse that they have bodies made for self-gift and personal communion. The fact that human life is to be lived “for” another is evident in the structure of the body.

The beginning condition was a condition of nakedness without shame.  Shame, John Paul says, is “fear in the presence of a second I.” Shame involves withdrawal from visibility, a retreat from the visibility of mutual communion.  That was lacking in the beginning. 

But the shameless nakedness of the beginning is not merely a negative, a lack; it is a positive condition of “fullness of consciousness and experience” (12.2).  Adam and Eve stand in full view of one another; their shameless nakedness involves reciprocal vision of one another. This is not merely an exterior gaze but includes an interior one: Original nakedness “corresponds to the simplicity and fullness of vision in which their understanding of the meaning of the body is born from the very heart, as it were, of their community-communion” (13.1). We see the original good of vision, vision from which neither shrinks in withdrawal (shame is the withdrawal from visibility, the sense that one does not have a right to be in the visible world).

The differentiated bodies of man and woman need to be understood according to a “hermeneutics of the gift.” Creation itself is gift, radical gift (13.3), a gift that is made in the very giving of it. It is not a gift given to a pre-existing recipient, rather a gift that gives rise to the recipient. Man is God’s gift to the world (13.4), and in the creation of man as male and female we have human life shaped in terms of gift and return gift.

The creation of Eve makes it possible for human life to be a life of self-gift and reciprocal return gift. The suitedness of male and female for one another is a sign of the goodness of all creation, the gift character of everything that God made. The bodily fittingness of male and female points to the Love that is the source of creation. Man and woman both have spousal bodies (14.1).

This has implications for the theology of sex. Sex in Eden is not a “drive” that includes compulsion, but rather an expression of self-gift, an expression of the fact that one exists for the other. The body in sex expresses the person by expressing the reciprocity and mutuality of personal relations. Given that man is given a spousal body, sex is personal communion and expression of person for another (14.3). To have a spousal body is to have power to give and to love, to give oneself in one’s body as an expression of love (15.1). This gift is a free gift, a gift of a person who has will and consciousness and subjectivity to another person who responds with will and consciousness and subjectivity.  In this reciprocal gift, man as male and female realizes his personal being, realizes himself as image of God (15.1).

Male and female bodies with their differentiation and suitedness are not merely unitive, but also fruitful, procreative. By uniting in personal bodily communion, men and women reproduce themselves, become fruitful. The Pope says that the female body is fulfilled in this fruitfulness; the fulfillment of the spousal meaning of femininity is in motherhood. By the same token, the masculine body fulfills itself in fruitfulness, as father. Spousal bodies come to their full realization as paternal and maternal bodies. Spousal bodies are also generative bodies.

By expressing love in gift-giving, the body is fulfilled, the body expresses the spirit, and the communion of persons manifests the communion of the Triune persons. This is the image of God. Humanity is created for marriage. Humanity as male and female created to unite in one flesh as a fulfillment and expression of the image of God, and to be creative in that union (19.1). Thus the body is the sign of the “invisible mystery of God” in the visible world (19.4). In the self-gift of spousal bodies in marriage, we have a primordial sacrament, man as a sacrament of divine life and divine love.

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