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by Dr Mary Shivanandan

The theology of the body is a working term that Pope John Paul II used to draw attention to the significance of the body in expressing the image of God in man and woman and their communion in the manner of the Trinity. It is a central concept in his catechesis on marriage and family, 1979-1984, published as The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan. Begun as preparation for the synod on the family (1980) it was a response in part to Paul VI's request to provide answers from Scripture on the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood. John Paul II goes back to the "beginning" as Christ went back in answer to the Pharisees' question on divorce (Matt. 19). Only if we understand God's plan for man, woman, and marriage in the "beginning" is it possible to discover the truth of marriage, sexuality, and procreation to which we are called even today.

In the two Genesis accounts of man's creation and fall from grace (Gen. 1:1-4:1) the pope outlines what he calls "an adequate anthropology." While the first account describes objectively man's creation as male and female made in the image of God and blessed by fertility, the second account is more from the viewpoint of the human subject. Men and woman come to an awareness of who they are as persons with intellect and will. From naming the animals and tilling the earth Adam, created first, discovers his uniqueness (incommunicability) or solitude in creation This "original solitude" bears two meanings: (1) his human identity and (2) his lack of another being like himself. This awareness of a lack shows that man is intrinsically open and ordered to relationship with another. Here John Paul adopts the view of the person's existence as substance intrinsically open to relation, integrating it with two passages in Gaudium et Spes (# 22 and 24) which refer to man's union with Christ and likeness to the Trinity as a communion of persons.

With the creation of Eve from his side, a human being like himself (a double solitude) but with a different bodily manifestation, Adam comes to fuller knowledge of his personhood and his masculinity. Both are essential to the "original unity" of man and woman, which is expressed in their one-flesh union. The dual unity of Adam and Eve as two sexually differentiated incommunicable beings always oriented to the other, gives rise to a third, the child. Only an asymmetrical unity can be fruitful. With the creation of woman the possibility for love arose. Their communion is conditioned by the hermeneutics of the gift. In the likeness of the Trinity man and woman, having received themselves as gift, can only find themselves in total mutual self-gift.

All these truths are expressed in the body and give rise to its "nuptial" meaning. Through masculinity and femininity the body is apt for love. This is a powerful antidote to the secular dualist view of body and soul and the person as an autonomous individual. In Mulieris  Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), John Paul affirms both the equal dignity of women and their unique vocation to love arising from their femininity, which is expressed particularly by their bodily receptivity and capacity for motherhood. While feminists affirm John Paul's emphasis on the woman's subjectivity, they decry his emphasis on motherhood. The asymmetrical unity of the "nuptial mystery" is equally opposed to the separation proposed by "difference feminism," as well as the androgyny envisioned by "equality feminism."

The integrity of the person is a condition for a true communion. In the grace of original innocence, Adam and Eve were free from shame expressed by nakedness; they possessed perfect harmony of body and soul. John Paul II calls this the first horizon of a theology of the body. In the second, the historical state of sin, he shows how man and woman lost this harmony through the fall. They experienced a radical disturbance within themselves and in their mutual relation. Christ came to re-create and restore man to his destiny of communion with each other and with the Trinity. By his self-giving death on the cross, he not only calls man and woman once again to communion but gives them the power to live it even if it remains imperfect in this life. Concupiscence, arising from original sin, distorts but does not destroy the body-soul unity. The passion of eros finds its fullest expression in the total mutual self-giving of spousal love.

The fourth horizon of a theology of the body, the resurrected state, is a completely new state of divinization of the human person and the communion of persons. Consecrated celibacy, which points to this state, is a different way of living the nuptial meaning of the body in total dedication to God. All four states are essential for a theology of the body. Reflections on the sacramentality of marriage and its relations to the sacramentality of the Church and the "primordial sacrament" of creation, the prophetic language of the body, and Humanae Vitae complete the pope's catechesis.

Critics find fault with John Paul for his use of Scripture and his "unrealistic" view of marriage. Prendergast points out that the discrimen John Paul uses in his interpretation of Scripture is the "wholeness" of the Old and New Testaments as ordered to Christ according to the criteria of Dei Verbum. An innovation arising from his phenomenological approach is his linking of revelation and experience at its greatest depths even in the unconscious. The popular response to his theology of the body seems to support his confidence in ordinary "lived experience." Taken out of the context, however, of Christ as the model and source for total self-giving on the cross, his theology of the body could lead to unrealistic expectations of marriage.

George Weigel referred to the theology of the body as a "time-bomb" waiting to go off in the twenty-first century and it is considered one of John Paul's great contributions to the Church. Drawing together all his previous philosophical research on the human person and sexuality this theological anthropology becomes the foundation for all his later encyclicals on man and society from Familiaris Consortio to Fides et Ratio.

BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READING: John Paul II, Pope. The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1997; Schmitz, Kenneth At the Center of the Human Drama: The Philosophical Anthropology of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1993; Scola, Angelo, "The Nuptial Mystery at the Heart of the Church." Communio (Winter 1998): 630-62; Shivanandan, Mary. A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II's Anthropology. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1999; See also FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO; FAMILY; SEXUALITY (HUMAN)

The above article is reproduced from Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought edited by Michael Coulter et al, published by Scarecrow Press, appears by permission of the publisher. This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint. 

Version: 13th February 2009

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