George Weigel on Pope John Paul II's The Theology of the Body

The following is the text of George Weigel's discussion of Pope John Paul II's teachings on human sexuality. It is taken from Chapter 10, The Ways of Freedom, of his biography of the Pope, Witness to Hope.

 

 

NOTE 1: The footnotes are hyperlinked and will appear in a new window to prevent you losing your place in the text. Close the window after you have studied the footnote to return to your original place in the text.

NOTE 2: Click HERE to read George Weigel's separate discussion on The Humanae Vitae Controversy.

 
 

BODY LANGUAGE AND GOD-TALK

When Italy completed its unification by capturing Rome in 1870, Pope Pius IX declared himself the "Prisoner of the Vatican" and refused to travel outside the Leonine Wall surrounding the papal properties near St. Peter's Basilica. To maintain contact with the people among whom he had once traveled freely in his carriage, Pius began the custom of the "general audience," at which the pope met and spoke with a large group of pilgrims—in distinction from the "private audiences" popes granted to individual visitors, diplomats, high-ranking clergy, and so forth. In this respect, general audiences were a first effort at papal public relations in an age when public opinion was beginning to carry weight.

The general audience also renovated the ancient tradition of the bishop as a teacher. In the first centuries of the Church, bishops were not primarily administrators (deacons took care of the Church's temporal affairs) but preachers, teachers, theologians, and spiritual guides. Such great thinkers as Ambrose (bishop of Milan), Augustine (bishop of Hippo in North Africa), and John Chrysostom (bishop of Constantinople) worked out major parts of their theologies as preachers and teachers before large congregations of Christians. This was the tradition revived in the papal general audience, although Pius IX and his successors did not view the general audience as the place for imaginative theological exploration, usually limiting themselves to reflections on familiar themes.

John Paul II had something different in mind. In September 1979, he began using his weekly general audience—broadcast throughout the world on Vatican Radio and printed in the six weekly foreign language editions of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper—as a forum for weaving a richly complex theological tapestry based on a single overarching theme. The very idea of a series of "thematic audiences" was another innovation that caused eyebrows to be raised in the Roman Curia: What was this?15 The subject matter was even more explosive. Beginning on September 5, 1979, John Paul II spent four years' worth of general audiences developing an idea he had first proposed in Love and Responsibility—that human sexual love is an icon of the inner life of God, of the Holy Trinity.

One Act or Two?

The drama of John Paul's pontificate is often divided into two acts. In Act One, the Pope struggles against communism and is eventually vindicated by the Revolution of 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In Act Two, the Pope rejects many aspects of the new freedom he helped bring about, the sharpest confrontation coming at the Cairo World Conference on Population and Development in 1994. There is a grain of truth here. John Paul II certainly spent more time on the affairs of east central and eastern Europe in the first thirteen years of his pontificate than he did afterward. This conventional division of the story into two parts finally fails, though, because it reads the pontificate primarily through the prism of its impact on world politics, which for John Paul has always been a derivative set of considerations. Moreover, dividing the story this way does scant justice to the numerous public initiatives John Paul II took in the 1980s that were global in character, or had little or nothing to do directly with his native region. Most importantly, the "two-act" model of the pontificate of John Paul II fails to grasp the distinctive imagination that Karol Wojtyla brought to the papacy.

As he had written Henri de Lubac in 1968, Wojtyla believed that the crisis of modernity involved a "degradation, indeed ... a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person."16 Communism was one obvious, dangerous, and powerful expression of this crisis, as Nazism and fascism had been. But the dehumanization of the human world took place in other ways, and it could happen in free societies. Whenever another human being was reduced to an object for manipulation—by a manager, a shop foreman, a scientific researcher, a politician, or a lover—the "pulverization of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person" was taking place. What Wojtyla, used to describe to his social ethics classes as "utilitarianism," making "usefulness to me" the sole criterion of human relationships, was another grave threat to the human future. It was not a threat with nuclear weapons, secret police, and a Gulag archipelago, but it was dangerous, and part of the reason was that it was less obvious.

Challenging whatever "pulverizes" the unique dignity of every human person is the leitmotif that runs like a bright thread through the pontificate of John Paul II and gives it a singular coherence. His papacy has been a one-act drama, although different adversaries have taken center stage at different moments in the script. The dramatic tension remains the same throughout: the tension between various false humanisms that degrade the humanity they claim to defend and exalt, and the true humanism to which the biblical vision of the human person is a powerful witness.

In developing his idea of human sexual self-giving as an icon of the interior life of God, John Paul II was working out the implications of the very same concept of human dignity and human freedom with which he challenged communism in east central Europe. In his mind, it was, and is, all of a piece.

A New Galileo Crisis

When he was elected to the papacy, Karol Wojtyla knew that the Church's last effort to address the sexual revolution and its relationship to the moral life, Pope Paul's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, had been a pastoral and catechetical failure-however correct he thought it was on the specific question of the morally appropriate means of regulating fertility. Humanae Vitae's teaching on that question had been rejected by vast numbers of Catholics around the world. Many who rejected it felt that their experience of sexual love had been ignored or demeaned by their religious leaders. That feeling of rejection led to the conclusion that the Church had nothing of consequence to say about any aspect of human sexuality.

Paul VI, a deeply pastoral man, had no intention of demeaning the vocation of marriage. But a situation had been created in which anything the Church had to say about human sexuality after the "birth control encyclical" was viewed with suspicion and, in the case of Western elites, with active hostility. Since the sexual revolution sharpened the issues on which the definition of "freedom" was most hotly contested in the developed world, this communications chasm was a crisis of major proportions for the Church. It was another Galileo case, this time involving not arcane cosmological speculations but the most intimate aspects of the lives of the Church's people.

John Paul II believed it was the time to put the entire discussion on a new footing.

The Church had not found a voice with which to address the challenge of the sexual revolution. John Paul thought that he and his colleagues in Lublin and Krakow had begun to do that, in the understanding of human sexuality expressed in Love and Responsibility and in the work of the archdiocesan family life ministry under his leadership. Now it was time to deepen that analysis biblically and bring it to a world audience. The results were the 130 general audience addresses, spread over four years, that make up John Paul II's Theology of the Body.17

The audiences took place in four clusters. The first, entitled Original Unity of Man and Woman, began on September 5, 1979, and included twenty-three catecheses, concluding with the general audience of April 2, 1980. Drawing its theme from a phrase in Christ's dispute with the Pharisees about the permissibility of divorce—"Have you not read that He who made them from the beginning made them male and female ... ?" (Matthew 19.4)—Original Unity explored some of the most profoundly personal aspects of the human condition through the story of Adam and Eve in the first three chapters of Genesis. The second cluster of addresses, Blessed Are the Pure of Heart, began on April 16, 1980, and concluded on May 6, 1981, after forty-one catecheses. As the title indicates, its biblical inspiration was the Sermon on the Mount. In exploring "purity of heart, "John Paul undertook a lengthy analysis of Christ's saying that "everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5.28)—a crucial, if widely misunderstood, text for resisting the kind of sexual utilitarianism that turns another person into an object.18

The third cluster of audiences in John Paul's Theology of the Body began on November 11, 1981, and included fifty catecheses under the title The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy. The biblical foundation for this series, which concluded on July 4, 1984, was the dispute between Christ and the Sadducees about the resurrection. What, John Paul asks, does the idea of the "resurrection of the body" to a heaven in which "they neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Mark 12.23) tell us about our sexual embodiedness as male and female, here and now?19 The fourth and final cluster of sixteen addresses, Reflections on Humanae Vitae, began on July 11, 1984, and concluded on November 28, 1984.

The 130 texts in John Paul II's Theology of the Body did not make easy listening and do not make easy reading. They are highly compact theological and philosophical meditations into which the Pope tried to fit as much material as possible into a fifteen-minute catechetical talk. The difficulties notwithstanding, however, these texts repay careful study. In them, John Paul II, so often dismissed as "rigidly conservative," proposed one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in centuries.

Original Unity of Man and Woman

Cardinal Wojtyla had conceived the project that eventually became the first part of the Theology of the Body in Kraków. As he recalled years later, he brought his research materials into the conclave that elected Pope John Paul I in August 1978 and worked on the draft texts there.20 In addition to his pastoral concerns, Wojtyla the philosopher continued to find the fact that God had created humanity male and female a fascinating intellectual puzzle, an "interesting problem" in its own right, as he once put it. What did a humanity that expressed itself through maleness and femaleness tell us about the human condition in general, and about men and women in particular?21 Then there was the confusion in the Church after Humanae Vitae. Something had to be done to explain the Church's sexual ethic in a more persuasive way. Characteristically, Wojtyla decided to write a book about all this. The book he was drafting at Conclave I in 1978 unexpectedly became the material for his general audiences as Pope.

0riginal Unity of Man and Woman began with the polemics between Jesus and the Pharisees on the question of divorce.22 Why John Paul asks, did Christ, in rejecting the Mosaic practice of divorce, put so much emphasis on the fact that God had created human beings as male and female "in the beginning"a phrase that recurs twice in the biblical story (Matthew 19.3-12)? This leads the Pope into the creation stories in Genesis, which he treats as profound reflections on enduring truths about the human condition, conveyed through the device of mythic stories about human origins. The first creation story, he writes, links the mystery of man's creation as an "image of God" to the human capacity to procreate ("Be fruitful and multiply..."). The second creation account, emphasizing human self-awareness and moral choice, is the "subjective" counterpart to the "objective" truth in the first account—we are also images of God in our thinking and choosing. From different angles of vision, the two creation accounts testify to the dignity of being human, in which sexuality, procreation, and moral choosing are intimately linked.

John Paul had always liked to do philosophy from the standpoint of Adam in the Garden of Eden: to try to see the world fresh, to recapture the wonder and astonishment that Aristotle believed was the beginning of philosophy.23 In Original Unity, he reflects on Adam's wondrous sense of solitude, which reveals important things about the human condition. Adam's "original solitude," his being-alone, has two meanings. First, he is alone because he is neither an animal nor is he God—this is the solitude of human nature that he shares with Eve and every other human being throughout history. Thinking about this way of being-alone, we come to know ourselves as persons. We are different because we are thinking, choosing, acting subjects, not merely objects of nature. With this self-knowledge comes free will, the capacity to determine how we shall act. This means, at the most profound level, choosing between good and evil, life and death. In this choosing, we come to know ourselves as embodied persons, for there is no human choosing or acting without a body. The body is not a machine we happen to inhabit. The body through which we express who we are and act out the decisions we make is not accidental to who we are.

Second, Adam experiences himself as being-alone because there is no other human creature like him. Thus, for John Paul, the "complete and definitive creation of 'man"' only occurs when God creates Eve, and Adam recognizes Eve as a human creature like himself, although different.24 His joy at this discovery suggests that this aspect of our "original solitude" is overcome by that remarkable process in which I am genuinely united to another while finding my own identity not only intact, but enhanced.

This, John Paul contends, is what "creation" is for—and that tells us something important about who God the creator is. Men and women are images of God, not only through intellect and free will, but above all "through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning.... Man becomes the image of God ... in the moment of communion."25 This yearning for a radical giving of self and receiving of another, which Adam symbolically affirms by recognizing Eve as "flesh of my flesh," is at the foundation of our humanity. It carries with it, "from the beginning," the blessing of fertility, another way human persons are images of God, for procreation reproduces the mystery of creation.

Thus, "from the beginning," our creation as embodied persons and as male and female is a sacramental reality, an icon of the life of God. The body makes visible the invisible, the spiritual, and the divine. In the Genesis stories, we meet the extraordinary side of the ordinary, this time through our embodiedness and our sexuality.

If our sexuality is built into us "from the beginning," why did Adam and Eve become ashamed of their nakedness? John Paul suggests that "original nakedness," with "original solitude" and "original unity," is the third part of the puzzle of who we are "from the beginning." "Shame" is, essentially, fear of the other, and we become afraid of the other when he or she becomes an object for us. Adam and Eve were not ashamed of their nakedness when they were living in a mutuality of self-giving, in a truly nuptial relationship expressed through their embodiedness as male and female. They were not ashamed when they were living freedom-as-giving. The "original sin" is to violate the Law of the Gift built into us, to turn the other into an object, a thing to be used. And this is a sin, not because God unilaterally and arbitrarily declares it to be so, but because it violates the truth of the human condition inscribed in us as male and female.

Read carefully, the stories of the creation of the human world in Genesis reveal that human flourishing depends on self-giving, not self-assertion. Mutual self-giving in sexual love, made possible by our embodiedness as male and female, is an icon of that great moral truth.

Blessed Are the Pure of Heart

John Paul begins the second series of audience addresses in his revolutionary theology of the body with another biblical scene. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is laying out the moral implications of living a life of beatitude—a life that includes "purity of heart"—and says, "You have heard it said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5.27-28). It has seemed, for centuries, a very difficult, even impossibly high, standard. Yet for John Paul, this text is just as much a "key" to the theology of the body as Christ's reference to our being created male and female "from the beginning."26

Sin, the Pope explains, enters the world as a corruption of genuine selfgiving, which is motivated by love. When that self-giving is experienced as restraint rather than fulfillment, love decays into lust, and the icon of created goodness (and of the Creator) that was sexual love "in the beginning" is broken. Human beings lose their "original certainty" that the world is good and that we are fit for living in it in communion with others. The difference between male and female, once a source of identity in communion, becomes a source of confrontation. "The world" becomes a place of fear and toil, and there is a basic rupture in the relationship between creature and Creator. The human heart becomes a battlefield between love and lust, between selfmastery and self-assertion, between freedom as giving and freedom as taking—which is often at the expense of the woman, the Pope notes. All of this, to go back to Genesis, is the result of acquiescing to the satanic temptation to redefine the humanity built into us as male and female. On this papal reading of the text, "the serpent" in Genesis is the first and most lethal purveyor of a false humanism.

Christ's words about the "adultery of the heart" now come into clearer focus. Lust, the Pope suggests, is the opposite of true attraction. True attraction desires the other's good through the gift of myself, lust desires my own transitory pleasure through the use (and even abuse) of the other. The woman at whom a man gazes lustfully is an object, not a person, and sex is reduced to a utilitarian means to satisfy a "need."27 This "adultery of the heart" can even take place within marriage—not because the object of a man's lust is not is wife, but because the lustful look turns a wife into an object and shatters the communion of persons.28

This suggestion of the possibility of adultery-within-marriage set off a firestorm in the world media, which was not assuaged when the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, sniffed in response that some of those complaining lacked an "adequate cultural background" to understand what John Paul was saying.29 Yet the Pope's description of adultery-in-marriage paralleled statements that had been made by feminists for years, and was clearly implied by the theology of the body he had been developing for more than a year. If one assumed that John Paul II was a Polish Manichaean who found sex distasteful and dirty, one might conclude that his reflection on adultery-within-marriage was a particularly odd expression of his neuroses. To those who had taken seriously the Pope's argument that sexual love within marriage is an icon of the interior life of God because it expresses a communion of persons, the Pope's statement about adultery-within-marriage made perfect sense.

The Christian sexual ethic, John Paul taught, redeemed sexuality from the trap of lust. Far from prohibiting eros, the Christian ethic liberates eros for a "full and mature spontaneity" in which the "perennial attraction" of the sexes finds its fulfillment in mutual self-giving and a mutual affirmation of the dignity of each partner.30 The "new ethic" of the Sermon on the Mount and Christ's teaching about the beatitude of the "pure of heart" is an ethic of "the redemption of the body," a rediscovery in history of the truth of self-giving as the truth of the human condition "from the beginning."31

This ethic did not do away with desire. Rather, it sought to channel our desires "from the heart," so that those desires were fulfilled as they should bein the communion of persons which is the image of God.32 "Purity of the heart" is an aptitude, a virtue, the capacity to channel desire toward self-mastery "in holiness and honor."33 Sexual love lived in "purity of heart" becomes a means of sanctification as the communion of persons is completed in holiness. Christians, the Pope suggests, will find a special motivation for living their sexuality this way, because the human body was the vehicle through which God became man and through which Christ completed the redemption of the world.34

There is a nobility and dignity to our being male and female because the self-giving of male and female in sexual love is the visible expression of the interior moral "structure" of the human person.35 False humanisms imagine human beings to be infinitely plastic and malleable. A true humanism—and a true freedom—recognizes that, because certain truths are built into the human condition, human flourishing depends on living out those truths.36 Human sexuality John Paul insists, unveils some of those truths.

The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy

In the Gospel of Mark, the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection of the dead, tried to reduce the notion of resurrection to an absurdity, posing the case of a woman who serially marries seven brothers, all of whom die without giving her children. To which of these seven men, the Sadducees ask, will the woman be married after the resurrection of the dead? Jesus replies that, in the Kingdom of Heaven "they neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Mark 12.23). If the resurrection gives men and women the fullness of life promised by God "from the beginning," doesn't Jesus' reply devalue and degrade marriage and sexuality? In the third part of his Theology of the Body, John Paul argues that precisely the opposite is the case.

Life in the Kingdom of God is life in perfect self-giving and perfect receptivity. It is life "within" the interior life of God, so to speak, a Trinity of Persons who perfectly give and perfectly receive throughout eternity. "Giving" in the Kingdom is the perfect gift of self to God and the perfect reception of God's self-gift by men and women in their resurrected bodies. "Resurrection" does not mean the loss of our bodies, which would be dehumanizing. It does, in some sense, mean the divinization of our bodies, as we come to resemble the risen Christ, who remains God and man. This "divinization" of human beings is the fulfillment of the nuptial meaning of the human body, an icon of the Law of the Gift built into creation as a reflection of the inner dynamism of God's own life.37

Celibacy lived "for the Kingdom" anticipates, in history, life in the promised Kingdom of God, in which there will be "perfect donation" without marriage. Marriage, which has an element of exclusivity built into it, will not be part of a heavenly life in which all the redeemed live in what the Pope terms "perfect intersubjectivity," a modern philosophical image of what Christian tradition calls "the communion of saints."38 In the world and in history, marriage is a school in which we become fitted for life in the Kingdom by learning to make a complete gift of self to another. The celibate must also become fitted for the Kingdom by learning to make that complete gift of self. Celibacy should be fruitful, leading to spiritual paternity and maternity, as marriage does through the procreation, rearing, and education of children. Marriage and celibacy are two complementary, "conjugal" ways of living a Christian life. Celibacy, lived "for the Kingdom," becomes an icon illuminating the condition that awaits all the faithful in the Kingdom, while marriage is the icon of God's spousal love for his people, Israel, and for the Church.39

Marriage John Paul continues, is in a sense the "most ancient sacrament," for "from the beginning" it was the ordinary reality that revealed the extraordinary fact of creation as an act of self-giving love. In the sacrament of marriage, husband and wife are the ministers of God's grace, and the "language of the body" in marital love is the way in which a couple carries out the "conjugal dialogue" appropriate to marriage as a vocation.40 For the Christian, conjugal love is also an icon of the redemption, for love between husband and wife has been recognized since New Testament times as an image of Christ's love for his bride, the Church.41 Marriage gains a new richness of meaning by being understood as the human reality that best mirrors the relationship between the redeeming Christ and the people He has redeemed. God's purposes in creation and redemption are both revealed in marriage.42 And here the question of divorce, contested throughout Christian history, comes into clearer focus. If a sacramental marriage, an icon of God's creative and redeeming love, is dissoluble, then so is God's love for the world and Christ's love for the Church.*

*This does not, of course, resolve the question of what constitutes a sacramental, and thus indissoluble, marriage. But it does suggest the gravity of what is at stake in this issue.43

The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy ends with John Paul's most dramatic celebration of marital love. Sexual love, he concludes, is an act of worship. "Conjugal life becomes ... liturgical" when the "language of the body" becomes the means to encounter, through an experience of the sacred, what God had willed for the world and for humanity "from the beginning." The sexual gift of self, freely offered and freely received within the covenant of marriage, becomes a way to sanctify the world .44

Reflections on Humanae Vitae

In the fourth cluster of meditations in John Paul's Theology of the Body, the Pope asks how the good of sexual love is to be used to promote human happiness. How is sexual love to be lived chastely? To bring sexuality within the ambit of the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance, John Paul proposes, is to live a life of sexual love most humanly.

In dealing with these difficult questions, Humanae Vitae had put the moral challenge of marital chastity in the rather negative context of "endurance." John Paul's Theology of the Body repositions the entire question, asking how various ways of living a life of sexual love fit into the iconography of marriage. The challenge is to live out our embodiedness as male and female—to live sexual love—so that sexual love in marriage becomes the most illuminating possible icon of self-giving.45

The Pope begins by teaching that all married couples are called to "responsible parenthood." The issue involved is not merely "avoiding another birth." The truly human challenge is building a family according to the virtue of prudence. judgments about the number of children they can responsibly raise are judgments a married couple must make "before God" in the tribunal of conscience. Judgments about "fertility regulation" (a better term than "birth control," in the Pope's view) are not judgments. that anyone else can make for them. There can be "morally worthy reasons" for limiting fertility; given collapsing birth rates in some societies, there can also be morally worthy reasons for having bigger families than might first seem appropriate to a couple.

If family planning is a grave moral responsibility for everyone living the vocation of marriage, the next question is how to regulate fertility and live responsible parenthood, so that the spouses' human dignity is protected and the iconography of married love as mutual self-donation is honored. John Paul argues that it is dehumanizing to transfer mechanical and chemical methods, appropriate to humanity's domination of nature, to the realm of sexual love. Periodic abstinence from sexual activity, using the natural rhythms of the body as the means for regulating fertility, is a more humanistic method of exercising procreative responsibility and living marital love chastely. It is also more in tune with the sacramental character of marriage, for it gives bodily expression to the fact that married couples are the "ministers of the design" that God has built into procreation. Living the virtue of marital chastity, the couple's relationship to the natural rhythms of fertility is ennobled and, from a Christian perspective, becomes a vehicle of grace.46

John Paul suggests that what is "natural" is what best conforms to human dignity, to the nature of the human person as an intelligent creature called to maturity through self-mastery.47 Repositioning the discussion of sexual morality within the broader horizon of a genuine humanism, the first moral question shifts from "What am I forbidden to do?" to "How do I live a life of sexual love that conforms with my dignity as a human person?" Within that context, some things are still not to be done. But they are not to be done because they demean our humanity and damage the communion of persons which sexual love is intended to foster.48

Growing into the maturity of self-mastery is not easy. Living marital chastity means thinking of marriage as a vocation to be grown into, as a couple grows in the love "poured into [their] hearts as a gift of the Holy Spirit." A couple's maturation into a communion of persons involves sexual expression and sexual abstinence, ecstasy and asceticism. To remove that tension from married life is to empty it of one crucial aspect of its inherent drama, and its humanity. Truth and love can never be separated in the mysterious, ecstatic, ascetic "language of the body."49

A Theological Time Bomb?

The Church and the world will be well into the twenty-first century, and perhaps far beyond, before Catholic theology has fully assimilated the contents of these 130 general audience addresses.50 If it is taken with the seriousness it deserves, John Paul's Theology of the Body may prove to be the decisive moment in exorcising the Manichaean demon and its deprecation of human sexuality from Catholic moral theology. Few moral theologians have taken our embodiedness as male and female as seriously as John Paul II. Few have dared push the Catholic sacramental intuition-the invisible manifest through the visible, the extraordinary that lies on the far side of the ordinary—quite as far as John Paul does in teaching that the self-giving love of sexual communion is an icon of the interior life of God. Few have dared say so forthrightly to the world, "Human sexuality is far greater than you imagine." Few have shown more persuasively how recovering the dramatic structure of the moral life revitalizes the ethics of virtue and takes us far beyond the rule-obsessed morality of "progressives" and "conservatives."

John Paul's Theology of the Body has ramifications for all of theology. It challenges us to think of sexuality as a way to grasp the essence of the humanand through that, to discern something about the divine. In the Theology of the Body, our being embodied as male and female "in the beginning" is a window into the nature and purposes of the Creator God. Angelo Scola, rector of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, goes so far as to suggest that virtually every thesis in theology—God, Christ, the Trinity, grace, the Church, the sacraments—could be seen in a new light if theologians explored in depth the rich personalism implied in John Paul Il's theology of the body.51

Few contemporary theologians have taken up the challenge implicit in this dramatic proposal. Fewer priests preach these themes. A very small, even microscopic, percentage of the world's Catholics even know that a "theology of the body" exists. Why? The density of John Paul's material is one factor; a secondary literature capable of "translating" John Paul's thought into more accessible categories and vocabulary is badly needed. The "canon" of Church controversies as defined by the media-birth control, abortion, divorce, women in Holy Orders—is also an obstacle to a real engagement with John Paul's thought. John Paul II's Theology of the Body is emphatically not made for the age of the twenty-second sound-bite, or for a media environment in which every idea must be labeled "liberal" or "conservative." It may also be the case that John Paul II's Theology of the Body will only be seriously engaged when John Paul, lightning rod of controversy, is gone from the historical stage. These 130 catechetical addresses, taken together, constitute a kind of theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.

When that happens, perhaps in the twenty-first century, the Theology of the Body may well be seen as a critical moment not only in Catholic theology, but in the history of modern thought. For 350 years, Western philosophy has insisted on beginning with the human subject, the thinking subject. Karol Wojtyla, philosopher, took this "turn to the subject" seriously; John Paul II has taken it seriously as a theologian. By insisting that the human subject is always an embodied subject whose embodiedness is critical to his or her selfunderstanding and relationship to the world, John Paul took modernity's 11 anthropological turn" with utmost seriousness. By demonstrating that the dignity of the human person can be "read" from that embodiedness, he helped enrich the modern understanding of freedom, of sexual love, and of the relationship between them.

 
 

Footnotes:
15 Author's interview with Cardinal Pio Laghi, November 5, 1996. Return
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16 Cited in de Lubac, At the Service of the Church, p. 172. Return
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17 John Paul II, The Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1997). Return
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18 The confusions attendant on this text had been made obvious, yet again, in the reactions to Jimmy Carter's confession to a Playboy magazine interviewer during the 1976 U.S. presidential campaign that he had committed adultery in his heart. Return
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19 This series was interrupted for a year, from February 9,1983, to May 23,1984, as the Church observed a special Holy Year of the Redemption and the Pope dedicated his general audience addresses to this theme. Return
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20 Author's conversation with Pope John Paul II, March 20, 1997. Return
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21 Ibid. Return
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22 John Paul II, Original Unity of Man and Woman (Boston: St. Paul Books and Media, 1981). Return
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23 Author's conversation with Pope John Paul II, March 20, 1997. Return
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24 John Paul II, Original Unity of Man and Woman, p. 73. Return
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25 Ibid., pp. 73-74. On this point, see also Mary Rousseau, 'John Paul II's Teaching on Women," in The Catholic Woman, Ralph McInerny, ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), pp. 12-13. Return
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26 John Paul II, Blessed Are the Pure of Heart (Boston: St. Paul Books and Media, 1983), p. 19. Return
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27 Ibid., p. 131. Return
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28 Ibid., pp. 142-149. Return
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29 Ibid., p. 150. Return
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30 Ibid., p. 185. Return
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31 Ibid., p. 191. Return
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32 Ibid., pp. 194-195. Return
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33 Ibid., p. 229. Return
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34 Ibid., pp. 241-246. Return
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35 John Paul criticizes pornography in this context. "Privacy" is essential if sexual self-giving is to be genuine mutual self-donation. Pornography violates the "right of privacy" built into the moral structure of human sexuality by turning what is most intensely personal and subjective into public property, an "object." [Ibid., pp. 276-289.] This analysis is particularly interesting in the U.S. context, in which the Supreme Court has declared "privacy" a freestanding liberty right that legally justifies virtually any consensual sexual activity. But this is a "privacy" devoid of moral structure; and as such, it tends to destroy the intensely interpersonal nature of sexual love, by turning the "other" into an anonymous sexual object. Return
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36 Ibid., p. 292. Return
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37 John Paul II, The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1986), pp. 17-38. Return
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38 Ibid., pp. 83-89. Return
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39 Ibid., pp. 96-111; 171-177. Return
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40 Ibid,. pp. 301-307. Return
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41 Ibid., pp. 191-197. Return
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42 Ibid., pp. 215-224. Return
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43 Ibid., pp. 276-282. Return
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44 Ibid., pp. 363-368. Return
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45 John Paul II, Reflections on Humanae Vitae (Boston: St. Paul Books and Media, 1984), pp. 13-18. Return
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46 Ibid., pp. 35-40. Return
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47 Ibid., pp. 41-47. Return
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48 Ibid., pp. 61-67. Return
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49 Ibid., p. 93. Return
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50 This brief summary does scant justice to the richness of John Paul's reflections or to their extensive mining of ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary sources. To take but two examples: The notes to the second address in Original Unity of Man and Woman discuss the various positions taken on God's self-definition in Exodus 3.14 by Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Meister Eckhardt-the last as interpreted by the great modern Thomist, Etienne Gilson. The notes to the third address include a lengthy discussion of the different views of "myth" proposed by Rudolf Otto, Carl Gustav Jung, Mircea Eliade, Paul Tillich, Heinrich Schlier, and Paul Ricoeur, with special reference to the latter's analysis of the "Adamic myth" in Genesis. Return
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51 Author's interview with Bishop Angelo Scola, February 26, 1997. Return
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  Witness to Hope ©1999 George Weigel Published by Cliff Street Books/Harper Collins