The Theology of the Body: An Education in Being Human
by Christopher West
words of Genesis that establish marriage as a union of the two
"in one flesh" (Gn 2:24), we read that the first man and woman
were both naked yet "felt no shame" (Gn 2:25).
Suppose I were to suggest that these evocative words hold the
key to understanding God's plan for human life. Furthermore,
suppose I were to suggest that the only way to "see" the
invisible mystery of God is through the vision of the human body
in its masculinity and femininity? Even more, suppose I were to
suggest that the inner "logic" of the Christian mystery itself
is simply unintelligible unless we understand the meaning of
sexual difference and our call to nuptial communion?
At this point, you might think I am a bit preoccupied with the
human body. You might even think I've been overly influenced by
our culture's obsession with all things sexual. Understandable.
But what if Pope John Paul II were suggesting these things?
Indeed, these - among other things - are proposals John Paul
makes in the first major catechetical project of his pontificate
known as the "theology of the body." In this collection of 129
audience addresses delivered between September 1979 and November
1984, John Paul developed what promises to be one of his most
enduring and important contributions to the Church and the
The theology of the body is a scriptural reflection on the human
experience of embodiment connected as it is with erotic desire
and our longing for union. It's divided into two main parts.
First, the Pope develops an "adequate anthropology" based on the
words of Christ. In order to have a "total vision of man," we
must look to our experience of embodiment "in the beginning" (Mt
19:8), in our history (Mt 5:27-28), and in our destiny (Mt
22:30). In the second part of his catechesis, John Paul applies
his distinctive Christian humanism to the vocations of celibacy
and marriage, and also to the moral issue raised by Pope Paul
VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae.
Of course, in a brief article such as this, we can only provide
a thumbnail sketch of the actual content of the Pope's
revolutionary catechesis. We'll begin with his main idea.
THE POPE'S THESIS
The Pope's thesis, if we let it sink in, is sure to
revolutionize the way we understand the human body and
sexuality. "The body, and it alone," John Paul says, " is
capable of making visible what is invisible, the spiritual and
divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of
the world, the invisible mystery hidden in God from time
immemorial, and thus to be a sign of it" (Feb 20, 1980).
A mouthful of scholarly verbiage, I know. What does it mean? As
physical, bodily creatures we simply cannot see God. He's pure
Spirit. But God wanted to make his mystery visible to us so he
stamped a sign of it into our bodies by creating us as male and
female in his own image (Gn 1:27).
The function of this image is to reflect the Trinity, "an
inscrutable divine communion of [three] Persons" (Nov 14, 1979).
Thus, in a dramatic development of Catholic thought, John Paul
concludes that "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." And,
the Pope adds, "On all of this, right from 'the beginning,'
there descended the blessing of fertility linked with human
The body has a "nuptial meaning" because it reveals man and
woman's call to become a gift for one another, a gift fully
realized in their "one flesh" union. The body also has a
"generative meaning" that (God willing) brings a "third" into
the world through their communion. In this way, marriage
constitutes a "primordial sacrament" understood as a sign that
truly communicates the mystery of God's Trinitarian life and
love to husband and wife - and through them to their children,
and through the family to the whole world.
Of course, as the Catechism points out, this does not mean that
God is "sexual." God "is pure spirit in which there is no place
for the difference between the sexes. But the respective
'perfections' of man and woman reflect something of the infinite
perfection of God" (CCC, n. 370). This is why the Pope speaks of
sexuality precisely as a sign of God's mystery. Following the
Scriptures, he uses the man and woman's union as an analogy by
which to understand something of the divine mystery. God's
"mystery remains transcendent in regard to this analogy as in
regard to any other analogy, whereby we seek to express it in
human language. At the same time, however, this analogy offers
the possibility of a certain ... 'penetration' into the very
essence of the mystery" (Sep 29, 1982).
In the beginning, Adam and Eve experienced their communion as a
real participation in God's own mystery of love. The very
sentiment of sexual desire as God created it to be was to love
as God loves in the sincere gift of self. Since this call to
love is the summary of the Gospel, John Paul can say that if we
live according to the nuptial meaning of our bodies, we "fulfill
the very meaning of [our] being and existence" (Jan 16, 1980).
It is for this reason that a man clings to his wife and they
become "one flesh" (see Gn 2:24).
In his exegesis of the creation accounts, the Holy Father speaks
of this original unity of the sexes as flowing out of the human
being's experience of original solitude. Man realized in naming
the animals that he alone was aware of himself and free to
determine his own actions; he alone was a person called to love.
It's on the basis of this solitude - an experience common to
male and female - that man experiences erotic desire and his
longing for union.
While among the animals there was no "helper fit for him," upon
awaking from his "deep sleep" the man immediately declares:
"This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Gn
2:23). That is to say, "Finally, a person I can love." How did
he know that she too was a person called to love? Her naked body
revealed the mystery!
Prior to the rupture of body and soul caused by sin, the body
enabled them to see and know each other "with all the peace of
the interior gaze, which creates… the fullness of the intimacy
of persons" (Jan 2, 1980). Living in complete accord with the
nuptial meaning of their bodies, the experience of original
nakedness was untainted by shame (Gn 2:25).
The entrance of shame indicates a radical change in their
experience of embodiment. It indicates the loss of grace and
holiness. "Original man" gives way to "historical man" who must
now contend with lust in his heart.
Lust is erotic desire void of God's love. Hence, if we even look
lustfully at others, we've already committed adultery in our
hearts (see Mt 5:28). Christ's words are severe in this regard.
John Paul poses the question: "Are we to fear the severity of
these words, or rather have confidence in their salvific
content, in their power?" (Oct 8, 1980).
Their power lies in the fact that the man who utters them is
"the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29).
Christ didn't die and rise from the dead merely to give us
coping mechanisms for sin. His death and resurrection are
efficacious. They effectively "liberate our liberty from the
domination of concupiscence," as John Paul expresses it.
On this side of heaven, we will always be able to recognize a
battle in our hearts between love and lust. Even so, John Paul
insists that "the redemption of the body" (see Ro 8:23) is
already at work in men and women of history. This means if we
open our bodies once again to the "breath" of the Holy Spirit,
we can experience a "real and deep victory" over lust. We can
progressively rediscover in what is erotic that original nuptial
meaning of the body and live it. This liberation from lust and
the freedom it affords is, in fact, "the condition of all life
together in truth" (Oct 8, 1980).
What about the experience of embodiment and our longing for
union in the eschaton? Didn't Christ say we'll no longer be
given in marriage at the resurrection (see Mt 22:30)? Yes, but
this doesn't mean our longing for union will be done away with.
It means it will be fulfilled. Sacraments are merely earthly
signs of heavenly realities. We no longer need signs to point us
to heaven, when we're in heaven.
Heaven is the eternal consummation of the marriage between
Christ and the Church. "For man, this consummation will be the
final realization of the unity of the human race, which God
willed from creation. ...Those who are united with Christ will
form the community of the redeemed, 'the holy city' of God, 'the
Bride, the wife of the Lamb'" (CCC, n. 1045). This is the union
for which we're ultimately created. And this is what the "one
flesh" union points us to from the beginning (see Eph 5:31-32).
Hence, in the resurrection of the body we rediscover - in an
eschatological dimension - the same nuptial meaning of the body
in the meeting with the mystery of the living God face to face
(see Dec 9, 1981). "This will be a completely new experience,"
the Pope says, but "it will not be alienated in any way from
what man took part in from 'the beginning,' nor from ...the
procreative meaning of the body and of sex" (Jan 13, 1982).
THE CHRISTIAN VOCATIONS
Only by understanding who man is originally, historically, and
eschatologically can we understand how man is to live. In other
words, having outlined an "adequate anthropology," the door is
now opened to a proper understanding of the Christian vocations
of celibacy and marriage.
Those who are celibate "for the sake of the kingdom" (Mt 19:12)
are choosing to live in the heavenly marriage on earth. In a
way, they're "skipping" the sacrament in anticipation of the
real thing. By doing so, they step beyond the dimension of
history - within the dimension of history - and declare to the
world that the kingdom of God is here (Mt 12:28). Authentic
Christian celibacy, then, is not a rejection of sexuality or a
devaluation of marriage. It's the expression on earth of its
ultimate purpose and meaning!
As a vocation to holiness, marriage is meant to prepare men and
women for heaven. But in order for it to be adequate heaven
preparation, the model must accurately image the divine
prototype. The sacramentality of marriage, then, consists in the
manifesting of the eternal mystery of God in a "sign" that
serves not only to proclaim that mystery, but also to accomplish
it in the spouses (see Sep 8, 1982).
All of married life constitutes this sign. But nowhere is this
sign more dramatically manifested than when husband and wife
become "one flesh." Just as the body expresses the soul of a
person, the "one body" that spouses become in conjugal
intercourse expresses the "soul" of their married life. "Indeed
the very words 'I take you to be my wife - my husband,'" the
Pope says, "can be fulfilled only by means of conjugal
intercourse" (Jan 5, 1983).
NEW CONTEXT FOR SEXUAL MORALITY
John Paul's original insights provide a whole new context for
understanding the Church's teaching on sexuality, particularly
her teaching against contraception. This is, in fact, the
linchpin of all sexual morality. For as soon as sexual union is
divorced from its inherent link with procreation, any means to
sexual climax can be justified (the sexual revolution of the
20th century has certainly demonstrated this in practice).
Based on the logic of the theology of the body, one can speak of
morality in the sexual relationship according to "whether or not
it has the character of the truthful sign" (Aug 27, 1980). All
sexual morality, then, comes down to this simple question: Does
this behavior incarnate God's love or does it not?
For those who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to
understand the "great mystery" of nuptial union, contraception
is simply unthinkable. Nuptial union is meant to proclaim the
mystery of the Trinity - that "God is life-giving love." In this
sense the Pope says the "language of the body" is prophetic.
However, an intentionally sterilized act of intercourse
proclaims the opposite. It changes the "language of the body"
into a specific denial of God's creative love, making the
spouses "false prophets."
Nuptial union is also meant to be a sacramental sign of Christ's
union with the Church. But for sacraments to convey spiritual
realities, the physical must accurately symbolize the spiritual.
Insert contraception into this picture and (knowingly or
unknowingly) a couple engages in a counter-sign of Christ's
union with the Church. This is why an intentionally sterilized
act of intercourse can never consummate a marriage - it is a
contradiction of the very essence of the "great mystery" of the
BATTLE FOR THE MEANING OF LIFE
If, as John Paul teaches, the body and it alone is capable of
communicating the mystery of God's love to us; and if there is
an enemy of God who wants to keep us from God's love - where,
then, would he go to do it? The Church Father Tertullian says
that Satan attempts to counter God's plan of salvation by
plagiarizing the sacraments. And where better to begin than with
the "primordial sacrament"?
Satan's goal is to scramble the language of our bodies. And look
how successful he's been. How many people, for example, think
that the body and the gift of sexuality are the last places to
look for the presence of God?
Much is at stake in our failure to understand the language of
our bodies. As John Paul II says, this is obviously "important
in regard to marriage." However, it "is equally essential and
valid for the understanding of man in general" (Dec 15, 1982).
The theology of the body is, in fact, according to John Paul,
the basis of the most suitable education in what it means to be
a human being (see Apr 8, 1981). Yes, the battle raging in our
Church and our world regarding sexual morality is nothing short
of a battle for the very meaning of human existence.
Hence, the theology of the body should not be considered merely
a minor discipline among many in the overall scope of Catholic
teaching. Again, according to the Holy Father, what we learn by
reflecting on Christ's words about the body in its creation and
redemption "is, in fact, the perspective of the whole Gospel, of
the whole teaching, in fact, of the whole mission of Christ"
(Dec 3, 1980).
The theology of the body is a clarion call for the Church not to
become more "spiritual," but to become more incarnational. It is
a call to allow the Word of the Gospel to penetrate our flesh
and bones. When this incarnation of the Gospel takes place in
us, we see the Church's teaching on sexual morality not as an
oppressive set of rules, but as the foundation of a liberating
ethos, a call to experience the redemption of our bodies, a call
to rediscover in what is erotic the original meaning of
sexuality which is the very meaning of life. And this is the
first step to take in renewing the world.
As John Paul asserts, man and woman's call to form a communion
of persons "is the deepest substratum of human ethics and
culture" (Oct 22, 1980). Thus, the dignity and balance of human
life "depend at every moment of history and at every point of
geographical longitude and latitude on 'who' she will be for him
and he for her" (Oct 8, 1980). In short, a culture that does not
respect the truth about sexuality is doomed to be a culture that
does not respect the truth about life; it's doomed to be a
culture of death.
This is why John Paul made the theology of the body the first
catechetical project of his pontificate. At the heart of the new
evangelization, at the heart of building a civilization of love
and a culture of life, is marriage and the family. And at the
heart of marriage and the family is the truth about the body and
Let us live it and proclaim it. If we do, we will not fall short
of renewing the face of the earth!
with permission from: