John Paul II's Theology of the Body: Key to an Authentic Marital
& Family Spirituality
marital spirituality? How does the family become authentically
spiritual? For John Paul II, the answers to these questions “of
the spirit” are revealed in the body.
This is what we learn from John Paul II’s “theology of the
body.” In this collection of 129 general audience addresses
delivered early in his pontificate, John Paul developed what
promises to be one of his most enduring contributions to the
Church and the world.
Establishing an authentic marital spirituality is essential if
we are to restore the family and build a culture of life. How do
we do it? According to the Holy Father, “Those who seek the
accomplishment of their own human and Christian vocation in
marriage are called, first of all, to make this ‘theology of the
body’ ...the content of their life and behavior” (Apr 2, 1980).
More Catholics are hearing about the theology of the body.
Still, very few of them know what it actually teaches. The
purpose of this article is to introduce some of the themes of
John Paul’s teaching and outline the foundations for building an
authentic marital and family spirituality.
The Body: Revelation of God’s Mystery
The Pope’s thesis, if we let it sink in, is sure to
revolutionize our understanding of the human body, sexuality,
and, in turn, marriage and family life. “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 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).
John Paul thus 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 procreation” (ibid).
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.
This is what marital spirituality is all about: participating in
God’s life and love and sharing it with the world. While this is
certainly a sublime calling, it’s not ethereal. It’s tangible.
God’s love is meant to be lived and felt in daily life as a
married couple and as a family. How? By living according to the
full truth of the body.
“In fact, how indispensable,” our Holy Father insists, “is
thorough knowledge of the meaning of the body, in its
masculinity and femininity, along the way of this vocation! How
necessary is a precise awareness of the nuptial meaning of the
body, of its generative meaning – since all that which forms the
content of the life of married couples must constantly find its
full and personal dimension in life together, in behavior, in
feelings!” (Apr 2, 1980).
One of the greatest threats facing the Church today is a
“spiritualism” in which people disembody their call to holiness.
Living a spiritual life never means eschewing our bodies.
Authentic spirituality is always an embodied spirituality.
This is the very “logic” of Christianity. God communicates his
life to us in and through the body; in and through the Word made
flesh. The spirit that denies this “incarnational reality” is
that of the anti-Christ (see 1 Jn 4:2-3).
Think about this for a moment. John Paul teaches us that the
human body – in the beauty of sexual difference and our call to
nuptial union – possesses a “language” inscribed by God that not
only proclaims His eternal mystery, but makes that mystery
present to us. If there is an enemy of God who wants to keep us
from God’s life and love, where, then, would he go to do it?
Satan’s goal is to scramble the language of our bodies! And look
how successful he’s been. Because of Satan’s scheme, most of us
are illiterate when it comes to reading the language of the
body. How many of us, for example, think that our bodies are the
last place to look for the revelation of God’s mystery?
Building an Authentic Spirituality
In order to build an authentic marital spirituality, then, we
must begin by learning to read the true language of the body. We
must pray for the eyes to see God’s mystery revealed through our
bodies and through the marital union itself. Sin is what blinds
us: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride
of life (1 Jn 2:16).
In talking about the love between man and woman, we must contend
primarily with the lust of the flesh. Marriage in no way
“legitimizes” lust. Men and women are called by the power of the
Holy Spirit to experience a “real and deep” victory over lust.
Through the “redemption of our bodies,” the Holy Spirit
impregnates sexual desire “with everything that is noble and
beautiful,” with “the supreme value which is love” (Oct 22 & 29,
This is how husbands and wives build an authentic spirituality:
by loving one another according to the Holy Spirit in and
through their bodies. Marital love is shown in numerous ways,
but spouses who are filled with the Spirit realize “among the
possible manifestations of affection, the singular, or rather,
exceptional significance of [the conjugal] act” (Nov 21, 1984).
They come to understand that their sexual union“bears in itself
the sign of the great mystery of creation and redemption” (Nov
14, 1984). In a word, they come to understand that their union
When we receive the Eucharist worthily, it bears new life in the
whole of our lives. When we receive it unworthily, we eat and
drink our condemnation (1 Co 11:29). Similarly, when spouses
open their union to the Holy Spirit, their whole marriage
continually bears new life in the Spirit. However, if spouses
close their union to the Spirit, they undermine the whole
reality of their marriage and their family life.
One of the primary ways we remain open to the Spirit is by
remaining open to children. Who is the Holy Spirit but the Lord
and Giver of Life? Those couples who close their union to
children at the same time close their union to the Holy Spirit.
Their union is no longer a sign of God’s Trinitarian love but,
in fact, becomes a counter-sign of it.
This is why John Paul says that “the antithesis of conjugal
spirituality is constituted, in a certain sense, by the
subjective lack of this understanding [of the dignity of the
conjugal act] which is linked to contraceptive practice and
For those who are filled with the Holy Spirit, contraception is
simply unthinkable. They know it replaces the true language of
the body with a lie. And lying within the heart of marital
intimacy has a ripple effect, as does speaking the truth.
Spouses who strive to speak honestly in the nuptial embrace
strive to be open and honest with each in the whole of their
As professor Mary Roussseau expresses it, when spouses live an
authentic spirituality, “the love that marks their marital bed
spreads ...into the kitchen, the yard, the supermarket, the
workplace, and beyond. Their love eventually spreads throughout
the world, into the realms of politics, work, education,
entertainment, health care, and international relations. Such is
the exact process by which the civilization of love comes to be”
(Chicago Studies, Vol 39:2, p. 175).
This is why, according to John Paul, education in the theology
of the body “constitutes ...the essential nucleus of conjugal
spirituality” (Oct 3, 1984). This education is a clarion call
not to become more “spiritual” but to become more incarnational
– to allow the Holy Spirit to impregnate our bodies with divine
This is what happens in the sacraments. The Eucharist and
Penance, in particular, are the “infallible and indispensable”
means, John Paul says, “for forming the Christian spirituality
of married life and family life. With these, that essential and
spiritual creative ‘power’ of love reaches human hearts and, at
the same time, human bodies.... This love, in fact, allows the
building of the whole life of the married couple according to
that ‘truth of the sign,’ by means of which marriage is built up
in its sacramental dignity” (Oct 3, 1984).
Through this “sacramental dignity” spouses and families
participate in the mystery of the Trinity and proclaim that
mystery to the world in an “embodied spirituality.”
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