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Recovering The Body In The Teaching Of John Paul II

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Part 2

In our first column on Pope St. John Paul II’s series of Wednesday catechetical teachings which are popularly referred to as the “Theology of the Body,” we noted that this treasure given to us by the late St. John Paul II represented a decided shift in theological anthropology. That is the area of theology which reflects upon the nature of the human person as created and re-created in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word.
That shift can be characterized as a movement from finding a place for the human body in Christian theology to building a “theology of the body.” The former represented an effort to defend the role of the body, while the latter represents the re-embrace of its created goodness, its redeemed significance, and its fundamental role in Christianity.
I suggested this was more than a shift in emphasis: It offers a fresh hermeneutic with extraordinary promise. The term “theology of the body” was to Pope John Paul II simply a working term. His preferred term for this series of catechetical instructions was “Human Love in the Divine Plan.” It presents a vision of the human person, a Christological or Christ-centered anthropology.
I am certainly not alone in my high regard for the teaching Magisterium Pope St. John Paul II left for the whole Church. Like those who walked before him, this contemporary father of the Church began his search for the body in the Bible, the Sacred Scripture. And he began that exegesis by starting at the beginning, in the Book of the Beginnings, Genesis. Through reflections on Genesis he gave us an example of what he called “restudying . . .the deposit of revelation.”

The Genesis Accounts

Reference to the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis as a source of authority was not only a hallmark of the Early Christian Church Fathers, it was characteristic of rabbinical pedagogy. This is also one style employed by Jesus. It is recorded in several places within the Gospel, including His response to the challenge of the Pharisees found in the Gospel of St. Matthew, concerning divorce (Matt. 19:1-12).
Additionally, this reference to the first Book of the Hebrew Bible was characteristic of the exegetical writing of the early Christian Fathers. However, their exegetical treatment of these passages was sometimes quite different from one another.
For example, we find in Origen of Alexandria (AD 185-254) the first example of several Greek fathers espousing a “two-creation” view which presented a negative view of the corporeal or material world, and, consequently a devalued view of the human body, rooted in a Platonic cosmology.
Yet, we also find Irenaeus of Lyon, exegeting the same stories of human origins in the creation accounts, at least insofar as they related to the relationships between “Image” and “Likeness” and body and soul, quite differently from Origen. Both used the Genesis creation accounts as a framework for their theological anthropology and treatment of the role of the body. But with differing ends.
Pope St. John Paul II offers a positive and integrative exegesis of Genesis. He develops a theological anthropology which is more like the positive Ireneaen anthropology then that of some of the Greek fathers. Though there were some efforts to correct the approach of Origen in subsequent Greek patristic writings, the taint of the two-creation exegesis has never fully been rooted out of the Christian tradition.

Nuptial Or Spousal
Meaning Of The Body

Refreshingly, there is no disdain discernible in the late Pope St. John Paul II for either the body or for human sexuality. Instead we discover a unique and rich teaching concerning the “nuptial meaning of the body” which is constitutively oriented toward the gift of self to the other in love. We also find a unitive and integrative understanding of both creation accounts within a masterful exegesis.
It is within his discussion of the second creation narrative (Gen. 2) where the late Pope St. John Paul II introduced his understanding of nuptiality or spousal love. He presents an anthropology of love and gift, introducing a personalist understanding. Namely, that alone, man does not realize his real identity — in what he earlier termed “original solitude.” Rather, man is ontologically constituted for the relationship of mutual gift with the woman in what he terms a “creative donation” of the whole person which includes the body.
In this exegesis of Genesis, John Paul introduces themes such as “original solitude,” “original unity,” and “original nakedness” while discussing the relationship of our first parents with God, before the fall. He also discusses their relationship with creation, and with one another. He draws fresh living waters from the same creation accounts.
This contribution of the late Pope, if appropriated and used in the evangelistic, catechetical, social, and missionary task of the Church in the Third Millennium, could water a cultural landscape which has become parched by the loss of any understanding of the dignity of the human person, the true noble purpose and beauty of human sexuality, and the truth concerning the human vocation to self-gift and communion.

Trinitarian Communion

One of the late John Paul’s favorite passages is from Gaudium et Spes (n. 24). It contains a line that is also cited often in his extensive writings:
“Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, ‘that all may be one…as we are one’ (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
In other words, just as God so loved . . . that He gave His Only Son (John 3:16), and, the Father and the Son give the gift of the Holy Spirit, we, who are created in God’s Image, are called to give ourselves away. To Him, through one another. And, even with the downward pull occasioned by sin and concupiscence, because of the nuptial or spousal meaning of the body, we still know that we can only fulfill our human vocation by giving ourselves away in love to another.
Love is, after all, our human and divine vocation, and our bodies, in a real sense, “talk,” expressing the language of love. Since the body is a vehicle for the communication of ourselves, we should not express through our bodies anything unworthy of the dignity and vocation of the human person and its most high calling in Jesus Christ.
Through the Incarnation, life, death, and Resurrection of Christ we are now capacitated to live this vocation to love, beginning even now. To live this way is to find the path to authentic human freedom and happiness, and to grow in holiness.

Theology Of The
Body And Happiness

In an allocution found early in the series, Pope St. John Paul connected the nuptial meaning of the body and the state of original innocence prior to the fall (Gen. 2:25). He explained the nature of this happiness:
“Happiness is being rooted in love. Original happiness speaks to us of the ‘beginning’ of man, who emerged from Love and initiated love. That happened in an irrevocable way, despite the subsequent sin and death. In His time, Christ will be a witness to this irreversible love of the Creator and Father, which had already been expressed in the mystery of creation and in the grace of original innocence. And therefore, also the common ‘beginning’ of man and woman, that is, the original truth of their body in masculinity and femininity, to which Gen. 2:25 draws our attention, does not know shame. This ‘beginning’ can also be defined as the original and beatifying immunity from shame as a result of love.”
Rather than being an instrument of use — or a carrying case for the soul — in the Theology of the Body of John Paul II the human body is once again accorded a place of deep significance. It expresses and reveals the human person, who is called to speak, through the body, the language of self-giving love. For the married man or woman, the gift is mediated, through their spouse, to the Lord. The marriage sacrament becomes a sign of Christ’s love for His Bride, the Church.
Additionally, because the human person exists as both masculine and feminine, marriage is a means and sign of the gift of the man to the woman — and the woman to the man. Thus, expressed within marriage, we see, in the language of conjugal love, what is called the “nuptial meaning” or “spousal meaning” of the human body. This call to an authentic communion of persons is violated whenever either the man or the woman becomes an object to be used rather than a gift to be received, even within the marriage act.
In his catechesis on “adultery in the heart,” the Pope calls lust “a deception of the human heart in the perennial call of men and women.” He speaks of the “ethos of redemption,” which helps us to overcome lust and discover our true vocation to love. In an audience of December 3, 1980, John Paul II developed this “ethos of redemption” further, discussing how grace operates to free men and women from concupiscence by capacitating them to the proper exercise of authentic human freedom.
This expression of gift through the body is especially prophetic in the vocation of consecrated celibacy. The consecrated celibate man or woman forsakes one spouse to give themselves to the Mystical Body of Christ. To the consecrated celibate, the gift of self to the Lord is immediate, and not mediated through another person. They are espoused to the Lord and His Mystical Body, the Church. This becomes a prophetic sign of the life to come, where there will be no marriage (Matt. 22).


The Incarnation of Jesus Christ raised the body to a glorious place within the economy of salvation. Men and women are now freed by grace to live — and to love — differently because of that Incarnation. In the words of Pope St. John Paul II:
“In the ethos of the redemption of the body, the original ethos of creation will have to be taken up again….This fullness is discovered, first with an interior view of the heart, and then with an adequate way of being and acting.”
In this two-part series we have presented a “broad brushstroke” summary of the “theology of the body,” given to the Church by the late Pope St. John Paul II. I believe it offers a frame for the necessary theological work so desperately needed in in the field known as Christian Theological Anthropology. This goodness of the body vision is a component of an integrated vision of the human person. The whole person, body, soul, and spirit is to be redeemed in Jesus Christ.
Further, we suggested it is not “new,” but rather a continuation of the theological anthropology found within the Scriptures and the Early Church Fathers. It is found as well within the teaching of the pertinent documents of the Second Vatican Council, when properly interpreted. This discussion of the “theology of the body” was intended to only scratch the surface, to simply show that John Paul’s thought provides a path to “finding the body.”
I conclude with St. John Paul’s own words concerning the importance of the ongoing work to be done which he offered on August 8, 1984:
“The theology of the body is not merely a theory, but rather a specific evangelical, Christian pedagogy of the body. This derives from the character of the Bible and especially of the Gospel. As the message of salvation, it reveals man’s true good, for the purpose of modeling — according to the measuring of this good — man’s earthly life in the perspective of the hope of the future world.”

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