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Bishop Strickland . . . Recovering The Body In The Teaching Of John Paul II

July 20, 2020 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


In what is popularly referred to as the “theology of the body,” a great catechetical treasure given to us by the late St. John Paul II, a decided shift occurred in theological anthropology. 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 represents an effort to defend the role of the body, while the latter represents the embrace of its created goodness, its redeemed significance, and its fundamental role in Christianity.
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.
The fifth century Bishop Peter Chrysologus preached an extraordinary sermon in which he reflected on the words the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:45) concerning Jesus as the new or second Adam, the One through whom all of creation began anew and the human person was being reconstituted:
“The holy Apostle has told us that the human race takes its origin from two men, Adam and Christ; two men equal in body but unequal in merit, wholly alike in their physical structure but totally unlike in the very origin of their being. The first man, Adam, he says, became a living soul, the last Adam a life-giving spirit.
“The first Adam was made by the last Adam, from whom he also received his soul, to give him life. The last Adam was formed by his own action; he did not have to wait for life to be given him by someone else but was the only one who could give life to all. The first Adam was formed from valueless clay; the second Adam came forth from the precious womb of the Virgin. In the case of the first Adam, earth was changed into flesh; in the case of the second Adam, flesh was raised up to be God.”
This insight into the implications of the Incarnation on the entirety of the human person was central to Patristic thought but became somewhat diminished, particularly in Western Christian thought, as the second millennium brought its own forms of dualism. Its treasury was broken open anew by Pope St. John Paul II in this nearly five-year series of instructions referred to as the Theology of the Body.
His insights can provide the ground for further work in the continuing theological effort to recover the body, indeed the entire human person, transformed in Jesus Christ.

The Issues

Like the world of the first five centuries of Christian history, our age offers its own versions of body/soul dualism. These versions are not that dissimilar from those confronted in the earliest centuries of Christianity. The contemporary age still struggles from the entrenched effects of early ideas, prevalent in the ancient cultures into which the Gospel was proclaimed.
Some of the approaches to the psychosomatic unity of the human person within much of the Western Christian tradition were, at best, deficient. They contained a negative view of corporeality in general — and a low regard for the human body and human sexuality. This view led to a range of errant approaches within early Christian sources from a libertine and instrumentalist approach to the body to a near disdain for the body as a dangerous home of unbridled sensual passions and the source of the tendency to sin.
These approaches to the body and the diminished view of human sexuality that accompanied them have undermined the truth concerning the beauty and dignity of the human person in his/her fullness as an integrated “body/person.”
The Christian claim is that we do not just “have a body” (in the sense of the body as something separate from the soul, the mind, or the self), but rather, that we are a body/soul composite in unity. This unity is ontological. The challenge of articulating the full implication of this truth remains as one of the greatest missionary challenges that still face the Christian Church. This Christian claim stands in contrast to any version of anti-material dualism, by affirming the full dignity of the human body in the light of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We will be embodied for eternity.
In our creeds, and throughout the biblical texts of the Christian Canon, we find the fundamental belief that we, like Jesus Christ, will have resurrected bodies! Christianity professes that we are en-souled bodies or, in another way of attempting to articulate the same truth, we are em-bodied souls. The whole person, body and soul, or, in a tripartite anthropological language, body, soul, and spirit, cannot — and must not — be separated. Yet, it is only recently that the body has been considered as a separate area of theological inquiry and discussion.
Questions have resonated throughout the two millennia of Christian history concerning what our resurrected bodies will look like, of what kind of material they will be composed, and whether it can be said that the body is a part of how we somehow actually image the God who created us to live, both in this world and the next.
Yet, the extraordinary claim of the Incarnation is that God the Son, the Word made flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity, came into our midst bodily and is now seated bodily, at the right hand of the Father!
Thus, through the Incarnation, the body has, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “entered theology” in a profound way. He further explained: “Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh, the body entered theology — that is the science, the subject of which is divinity. I would say — through the main door. The Incarnation — and the redemption that springs from it — became also the definitive source of the sacramentality of marriage.”
In the context of one of his apostolic letters on East/West communion entitled “The Light of the East,” speaking of his hopes for a full communion of the Church, East and West and discussing insights derived from a bodily approach to worship in the Eastern Christian Divine Liturgy, he addressed one of the considerations of theological anthropology, the goodness of matter:
“Christianity does not reject matter. Rather, bodiliness is considered in all its value in the liturgical act, whereby the human body is disclosed in its inner nature as a temple of the Spirit and is united with the Lord Jesus, who himself took a body for the world’s salvation. This does not mean, however, an absolute exaltation of all that is physical, for we know well the chaos which sin introduced into the harmony of the human being.
“The liturgy reveals that the body, through the mystery of the Cross, is in the process of transfiguration, pneumatization: On Mount Tabor Christ showed his body radiant, as the Father wants it to be again. Cosmic reality also is summoned to give thanks because the whole universe is called to recapitulation in Christ the Lord. This concept expresses a balanced and marvelous teaching on the dignity, respect, and purpose of creation and of the human body in particular. With the rejection of all dualism and every cult of pleasure as an end in itself, the body becomes a place made luminous by grace and thus fully human.”

Of Human Life

It was during a period of preparation for a Synod on the Family in 1979 that John Paul began the catechesis that evolved into what is now called his “Theology of the Body.” Karol Cardinal Wojtyla was an enthusiastic supporter of the “principle of totality” that was set forth and elaborated upon in “Of Human Life.” His earliest reflections on this encyclical form an integral part of this catechesis.
He summarized this five-year series of teachings called the “theology of the body” in a general audience of November 28, 1984 wherein, while referring to “Of Human Life” (Humanae Vitae) he stated:
“The doctrine contained in this document of the Church’s modern teaching is organically related to both the sacramentality of marriage and the whole biblical question of the theology of the body, centered on the key words of Christ. In a certain sense we can even say that all the reflections that deal with the redemption of the body and the sacramentality of marriage seem to constitute an ample commentary on the doctrine contained in Humanae Vitae.
“This commentary seems quite necessary. In fact, in responding to some questions of today in the field of conjugal and family morality, at the same time the encyclical also raised other questions, as we know, of a biomedical nature. But also (and above all) they are of a theological nature. They belong to that sphere of anthropology and theology that we have called the theology of the body.”
This relatively brief (15 pages) but cogent and weighty encyclical letter of his Predecessor, Pope St. Paul VI, inspired the late John Paul to further explore its anthological foundations and develop a way of expounding upon them. This exploration led him to formulate the catechesis that would become “the theology of the body.”
Is this teaching a “development of doctrine”?
We have already noted that it has roots in Patristic sources and is grounded within the teaching of the Sacred Scripture.
In considering whether it is a development, in the theological sense of the term, let us consider John Paul’s own words: “The analysis of the biblical aspects speaks of the way to place the doctrine of today’s Church on the foundation of revelation. This is important for the development of theology. Development, that is, progress in theology, takes place through a continual restudying of the deposit of revelation.”
Like those who walked before him, this contemporary father of the Church began his search for the body by starting at the beginning, in the Book of the Beginnings, and through reflections on Genesis gave the world an example of “restudying…the deposit of revelation.”
We will continue to plumb the depths of Pope St. John Paul’s wonderful treasury in future articles.

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