The theology of the body as taught by Pope John Paul II during the Wednesday audiences from September 5, 1979 to November 28, 1984 is becoming more and more acclaimed as a revolutionary approach to understanding the embodiedness of human persons. (1) In offering to the Church and the world a catechesis of the body, a theology of the body, John Paul II proved himself a true shepherd by responding to the twentieth century scandalum carnis. There can be no doubt that the body was perceived as an enigma by much of twentieth century thought. For example, Caryll Houselander, fully aware of the twentieth century infatuation with the body, wrote in 1944: “There has surely never been an age in which so many people were so particularly preoccupied with their bodies as this age, and yet to so little profit.” (2)
For this reason, the theology of the body as taught by John Paul II is a theological response, in the form of a theological anthropology based in Divine Revelation, to the modern quest to understand the origin, meaning and destiny of the human body. (3)
Part of the reason for why this aspect of revelation—God’s knowledge shared with us concerning the human body—lay dormant for so many centuries is because the twentieth century, perhaps unlike any century in human history, with all of its technological advances, came to view the human body as a mere instrument to be used in the never ending quest for self-gratification and pleasure. For example, one has only to think of the various types of sins—all bodily sins—that became commonplace, many even becoming legal, during the twentieth century: abortion, euthanasia, pornography, prostitution, drugs, wars, suicide, terrorism, homosexual acts, adultery, contraception, concentration camps, genocide, sex changes, cloning, and the list goes on and on. Some philosophers have even ventured to label the current era in history the “post-human” era. Thus, a theology of the body could not have come at a more apropos epoch in history. God has saved a great treasure for our times.
Anyone who has read John Paul II’s theology of the body knows that what he has essentially done is offer to the world a revolutionary way of understanding all created things, most especially, human bodiliness. The various applications of John Paul II’s thought are only now beginning to take firm root in various branches of theology (e.g., Moral Theology, Eschatology, Sacramental Theology). What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that the very real and concrete creaturely embodiment of the content of John Paul II’s theology of the body is rarely brought out and explored, namely, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Surprisingly, when one reads through the various commentaries on the theology of the body, the reader becomes aware of a lack of reference to the most perfect human person that ever lived, or ever will live, the Mother of Jesus Christ, the Immaculate Conception. How can this be since Mary is the apex of what it means to be a complete and fully redeemed human person? Does not the created exemplar of all human persons have something to teach us concerning that fundamental dimension of human personhood that we call the body? The answer is Yes.
In a certain sense, the theology of the body remains incomplete without the full incorporation of the Marian dimension; Mary makes the theology of the body concrete and real, taking it away from the mere realm of theory and abstract principles. As a Pontiff who was completely consecrated to the Virgin Mary, John Paul II fully recognized the central place of Mary in salvation history. (4) Yet, it seems that when it comes to his theology of the body, John Paul II has left it to us to discover and explore the intimate connection between what he teaches in his catecheses on the body and what the Church teaches about Mary; in particular, what the Marian dogmas teach us about the human body. This is, indeed, virtually unexplored theological territory. (5)
The purpose of this article is not to present a comprehensive comparative study of John Paul II’s theology of the body and the Church’s dogmatic teachings on Mary.
Rather, the purpose of this article is to extract from the theology of the body four basic points and compare them with what the Church teaches dogmatically about the Virgin Mary, noting the ways in which what John Paul II taught about the human body is affirmed and exemplified in what the Church teaches about Our Lady. As a matter of course, a brief presentation of the Holy Father’s theology of the body, with the four selected points, will appear first, followed by the application of the four Marian dogmas, examining how each dogma about Mary reveals a concrete embodiment of John Paul II’s teaching. What John Paul II did implicitly all throughout his pontificate, this article seeks to do explicitly, namely, interweave and ground what the Church teaches us about the body with what the Church teaches and holds to be true about the Virgin Mary. (6)
The Theology of the Body
Currently there are many books that deal with John Paul II’s theology of the body, some of these even offer insightful and explanatory commentaries on the topic. (7) Many Catholic colleges, universities and seminaries recognize the importance of offering to a younger generation a sound theological understanding of the body, and are now offering classes that focus on the theology of the body; there have even emerged theology of the body study groups. The need for such an understanding of the human body cannot be underestimated, and many people are finding renewal in their faith through discovering the teachings of John Paul II. George Weigel, the acclaimed biographer of John Paul II has even asserted that the theology of the body represents “a kind of theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.” (8) In my humble opinion, I believe Weigel is absolutely correct.
The purpose of this section of the article is to extract from John Paul II’s overall catechesis four particular points that are fundamental to his presentation of the human body. These four points encapsulate what John Paul II wanted to teach modern society about the body. They are: 1) The body is a gift, 2) The body is nuptial, 3) The body is fruitful, 4) The body is essential to the human person.
I. The Body Is a Gift
During the twentieth century, the body, with its gender, unique features and finite limitations, began to be seen by many people as a burden, something to be overcome and manipulated—all of this so that one could feel “at home” in one’s body. Thus began such procedures as sex changes, plastic surgery and genetic manipulation. In a certain sense it can be said that the twentieth century preoccupation with the body has led to a schizophrenic approach to what to do with the body: either worship it as divine, or seek to manipulate it (or even kill it) through technological means. What the world has fundamentally overlooked, however, is that the body is a precious gift from God, even with all its limitations, vulnerabilities and imperfections.
John Paul II, as a shepherd of souls, sought to enter into the discussion on the human body from the perspective of theological anthropology, that is, what God has revealed about the human body. He reminded us of the fact that in the beginning—original creation, and all human conception—God made all things good (Gen.1:31), including the human body. Almost from the very beginning of his Wednesday catecheses John Paul II placed the created human body within the context of a “fundamental and original gift.” (9) More specifically, he emphatically stated: “The first chapters of Genesis introduce us to the mystery of creation, this is, the beginning of the world by the will of God, who is omnipotence and love. Consequently, every creature bears within it the sign of the original and fundamental gift.” (10) What is important to remember here is that for human persons, unlike angelic persons, the body is part of the “original and fundamental gift.”
Furthermore, according to John Paul II’s thought, man cannot fully understand himself without a full acceptance of the gift of human embodiedness. The body is not something extrinsic to what it means to be a human person—a theme we will cover later in the article. The “adequate anthropology” of John Paul II is built upon this necessary fact: the body is a gift from God, and this includes its sex, male or female. In short, man will not be able to be nuptial or fruitful—live within interpersonal communion—unless he sees his body as a gift freely given and, in turn, a gift to be freely given away.
Concerning the issue of the sex of the human body (masculinity and femininity), and its being a fundamental-given from God—a very apropos theological issue in light of the twentieth century quest for androgyny—John Paul II emphatically stated the following: “Masculinity and femininity—namely, sex—is the original sign of a creative donation and an awareness on the part of man, male-female, of a gift lived in an original way. Such is the meaning with which sex enters the theology of the body.”
(11) Thus, a human persons’ embodied sex must be understood as part of the original and fundamental gift of creation—in the beginning of time, and in the beginning of every human conception.
Likewise, acceptance on the part of men and women of their particular sex is what allows for self-transcendence and real communion with others. Concerning this, John Paul II noted: “There is a deep connection between the mystery of creation, as a gift springing from love, and that beatifying “beginning” of the existence of man as male and female, in the whole truth of their body and their sex, which is the pure and simple truth of communion of persons.” (12) What John Paul II essentially meant to underscore is that the sex of each person is a gift that leads to self-transcendent communion. On the other hand, when a person does not view their body as an original and fundamental gift their relations with other persons (divine, angelic or human) will lack the quality of self-sacrificing, self-transcendent (Trinitarian) love. Why? For no other reason than that man must first view his embodiedness as a gift in order to fully and freely give his bodiliness away to an other; this giving away must always be life-giving, either physical or spiritual. In this sense, the body is a sacrament revealing and expressing the deeper communio personarum. (13)
To view one’s sex as the consequence of purely cultural conditioning, or a fortuitous cosmic process, is to become, at least in thought, homosexual, a condition that can neither bear fruit nor be revelatory of a true theological (Trinitarian) communion with others. This anti-Trinitarian approach to the body eliminates all difference, and thus all fruitfulness; it views the body not as a fundamental-given from a God who has made us in his image, but, rather, as a burden that we can manipulate and alter until we achieve our own definition of what it means to be embodied human persons. Contrary to this line of thought, John Paul II grounded the mystery of our body-gift (masculinity and femininity) in the gratuity of God revealed at the beginning of creation: “Right from the beginning, the theology of the body is bound up with the creation of man in the image of God. It becomes, in a way, also the theology of sex or rather the theology of masculinity and femininity, which has its starting point here in Genesis.” (14)
II. The Body Is Nuptial
The body as nuptial is also a key element in John Paul II’s theology of the body. (15) He highlighted the nuptial element of the body in his insightful exegesis of the two creation accounts. According to the first creation account, man was created in “original solitude,” that is, man is a being created for his own sake. Yet, what John Paul II sought to emphasize was the fact that man’s original solitude is a preparation for a communion of persons, communio personarum—and this communion of persons is nuptial. (16) This brought about John Paul II’s concept of an “adequate anthropology,” (17) an approach to understanding man from a Trinitarian perspective, that is, man made in the image of the God who is a communion of persons.
The Conciliar document Gaudium et Spes, a document which Cardinal Karol Wojtyla had a hand in shaping, gave to the world a profound statement when it declared that: “Man cannot find himself without a complete gift of himself” (GS, 24). What this essentially means is that man was made for communion, and since all human persons have a body, the body becomes the “sacrament” revealing the deeper communion of persons. (18) The body is a sign that conveys the love of the person, and thus every human person is to make of their body a gift to an other; through baptism all Christians make of their body a sacrifice to God (see Rom. 12:1), but each has a particular call as to how to consecrate their body to God, for example, consecrated life, sacramental marriage or consecrated virginity.
The metaphysical and ontological foundations of what John Paul II sought to convey in stating that the body is made for nuptiality, that is, to be given away to an other in self-possessing love, is the Trinitarian God. God, in his essence, is a nuptial God, a divine communio personarum. Since there are three divine persons, each of these persons communicates his all to the other two. Thus, according to John Paul II, the second creation account is a “preparation for understanding the Trinitarian concept of the “image of God.” (19)
III. The Body Is Fruitful
Nuptial love brings forth life. Where there is true love, Trinitarian love, there is always fruit. Man, in his concrete embodiedness, was not created to remain in solitude. On the contrary, due to the Trinitarian imaging, man is called to fecundity through inter-personal communion, thus the divine injunction: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen.1:28). Nuptiality reaches its climax through the mutual exchange of love that ultimately results in a third, that is, the fruit of love between two concrete persons.
On the opposite end, where there is no self-donation in love, there is sterility. For man, since he is an embodied being, his nuptial person is expressed through the body, and thus the body becomes, in some fashion (physically and/or spiritually) fecund. This is why all human persons, no matter what their particular vocation in life, are called to bear fruit. For example, the married couple is called to bear fruit, physical fruit (children), if possible, but spiritual fruit necessarily. Those in consecrated life, often called mother or father, surrender their bodies to God in order to bear abundant spiritual fruit. Even those who remain in the single state must bear spiritual fruit. Fecundity is a mandate of both original creation and the new-creation.
According to John Paul II, man, both as masculine and as feminine, finds the fulfillment of embodied love in paternity and maternity. (20) He stated: “On this threshold (the beginning of man and woman) man, as male and female, stands with the awareness of the generative meaning of his body. Masculinity conceals within it the meaning of fatherhood, and femininity that of motherhood.” (21) What this means is that written into the very ontological, God-given, structure of what it means to be an embodied human person is the notion of fruitfulness and vocation. Each individual’s vocation is a fundamental call to fruitfulness, and each human person does this through their body. Once again, John Paul II will bring out the Trinitarian foundation of embodied human love: “With that knowledge (knowledge of the generative power of the body), man goes beyond the solitude of his own being, and decides again to affirm this being in an ‘other.’ Both of them, man and woman, affirm it in the new person generated.” (22)
IV. The Body Is Essential
Contrary to many of the technological and new-age philosophies at work today, which posit that the human body is nothing more than a sensory mechanism for self-gratification, John Paul II emphatically reasserted the Christian teaching that the body is an essential part of the human person and not simply an exterior shell that will be shed once this temporal existence is ended. In our modern world, where escapism and anti-materialistic conceptions of nirvana reign, the need for understanding the body as a gift that both blesses time and eternity is of paramount importance. This is precisely where John Paul II’s theology of the body manifests the wisdom of the Judeo-Christian understanding of the body by emphasizing that the body is from God. As a matter of fact, Christianity not only teaches that the body is a fundamental-given from God, it also teaches that because of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the human body is raised to a new dignity, and will exist for all eternity as the living temple of God. (23) For this reason, the Christological statement in Gaudium et Spes, chapter 22, is the “key” to unlocking the mystery of man (anthropology): “In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear. For Adam, the first man, was a type of him who was to come, Christ the Lord, Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” (24)
Continuing with this thought, John Paul II offered in his catecheses a certain theological anthropology based on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, an historical event which makes of everything a new-creation. (25) The Resurrection, due to its being the perfection of the human person, means that the human body will be perfected and brought to a state that reveals the full glory of the human body. (26) Thus, the human body contains within itself an eschatological dimension—and this eschatological dimension is grounded within the very ontological structure of the human person. Once a human person is born, body and all, that person will be with his body forever, either in heaven or in hell.
Included in this theological anthropology is the fact that the body, every human body, is a gendered body. What this implies is that even the sex of the human body is more than just temporal; sex, too, is eternal. This has wide implications for the eschatological dimensions of the theology of the body. (27) The important thing to remember here is that John Paul II understood the human body, in its entirety, as being grounded in ontological reality.
Fr. Donald H. Calloway, M.I.C., a member of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, is the editor of two Mariological books: The Immaculate Conception in the Life of the Church (Marian Press, 2004) and The Virgin Mary and Theology of the Body (Marian Press, 2005). Both of these books can be purchased at www.marian.org.
(1) Perhaps the most well known English collection/edition of these audiences can be found in The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan, (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1997). These texts, when quoted, will henceforth be cited as TOTB, with proper page number and date.
(2) Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God, (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1990), 56. (Originally published in 1944).
(3) It should be noted that even before John Paul II began his catecheses on the human body, there were many people who noted that a theology of the body was needed. For example, in a sermon titled “The Cult of Mary in the Age of the Cult of the Flesh,” preached in Italian at the Basilica of Our Lady of Pompeii, Naples, Italy on December 8, 1969, Cardinal John Wright suggested a “need for a Christian theology concerning the flesh, so that our culture may be refined by it, our civilization may be cured of excess and purified of decadence, our lives made sane and holy by it.” See Mary: Our Hope: A Selection from the Sermons, Addresses, and Papers of Cardinal John J. Wright. ed. R. Stephen Almagno, O.F.M., (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 117.
Also, during the years when John Paul II was giving his catecheses on the body, the Jesuit Robert Brungs, in an article dealing with the influences of biotechnology on the human body, noted that in light of the rapid advancements in biotechnology “the times demand a much fuller doctrinal explication of the meaning of our bodied existence.” See “Biotechnology and Bodiliness,” Communio: International Catholic Review 8 (Spring, 1981), 159. Lastly, Cipriano Vagaggini even wrote a book dealing with a theology of the body, The Flesh: Instrument of Salvation, A Theology of the Human Body, (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1969).
(4) John Paul II’s pontificate was undoubtedly very Marian, both in doctrinal teachings and in the example of devotion. He had a “theological method” that interwove rigorous intellectual precision with heartfelt filial reverence for the mystery of Mary. This is why he deliberately chose to end almost everything he did with a reference to Mary. Mary, for John Paul II, was the embodiment of his doctrinal teaching. Concerning this, David L. Schindler rightly and insightfully notes the following: “The Pope’s appeals to Mary at the end of nearly every encyclical are not matters of window-dressing or mere ‘piety.'” See “Christology and the Imago Dei: InterpretingGaudium et Spes,” Communio: International Catholic Review 23 (Spring, 1996), 175.
(5) While certain notable theologians and Mariologists have explored various anthropological issues dealing with the human body from a Mariological perspective, their studies, as most of them note, remain incomplete. See, for example, the following works: René Laurentin, “Mary and Womanhood in the Renewal of Christian Anthropology,” Marian Library Studies 1 (1969) (New Series): 77-95; Frederick M. Jelly, O.P., “Mariology and Christian Anthropology,” Catholic Theological Society of America Proceedings of the Thirty-Fourth Annual Convention, Atlanta, Georgia, June 13-16, 1979, Volume 34: 211-219; idem, “Towards a Theology of the Body through Mariology,” Marian Studies 34 (1983): 66-84; Germain Grisez, “Mary and Christian Moral Principles,” Marian Studies 36 (1985): 40-59; Benedict M. Ashley, O.P., “Moral Theology and Mariology,” Anthropotes 7 (1991): 137-153.
(6) For the person desiring to learn more about the Mariological thought and writings of John Paul II, the following selection offers excellent introductions: Edward D. O’Connor, C.S.C., “The Roots of Pope John Paul II’s Devotion to Mary,” Marian Studies 39 (1988): 78-114; Frederick L. Miller, “The Marian Orientation of Spirituality in the Thought of Pope John Paul II,” Communio: International Catholic Review 17 (Winter, 1990): 566-579; Antoine Nachef, Mary’s Pope: John Paul II, Mary, and the Church since Vatican II (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000).
(7) See, for example, Mary Shivanandan, Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage, (Washington, D.C.: Boston, 1999); Christopher West, Theology of the Body Explained: A Commentary of John Paul II’s “Gospel of the Body,” (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2003); Walter J. Schu, L.C., The Splendor of Love: John Paul II’s Vision for Marriage and Family, (New Hope Publications, 2003); Sam Torode, Body and Gift: Reflections on Creation (2003), Purity of Heart: Reflections on Love and Lust (2004), Heaven and Earth: Reflections on Resurrection (2005) (South Wayne, WI: Philokalia Books).
(8) George Weigel, Witness To Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 343.
(9) See TOTB, 57 (January 2, 1980).
(10) Ibid., 59.
(11) TOTB, 62 (January 9, 1980).
(12) Ibid., 61.
(13) See TOTB, 75-77 (February 20, 1980).
(14) TOTB, 47 (November 14, 1979).
(15) Nuptiality is essentially understood to mean the giving of oneself in freedom to an other, receiving the other as gift, and bearing fruit through interpersonal love. Cf. TOTB, 60-72.
(16) See TOTB, 60-63 (January 9, 1980).
(17) See TOTB, 57-60 (January 2, 1980).
(18) See TOTB, 75-77 (February 20, 1980).
(19) TOTB, 46 (November 14, 1979).
(20) See TOTB, 80-83 (March 12, 1980).
(21) TOTB, 85 (March 26, 1980).
(22) Ibid., 86 (April 2, 1980).
(23) See TOTB, 205-208 (February 11, 1981).
(24) Gaudium et Spes, 22.
(25) See TOTB, 238-257 (December 2, 9, 16, 1981; January 13, 27, 1982; February 3, 10, 1982).
(26) See TOTB, 240-245 (December 9, 16, 1981).
(27) Cf. Benedict Ashley, O.P., Theologies of the Body: Humanist and Christian (Braintree, MA: Pope John XXIII Center, 1985), especially pp. 579-605.