Theology of the Body and Marian Dogmas, Part I

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