Theology of the Body for Beginners (Paperback)
What Is the Theology of the Body?
God impressed his own form on the flesh . . . in such a way that even what was visible might bear the divine form. —St. Irenaeus
It was a gorgeous, starlit night. A young couple, madly in love, drove off into the country to find a secluded place where they could express their amorous desires. Spotting a grassy knoll, they parked on the side of the road, grabbed a blanket and headed for the far side of the hill.
Little did they know they were on the property of a country parish. An elderly monsignor, hearing some commotion, looked out his rectory window, gathered what was happening, and decided he would go for a little “prayer walk.” The young lovers, engrossed as they were in one another, had no idea someone had approached and was now standing at the edge of their blanket. Jolted out of their passion by a startling but nonetheless polite “Excuse me,” they were all the more startled by the sight of his Roman collar. Expecting he would scold them roundly, instead, the mysterious man in black looked toward the heavens and probed inquisitively, “Tell me, what does what you’re doing here have to do with . . . the stars?” After a pregnant pause, he walked back to his rectory leaving the dumbfounded lovers to ponder his question.2
St. John Paul II, in his own way, invites us to ponder the same question in his extended reflections on the “great mystery” of our creation as male and female and the call of the two to become “one flesh.”
The Wednesday Talks
When Karol Wojtyla, the cardinal archbishop of Krakow, came to Rome in August 1978 to help elect a new pope, he brought along the lengthy handwritten manuscript of a book that he had been prayerfully crafting for nearly four years. It was almost complete, and he wished to work on it, when he could, during the conclave. Page one bore the unusual title (in Polish): “teologia ciala”— “theology of the body.” The hundreds of pages that followed held perhaps the most profound and compelling biblical reflection on the meaning of our creation and redemption as male and female ever articulated—in-depth mystical insights of a modern saint that had the power to change the world . . . if those insights had an opportunity to reach the world, that is.
After the election of Pope John Paul I, Wojtyla returned to Krakow and completed his manuscript. Soon after that, to the astonishment of the whole world, he emerged from the second conclave of 1978 as Pope John Paul II. And his “theology of the body”—delivered as a series of 1293 Wednesday talks between September 1979 and November 1984 rather than being published as a book—became the first major teaching project of his pontificate, establishing the core of John Paul II’s great vision of what it means to be human.
Still, it took some time for people to grasp the significance of what John Paul II had given us. It wasn’t until 1999, for example, that papal biographer George Weigel described the TOB to a wide readership as “one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in centuries” and “a kind of theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, . . . perhaps in the twenty-first century.” While the pope’s vision of the body and of sexual love had “barely begun to shape the Church’s theology, preaching, and religious education,” Weigel predicted that when it did it would “compel a dramatic development of thinking about virtually every major theme in the Creed.”4
God, Sex, and the Meaning of Life
What might the human body have to do with the tenets of the Christian Creed? To ask questions about the meaning of the body starts us on an exhilarating journey that, if we stay the course, leads us from the body to the mystery of sexual difference; from sexual difference to the mystery of communion in “one flesh”; from the communion in “one flesh” to the mystery of Christ’s communion with the Church; and from the communion of Christ and the Church to the greatest mystery of all: the eternal communion found in God among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is what the tenets of the Creed are all about.
The body is not only biological. The body, as John Paul II unfolds in great detail, is also theological. It tells an astounding divine story. And it does so precisely through the mystery of sexual difference and the call of the two to become “one flesh.” This means that sex is not just about sex. The way we understand and express our sexuality points to our deepest-held convictions about who we are, who God is, the meaning of love, the ordering of society, and, ultimately, the mystery of the universe. Hence, John Paul II’s TOB is much more than a reflection on sex and married love. Through that, it leads us to “the rediscovery of the meaning of the whole of existence . . . the meaning of life” (TOB 46:6).
Christ teaches that the meaning of life is found by loving as he loves (see John 15:12). One of John Paul II’s main insights is that God inscribed this vocation to love as he loves right in our bodies by creating us male and female and calling us to become “one flesh” (see Genesis 2:24). Far from being a footnote in the Christian life, the way we understand the body and the sexual relationship “concerns the whole Bible” (TOB 69:8). It plunges us into “the perspective of the whole gospel, of the whole teaching, even more, of the whole mission of Christ” (TOB 49:3).
Christ’s mission is to restore the order of love in a world seriously distorted by sin. And the union of the sexes, as always, lies at the basis of the human “order of love.” Therefore, what we learn in John Paul II’s TOB is obviously “important with regard to marriage.” However it “is equally essential and valid for the [understanding] of man in general: for the fundamental problem of understanding him and for the self-understanding of his being in the world” (TOB, 102:5).
Are you looking for the meaning of life? Are you looking to understand the fundamental questions of existence? Our bodies tell the story. But we must learn how to “read” that story properly, and this is not easy. A great many obstacles, prejudices, and fears can derail us as we seek to enter the “great mystery” of our own embodiment as male and female. For religious people, the most common temptation is to reject the body as “unspiritual.”
Christianity Does Not Reject the Body
Religious people are used to an emphasis on “spiritual” things. However, many are unfamiliar, and sometimes very uncomfortable, with an emphasis on the body. But this reveals a very dangerous split or dualism in our thinking. Spirit has a certain priority over matter, since God, in himself, is pure spirit. Yet God is the author of the physical world, and in his wisdom, he did not make us pure spirits. He made us as incarnate spirits: a physical and spiritual unity.
Living a “spiritual life” as a Christian never means splitting off from the physical world. Jesus “was far removed from philosophies which despised the body, matter, and the things of the world,” insists Pope Francis. Yet he also recognizes that such “unhealthy dualisms, nonetheless, left a mark on certain Christian thinkers in the course of history and disfigured the Gospel.”5 John Paul II’s TOB offers a definitive corrective to these disfigurements which have caused many Christians to grow up thinking of the physical world (especially their own bodies and sexuality) as something bad.
This is an ancient theological error called Manichaeism, and it couldn’t be further from an authentic Christian perspective. In fact, it’s a direct attack on Christianity at its deepest roots. Everything in the Christian faith hinges on the Incarnation, on the “Word made flesh.” Ours is an enfleshed religion, and we must be very careful never to un-flesh it. It’s always the enemy who wants to “deny Christ come in the flesh” (see 1 John 4:2–3).
If we’re to rediscover who we really are, as John Paul II observed, it’s necessary to contend with some “deep-seated habits” in our way of thinking that come from Manichaeism (see TOB 46:1). So let’s take a closer look.
Mani (or Manichaeus), after whom this heresy is named, condemned the body and all things sexual because he believed that the material world was evil. Scripture, however, is very clear that everything God created is “very good” (see Genesis 1:31). This is a critical point to let sink in. Unwittingly, we often give evil far more weight than it deserves, as if the devil had created his own “evil world” to battle God’s “good world.” But the devil is a creature, not a creator. And this means the devil does not have his own clay. All he can do is take God’s clay (which is always very good) and twist it, distort it. That’s what evil is: the twisting or distortion of good. Redemption, therefore, involves the “untwisting” of what sin and evil have twisted so we can recover the true good.
In today’s post–sexual revolution world, sin and evil have terribly twisted the meaning of sexuality and erotic love. But “the rejection of distortions of sexuality and eroticism should never lead us to a disparagement or neglect of sexuality and eros in themselves,” insists Pope Francis.6 That’s a Manichaean approach. And if that’s the approach we’re taking, we haven’t overcome the devil’s lies. We’ve fallen right into his trap. His fundamental goal is always to split body and soul. Why? Well, there’s a fancy theological word for the separation of body and soul. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: death. That’s where Manichaeism, like all heresies, leads.
The true solution to pornographic distortions of the body is not the rejection of the body, but the redemption of the body—the “untwisting” of what sin has twisted so we can recover the true glory, splendor, and inestimable value of the body. John Paul II summarized the critical distinction between the Manichaean and Christian approaches to the body as follows: If the Manichaean mentality places an “anti-value” on the body and sex, Christianity teaches that the body and sex “always remain a ‘value not sufficiently appreciated’” (TOB, 45:3). In other words, if Manichaeism says “the body is bad,” Christianity says “the body is so good we have yet to fathom it.” The problem with our sex-saturated culture, then, is not that it overvalues the body and sex. The problem is that it has undervalued them; it has failed to see how incredibly valuable the body and sex really are.
We must say this loudly, clearly, and repeatedly until it sinks in and heals our wounds: Christianity does not demonize the body; Christianity divinizes the body! For Christ has raised the human body into the highest heights of the divine life! As the Catechism proclaims: “‘The flesh is the hinge of salvation.’ We believe in God who is creator of the flesh; we believe in the Word made flesh in order to redeem the flesh; we believe in the resurrection of the flesh, the fulfillment of both the creation and the redemption of the flesh” (CCC, 1015).
Still, in the midst of rejoicing in this “ode to the flesh,” how can we fail to acknowledge that, in this life, our bodiliness is often a source of great unhappiness and sometimes crushing suffering? Genetic defects, disease, sickness, injury, and a great many other physical maladies and misfortunes—not the least of which is the inevitable prospect of death—can tempt us to disdain our bodily existence. Sexual trauma, gender confusion, and disturbing, dark, and addictive sexual desires can cause us to feel ill at ease with or even loathe the fact that we are sexual beings.
In the face of such bitter trials and sufferings, how can we maintain that God is love and that our bodies are good? The following assertion of John Paul II offers much food for thought in this regard: “If the agony on the cross had not happened the truth that God is love would have been unfounded.”7 God does not turn a deaf ear to our cries. Quite the contrary, he enters into them, experiencing them himself in his passion and death, and, through his Resurrection, he transforms our sorrows into joy. Along the same lines we can add that if the Resurrection had not happened, the truth that the body is good would be unfounded. In fact, as St. Paul insists, if Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile (see 1 Corinthians 15:17). But if God has truly come in the flesh, if he has suffered, died, been buried, and risen again, then, united with Christ, all our wounds, maladies, and misfortunes can become something redemptive—for us and for others.
Learning and embracing the theology of our bodies takes us straight into the mystery of Christ’s suffering body—always with the blessed assurance that our suffering leads to untold glory in the resurrection of our bodies. In fact, our sufferings are Christ’s sufferings, for it was our sufferings that he endured. Whatever it is that we might suffer, we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10).
This is the story our bodies tell—the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is what makes our bodies not only biological but theological. This is what makes our bodies sacramental.
The Sacramentality of the Body
In light of the mystery of the Incarnation, the Catholic faith has always recognized that matter matters. Catholicism is a very fleshy, sensual religion, much more so than some misguided forms of piety might wish it to be. Our most intimate encounters with God come through our bodily senses and the “stuff” of the material world: through bathing the body with water (baptism); anointing the body with oil (baptism, confirmation, holy orders, anointing of the sick); eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ (the Eucharist); the laying on of hands (holy orders, anointing of the sick); confessing with our lips to another body (penance); and the unbreakable joining of man and woman in “one flesh” (marriage).
How can we describe the “great mystery” of the sacraments? They are the physical means through which we encounter God’s spiritual treasures. In the sacraments, spirit and matter “kiss.” Heaven and earth embrace in a marriage that will never end.
The human body itself is in some sense a “sacrament.” This is a broader and more ancient use of the word than we may be used to. Rather than referring to the seven signs of grace that Christ instituted, when John Paul II speaks of the body as a sacrament, he means it is a sign that somehow makes visible the invisible mystery of God.
We cannot see God. As we said above, God is pure spirit. And yet, St. John the Evangelist tells us that God’s life was “made visible.” Speaking of “the Word of life,” the mystery “which was from the beginning,” John claimed that he and his companions had seen this mystery “with their eyes” and had touched it “with their hands” (see 1 John 1:1–2). Christianity is the religion of God’s self-disclosure. God wants to reveal himself to us. He wants to make his invisible, spiritual mystery visible and tangible to us so that we can “see” him and “touch” him. How does he do so?
God speaks to us in sign language, revealing himself through the veil of this physical world. Most everyone has experienced that deep sense of awe and wonder in beholding a starlit night or a radiant sunset or a beautiful flower. In these moments, whether we realize it or not, we are reading God’s sign language, seeing God’s goodness and beauty reflected in his creation. “The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator” (CCC, 341).
And yet there’s something more grand than any starlit night, sunset, or flower. There’s something at the pinnacle of creation that God designed in order to speak his sign language more potently, more poignantly than anything else. What is it? “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Genesis 1:27–28). To say “theology of the body” is, in fact, just another way of saying we’re made in the image and likeness of God.
Precisely in our creation as male and female and in our call to fruitful communion, the human body becomes the greatest sign of the spiritual and the divine. And the more we learn how to read this sign, the more we enter into the “great mystery” of who God is and what his eternal plan is for the human race.
John Paul II’s Thesis
This brings us to the thesis statement of John Paul II’s TOB, the brush with which he paints his entire vision. It’s an incredibly dense statement, but fear not; we’ll spend the rest of the book unfolding it. Here it is:
The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it. (TOB 19:4)
Let’s begin with the first sentence. Think of your own experiences as a human being: Your body is not just a shell in which you dwell. Your body is not just a body. Your body is not just any body. Your body is somebody—you! Through the profound unity of your body and your soul, your body reveals or makes visible the invisible reality of your spiritual soul. The “you” you are is not just a soul in a body. Your body is not something you have or own alongside yourself. Your body is you. Which is why if someone broke your jaw in a fit of rage, you wouldn’t take him to court for property damage but for personal assault. What we do with our bodies, and what is done to our bodies, we do or have done to ourselves.
Once again, our bodies make visible what is invisible—the spiritual and the divine. It’s from this perspective that John Paul II wants to study the human body—not merely as a biological organism, but as a theology, as a “study of God.”
The body is not divine, of course. But it is the most powerful sign of the divine mystery in all creation. A sign is something that points us to a reality beyond itself and, in some way, makes that transcendent reality present to us. The divine mystery always remains infinitely “beyond”; it cannot be reduced to its sign. Yet the sign is indispensable in making visible the invisible mystery. As the Catechism says, “Man needs signs and symbols to communicate. . . . The same holds true for his relationship with God” (CCC, 1146).
Tragically, because of sin, the “body loses its character as a sign” (TOB 40:4)—not objectively, but rather subjectively. In other words, in itself, the body retains its character as a sign of the spiritual and divine, but we’ve been blinded to it. We can’t readily see it. As a result, we tend to consider the human body merely as a physical “thing” entirely separated from the spiritual and the divine. And this is why the very expression “theology of the body” seems so odd to people today, even to Christians. It shouldn’t, if we believe in the Incarnation. As John Paul II put it, “Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh, the body entered theology . . . through the main door” (TOB 23:4).
We must say it again (and again!): Everything in Christianity hinges on the Incarnation. God’s mystery has been revealed in human flesh, rendering the human body a study of God, a theology. Theology of the body, therefore, is not merely the title of a series of papal talks on sex and marriage; theology of the body is the very logic of Christianity. For in “the body of Jesus ‘we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see’” (CCC, 477).
The Divine Mystery
Several times already we have spoken of the divine mystery or the “mystery hidden in God from all eternity” (see Ephesians 3:9). What does this mean? In the Christian sense, “mystery” does not refer to some unsolvable puzzle. It refers to the innermost “secret” of God and to his eternal plan for humanity. These realities are so far beyond anything we can comprehend that all we can really utter is the word “mystery.” And yet God’s secret is knowable—not based on our ability to decipher some divine puzzle, but because God has made it known.
As the Catechism says, “God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange” (CCC, 221). God is not a tyrant; God is not a slave driver; God is not merely a legislator or lawgiver; and he’s certainly not an old man with a white beard waiting to strike us down whenever we fail. God is an “eternal exchange of love.” He’s an infinite communion of persons experiencing eternal love-bliss. And he created us for one reason: to share that eternal love and bliss with us.
This is what makes the gospel good news: There is a banquet of love that corresponds to the hungry cry of our hearts, and it is God’s free gift to us! We needn’t climb some high mountain to find it. We needn’t cross the sea. The “great mystery” of God’s love is very close to us, intimately part of us. Indeed, God inscribed an image of this “great mystery” in the very form of our bodies by making us male and female and calling the two to become one flesh.
The Spousal Analogy
Scripture uses many images to help us understand God’s love. Each has its own valuable place. But, as John Paul II wrote, the gift of Christ’s body on the cross gives “definitive prominence to the spousal meaning of God’s love.”8 In fact, from beginning to end, in the mysteries of our creation, fall, and redemption, the Bible tells a nuptial, or marital, story.
It begins in Genesis with the marriage of the first man and woman, and it ends in Revelation with the marriage of Christ and the Church. Right in the middle of the Bible we find the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs. These bookends and this centerpiece provide the key for reading the whole biblical story. Indeed, we can summarize all of Sacred Scripture with five simple, yet astounding words: God wants to marry us.
For as a young man marries a virgin
So shall your Maker marry you;
And as the bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
So shall your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:5)
Your breasts were formed and your hair had grown
You were naked and bare.
When I passed by you again and looked upon you,
Behold, you were at the age for love . . .
I entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord
And you became mine. (Ezekiel 16:7–8)
And I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice,
In steadfast love, and in mercy.
I will betroth you to me in faithfulness;
And you shall know the Lord. (Hosea 2:19)
God is inviting each of us, in a unique and unrepeatable way, to an unimagined intimacy with him, akin to the intimacy of spouses in one flesh. In fact, as Pope Francis observes, “The very word [used in Scripture to describe marital union] . . . ‘to cleave’ . . . is used to describe our union with God: ‘My soul clings to you’ (Psalm 63:8).”9 Because of the supreme bliss of union with God, “a love lacking either pleasure or passion is insufficient to symbolize the union of the human heart with God: ‘All the mystics have affirmed that supernatural love and heavenly love find the symbols which they seek in marital love.’”10
While we may need to work through some discomfort or fear here to reclaim the true sacredness, the true holiness of the imagery, the “scandalous” truth is that Scripture describes “God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images,” as Pope Benedict XVI put it.11 In his Lenten Message 2007 he declared: “Eros is part of God’s very Heart: the Almighty awaits the ‘yes’ of his creatures as a young bridegroom that of his bride.”
We are probably more familiar (and more comfortable) describing God’s love as agape—the Greek word for sacrificial, self-giving love. Yet God’s love “may certainly be called eros,” asserts Benedict XVI. In Christ eros is “supremely ennobled . . . so purified as to become one with agape.” Thus, the Bible has no qualms employing the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs as a description of “God’s relation to man and man’s relation to God.” In this way, as Benedict XVI concludes, the Song of Songs became not only an expression of the intimacies of marital love, it also became “an expression of the essence of biblical faith: that man can indeed enter into union with God—his primordial aspiration.”12
The Essence of Biblical Faith
Let’s try to let that sink in: The Song of Songs, this unabashed celebration of erotic love, expresses the essence of biblical faith. How so? The essence of biblical faith is that God came among us in the flesh not only to forgive our sins (as astounding as that gift is); he became “one flesh” with us so that we could share in his eternal exchange of love. In the first of his many sermons on the Song of Songs, St. Bernard of Clairvaux aptly describes marriage as “the sacrament of endless union with God.” Revelation calls this endless union the “marriage of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:7).
But there’s more. Remember that pithy rhyme we learned as children: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage”? We probably didn’t realize that we were actually reciting some profound theology: theology of the body! Our bodies tell the story that God loves us, wants to marry us, and wants us to “conceive” eternal life within us. “What is happening here?” asks St. Bonaventure. When God fills us with his divine life, it is “nothing other than the heavenly Father by a divine seed, as it were, impregnating the soul and making it fruitful.”13
For Christians, the idea of divine impregnation is not merely a metaphor. Representing all of us, a young Jewish woman named Mary once gave her “yes” to God’s marriage proposal with such totality and fidelity that she literally conceived eternal life in her womb. In a hymn addressed to her, St. Augustine exclaims: “The Word becomes united with flesh, he makes his covenant with flesh, and your womb is the sacred bed on which this holy union of the Word with flesh is consummated.”14 Mary’s virginity has always been understood by the Church as the sign of her betrothal to God. She is the “mystic bride of love eternal,” as a traditional hymn has it. As such, Mary perfectly fulfills the spousal character of the human vocation in relation to God (see CCC, 505).
In turn, Mary fully illuminates the theology of a woman’s body. In her, woman’s body has literally become the dwelling place of the Most High God—heaven on earth! Every woman shares in some way in this incomparable dignity and calling. Every woman’s body is a sign of heaven on earth. And, oh, how lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, mighty God (see Psalm 84:1). Continue unfolding this astounding mystery and it’s not difficult to recognize that the theology of a man’s body can be described as a call to enter the gates of heaven, to surrender himself there, to lay down his life there by pouring himself out utterly. In this way the man images the eternal outpouring, the eternal life- givingness of God as Father.
Can we even imagine a greater sacredness, a greater holiness, a greater goodness and glory ascribed to our maleness and femaleness, our sexuality? Oh, Lord, show us who we really are! Give us eyes to see so glorious a mystery revealed through our bodies and in the call of man and woman to become one flesh!
Penetrating the Essence of the Mystery
In the midst of unfolding the biblical analogy of spousal love, it’s very important to understand the bounds within which we’re using such language and imagery. Analogies, of course, always indicate both a similarity and an even more substantial dissimilarity. Without this recognition, there is a real danger of inferring too much about divine realities, based on human realities.
“It is obvious,” writes John Paul II, “that the analogy of . . . human spousal love . . . cannot offer an adequate and complete understanding of . . . the divine mystery.” God’s “mystery remains transcendent with respect to this analogy as with respect to any other analogy.” At the same time, however, John Paul II maintains that the spousal analogy allows a certain “penetration” into the very essence of the mystery (see TOB 95b:1). And no biblical author reaches more deeply into this essence than St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.
Quoting directly from Genesis, Paul states: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” Then, linking the original marriage with the ultimate marriage, he adds: “This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:31–32).
We can hardly overstate the importance of this passage for John Paul II and the whole theological tradition of the Church. He calls it the “summa” (“sum total”) of Christian teaching about who God is and who we are.15 He says this passage contains the “crowning” of all the themes in Sacred Scripture and expresses the “central reality” of the whole of divine revelation (see TOB 87:3). The mystery spoken of in this passage “is ‘great’ indeed,” he says. “It is what God . . . wishes above all to transmit to mankind in his Word.” Thus, “one can say that [this] passage . . . ‘reveals— in a particular way—man to man himself and makes his supreme vocation clear’ (GS, 22)” (TOB 87:6; 93:2).
So what is this “supreme vocation” we have as human beings that Ephesians 5 makes clear? Stammering for words to describe the ineffable, the mystics call it “nuptial union” . . . with God.16 Christ is the new Adam who left his Father in heaven. He also left the home of his mother on earth. Why? To mount “the marriage bed of the cross,” as St. Augustine had it, unite himself with the Church, symbolized by “the woman” at the foot of the cross, and consummate the union forever. Archbishop Fulton Sheen elaborates:
Now we’ve always thought, and rightly so, of Christ the Son on the cross and the mother beneath him. But that’s not the complete picture. That’s not the deep understanding. Who is our Lord on the cross? He’s the new Adam. Where’s the new Eve? At the foot of the cross. . . . If Eve became the mother of the living in the natural order, is not this woman at the foot of the cross to become another mother? [How does this spiritual motherhood happen?] . . . As St. Augustine puts it, and here I am quoting him verbatim, “. . . As it were, the blood and water that came from the side of Christ was the spiritual seminal fluid.” And so from these nuptials “Woman, there’s your son” this is the beginning of the Church.17
“On the Cross, God’s eros for us is made manifest,” proclaims Pope Benedict XVI. “Eros is indeed . . . that force which ‘does not allow the lover to remain in himself but moves him to become one with the beloved.’ Is there more ‘mad eros’ . . . than that which led the Son of God to make himself one with us even to the point of suffering as his own the consequences of our offenses?” he asks.18
The more we allow the brilliant rays of Christ’s “mad eros” to illuminate our vision, the more we come to understand, as the Catechism observes, how the “entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery” (CCC, 1617). Here “the ‘imperishable seed’ of the Word of God produces its life-giving effect” (CCC, 1228). The “imperishable seed” is given by Christ as Bridegroom and received by the Church as Bride. And through these glorious, virginal nuptials, the Church brings forth sons and daughters “to a new and immortal life” (CCC, 507).
Still, as glorious as baptism is, it’s only our entry into the Christian life, not its summit. Baptism opens the way to the sacrament of sacraments, the mystery of mysteries; baptism “is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist” (CCC, 1617).
The Summit of the Spousal Analogy
In the Eucharist, “Christ is united with his ‘body’ as the bridegroom with the bride,” John Paul II tells us. As such, the Eucharist illuminates with supernatural brilliance “the relationship between man and woman, between what is ‘feminine’ and what is ‘masculine.’ ”19 It is in the Eucharist that the meaning of life, love, sex, gender, and marriage is fully revealed! How so?
There is such a strong temptation to disincarnate and, thus, neuter our faith that we’re often oblivious to the profound significance of the fact that there is a man on the cross and a woman at the foot of the cross. It can’t be the other way around. In the spousal analogy, God is always the Bridegroom and humanity is always the Bride. Why? Because humanity is first receptive to the love of God: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he first loved us” (1 John 4:10). The woman’s body primarily tells the story of receiving divine love while the man’s body primarily tells the story of offering that love, of pouring it out.
The more we press in to this divine love story, the more we realize why only a man can be an ordained priest: It’s the bridegroom who gives the seed or inseminates; it’s the bride who receives the seed within and conceives new life. This is why a man trains to be a priest in the seminary and, once ordained, is called Father. A woman cannot be ordained a priest because she is not ordained by God to be a father; she is ordained by God to be a mother. This is where the sexual difference matters—in the call to holy communion and generation. If a woman were to attempt to confer the Eucharist, the relationship would be bride to bride. There would be no possibility of Holy Communion and no possibility of generating new life.
Of course, a world that insists that two women can marry will also insist that a woman can be a priest, but both ideas come from the same failure to recognize the essential meaning of the sexual difference. Since grace builds on nature, when we’re confused about the natural reality, we’re also confused about the supernatural reality: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe,” asks Jesus, “how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” ( John 3:12).
The more deeply we enter into the “great mystery” of Ephesians 5, the more we will see how and why the sexual difference is just as important to the Holy Communion of the Eucharist as it is to the holy communion of marriage. In fact, as John Paul II teaches, we cannot understand one without the other. Perhaps the following story will illuminate what he means.
I never met my father-in-law. He died when my wife was a girl, but I admire him tremendously because of the intuition he had as a brand-new husband. At Mass the day after his wedding, having consummated his marriage the night before, he was in tears as he came back to the pew after receiving the Eucharist. When his new bride inquired, he said, “For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of those words, ‘This is my body given for you.’”
Make no mistake: When all the smoke is cleared and all the distortions are untwisted, the deepest meaning and purpose of human sexuality is to point us to the Eucharist, the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). And this is precisely why questions of sex, gender, and marriage place us right in the center of “the situation in which the powers of good and evil fight against each other” (TOB 115:2).
The Body and the Spiritual Battle
If God created the body and sexual union to proclaim his own eternal mystery of love, why do we not typically see and experience them in this profound way? For example, when you hear the word “sex,” what generally comes to mind? Is it the great mystery of Ephesians 5 . . . or is it something, shall we say, a little less sacred than that? Remember, it’s because of sin that the “body loses its character as a sign” of the divine mystery (see TOB 40:4).
Ponder this for a moment: If the union of the sexes is the main sign in this world of our call to union with God, and if there is an enemy who wants to separate us from God, where do you think he’s going to aim his most potent arrows? If we want to know what is most sacred in this world, all we need do is look for what is most violently profaned.
We live in a world of chaotic, widespread gender confusion, a world that seems intent on erasing the essential meaning of the sexual difference from the individual and collective consciousness. Where does this confusion ultimately come from? What spiritual forces might be instigating it and why? Professor Stanislaw Grygiel of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family expressed it this way:
If we don’t live the sexual differences correctly that distinguish men and women and call them to unite, we will not be capable of understanding the difference that distinguishes Man and God, and constitutes a primordial call to union. Thus, we may fall into the despair of a life separated from others and from the Other, that is, God.20
It is sobering in the utmost to think that all the sexual confusion in our world today might be the unfolding of a diabolic plot to separate us from one another and from God. This much is certain from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: The battle for man’s soul is fought over the truth of his body. It’s no mere coincidence that Paul follows his presentation of the ultimate meaning of gender, sex, and marriage in Ephesians 5 with his call to spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6. These issues place us “at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love.”21 That’s why the first thing we must do to win this battle is “gird [our] loins with the truth” (Ephesians 6:14).
The TOB is John Paul II’s clarion call for all men and women to do just that—to gird their loins with the truth that will set them free to love; the truth that will reunite men and women with one another in the image of God and, thus, reunite them with God himself.
The Foundation of Ethics and Culture
The stakes are incredibly high in the cultural debates about the meaning of gender, sex, and marriage—and not only in the spiritual or religious realm. Confusion about the meaning of sexuality leads to the “moral disorder that deforms . . . the functioning of social, economic and even cultural life” (TOB 51, note 61).
The communion of man and woman is “the deepest substratum [or foundation] of human ethics and culture” (TOB 45:3). In short, as our understanding of gender and sex go, so goes marriage; as marriage goes, so goes the family. And because the family is the fundamental cell of society, as the family goes, so goes the world. Hence, confusion about sexual morality, as John Paul II wrote in his pre-papal book Love and Responsibility, “involves a danger perhaps greater than is generally realized: the danger of confusing the basic and fundamental human tendencies, the main paths of human existence.”22
Think how intertwined sex is with the very reality of human existence. You simply would not exist without the sexual union of your parents . . . and their parents . . . and their parents. Your existence depends on a chain of thousands upon thousands of indispensable sexual unions that link to the beginning of human history. Go back any number of generations in your family tree and remove (or sterilize) just one sexual union in your lineage, and you would not exist. Nor would anyone else who descended from that point on the family tree. The world would be a different place.
When we tinker with God’s plan for sex, we are tinkering with the cosmic stream of human existence. The human race—its very existence and its proper balance—is literally determined by who is having sex with whom, and in what manner. When sexual union is oriented toward love and life, it builds families and, in turn, cultures that live the truth of love and life. When it is oriented against love and life, the sexual act breeds death— what John Paul II grimly, yet accurately, described as a “culture of death.”
The Interconnection of Sex and the Whole of Life
A “culture of death” is a culture that separates body and soul (remember, that’s what death is). In turn, it cannot recognize the body as a sign of anything spiritual, let alone divine. It can’t recognize the “great mystery” of married love and procreation. Sex, instead, gets reduced merely to the pursuit of pleasure.
Sexual pleasure is a great blessing and gift from God, of course. But it is meant to be the fruit of loving as he loves, not an end in itself. When pleasure becomes the main goal of sex, society becomes utilitarian. You’re valued if you’re useful. And, in this case, you’re useful if you stimulate my lusts. If you don’t, or if you get in the way of my pleasure, you will be ignored, discarded, maybe even exterminated. When pleasure is the main goal of sex, people become the means and babies become the obstacle. So we take our pleasure and we kill our offspring.
This is not a dire prediction of an apocalyptic future. This is the culture we live in now—a culture of death. John Paul II summarized the situation very soberly: “It is an illusion to think we can build a true culture of human life if we do not . . . accept and experience sexuality and love and the whole of life according to their true meaning and their close interconnection.”23 This is precisely why John Paul II gave us the TOB: to help us accept and experience sexuality and love and the whole of life according to their true meaning and their close interconnection and, in that way, build a true culture of human life from the ground up.
John Paul II’s Approach
One of the main reasons John Paul II’s TOB resonates so deeply with people is the philosophical approach that undergirds it. In contrast to more conventional philosophical approaches that focus on objective categories and abstract concepts, John Paul II focuses on the familiar realm of subjective human experiences. He believes that if what the Church teaches is objectively true, then human experience—subjective as it is—should offer confirmation of that truth. Knowing that the Church’s message “is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart” (CCC, 2126), John Paul II does not need to nor does he attempt to force assent to his proposals. Rather, he invites men and women to reflect honestly on their own experience of life to see if it confirms his proposals.
Those who have been turned off by judgmental moralizers will find this approach delightfully refreshing. John Paul II imposes nothing and wags a finger at no one. He simply reflects lovingly on God’s Word and on human experience in order to demonstrate the profound harmony between them. Then, with utmost respect for our freedom, he invites us to embrace our own dignity. It doesn’t matter how often we have settled for something less. This is a message of sexual healing and redemption, not condemnation.
With this compassionate and merciful approach—the Gospel approach—John Paul II shifts the discussion about sex from legalism to liberty. The legalist asks, “How far can I go before I break the law?” Instead, John Paul II asks, “What is the truth about sex that sets me free to love?” To answer that question, we must ask why God made us male and female in the first place. These are questions that plunge us into the deepest truth of what it means to be human. Indeed, the “fundamental fact” of human existence “is that God ‘created [us] male and female’” (TOB 18:4).
What John Paul II’s TOB is primarily seeking to provide, then, is the full truth of what it means to be human—or, as he puts it, a “total vision of man.” To discover this total vision, we must turn to Christ, the one who alone “fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”24 This line from the Second Vatican Council was John Paul II’s anthem: Christ, precisely by taking on flesh, fully reveals what it means to be human. And so Part I of John Paul II’s TOB is called “The Words of Christ” and is based on three key words of Jesus—three appeals he makes— that paint a three-paneled picture of where we’ve come from (our origin), where we are now (our history), and where we’re headed (our destiny):
- Christ Appeals to the “Beginning”: based on Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees about God’s plan for marriage “in the beginning” (see Matthew 19:3–9).
- Christ Appeals to the Human Heart: based on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount regarding adultery committed “in the heart” (see Matthew 5:27–28).
- Christ Appeals to the Resurrection: based on Christ’s statement to the Sadducees that in the resurrection men and women no longer marry (see Matthew 22: 23–33).
For our purposes, I’ve titled the corresponding chapters in this book as follows: “The Creation of the Body,” “The Redemption of the Body,” and “The Resurrection of the Body.” Only in light of these three stages of the human drama can we understand both what it means to be human and, based on that, how to live our lives in a way that brings true happiness.
Revelation teaches that there are essentially two ways of living the truth of our sexuality in its totality: celibacy and marriage.25 So, before he concludes Part I of the TOB, John Paul II reflects on Christ’s words about those who choose to forgo marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, demonstrating Christian celibacy to be a fully human—and, yes, fully sexual—vocation. If that seems like a contradiction, it won’t by the time you’ve finished reading chapter five of this book.
Part II of the TOB is called “The Sacrament.” Here John Paul II reflects on marriage both as a divine gift and a human sign of divine love. Chapters six and seven of this book are titled accordingly. Only in light of these two dimensions of the sacrament of marriage are we capable of understanding the true language of sexual love. And that’s where John Paul II takes us in the final section of his TOB: to a winning explanation of how the Christian sexual ethic flows very naturally from a total vision of what it means to be human. For our purposes, I’ve called that chapter “Theology in the Bedroom.”
Having set the stage by exploring what the TOB is, we’re now ready to dive in to the content of John Paul II’s teaching itself.
1. If God created the body and sexual union to express the eternal mystery of his own divine love, why do we not typically see and experience them in this profound way? Why is there so much confusion about the meaning of the body and of sex today?
2. Describe in your own words what St. John Paul II meant by the “culture of death.” What examples of this culture do you observe around you?
3. How might understanding the truth about sexuality transform the way you approach relationships with the opposite sex?
Dear Lord, as we explore the deep truths that St. John Paul II wrote about in his Theology of the Body, open our eyes to see the plan for human love that you have written in our bodies.