Theology of the Body

Theology of the Body

Theology of the Body is the topic of a series of 129 lectures given by Pope John Paul II during his Wednesday audiences in the Pope Paul VI Hall between September 1979 and November 1984. It was the first major teaching of his pontificate. The complete addresses were later compiled and expanded upon in many of John Paul's encyclicals, letters, and exhortations.

The delivery of the Theology of the Body series did have interruptions. For example, the Wednesday audiences were devoted to other topics during the Holy Year of Redemption in 1983.[1]



The work covers such topics as the unified corporeal and spiritual qualities of the human person; the origins, history and destiny of humanity; the deepest desires of the human heart and the way to experience true happiness and freedom; the truth about man's need and desire for loving communion derived from the revealed understanding of humanity in the image of a Triune Creator; the truth about God's original design for human sexuality and thus the dignity of the human person, how it was distorted through sin, and how it has been restored and renewed through the redemption of Jesus Christ; and Catholic teachings about the sacramentality of marriage.

The central thesis of John Paul's Theology of the Body, according to author Christopher West, is that "the body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus to be a sign of it."[2]

The work consists of two halves and five cycles. The first half, entitled "The Words of Christ" consists of three cycles in which John Paul II establishes an "adequate anthropology." Cycle 1 looks at the human person as we were created to be "in the beginning" (original man); Cycle 2 addresses human life after original sin, unredeemed and redeemed (historical man). Cycle 3 treats the reality of our life at the end of time when Christ comes back again and history reaches its fulfillment (eschatological man). John Paul II also places his reflections on virginity for the kingdom within the context of Cycle 3. In the second half, entitled "The Sacrament" (which refers to the sacrament of marriage), John Paul II addresses the sacramentality of marriage in Cycle 4 and the responsible transmission of human life in Cycle 5.

Some consider the first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), with its exposition of the relation between agape and eros, to be the culmination of John Paul II's Theology of the Body.[citation needed]

Christian ideal of marriage

In this first cycle, Pope John Paul II discusses Christ's answer to the Pharisees when they ask him about whether a man can divorce his wife.[1]


This second cycle focuses on Christ's remarks on adultery in the Sermon on the Mount.[1]

Matthew 5:27-28 (D-R)
27 You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not commit adultery.
28 But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Pope John Paul II explains this as looking at another person to desire them in a reductive way, that is they are viewed as merely an object of desire. Pope John Paul II says this seems to be a key passage for theology of the body. (See [1] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline Books and Media), 2006,225.)

Resurrection of the body

The third cycle analyzes Christ’s answer to the Sadducees when they come to him and ask him about a woman who had married seven brothers.[1]

Celibacy and virginity

The fourth cycle is a meditation on celibacy and virginity.[1]

Sacrament of marriage

The fifth cycle discusses the sacrament of marriage.[1]


Pope John Paul II began his discussion of contraception on 11 July 1984 with the 114th lecture in this series. This section of the lecture series, the sixth and final part, is largely a reflection on Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI. In it, John Paul continued his emphasis on the design of the human body revealing God's truths. It is explained and reaffirmed that the fundamental structure of males and females, which causes sexual intercourse between them to result in both greater intimacy and the capability of generating new life, demonstrates a morally inseparable connection between these two functions.

The authority of the Magisterium (teaching authority of the Church and those who hold the office) to interpret the divine intention (in this context, through the structure of the body), is emphasized. Although the Church's teachings on sexuality are not present in a literal reading of the biblical text, John Paul gives examples of how they are part of longstanding Church tradition—a tradition that was created in the context of scriptural teachings.

The ability of the human body to express truth through the sexual union of married couples is acclaimed. The moral wrongness of using artificial means to manipulate such a significant aspect of the created body is explained. Dominion over outside forces, and also self-mastery through discipline, are integral human drives. However, the language expressed by bodies, in this context the language expressed during sexual intercourse, is so damaged by the use of artificial contraception that the conjugal act "ceases to be an act of love... [or] communion of persons" but rather is a mere bodily union.

On the other hand, the licitness of natural family planning (NFP) methods is held to be evident from the structure of the human body, which has natural periods of fertility and infertility. The morality of these methods was literally designed into the body, and use of them, unlike use of artificial contraception, can actually improve the dialog between couples which is expressed through the language of the body. Throughout these speeches the main emphasis is on the intrinsic goodness of the marital act. The power of love between spouses is said to both lead to and be nourished by the moral use of the conjugal act. Thus, moral exercise of sexual intercourse uses the form of the body to reveal the love of God toward Creation.

While following the rules of NFP does not guarantee a truly spiritual sexual relationship between husband and wife, understanding the theology that makes NFP acceptable can foster the maturity needed by the couple to attain that level of spirituality, living life by the Holy Spirit. Also, Pope John Paul II warns couples against "lowering the number of births in their family below the morally correct level." Responsible parenthood is greatly encouraged, however it is emphasized that while this sometimes means limiting family size, responsible parenthood can also mandate couples to increase their family size. This is because of the good children bring not only their immediate family, but also to their society and Church.

The seriousness of a couple's decision to maintain or increase their family size is discussed. John Paul refers to Gaudium et Spes, a document issued by the Second Vatican Council, which emphasizes the importance of couples' having their conscience guided by the law of God. The difficulty inherent in and endurance required to consciously regulate births with these methods is discussed, although largely in the context of the integral part played by the burdens of life as Christians follow the "hard way" through the "narrow gate". In fact, the kind of discipline necessary to practice periodic continence is claimed to impart licit conjugal acts with deeper meaning, as well as bringing out the ability of a married couple to express love through non-sexual acts.

John Paul states many other benefits claimed for moral use of NFP, some from Humanae Vitae. These include an increase of marital peace, less spousal selfishness, increased and more positive influence over their children (5 September 1884), and increased dignity of person through following the law of God. Use of NFP is also said to increase appreciation of children, by fostering respect for what is created by God.


By Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II's last book, Memory and Identity, mentions the importance of the Thomistic philosophy and theology of the prominent doctor of the Catholic Church St. Thomas Aquinas to come to a deeper understanding of the Pope's personalist (phenomenological) presentation of Humanae Vitae in his Theology of the Body catechesis, which he thought had its limitations.[3] He writes:

If we wish to speak rationally about good and evil, we have to return to St. Thomas Aquinas, that is, to the philosophy of being. With the phenomenological method, for example, we can study experiences of morality, religion, or simply what it is to be human, and draw from them a significant enrichment of our knowledge. Yet we must not forget that all these analyses implicitly presuppose the reality of the Absolute Being and also the reality of being human, that is, being a creature. If we do not set out from such 'realist' presuppositions, we end up in a vacuum.[4]

By George Weigel

George Weigel has described Theology of the Body as "one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in centuries." He goes on to say it is a "kind of theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church." Weigel believes that it has barely begun to "shape the Church's theology, preaching, and religious education" but when it does "it will compel a dramatic development of thinking about virtually every major theme in the Creed."[5]

Weigel also realizes major obstacles to the theology of the body. The Pope is very hard to read and understand: "The density of John Paul's material is one factor. A secondary literature capable of translating John Paul's thought into accessible categories and vocabulary is badly needed." And, Weigel believes, the dominant liberal views on such issues as women's rights, birth control, abortion and divorce are also obstacles to the "theology of the body" becoming known or accepted.[5]

Many of Weigel's concerns with respect to being able to understand the set of Wednesday General Audiences on the Theology of the Body have been addressed in the new translation, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (2006, Michael Waldstein, translator). One of the drawbacks of the prior English-language versions is that different translators were used at varying times over the long period that the Audience talks were given. Hence, it happened occasionally that the same term would be translated differently from one talk to the other. The new translation has corrected that problem in addition to being confirmed by having had access to John Paul's original notes in Polish, rather than merely the Italian used in the Audience talks.

By Christopher West

In his Theology of the Body Explained Christopher West, who has been teaching John Paul's theology of the body since the late 1990s, wrote, "John Paul's TOB is most often cast as an extended catechesis on marriage and sexual love. It certainly is that, but it is also so much more. Through the mystery of the Incarnate person and the biblical analogy of spousal love, John Paul II's catechesis illumines the entirety of God's plan for human life from origin to eschaton with a splendid supernatural light." [6]

Alice von Hildebrand, widow of the late 20th century theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand, severely criticized West's approach in her essay "Dietrich von Hildebrand, Catholic Philosopher, and Christopher West, Modern Enthusiast: Two Very Different Approaches to Love, Marriage and Sex."

By John Cornwell

In his account of the reign of John Paul II, author John Cornwell says of the Theology of the Body: "This work, which constitutes, in the view of some keen papal supporters, John Paul's vital legacy to the world, has been perhaps his least influential."[7]

By Charles Curran

Dissident Catholic moral theologian Charles E. Curran, writing in The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II, says the pope's Wednesday audiences are unlikely to have been understood by many of those present at the time: "Quite frankly, the talks do not seem appropriate for the occasion. They are somewhat theoretical and too detailed for a general audience. In addition, because each individual talk is part of a larger whole, it is difficult to understand the full meaning of any short talk without seeing the whole picture. I am sure that most of those in attendance at the audiences did not follow what the pope was saying." Curran also makes the point that such talks have "little or no importance from the viewpoint of authoritative teaching," and that the pope appears to be unaware of contemporary biblical scholarship and makes no mention of any contemporary scholars of any type.

Curran also points out that the Theology of the Body "clearly cannot serve as a theology for all persons and all bodies", and that "there are many people for whom the 'nuptial meaning' of the body he develops are not appropriate. As with many utopias, the elderly are missing. But also most obviously the unmarried - people who are single, people who are widowed, and homosexuals. The pope at one point tries to show how virginity and celibacy can be understood within the terms of his ideas about the 'nuptial meaning' of the body, but these arguments are unconvincing." On the positive side, Curran says the pope "strongly supports the equality of men and women in marriage and expressly opposes any subordination of the woman to the man."[8]

By Kenneth L. Woodward

The religion editor for Newsweek, Kenneth L. Woodward, has described John Paul's Theology of the Body as "a highly romantic and unrealistic view of human sexuality."[9]

By Sebastian Moore, OSB

Benedictine moral theologian, Sebastian Moore, who has publicly identified himself as gay[10], is critical of the Theology of the Body for its lack of connection to real people in their real lives: "I keep getting the feeling, reading these profound reflections, that their author does not believe that there is any clue to the sublime reality in sexual experience itself. In reflection on one's body in its maleness and femaleness, its essential incompleteness, yes; in the mysteriousness of the union of the two in one flesh, yes. But in sex, as we enjoy and suffer it? Somehow, no. That never comes through. This is a phenomenology of sexuality, descriptive of its intentionality. But we are light years away from the world of D. H. Lawrence. I mean that there is no feeling for the area of experience for which Lawrence has found such memorable words. Of course I don't want the pope to write like Lawrence! It's just that when I think of Lawrence, and then read this text, I get the feeling that, though phenomenological and existential, it really is not talking about what Lawrence is talking about at all."

Sebastian Moore also argues that in his protracted discussion of the "shame" of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when they become aware of their nakedness, the pope fundamentally misunderstands what the story is saying. In the Genesis account, according to Moore, "it is shame that sets the stage for lust", but "in the pope's account, it is the other way round: lust generates shame....What we see of sex, in the story of the Fall as presented by Pope John Paul, is sex as shameful, but not the way the story intends, but rather the way he intends, that is, as shameful because of lust." [11]

By theologian Georg Schelbert

Theologian Georg Schelbert, of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, is critical of the Theology of the Body for its highly selective use of Scripture. He notes that John Paul, in discussing Jesus' attitude to divorce, makes no mention of the qualification in Matthew 5:32 where Jesus permits divorce for reason of adultery. Schelbert also argues that it is clear that the biblical stories of the patriarchs clearly permit polygamy, in contradiction of John Paul's statement that polygamy "directly rejects the plan of God as revealed in the beginning." He also notes that, in John Paul's discussion of divorce, "not a single word is said about the so-called Pauline privilege (or about the extension of that privilege, which for a long time was falsely called 'Petrine'), which relaxes these rigorous conclusions").[12] The Pauline privilege is usually seen as permitting divorce or annulment in cases where one of the partners is not a baptised believer.

Further reading

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Hogan, Richard M. (February 25, 2003). "An Introduction to John Paul II's Theology of the Body". Natural Family Planning Outreach. Retrieved 2006-07-14. 
  2. ^ West, Christopher (2004). Theology of the Body for Beginners. Ascension Press. p. 5. ISBN 1-932645-34-9. 
  3. ^ Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., STD. "Aquinas and the Theology of the Body". 
  4. ^ Pope John Paul II (2005). Memory and identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium. New York: Rizzoli. pp. 12. ISBN 0847827615. OCLC 474590433. 
  5. ^ a b Weigel, George (October 1999). Witness to Hope (First edition ed.). Harper Perennial. pp. 336, 343, 853. ISBN 0-06-018793-X. 
  6. ^ West, Christopher (2007). The Theology of the Body Explained. Pauline Books & Media. p. 14. ISBN 0-8198-7425-6. 
  7. ^ Cornwell, John (2004). The Pontiff in Winter: Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II. Doubleday. p. 139. ISBN 0-385-51484-0. 
  8. ^ Curran, Charles E., (2006). The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II. Georgetown University Press. pp. 4, 5, 46, 168, 188. ISBN 9781589010420. 
  9. ^ Kenneth L. Woodward, The New York Times, 18/12/2005
  10. ^ Sebastian Moore interview with Noel Debien in ABC Sunday Night, Feb. 13, 2011[1]
  11. ^ Sebastian Moore OSB, "The Crisis of an Ethic without Desire", in Rogers, Eugene F. Jr., ed. (2002). Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Blackwell. pp. 162–3. ISBN 0-631-21276-0. 
  12. ^ Georg Schelbert, "Defaming the Historical-Critical Method", in Küng and Swidler (1986). The Church in Anguish: Has the Vatican Betrayed Vatican II?. Harper & Row, San Francisco. pp. 106–124. ISBN 0-06-254827-1. 

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