The Theology of the Body According to St. John Paul II
by John S. Grabowski
When John Paul II was elevated to the papacy, he unveiled a series of reflections on which he had worked for some time. He gave these in the form of weekly general audiences between 1979 and 1984. These talks became known as “The Theology of the Body” and have had a growing impact on Christian thinking about what it means to be embodied as male or female.
Reflecting on the Genesis accounts of creation, Pope John Paul II underscored the way in which the body reflects or expresses the person. The human person discovers his dignity through his body and its capacity to express his ability to think and to choose, unlike the animals, who lack this ability. (See Genesis 2:19-21.)
Yet humanity is radically lacking in its expression in only one sex. The full meaning of the body and hence the human person is revealed only when the man stands over against another unique way of being human–woman. This distinctive way of being a person and a gift for others, male and female, reflects what the late pope called “the nuptial meaning of the body.” Coming together in the profound partnership of marriage, man and woman live for the other in mutual love and deference. This union is expressed concretely in the couple’s bodily gift of themselves to one another in sexual intercourse. Here they speak a profound language of total self-gift and unconditional fidelity.
The late pope understood the impact of sin on the human person. The Fall brings about a series of ruptures within the person, radically diminishing the body’s capacity to express reason and freedom. It introduces alienation and a struggle for control into the relationship of male and female, distorting their relationships in marriage and in human society (cf. Genesis 3:16). And it devastates the human sexual drive, redirecting it from an impulse toward life-giving interpersonal union between covenantal partners to a desire to use and exploit others for personal satisfaction.
Yet with the death and resurrection of Christ, sin does not have the last word on the condition of the body. The grace that flows from the cross and resurrection effects a “redemption of the body,” not just in heaven but here and now. Through the healing effects of Christian prayer and sacramental worship, the body is enabled to express the person and his or her ability to think and freely choose.
The grace of Christ also enables men and women to overcome their mutual conflict and live together in marriage in the exercise of “mutual submission out of reverence for Christ” (cf. Ephesians 5:21; Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 24). This transforming grace enables the body in its maleness and femaleness to be offered as the expression of the “sincere gift of self” in a way reflective of the person’s vocation– as single, married, or a consecrated celibate.
The human person as a unique embodied subject is thus understood through the three panels (or triptych) of the Christian mysteries of creation, sin, and redemption. The result is what John Paul II himself modestly referred to as an “adequate” understanding of the person. This vision enables us to recognize and affirm that the body and the gift of sexuality are good. At the same time it highlights why this gift is falsified by extramarital or contraceptive sex that sever sexual union from its inherent meanings of unconditional fidelity and life-giving fruitfulness.
The mystery of the human person is continually confronted by new issues and challenges. For example, much of the reflection on the body and its relation to the person within Christian tradition has been undertaken by men. During his pontificate John Paul II called for a “new feminism” that would better account for the distinctive insights, experiences, and gifts of women.
In addition, issues of the relationship between the body and the person take on new urgency in light of expanding scientific and medical technology that has raised questions at both the beginning of life (reproductive technologies, the status of cryo-preserved embryos, stem cell research, and attempts to clone human beings) and its end (the personhood of the persistently comatose, the meaning of suffering, and how to define the moment of death). To continue to affirm the fundamental biblical conviction of the goodness of the embodied person created in the image of God while addressing such pressing questions is the task for the further refinement of the “adequate anthropology” of John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”
About the author
Professor John S. Grabowski is a member of the Department of Theology at The Catholic University of America.