Between September 1979 and November 1984, Pope John Paul II devoted a series of general audiences to what he later called his “theology of the body.” It is considered by many to be a profound and deep catechesis on the human body and sexual love. His theology of the body is a timely teaching and one that has been embraced especially by younger Catholics.
Have you ever picked up Pope John Paul II’s writings and slogged through them? Maybe you dipped your toe into his theology of the body but put it down in frustration. Be of good cheer. By understanding the ABCs of John Paul, you’ll have a better chance of deciphering his challenging language. In time, maybe you’ll be explaining John Paul to others.
A = All
It All begins with “gift.” God created the world as gift. He created man and woman as gift. We are called to become gift. Why? Because God is Gift. The inner life of God, according to John Paul, is self-giving love: The Father pours himself out in Gift to the Son, the Son pours himself out in Gift to the Father, and the Holy Spirit bursts forth as the fruit of their selfgiving love.
In John Paul’s writings, “gift” is everywhere. In fact, one of his favorite passages from the Second Vatican Council contains the word “gift.” It says: “Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for his own sake, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 24). If John Paul hadn’t been elected pope, this passage might have receded into obscurity. Instead, this passage graces almost every one of his apostolic letters and encyclicals (and my car’s license plate.).
So how are we to understand this phrase, “sincere gift of self”? By going back to the Trinity and using God as our model. We are called to make a sincere gift of self in the same way as the Father and Son — in a way that is total, complete, and bursts forth in fruitfulness. When speaking about how we image God in the world, John Paul said: “To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is created to exist ‘for others, to become a gift” (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, No. 7). When John Paul describes a woman’s vocation to motherhood, he says: “Motherhood is linked to the personal structure of the woman and to the personal dimension of the gift” (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, No. 18).
“Gift, in John Paul’s writings, is the master key. It unlocks the rest of his thought.
B = Body
While all of John Paul’s thinking begins with gift, this gift is expressed through the body. For John Paul, the body is sacramental — it is a visible expression of an invisible reality. We would never dream of saying, “Let’s do away with the bread and wine so that we can receive Jesus directly.” So, too, we can never say, “Let’s do away with the body so we can image God directly.” It doesn’t work that way.
Here’s how John Paul described the sacramentality of the body: “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 … in God and thus to be a sign of it” (General Audience, Feb. 20, 1980).
What’s the mystery hidden in God? The selfgiving love of the Trinity. We can’t see the Father loving the Son nor can we see the Holy Spirit bursting forth as the fruit of their self-giving love. But we can see the human body, the male and female body.
This means that for John Paul, gender is not accidental. Gender is purposeful. It teaches us about the mystery of God.
How? When Adam is created, he finds himself alone. He can’t make a gift of self to a cheetah, lady bug, or anteater in a way that fulfills the meaning of his existence. So God creates Eve from Adam’s side. Genesis shows us that male and female are from the same body. They share the same nature. This is why Adam exults: “At last, this one is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!” (Gn 2:23).
But because this one human nature is embodied in two ways, a new possibility exists — the possibility of union. This is precisely what the next ve r s e tells us: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and unite to his wife and the two will be one flesh” (Gn 2:24). The body is not just a collection of atoms and molecules that provides a pumping heart and the mechanics for Tiger Woods to shoot 10 under par. The body is made for union.
And that brings us to John Paul’s most original and misunderstood term: the spousal (or “nuptial”) meaning of the body. Simply put, “spousal” has to do with marriage, which is where the two become one. In a word: union. And “body” refers, of course, to the human body, so spousal meaning of the body means “the body is made for union.” But not just any type of union. We are made for union through a sincere gift of self. But who is that union with?
C = Communion
The answer is “C” — Communion. The gift of self through the body is always directed toward union and communion — with God, others, and even creation. This is the way it was “in the beginning,” before original sin, and the way it should be for us. John Paul said: “The communion of persons means existing in a mutual ‘for,’ in a relationship of mutual gift” (General Audience, Jan. 9, 1980). In other words, we image God not so much when we conquer the world alone, but when we are in communion.
While these words may seem self-evident, we shouldn’t fly by them too quickly. We live in an individualistic society. The Olympic measuring rod for personhood is self-sufficiency and selfreliance. We win the gold and everyone else’s applause if we can do it on our own.
That wasn’t John Paul’s mindset, nor is it the Catholic one. The new revelation about God in the New Testament was that God was not just One (solitary) but Three — a Trinity. God is a communion of persons. We, as human beings, are not just one (Adam solitary) but two and so we can live a communion of persons in imitation of the Trinity.
Note that John Paul didn’t say marriage, sexual intercourse or romance creates the communion of persons. He says it is mutual self-giving. The gift of self for the communion of persons is meant to be nuptial (for the purpose of union) but this is different from being sexual. The fruitfulness of our self-giving may be procreative, as in marriage, or spiritual as in friend to friend, parent to child, or neighbor to neighbor.
Marriage is indeed designed by God to be a fruitful communion of persons but so is the family, neighborhood, work place and church. In each of these contexts, we are called to live in the image of the Trinity by giving ourselves away in love.
How does all this apply to the theology of the body? “Theology of the body” simply means “the body reveals God.” When we live the image of the Trinity through a sincere gift of self, we are revealing God through our bodies. And that’s what John Paul’s ABCs are all about: It “all” begins with Gift through the “body” for the “communion” of persons.
Katrina J. Zeno is a conference and retreat speaker on John Paul II’s theology of the body (www.wttm.org).