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Theology of the Body

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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 St. Peter's Square and Paul VI Audience Hall between September 5, 1979 and November 28, 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]


  • Preceding developments in the history of ideas 1
    • Francis Bacon 1.1
    • René Descartes 1.2
    • Immanuel Kant 1.3
  • Topics 2
    • Man and woman "in the beginning" 2.1
    • Man and woman after the Fall 2.2
    • Man and Woman after the Resurrection 2.3
    • Celibacy and virginity 2.4
    • Sacrament of marriage 2.5
    • Contraception 2.6
  • Assessments 3
    • By Pope John Paul II 3.1
    • By George Weigel 3.2
    • By Christopher West 3.3
    • By John Cornwell 3.4
    • By Charles Curran 3.5
    • By Kenneth L. Woodward 3.6
    • By Sebastian Moore, OSB 3.7
    • By Georg Schelbert 3.8
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Preceding developments in the history of ideas

The series of addresses were given as a reflection on the creation of man as male and female, as a sexual being. They sought to respond to certain distorted ideas and attitudes fundamental to the sexual revolution.[2] Pope John Paul II addresses how the common understanding of the human body which analyzes it as a mechanism leads to objectification, that is, a loss of understanding of its intrinsic, personal meaning. Pope John Paul's thought is influenced by his earlier philosophical interests, especially in the phenomenological views of Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler. Within the context of a theological anthropology—an analysis of the nature of man in his relation to God—the Theology of the Body presents an interpretation of the fundamental significance of the body, and in particular of sexual differentiation and complementarity, one which aims to challenge common contemporary philosophical views.[3]

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was an early empiricist who focused on problems of knowledge. In his Great Instauration, he argued that the current state of knowledge is immature and not advancing.[4] His purpose was for the human mind to have authority over nature through understanding and knowledge. Bacon argued against Aristotle’s final and formal cause, stating that “the final cause rather corrupts than advances the sciences”.[4] He thought that focusing on formal causality is an impediment to knowledge, because power is gained by focusing on matter that is observable and experienced, not just a figment of the mind. His emphasis on power over nature contributed to the rise of an understanding of nature as mechanism and the claim that true knowledge of nature is that expressed by mechanical laws. Pope John Paul II saw Bacon’s conception of knowledge and its proper object as the beginning of the split between person and body, which is his goal to reconcile.[3]

René Descartes

René Descartes furthered a mathematical approach to philosophy and epistemology through skepticism and rationalism, emphasizing the practical value of power over nature. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes said, “we can find a practical [philosophy], by which knowing the nature and behavior of fire, water, air, stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies which surround us…we can employ these entities for all the purposes for which they are suited, and so make ourselves the masters and possessors of nature”.[5] In addition to the importance of power over nature, Descartes (like Bacon) insisted upon dismissing final cause, stating that “the entire class of causes which people customarily derive from a thing’s ‘end,’ I judge to be utterly useless”.[6]

Descartes’ practical philosophy also proposed a dualism between the mind and the physical body, based on the belief that they are two distinct substances. The body is matter that is spatially extended, whereas the mind is the substance that thinks and contains the rational soul.[7] Pope John Paul II responded to this dualism in his Letter to Families in 1994: “It is typical of rationalism to make a radical contrast in man between spirit and body, between body and spirit. But man is a person in the unity of his body and his spirit. The body can never be reduced to mere matter”. Pope John Paul II maintained that the stark Cartesian opposition between body and spirit leads to human sexuality as an area for manipulation and exploitation, rather than wonder and unity as he addresses in the Theology of the Body lectures.[3]

Immanuel Kant

Pope John Paul II admitted that the work of Immanuel Kant was the “starting ground” of many of his reflections.[8] Kant, like Bacon and Descartes, believed that natural science can only progress through the mathematical-materialist determinist study of nature.[3] However, Kant saw danger in those laws of nature if God is excluded because morality and religion are called into question.[9] Kant’s solution to that danger was to insist that theoretical reason is limited in regards to morality and religion. Reason and sense-data should not be used to try to answer the question of God.[3] Kant stated, “I had to do away with knowledge to make room for faith”.[9] That faith led to the development of Kant’s personalism. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant said, “the conviction [of faith] is not a logical but a moral certainty; and because it rests on subjective bases (of the moral attitude), I must not even say, It is morally certain that there is a God, etc., but I must say, I am morally certain, etc."[9] That ideology allows each person to choose their own terms for reality and morality, because they cannot be argued against using theoretical reason.[10]

Kant’s personalism extends from faith and applies to moral dignity, autonomy, and freedom. Pope John Paul II agreed with some aspects of personalism but criticized Kant as believing in “anti-trinitarian personalism,” which removes the relational character of the Trinity to focus on an autonomous self.[3] Kant’s views on the autonomous self placed each human’s conscience acting as a personal “lawmaker” for subjective morality, but John Paul II argued that a human’s conscience cannot create moral norms, rather it must discover them in objective truth.[11]

The difference between Kant’s view and Pope John Paul II’s view of personalism is made clear throughout the Theology of the Body in arguments about sex, marriage, and polygamy. Kant had two principles of sexual ethics: that one must not “enjoy” another person solely for pleasure and that sexual union involves giving oneself to another.[3] Pope John Paul II agreed on those principles, yet disagreed on the meaning and reasoning behind the principles. Kant believed that people lose their autonomy and dignity in sexual acts, because they are reduced to things being used for pleasure. Marriage resolves that by giving the spouses “lifelong mutual possession of their sexual characteristics”.[12] However, Kant’s explanation of marriage still does not transform the objectifying nature of sex, it merely permits it as legal. On the other hand, Pope John Paul II explains the sexual act in marriage as fulfillment of the natural law of spousal love. Rather than objectifying and depersonalizing, it is enriching for a person because it is a sincere gift of the self in love.[2] Pope John Paul II highlights conjugal love, whereas Kant does not acknowledge it.


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."[13]

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.

Man and woman "in the beginning"

In this first cycle, beginning on September 5, 1979, Pope John Paul II discusses Christ's answer to the Pharisees when they ask him about whether a man can divorce his wife.[1] Christ's responds "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard, but in the beginning it was not so" (Mt 19:8). John Paul II draws attention to how Christ's response calls the Pharisees to harken back to the beginning, to the created world before the fall of man and original sin. The pope dives into the experience of original man through the book of Genesis, and identifies two unique experiences: original solitude, and original unity. Original solitude is the experience of Adam, prior to Eve, when he realizes that through naming the animals there is something intrinsically different about himself. He is unable to find a suitable partner. This self-realization of a dignity before God higher than the rest of creation is original solitude. Original unity is drawn from man's first encounter with woman, where he exclaims "This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh" (Gn 2:23). Prior to sin, the pope accounts, man and woman's desire for one another was perfectly oriented in a Sacramental way that pointed them toward God's ultimate plan for humanity: the marriage of Christ the bridegroom with his bride the Church. Throughout Sacred Scripture, the most common reference that Christ uses when speaking of heaven is that of a wedding feast. Thus, marriage is intended to be a union that draws us deeper into the mystery of our creation and provides a foretaste of the heavenly marriage between Christ and his Church, where man and woman are no longer given in marriage. In heaven, the eternal wedding feast, men and women have now arrived at their ultimate destination and no longer have need of the Sacrament (or sign) of marriage.

Man and woman after the Fall


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.)

Man and Woman after the Resurrection

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 not all of the Church's teachings on sexuality are 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 1984), 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, since he saw the limitations of a strictly phenomenological approach.[14] He wrote:

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.[15]

By George Weigel


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.[16]

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." [17]

Philosopher-theologian Alice von Hildebrand, widow of 20th century philosopher-theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand, has severely criticized West's approach.[18]

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."[19]

By Charles Curran

Catholic moral theologian Charles E. Curran, writing in his book 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 believes 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."[20]

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."[21]

By Sebastian Moore, OSB

Another Catholic moral theologian, Benedictine Sebastian Moore, is critical of what he regards as a lack of connection to real people in their real lives. Specifically he notes that while the pope reflects on the essential incompleteness of the body in its maleness and femaleness and on the mystery of the union of two in one flesh, he doesn't talk specifically about the various concrete experiences of the sexual act itself. 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."[22]

By 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").[23] The Pauline privilege (based on 1 Corinthians 12: 15-17) permits the dissolution of a non-sacramental marriage in cases where one of the spouses seeks baptism and the other (unbelieving) spouse refuses to continue living with him or her.

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. ^ a b John Paul II (2006) [1986]. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media. pp. xxiii–xxx.  
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Waldstein, Michael (2006). A Theology of the Body: Translation, Introduction, and Index. Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media. pp. 17, 34–55, 94–99.  
  4. ^ a b Bacon, Francis (1960). The New Organon and Related Writings. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. pp. 3–4. 
  5. ^ Descartes, Rene (1993). Discourse on Methods and Meditations: 3rd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett. 
  6. ^ Descartes, Rene. Meditations, in Discourse in Methods and Meditations. Adam and Tannery. 
  7. ^ Robinson, Howard. "Dualism". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2012 Edition. Edward N. Zalta. 
  8. ^ Wojtyla, Karol (1979). The Acting Person. Sprinter. 
  9. ^ a b c Kant, Immanuel (1902). Critique of Pure Reason. Berlin: Königlich- Preubische Akademie der Wissenschaften. 
  10. ^ Schmitz, Kenneth (1993). At the Center of the Human Drama: The Philosophical Anthropology of Karol Wojtya/Pope John Paul II. Catholic University of America Press. p. 136.  
  11. ^ Santos, Gustavo (2011). "Karol Wojtyla’s personalism and Kantian idealism: parallel avenues of reason within the tension towards the ground of existence" (PDF). American Political Science Association. 
  12. ^ Kant, Immanuel (1785). The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. 
  13. ^ West, Christopher (2004). Theology of the Body for Beginners. Ascension Press. p. 5.  
  14. ^ Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., STD. "Aquinas and the Theology of the Body". 
  15. ^  
  16. ^ a b Weigel, George (October 1999). Witness to Hope (First ed.). Harper Perennial. pp. 336, 343, 853.  
  17. ^ West, Christopher (2007). The Theology of the Body Explained. Pauline Books & Media. p. 14.  
  18. ^ Dietrich von Hildebrand, Catholic Philosopher, and Christopher West, Modern Enthusiast: Two Very Different Approaches to Love, Marriage and Sex"
  19. ^ Cornwell, John (2004). The Pontiff in Winter: Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II. Doubleday. p. 139.  
  20. ^ Curran, Charles E., (2006). The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II. Georgetown University Press. pp. 4, 5, 46, 168, 188.  
  21. ^ , 18/12/2005The New York TimesKenneth L. Woodward,
  22. ^ 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.  
  23. ^ 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.  

Further reading

  • Pope John Paul II, translated by Dr. Michael Waldstein (September 2006). Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Pauline Books and Media.  
  • Carl A. Anderson and Fr. Jose Granados (April 2009). Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Doubleday.  
  • Kellmeyer, Steve (2004). Sex and the Sacred City. Bridegroom Press.  
  • Shivanandan, Mary (1999). Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II's Anthropology. Catholic University of America Press.  
  • Percy, Anthony (2006). Theology of the Body Made Simple. Pauline Books and Media.  
  • Hajduk, David (2006). God's Plan for You: Life, Love Marriage, Sex-- A Theology of the Body for Young People. Pauline Books and Media.  
  • Zeno, Katrina (2010). Discovering the Feminine Genius: Every Woman's Journey. Pauline Books and Media.  
  • Zeno, Katrina (2008). The Body Reveals God: A Guided Study of Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Women of the Third Millennium.  
  • Bransfield, J. Brian (2010). The Human Person: According to John Paul II. Pauline Books and Media.  
  • May, William E. (2010). Theology of the Body in Context: Genesis and Growth. Pauline Books and Media.  
  • West, Christopher (2007). Theology of the Body Explained (Revised): A Commentary on John Paul's "Man and Woman He Created Them". Pauline Books and Media.  
  • Doyle, Karen (2009). Theology of the Body: Some Thoughts and Reflections. Pauline Books and Media.  
  • Doyle, Karen (2009). The Genius of Womanhood. Pauline Books and Media.  
  • Bachiochi, Erika (2010). Women, Sex, and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching. Pauline Books and Media.  
  • Grabowski, John (2003). Sex and Virtue: An Introduction to Sexual Ethics (Catholic Moral Thought, Volume 2). CUA Press.  

External links

  • Theology of the BodyGeneral Audiences: John Paul II's . Full text of the speeches.
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