Monday 10 December 2012

Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in a Nutshell

By Artur Suski, S.J.

It may be that some of you have previously come across Pope John Paul II’s (JPII) Wednesday general audiences on the topic of marriage and sexuality, known as the Theology of the Body (TOB). I was recently asked to give a talk to grade 12 students on this very topic, and the presentation itself went rather well. Upon hearing that the talk was about sex, students of both sexes were equally attentive.

JPII’s work is truly marvellous. He goes into such depth that often one has to re-read whole sections to perhaps grasp a part of what he means. Not many come in contact with the actual content of the TOB, especially given the fact that the book is two inches thick! As such, I would like to share with you some of the key ideas of the TOB.

First of all, what made JPII/Karol Wojtyla so interested in marriage and sex? To this question, he thinks that we have forgotten the meaning of our bodies and of our sexuality, and this has consequently led to much of the brokenness that we witness today. His thesis is that “(t)he body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible, the spiritual and divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the invisible mystery hidden in God from time immemorial, and thus to be a sign of it” (Wednesday audience, Feb 20th, 1980).

As we know, God is pure Spirit; nevertheless, he desired to make his mystery visible to us. God thus created us male and female in his own image (Gen 1:27), hence making manifest in the material cosmos something of his mystery through our bodies. Our bodies can speak a divine language and convey meaning; this is to say that when we make use of our bodies appropriately, our bodies speak to us something of the nature of God. Now that’s a meaning of the human person that is rarely mentioned on the MTV Network!

The late Pope continues that we most fully express the deepest mysteries of God in the coming together of man and woman to form “one flesh”; through the sexual act and marital life, many qualities of God are made manifest in the world. One such quality is selfless love – the Father gives himself completely and unreservedly to the Son, and the Son does so likewise - the Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son. We have then the gift of community and communion: man and woman are united with each other in selfless love. Another quality is that God is life-giving love – the fruit of the communion that is formed between man and woman is new life, a third person (Wednesday audience, Feb 20th, 1980). In this light, marriage constitutes a “primordial sacrament”: God communicates the mystery of his Trinitarian life through the sign of the love between husband and wife.

We can see that this vision of sexuality is quite difficult to achieve; nevertheless, JPII believes that we can all return to this original meaning that God intended for us. He invites us to try to desire God’s original intention. If we put ourselves in the “hands” of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will transform us and give us strength against the lustful tendencies that we have as a result of sin; we can rediscover the original nuptial meaning of the body.

JPII does not neglect to address the greatest threat to marriage and sexuality today: the divorcing of the unitive aspect of the sexual act from the procreative. Once procreation has been removed from the sexual act, any means to sexual climax is fair game. He proposes that we ask ourselves the following question when it comes to discerning the morality of a sexual act: does this act express God’s love or does it not? As noted above, nuptial union is meant to make known the mystery of the Trinity, that “God is life-giving love.”

To conclude, JPII asserts that man and woman’s call to form a communion of persons “is the deepest substratum of human ethics and culture” (Wednesday audience, Oct 22nd, 1980). At the heart of a healthy marriage is a true understanding of the body and sexuality. When being lived out, this understanding helps to foster healthy families, which in turn invigorate and uphold society and culture. Marriage and the family are therefore crucial in building a civilization of love and a culture of life. Heal our sexuality, heal our marriages; and heal much of the brokenness of the world. God be with us on this venture!

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