One of the popular post-conciliar novelties being spread throughout the Church today is the Theology of the Body, which was introduced by Pope John Paul II.
To better understand what the Theology of the Body is—and how it compares to authentic Catholic teaching—we offer from the March-April 2013 issue of The Angelus, this article by Ann Marie Temple.
John Paul II and the Genesis of confusion
In the first chapter [of Genesis], the narrative of the creation of man affirms directly, right from the beginning, that man was created in the image of God as male and female.… We find ourselves, therefore, almost at the very core of the anthropological reality, the name of which is ‘body,’ the human body. However, this core is not only anthropological, but also essentially theological. Right from the beginning, the theology of the body is bound up with the creation of man in the image of God. John Paul II, Nov. 14, 1979, “By Communion of Persons, Man Becomes the Image of God”
We must understand that when Scripture had said, “to the image of God He created him,” it added, “male and female He created them,” not to imply that the image of God came through the distinction of sex, but that the image of God belongs to both sexes, since it is in the mind, wherein there is no sexual distinction. St. Thomas Aquinas, I, Q. 93, A. 6, ad 2
Man’s excellence consists in the fact that God made him to His own image by giving him an intellectual soul, which raises him above the beasts of the field. St. Augustine, Literal Interpretation of Genesis, vi. 12
John Paul II’s theology of the body offers a prime illustration of a Vatican II time bomb in the process of detonation. As Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla was one of the principal architects of Gaudium et Spes; as pope, he devoted 130 General Audiences from 1979 to 1984 [these can be read in full at EWTN] to drawing all the potential from the wording he had helped to fashion. Indeed, the entire “catechesis” rests explicitly on the interpretation of Genesis contained in Gaudium et Spes, §12, cited in one of the pope’s first audiences, November 14, 1979:
God did not create man as a solitary, for from the beginning ‘male and female he created them.’ Their companionship produces the primary form of interpersonal communion. For by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential."
The system is internally coherent: it represents Fr. Wojtyla’s early preoccupation with constructing an objective moral system inherently compelling to modern man in his subjective experience, not merely imposed by an external magisterium; a system arising from the holistic analysis of the person, not from abstractive Thomistic philosophy.
The structure and the full implications of the pope’s teaching best appear when contrasted with the traditional theology it was meant to replace. The revolutionary nature of the new system stands out more starkly if we translate the theology of the body into the language of scholasticism, defining their common terms. In so clarifying the expression, we hope to shed light on the philosophical Newspeak built into Vatican II itself, and at the same time demonstrate the vital necessity of Thomistic realism as a scaffolding for theological reflection. Indeed, the pope’s intention was to found an objective system of ethics on the interpersonal relationship between man and woman; his principles and manner of proceeding are so flawed that they effectively demolish all possibility of relationship between man and God.
The exegetical starting point
In his audience of September 5, 1979, the pope began his presentation of the theology of the body with the lesson of Christ to the Pharisees in Matthew 19. Christ points to the “beginning” as the foundation of marriage ethics, and the pope thereafter devotes his audiences to an exegesis of the two accounts of creation, Genesis 1:26-27 and 2:7-25.
These provide the founding elements of the theology of the body:
- first, the notion of man as a person both by his subjectivity and by his relativity, that is, both by his awareness of solitude among the animals and by his entering into a relation of mutual self-giving with Eve;
- second, the notion that man thus constituted a person is in the image of God.
The pope himself calls his system a theology “of the body” because man’s establishment as a person and as image of God depend on his physical structure. Man’s consciousness that he is alone among the other animals and the fact that he “can only discover his true self in a sincere giving of himself,” depend on his perception of the body: his body first, and then the body of woman. Likewise by his body is he established as image of God: “Right from the beginning, the theology of the body is bound up with the creation of man in the image of God.”
The philosophical starting point
Whatever the sincerity of the pope’s exegesis, his use of Genesis is a departure from the traditional interpretation on a number of points and seems rather a defense of his own philosophical starting point.
It is striking that man’s creation as a person is gradual and achieved by man’s knowledge and action:
Since it took place at the ‘beginning,’ this [awareness of the female as ‘bone of my bones’] confirms the process of individuation of man in the world.”
For St. Thomas, such a “confirmation of the process of individuation” is meaningless: an individual man exists once a particular matter is animated by a human soul. Personhood is inseparable from man’s individuality: a person is for St. Thomas “an individual substance of a rational nature.” Thus, in traditional philosophy, a man is a person ontologically, by the structure of his being; he is not a person gradually, in the development of his mature actions.
Why would the pope abandon the traditional notions of being and the structure of reality? Because he does not think we can know them as surely as St. Thomas claims we do—at least, not surely enough to make of them the basis of a moral system compelling to modern man.
Those scholastic definitions assume that we can pierce and understand the structure of the concrete beings around us by a process of abstraction and reasoning; that we really do grasp the essence of a thing by a concept drawn from experience; and that we may reason and form conclusions about reality and its structure based on that process.
The pope’s phenomenology, on the contrary, holds that such abstraction is a falsification of reality, which we can only describe by taking into account all of the elements of an experience; the phenomenological method aims at a kind of sympathetic intuition of the essence of a thing rather than at a conceptual grasp of its structure.
Whereas phenomenology would give the same importance to the entire perception and impression, abstraction allows us to discern the constitutive elements of a thing and distinguish between the higher and the lower, discovering an analogy among beings and a hierarchy of causes.
Thus, for St. Thomas, the soul is superior to the body—more noble, possessing its act of being and sharing it with the body—such that man is constituted a person by his spiritual nature. The pope, however, specifies in the notes to his Audience of November 14, 1979, that,
In the conception of the oldest books of the Bible, the dualist opposition ‘body-soul’ does not appear. As we have already pointed out, we may rather speak of a complementary combination ‘body-life.’ The body is the expression of the personality of man.”
Man: image or trace?
This failure to distinguish explicitly the soul and its operations as superior to the body means that the theology of the body redefines the notion of man as “image of God.” Thus, St. Thomas’s statement, citing Augustine, that man is in the image of God by his mind only, has no place in a phenomenological system. The pope must therefore redefine “image of God” into an object of phenomenological study: it is a picture, an external representation of God. Better, it is an experience. The full awareness of the meaning of the body takes place in the mutual “knowing” of man and woman; their physical union becomes a language, expressing the nature of God to the world and to themselves: “This language of the body becomes so to speak a prophecy of the body.”
What the pope calls image, St. Thomas would call a mere trace of God in the material world, the lowest form of likeness. Man is an image or likeness of God because his soul is capable of attaining God by its operation of knowing and loving: “The mind is the image of God, in that it is capable of Him and can be partaker of Him.”
Thus, man is capax Dei by his soul, by nature, by “creation” as Augustine says. This openness of nature allows for the entry of grace into his soul, and a new manner of being “to the image of God” by a union of theological virtue: imperfectly, as image of grace, and perfectly, as image of glory. This properly theological union is impossible in a “theology of the body” precisely because the soul is not clearly distinguished as being, by nature, the place of encounter with God. Nor is there possibility of distinction between natural image and image by grace or glory. Man approaches God by purer union with another human; by becoming more fully gift to another, he more fully resembles God. A recovery of the image of God and of the original “innocence of heart” depend on living in marriage as mutual gift.
Heaven itself and the Communion of Saints are to be understood in function of this mutual giving. In the pope’s “theology,” there is no room for heaven as the satisfaction of the soul’s infinite longing:
Happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether.…Now the object of the will, that is, of man’s appetite, is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal true. Hence it is evident that naught can lull man’s will, save the universal good… Wherefore God alone can satisfy the will of man."
The death of religion
This brief presentation can only give some hint of the doctrinal, spiritual and cultural ravages contained in the theology of the body. The mechanism of this time bomb is therefore nuclear; it is devastating in its effects because it acts on the very core of theology, replacing the meaning of the philosophical terms it uses. The structure of every notion is modified, but so is the order of the whole: God ceases to be the final cause, the end of all being and action, that around which all revolves, because man was created as a “particular value for himself,” whom Gaudium et Spes calls “the only creature on earth which God willed for itself.” This, ultimately, is the “anthropological turn,” the revolution which John Paul II took with “utmost seriousness.”
The origin of the confusion is a refusal to accept the abstractive realism of St. Thomas: if we have no way of attaining the structure of the real, we have no way of discerning the soul—no way, therefore, of affirming in what way man may be united to God. Willed for himself, man remains alone with himself; deprived of a spiritual soul distinct from their bodies, man and woman cannot meet as equal images of God; taught to seek innocence by plunging himself more fully into the flesh, shall man ever “live in the Spirit” and “walk in the Spirit,” having “crucified his flesh”?
Sanguis Christi, germinans virgines, salva nos.
In relation to the theological novelties of Pope John Paul II, we recommend this 3-volume critique by Fr. Johannes Doermann, Pope John Paul II's Theological Journey to the Prayer Meeting of Religions in Assisi; Part 2, available from Angelus Press:
- Volume 1: Covers John Paul II's first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, the cornerstone of his "Theology of Assisi."
- Volume 2: Shows how John Paul II's encyclical Dives in Misericordia is the second part (with Redemptor Hominis) of his universal salvation thesis and how it explains the pope's ecumenical endeavors. Fr. Dormann dissects the encyclical and contrasts it with traditional Catholic doctrine.
- Volume 3: Unravels the Pope's encyclical on the Holy Ghost, Dominum et Vivificantem in a thorough paragraph by paragraph analysis comparing the novelties in it to the perennial teachings of the Church. Begins with a fabulous 38-page "Key to the Theology of Pope John Paul II".
1 See George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, 1920-2005 (New York: Harper-Collins, 2005), p. 343:
Angelo Scola, rector of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, goes so far as to suggest that virtually every thesis in theology—God, Christ, the Trinity, grace, the Church, the sacraments—could be seen in a new light if theologians explored in depth the rich personalism implied in John Paul II’s theology of the body.… These 130 catechetical addresses, taken together, constitute a kind of theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church. When that happens, perhaps in the 21st century, the Theology of the Body may well be seen as a critical moment not only in Catholic theology, but in the history of modern thought. For 350 years, Western philosophy has insisted on beginning with the human subject, the thinking subject. Karol Wojtyla, philosopher, took this ‘turn to the subject’ seriously; John Paul II has taken it seriously as a theologian. By insisting that the human subject is always an embodied subject whose embodiedness is critical to his or her self-understanding and relationship to the world, John Paul took modernity’s ‘anthropological turn’ with utmost seriousness.”
The “theology of the body” is indeed becoming the basis of marriage preparation and even catechism classes throughout the United States and Europe, particularly since the death of John Paul II.
2 Cf. John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p. 123:
When I was a young priest, I learned to love human love. It was one of the themes on which I based my entire priesthood, my ministry in my preaching, in the confessional and in my writings. If one truly loves human love, one feels the pressing need to give oneself with all one’s strength to the service of the ‘great love.’”
The tenets of the theology of the body are already present in his Love and Responsibility, published by the Catholic University of Lublin (KUL) in 1960. The book was itself the result of the courses he developed and taught at the university starting in 1956. Fr. Wojtyla took inspiration from the phenomenology of Max Scheler in particular. Cf. Weigel, Witness to Hope, pp. 126-130. The pope likewise points to the importance of his contact with the youth group “Srodowisko,” in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p. 208:
When love is responsible, it is also truly free. This is precisely the teaching I learned from the encyclical Humanæ Vitae written by my venerable predecessor Paul VI, and that I had learned even earlier from my young friends, married and soon to be married, while I was writing Love and Responsibility. As I have said, they themselves were my teachers in this area" (emphasis in the original).
The title of his second doctoral thesis at the University of Krakow was “An Evaluation of the Possibility of Constructing a Christian Ethics on the Basis of the System of Max Scheler.” He concluded that Scheler’s phenomenology was rich in potential but needed a grounding in realism to prevent its descent into “solipsism.” The immediate occasion for the presentation of the theology of the body catechesis was a desire to repair damage done by Humanæ Vitae, which Cardinal Wojtyla considered a pastoral disaster. Cf. Weigel, pp. 207-210, 334-335, and Yves Semen, La Sexualite selon Jean-Paul II (Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 2004), pp. 58-59, and 188-90.
3 Cf. the Audience of Sept. 5, 1979, “The Unity and Indissolubility of Marriage”; Oct. 10, 1979, “The Meaning of Man’s Original Solitude”; Jan. 9, 1980, “The Nuptial Meaning of the Body”; Nov. 14, 1979, “By the Communion of Persons, Man Becomes the Image of God.” Audience names are taken from the Vatican website.
4 Jan. 16, 1980, “The Human Person Becomes a Gift in the Freedom of Love.” See also Oct. 24, “Man’s Awareness of Being a Person.”
5 Audience Nov. 14, 1979, “By the Communion of Persons, Man Becomes the Image of God”:
It becomes, in a way, also the theology of sex, or rather the theology of masculinity and femininity, which has its starting point here in Genesis.…This unity through the body—‘and the two will be one flesh’ possesses a multiform dimension. It possesses an ethical dimension, as is confirmed by Christ’s answer to the Pharisees in Matthew 19 (cf. Mk. 10). It also has a sacramental dimension, a strictly theological one, as is proved by St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians which refer also to the tradition of the prophets (Hosea, Isaiah, Ezekiel). This is so because, right from the beginning, that unity which is realized through the body indicates not only the ‘body,’ but also the ‘incarnate’ communion of persons—communio personarum—and calls for this communion."
6 Jan. 9, 1980, “The Nuptial Meaning of the Body.” Also significant is the Audience of Sept. 19, 1979, “The Second Account of Creation: The Subjective Creation of Man,” and of Feb. 20, 1980, “Man Enters the World as a Subject of Truth and Love,” which seems to imply that Adam’s sleep eliminates the primacy which flows from his having been created first:
In Genesis 2:23 we come across the distinction ‘is-’issah for the first time. Perhaps, therefore, the analogy of sleep indicates here not so much a passing from consciousness to subconsciousness, as a specific return to non-being (sleep contains an element of annihilation of man’s conscious existence). That is, it indicates a return to the moment preceding the creation, that through God’s creative initiative, solitary ‘man’ may emerge from it again in his double unity as male and female.”
7 See for example Quaestiones Disputatae de Anima, a. 14.
8 Aug. 22, 1984. See also Feb. 20, 1980 and Nov. 14, 1979.
9 Ia, q. 93, a. 6. See also St. Augustine’s De Trinitate, bk. 14, ch. 8 and ch. 12.
10 Ia, q. 93, a. 4.
11 April 2, 1980, “Marriage in the Integral Vision of Man”: “Those who seek the accomplishment of their own human and Christian vocation in marriage are called, first of all, to make this theology of the body... the content of their life and behavior.” See the commentary by Weigel, Witness to Hope, Ch. 10, “The Ways of Freedom,” segment entitled “Marital intimacy as an icon of the interior life of God,” p. 326 ff.
12 Dec. 16, 1981, “The Words of Christ Concerning the Resurrection Complete the Revelation of the Body”:
This reality [of the world to come] signifies the true and definitive fulfillment of human subjectivity and, at the same time, the definitive fulfillment of the ‘nuptial’ meaning of the body” (translation our own).
13 Ia-IIae, q. 2, a. 8.
14 Nov. 14, 1979, “By the Communion of Persons Man Becomes an Image of God.” See also the commentary by Weigel in Witness to Hope, ch. 10, “The Ways of Freedom,” segment entitled, “Marital intimacy as an icon of the interior life of God,” p. 326 ff.
15 Gal. 5:24, 25.