Title: John Paul's Distinctive Contribution
Author: Christopher West
Title: John Paul's Distinctive Contribution
Larger Work: Inside the Vatican
Pages: 42-46
Publisher & Date: Urbi et Orbi Communications, November 1998
Includes: Identical text with no graphics.
Description: An excellent reflection on Pope John Paul II's theology of the body by Christopher West, Director of the Office of Marriage & Family Life for the Archdiocese of Denver, CO.

John Paul's Distinctive Contribution

By Christopher West

The Church has been blessed by many great spiritual minds throughout the centuries. Rarely, however, does God bless his Church with a theologian whose thoughts form a standard against which all future theology is measured. Three men come to mind: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and (pregnant pause...) Pope John Paul II. Yes, in our own day we have a Pope whose insights are sure to leave the Church reeling in self-discovery for centuries to come. His work will set a new standard for theological inquiry.

While St. Augustine is remembered for his Confessions or City of God, and St. Thomas for his Summa Theologica, John Paul's greatest theological contribution — while currently little known and little read — will likely prove to be the Theology of the Body, which he delivered in his Wednesday general audiences between September 1979 and November 1984.

Here, John Paul presents a depth of understanding of the human person and the glory of his vocation in Christ hitherto never articulated. And like parched earth thirsts for rain, the Body of Christ — fractured by modernity and poised at the threshold of a new millennium — is yearning for the treasures it contains.

The Pope is a scholar, and his writings reflect that. Thus, the Theology of the Body does not make for easy reading. This does not mean that its message is reserved for the elite. It does mean, however, that a particular effort is required from those who present his teaching, and from those who wish to understand it, if the Pope's words are to become bread broken for all. That being said, as we seek to make some of John Paul's sublime catechesis more accessible, be prepared to expend some mental energy. I assure you, it is well worth the effort it demands.


In his 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI stated that the problem of birth regulation, like every problem concerning human life, must be considered in light of a total vision of man and his vocation (cf. n. 7). In response to Paul VI, the Theology of the Body provides us with this "total vision of man," or what John Paul calls an "adequate anthropology." In his five-year catechesis, the Holy Father exposes man's wounds at their root and charts the course that man must travel if he is to be fully himself. By doing so, he lays the foundation for understanding "every problem concerning human life" and provides the only adequate response to the crisis of modernity.

To be sure, his message is the message of the Gospel, so, in that sense, it is nothing new. However, his philosophical approach to understanding man — phenomenology, which is itself new — allows him to penetrate the mystery of the human "heart" with unprecedented clarity and precision.

Through an examination of universal human experiences characteristic of phenomenology, John Paul helps us make sense of the movements of our inner-most being. The result? The honest reader will recognize his own heart being laid bare; it simply rings true. "This is I," he responds. "These are my deepest longings. These are my sins, my fears, and my wounds. Come Lord Jesus, come!"


The Theology of the Body consists of a searching analysis of biblical texts that reveal the mystery of the body, human sexuality, and marriage at three critical "levels" of human experience: as man experienced them "in the beginning" before sin (Original Man); as man experiences them in human history affected by sin, yet redeemed in Christ (Historical Man); and as man will experience them in the resurrection of the body (Eschatological Man). This forms his "adequate" anthropology.

He continues his catechesis by analyzing scriptural passages that reveal the meaning of Christian celibacy and Christian marriage in light of this "total vision of man." He then concludes with a reflection on love and fruitfulness as contained in Humanae Vitae.

According to John Paul, by reflecting on these three levels of "experiencing" the body, sexuality, and marriage, we discover the very structure and deepest reality of human identity — we find our place in the cosmos and even penetrate the mystery of the Trinitarian God.

How is this so through the body, sex, and marriage, you may ask? As John Paul II shows us, the question of human sexuality and marriage is not a peripheral issue. In fact, he says the call to "nuptial love" inscribed in our bodies is "the fundamental element of human existence in the world" (General Audience of 1/16/80). In light of Ephesians 5, he even says that the ultimate truth about the "great mystery" of marriage "is in a certain sense the central theme of the whole of revelation, its central reality" (General Audience of 9/8/82).

This is to say that everything God wants to tell us on earth about who he is, the meaning of life, the reason he created us, how we are to live, as well as our ultimate destiny, is contained somehow in the meaning of the human body and the call of male and female to become "one body" in marriage.

How? Pointing always to the scriptures, the Holy Father reminds us that the Christian mystery itself is a mystery about marriage — the marriage between Christ and the Church. Yes, God's plan from all eternity is to draw us into the closest communion with himself— to "marry" us! Jesus took on a body so we could become "one body" with him.

This eternal plan of God is inscribed in (and revealed through) our very being as male and female and our call to become "one body" in marriage. As St. Paul says, quoting from Genesis, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, cling to his bride, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a profound mystery, and it refers to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:31, 32). Thus, as Pope Leo XIII said in his encyclical on marriage, the "one flesh" union of man and woman "has been even from the beginning a foreshadowing of the Incarnation of the Word of God" (Arcanum, 1880).


The entire Christian mystery rests on the incarnation, the embodiment of God. Thus, it should not surprise us that John Paul's catechesis deals with the body as a theology. As he puts it, "Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh the body entered theology... through the main door" (General Audience 4/2/80). As the Holy Father challenges us to see, the human body possesses a "language" which enables it to proclaim and make present the eternal plan and mystery of God. "The body, in fact, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer in the visible reality of the world the invisible mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it" (General Audience 2/20/80). This stunning declaration brings us to the summit of John Paul's anthropology, crystallizing his entire catechesis on the body. The human body reveals the mystery of God!

But what particular characteristic of the body allows us to understand it this way? The answer is its sexuality, its unifying complementarity as male and female which constitutes from "the beginning" the image of God in man. Here, in an extraordinary development of Catholic thought, John Paul takes us beyond the traditional formulations of Augustine and Aquinas, who described man's imaging of the Trinity in the memory, understanding, and will of a single human being. For John Paul, as God is in himself a life-giving communion of persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — man also images God through the life-giving communion of persons that male and female form in "one flesh." The marital embrace, then, is an icon of the inner life of the Trinity! But let us take care not to misunderstand what is being said. The fact that the male/female communion reveals something of the mystery of God does not mean that God is sexual. God is not made in man's image as male and female, but man in God's.


When the Pharisees questioned Jesus about divorce, he pointed them to man and woman's perfect unity "in the beginning." "Haven't you read that in the beginning God created them as male and female and said ... 'the two will become one flesh.' Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate" (Mt 19:4-6).

In response to Christ, John Paul turns to the Book of Genesis to shed light on God's original intention. In his exegesis of the creation accounts, the Holy Father speaks of this original unity of the sexes as flowing out of the human person's experience of original solitude. Having named all the animals, man realized he was alone in the world as a person. He alone was aware of himself and free to determine his own actions; he alone was called to love. And there was "no helper suitable for him" (Gen 2:20). Thus, it is on the basis of this solitude — an experience common to male and female — that man experiences his longing to give himself away in love. For man, precisely as male and female, is made in the image and likeness of God "who is love" (Gen 1:27, I Jn 4:8).

Love is, therefore, man's origin, end, and vocation. This is why "it is not good for the man to be alone" (Gen 2:18)—he has no one to love. So, to create a "helper suitable for him," the Lord caused the man to fall into a deep sleep. As John Paul puts it, "there is no doubt that man falls into that 'sleep' [also translated 'ecstasy'] with the desire of finding a being like himself. . ..In this way, the circle of the solitude of the man-person is broken, because the first 'man' awakens from his [ecstasy] as 'male and female"' (General Audience 11/7/79). Immediately the man declares: "At last this one is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!" (Gen 2:23). That is to say, "Finally, a person I can love!"


Man and woman's common humanity is revealed through the body—"flesh of my flesh." Yet the body also revealed their complementary differences. Man and woman are persons made "for" each other. "I can give myself [my body] to you, and you can give yourself [your body] to me, and we can live in a life-giving communion of persons" (marriage...). The Pope calls this the "nuptial meaning of the body," that is, "the [body's] capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift and — by means of this gift — fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence" (General Audience of 1/16/80).

The body has a "nuptial" or "marital" meaning because, as the Second Vatican Council taught, "man can only find himself by making a sincere gift of himself' (Gaudium et Spes, n. 24). Thus, "we are convinced of the fact that the awareness of the meaning of the body — in particular, of its 'nuptial' meaning — is the fundamental element of human existence in the world" (General Audience 1/16/80).

Through the original experience of their bodies, man and woman realized that all of creation is a gift, and that Love is the source from which this same giving springs (cf. General Audience 1/9/80). In this state of original innocence, their nakedness revealed that they were called to share in this Love by being "gift" to one another. Before sin, the very sentiment of sexual desire was to love as God loves — in total, fruitful self-giving and receptivity. Since they realized each was a person created "for his own sake" (cf. Gaudium et Spes 24), they knew they could not grasp or possess each other — only receive the other in what the Pope calls "the freedom of the gift." In this freedom they saw and knew each other "with all the peace of the interior gaze, which creates... the fullness of the intimacy of persons" (General Audience 1/2/80). Since they lived in complete accord with the nuptial meaning of the body, the experience of original nakedness was untainted by shame (cf. Gen 2:25).


Shame enters human experience only upon the denial of Love as the source of creation. The serpent tempts the man and woman to think God is withholding himself from them — "God knows that when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you will be like him" (Gen 3:5). The implication: "God doesn't want you to be like him — God is not "gift" — so you must grasp this likeness to God in order to possess it for yourself."

How tragic! Man had already been freely given this likeness to God as a gift — a gift he need only receive — but a gift now denied in his heart.

While the original experience of nakedness revealed to them the very meaning of "gift," now their experience of nakedness changed. Through the denial of the gift in God, they subsequently denied "the interior dimension of the gift" in themselves. No longer trusting in "the freedom of the gift," sexual desire, too, became a desire to grasp and possess. The other came to be seen not as a person to love, but as a thing to use for one's selfish gratification. Thus, "The difference of the male sex and the female sex was suddenly felt and understood as an element of mutual confrontation of persons [rather than communion of persons]" (General Audience 6/4/80). In this way, nakedness in the presence of the other — and in the presence of God — became an experience of fear, alienation, shame. "I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid" (Gen 3:10).

As John Paul points out, the experience of shame now connected with nakedness has a double meaning. It betrays a loss of respect in man's heart for the meaning of the body, and an inherent need to preserve it. Because of lust — the desire to grasp, possess, use — they lost the "peace of the interior gaze" associated with original nakedness.

Man is ashamed of this loss. He is ashamed, not of the body itself, but of the lust in his "heart." However, still knowing that they were persons created by God "for their own sakes," they were keenly aware that lust violated their dignity. Covering their sexual values demonstrated an inherent need to protect the body from the degradation of lust. This is a positive function of shame.

Experience confirms the Pope's observation, and history tells the tale of sin's effect on man and woman's relationship. The "heart" has become a battlefield between love and lust, habitually threatening the nuptial meaning of the body. As John Paul says, because of concupiscence (man's disordered passions), "The human body in its masculinity and femininity has almost lost the capacity of expressing this love in which the man-person becomes a gift..." (General Audience 7/23/80). Thus, historical man, if he is to "fulfill the very meaning of his being and existence," must win the battle in his heart over lust.

This is what Christ is calling us to when he says, "...if you even look at a woman lustfully, you have already committed adultery with her in your heart" (Mt 5:28). Christ's words lay bare the sin in man's "heart" with pointed efficacy. Who is not condemned by them in light of his own experience?

However, Christ came into the world not to condemn, but to save! (cf. Jn 3:17). John Paul poses the question: "Are we to fear the severity of [Christ's] words, or rather have confidence in their salvific content, in their power?" (General Audience 10/8/80).

Their power lies in the fact that the man who utters them is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29). Whoever allows these words to act in his heart will hear an "echo" of that "beatifying beginning." He will taste the freedom that he lost and long for its restoration. He will feel in the depths of his heart the tragedy of sin and cry out in repentance, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ will save him!

This is the good news of the Gospel. While we cannot return to the state of original innocence, we can, through the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:23), live and love as God intended "in the beginning." Christ has definitively revealed, fulfilled, and restored the nuptial meaning of the body by making a gift of his body to his Bride on the cross. As we unite ourselves with his sacrifice, we are cleansed by the washing with water through the word (Eph 5:26). As Christ's Bride, when we receive his body freely given up for us, we conceive new life in our bodies — life in the Holy Spirit. And as much as "concupiscence" blinds man and woman to their own truth and distorts the desires of the heart, so much does this "life according to the Holy Spirit" permit man and woman to find again the true "freedom of the gift" united to the nuptial meaning of the body (cf. General Audience 12/1/82).


By restoring the nuptial meaning of the body, it is Christ who "fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (Gaudium et Spes n. 22). In a sense, John Paul's Theology of the Body is simply a commentary on this teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Man is not man apart from Christ. It is inscribed in his very being as male and female — man is made for communion with Christ.

The tragedy of sin is that man, rather than thanking God for such a great gift, let his trust in this gift die, and sought to grasp God for himself. But the glory of the Gospel is that he who was God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. Instead, he humbled himself taking on flesh, and in thanksgiving (eucharistia) for the gift of the Father, became obedient unto death — even death on a cross (cf. Phi 2:6-8).

Because historical man is tainted by sin, living according to the truth of the body must lead him to the cross. Restoration of communion comes only through suffering. Christ's words, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Mt 27:46), speak of the new Adam's experience of solitude, a solitude of intense suffering. Still, believing in the gift of the Father, this solitude led him to the ultimate gift of himself. Our redemption is won! In Christ's own words, "It is consummated" (Jn 19:30). How can we not believe in the gift — "this is my body given up for you?!" All we need do is receive it.


Since Christ, who is the resurrection (Jn 11:25), fully reveals man to himself, a "total vision of man" must also look towards the life to come. What will be the experience of the body, sexuality, and marriage for eschatological man? Christ said man will not be given in marriage at the resurrection (Mt 22:30). Does this not seem to undermine in some way all that John Paul has said up to this point about the nuptial meaning of the body?

Quite the contrary! Christ's words, in fact, point to the crowning glory of all that he has said. For in the resurrection of the body "we discover — in an eschatological dimension — the same... 'nuptial' meaning of the body... in the meeting with the mystery of the living God, which is revealed through the vision of Him 'face to face'" (General Audience 12/9/81).

This face to face meeting with the mystery of God is the definitive fulfillment of the nuptial meaning of the body. For man's ultimate end is supra-marriage, supra-communion: the communion of saints in communion with the Communion of the Trinity. Indeed, heaven is the eternal consummation of the marriage between Christ and the Church. Or, as John Paul puts it, heaven is the rediscovery of a new and perfect communion of persons, redeemed and glorified in Christ, and consolidated by complete concentration on God himself (cf. General Audience 12/16/81).

Once again, all of this is foreshadowed from "the beginning" in the creation of man and woman and their call to marriage. In this sense, John Paul speaks of marriage as the primordial sacrament. But precisely as a sacrament — an earthly sign and foreshadowing of a heavenly reality — marriage is not the final word on man. Man's ultimate end is heaven. And there are no sacraments in heaven because they will have come to fruition. Man will no longer need signs to point him to heaven when he is in heaven. Or, as this striking statement of the Holy Father puts it: "Marriage and procreation did not determine definitively the original and fundamental meaning of being a body, or of being, as a body, male and female. Marriage and procreation merely give a concrete reality to that meaning in the dimension of history" (General Audience 1/13/82). That is, earthly marriage is simply preparation for heavenly marriage.

Now the door is opened to a proper understanding of Christian celibacy. Those who are celibate "for the sake of the kingdom" (Mt 19:12) are choosing to live in the heavenly marriage on earth. They are "skipping" the sacrament to participate in the real thing. By doing so, they step beyond the dimension of history — within the dimension of history — and dramatically declare to the world that the kingdom of God is here (Mt 12:28). Christian celibacy is not a devaluation of marriage, but the expression on earth of its ultimate purpose and meaning!

Celibacy and marriage flow from the very same calling inscribed in man's being to give himself away in love. As John Paul says, ". ..on the basis of the same nuptial meaning of being as a body, male or female, there can be formed the love that commits man to marriage for the whole duration of his life, but there can be formed also the love that commits man to a life of continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (General Audience 4/28/82). Thus, an authentic celibate vocation does not express rejection of sexuality, but flows — as does authentic Christian marriage — directly from one's rediscovery of the true meaning of sexuality in Christ.

Furthermore, since fecundity is integrally tied to our sexuality, the terms father, mother, brother, and sister are constitutive of both marriage and celibacy. For love is of its very nature life-giving. Safeguarding this truth as upheld by the encyclical Humanae Vitae is essential if the deepest truth about man is to be realized. Thus, after examining these two Christian vocations, John Paul concludes his catechesis with a reflection on Paul VI's landmark encyclical. As John Paul says, "questions come from (Humanae Vitae) that in a certain sense permeate the sum total of our reflections. It follows, then, that this last part is not artificially added to the sum total but is organically and homogeneously united with it" (General Audience 11/28/84). This is important if we are to understand the overall structure and method of his anthropology.


As stated at the outset, John Paul's Theology of the Body is, relatively speaking, little known and little read. As with all the great minds of the Church, it seems John Paul's work will only be fully discovered after his death. But among many of those who have been exposed to the Theology of the Body, there is a keen sense of its revolutionary character. They believe it represents a dramatic development and deepening of the Church's understanding of her own mystery.

Of course, not all reactions are so glowing. It is interesting to note, for example, that the Holy Father's comments during one of his general audiences caused such a furor that the Vatican found it necessary to publish an article of clarification. At the audience of October 10, 1980, John Paul said it was possible for a man to commit "adultery in his heart" even with his own wife if he treats her as nothing but an object for his gratification. According to the Vatican article, the media ventured upon interpretations of his statement "so improvised and absurd as to be stupefying" (L'Osservatore Romano 10/12/80). The Pope was obviously not declaring the conjugal relationship itself adulterous. In a clear defense of woman's dignity and the meaning of the marital union, he was saying that it is wrong even for spouses to use one another.

As one would expect, most sustained criticism of John Paul's catechesis comes from those who dissent from Church teaching. This is because honest scriptural reflection on the meaning of the body, sexuality, and marriage confirms all the truths from which they dissent.

For example, an article by Sidney Callahan entitled "The Nuptial Body: One Metaphor Among Many" which appeared in Commonweal in March of 1996 is telling with regard to dissenters' sentiments. "The beauty of the nuptial body business," she says, "is that it can be used to invalidate homosexual unions as well as women priests." She is pleased, however, that it at least affirms the goodness of heterosexuality. "Who among us ...doesn't want to affirm [this]? Certainly many in the church have struggled long and hard to get the Vatican to accept non-abortifacient contraception...."

Yes, to Ms. Callahan's credit, there are other images beside Bridegroom and Bride that Christ uses to describe his relationship to the Church. But what she fails to recognize is that vines and branches, shepherds and sheep, mother hens and chicks are not made in the image of God, nor do the relationships between them constitute a sacrament, nor did Christ become one of them in bringing about our redemption. The nuptial union is not merely one metaphor among many; it is not merely a metaphor at all. Unlike mere metaphors, the nuptial union truly participates in and efficaciously communicates the mystery it symbolizes.

Criticism comes from the other end of the spectrum as well. Many of those who might consider themselves more "traditional" Catholics find themselves taken aback by the Holy Father's treatment of the body and sex. In fact, it is down-right offensive, even scandalous, to some. But false piety and prudery have no place here. According to John Paul, such attitudes often mask a form of Manicheanism and are incompatible with the view of physical and sexual matters found in the book of Genesis, and more particularly in the New Testament (cf. Love & Responsibility, p. 188).

Scholars, too, have their concerns. Some modern students of St. Thomas, for example, while grateful for the Pope's defense of doctrine, have reservations about his use of phenomenology. Not only do they find themselves disoriented by a new philosophical approach, some even accuse the Pope of jeopardizing objective truth by making such an explicit appeal to subjective human experience. John Paul avoids this real danger, however, because his starting point remains St. Thomas' grasp of objective reality. What we are witnessing, then, is an authentic development, not a departure. There is room to go beyond St. Thomas' understanding of who man is as a person. John Paul is able to take us there precisely because he is a Thomist who makes use of all that is good in the phenomenological method.


In conclusion, I'd like to make an appeal to all those within the Church, especially philosophers, theologians, and those in positions of leadership — deacons, priests, bishops, religious, teachers, catechists — to read, study, and prayerfully meditate upon John Paul's Theology)' of the Body. I also appeal to all those with reservations, for whatever reasons, to reconsider this ground-breaking catechesis on the body. Humanity is longing for its message. For despite man's many distractions, there remains an "echo" that resounds in his heart that forces him to ask: Who am I? From where do I come? Flow am I to live? What is my ultimate destiny and the meaning of life? And the answers to these questions of the heart are revealed in the glory of the body. The answers to these questions of the heart are revealed in John Paul's Theology of the Body.

At its root, the problem of modernity is no different than that of every age prior. As the Holy Father observes, "human life... its dignity, its balance, depends at every moment of history and at every point of geographical longitude and latitude, on 'who' she will be for him and he for her" (General Audience 10/8/80). Modernity has taken its toll on man and woman's relationship by preying on human weaknesses and selling man counterfeit answers to his perennial questions. To a world now immersed in a false glorification of the body and of sex, John Paul II offers us the glory of the truth, the truth that sets us free and fulfills every human longing. It is this: God created us as male and female to be a sign in the world of his own eternal mystery and to reveal to us that we are destined for eternal glory in communion with himself. What dignity God has bestowed onus—on our sexuality!

At John Paul's invitation, we must ponder that dignity and seek to live according to it. As we do, we shall not fall short of renewing the very face of the earth.

Christopher West is the Director of the Office of Marriage & Family Life for the Archdiocese of Denver, Colorado, USA. He received his Master's degree in Sacred Theology from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage & Family in Washington, D. C. He and his wife Wendy live in Denver with their son John Paul. The complete text of the Holy Father's Wednesday catechesis was recently republished by the Daughters of Saint Paul in one volume entitled John Paul II 's Theology of the Body, Human Love in the Divine Plan. You can order a copy by calling 800-307- 7685.

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