In commemoration of the 100th birthday of St. John Paul II, I wanted to reflect briefly on one aspect of his teaching, the monumental “Theology of the Body.” Presented in a series of 129 Wednesday Audiences proclaimed to the lay faithful between September 5, 1979, and November 28, 1984, the Theology of the Body points to the goodness of God’s creation. It clarifies our fundamental orientation toward our Divine Creator, even in our bodies, and that through the body, we are called to fulfill our role as cooperators in his plan of love.
Over the years, many theologians and educators have attempted to distill John Paul’s work into lessons and programs, particularly aimed at the young and married. The intention is laudable; no one has more to gain than these, whose first experiences with their bodies—particularly in light of our culture and in the face of otherwise weak catechesis—has likely been anything other than positive. Unfortunately, the Catholic social media scene remains replete with anxiety and concern over “what is permissible” within marriage and “how far can I go before sinning.” These questions and the infighting over them indicate clearly that there is still more work to be done to bring the fullness of John Paul’s theology to bear in our catechesis.
Of course, the Church has outlined—more or less—some basic guidance on sex and sexuality and established some clear boundaries on moral behavior. At the same time, the conscience is malformed if it understands only boundaries and not the purpose of things: our body, our passions, our will. This is, I believe, where John Paul’s work has had the greatest influence. It helps us to more fully understand what our bodies have been created for, and how the sacrament of the body reveals the love of God. By incorporating the Theology of the Body to teach this truth, instead of mere proscriptions, our catechesis could be much more effective.
In both secular and Catholic culture, there is a widespread understanding that sex represents something valuable. Secular culture understands the value of sex to be “more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere” as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est (5). In Catholicism, we understand this more fully to mean that sex has value as a bodily expression of selfless love (i.e., eros purified by agape). And yet, Catholics can be led astray when they understand this teaching to mean that sex is always selfless love expressed bodily.
Despite Church teaching to the contrary over the years, there persists a pernicious ideology that suggests that marital sex is de facto sacrosanct, a pure form of love to which all other forms of marital love are ordered. This gets it backwards. Even sex needs to be purified of our selfish—and perhaps secular—attitudes. On this point, Pope Francis wrote in Amoris Laetitia, quoting from John Paul’s Theology of the Body, “If this gift [of sexuality] needs to be cultivated and directed, it is to prevent the ‘impoverishment of an authentic value’” (150). Sex, without being rooted in selfless love, becomes something perverse, a deviation from the fullness of God’s plan for human sexuality.
As the pandemic has revealed in ever clearer and often tragic ways, habits of selfless love are at the root of enduring marriages. These habits of selfless love, of course, continue even after the passions of youth subside. In a marriage, these habits are increasingly realized to be the true grace of marriage, well into old age.
I will never forget one story from my time working at the Archdiocese of Chicago. I was responsible for helping to compile responses to a survey sent out to couples who had been married for 50 years. We were planning to celebrate them at an upcoming Mass. Separately and unknown to each other, a plurality of respondents clearly indicated that it was “companionship” (that word exactly or something like it) that they valued most in marriage. Dressed up in theological language, I would say that companionship is “resting in mutual love.” Certainly, I believe this is what all married couples, young and old, should aspire to. On further reflection, I believe this is precisely what priests and religious would say about their relationship with God as well.
The truth that we were made—body and soul—for selfless, life-giving love is a hard sell in today’s culture. From our youth, we are taught by mass media to aspire to self-actualization, to pursue that which gives us bodily pleasure. Even the simple message that we were made as a gift, to be a gift for others can be radical, but it is absolutely necessary. As Pope Francis wrote in Amoris Laetitia, “Sexual union, lovingly experienced and sanctified by the sacrament, is in turn a path of growth in the life of grace for the couple.” The richness of John Paul’s Theology of the Body can help us to effectively share the beautiful teaching with young people and future generations that selfless love is the foundation for virtue and joy in all aspects of married life.