Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body
reviewed by Patrick C. Beeman
The person is a body; he does not have a body. In a series of 129 catecheses delivered early in his pontificate—collectively known as the “theology of the body”—Pope John Paul II defended this thesis and brought out its implications for Christian life, examining man as male and female from the state of original innocence to lapsarian confusion and culminating with a penetrating study of “redeemed man” in his eschatological condition wrought by Christ.
As a cardinal, then Karol Wojtyla wrote the text in Polish. After his ascension to the papacy, he made some changes to the text, broke it into 15-minute homilies, and delivered it at most of his Wednesday general audiences from September 1979 to November 1984. It is, believes the editor of this latest translation, the one-piece culmination of John Paul II’s thinking and a significant part of his papal teaching.
Clothing a Naked Text
This translation by Michael Waldstein, Francis of Assisi Professor of New Testament at the International Theological Institute in Austria, is not the first single-volume version of the theology of the body. But previous editions suffered from inconsistencies in translation and omitted John Paul’s original section headings, resulting in misunderstandings of the pope’s argument and making it difficult to remain oriented within the theology’s complex structure.
Waldstein devotes his long introduction (over one hundred pages) to situating the theology of the body in the contexts of modernity and of John Paul II’s own thought. He writes that “the purpose of [the theology of the body] is to defend the spousal meaning of the body against the alienation between person and body in the Cartesian vision of nature.”
The first principle of the Cartesian view is that “the human body, together with all matter, shall be seen as an object of power.” By contrast, John Paul sees the body “from the beginning” as containing a “spousal attribute, that is, the power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and—through this gift—fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence” ( emphasis in original). The human body is not merely an object of domineering power but rather is the basis of the person’s power to love.
Waldstein traces the evolution of the theology of the body through three stages. Before becoming pope, Wojtyla encountered the mystical poetry of St. John of the Cross. The origin of the theology lay in Wojtyla’s development of what Waldstein calls “the Sanjuanist triangle”: “love is a gift of self; spousal love is the paradigmatic gift of self; the Trinity is the archetype of such a gift.”
In the second stage, Wojtyla examined the challenge to this “Carmelite point of departure” from the modern understanding of personal subjectivity and human nature. Instead of being that which “alone is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine,” the human body is a thing devoid of intrinsic meaning and thus raw material for technological manipulation.
The result is that, in achieving a superior biological knowledge of the body, modernity has lost the person. Knowing more of the details than ever before, we know nearly nothing of the essence.
In the third stage, John Paul responded to this modern challenge. His “defense of the body” is, Waldstein summarizes,
A Papal Time Bomb
“Man became the image of God not only through his own humanity,” writes the pope, “but also through the communion of persons, which man and woman form from the very beginning.”
For John Paul II, the term “image of God” takes on an entirely new meaning. Man is neither male nor female alone, but both together: “his” body stands in relation to “hers” as a gift, and vice versa. God is not sexual, but he is “an inscrutable divine communion of persons,” a Blessed Trinity. Man—as male and female, as a communion of persons—in giving himself in spousal love becomes a created and analogous image that points to God’s uncreated and eternal exchange of love within himself. No wonder the theology of the body is heralded as a bold and dramatic development of Catholic theology!
George Weigel, John Paul II’s official biographer, famously observed that the theology of the body is a “theological time bomb” with “ramifications for all of theology.” Waldstein has gone to great lengths to help that bomb go off, and to ensure that the work of understanding and engaging this seminal collection of thoughts on love, human freedom, and Christian anthropology will prove as fruitful as possible.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
“Papal Explosives” first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.