A lover of human love

By  Patricia Murphy, Catholic Register Special
  • November 9, 2007
0819873942.jpgWoody Allen once said that 80 per cent of success in life consists in just showing up. While Allen has been described as many things, “theologian” probably isn’t one of them. Still, there are good reasons to think that Pope John Paul II — especially in what has come to be known as his teaching on the “theology of the body” — would say that Allen is right, or at least 80-per-cent right.

But what precisely is the “theology of the body” and why does it seem to be attracting so much attention these days?

It is helpful to begin by identifying just a few of the most pressing questions of our day. Have you recently heard, or asked: Are the apparent differences between men and women really all that significant — or are they simply reflections of social conditioning? Or, why doesn’t the Catholic Church “get with the program” and revise some of its teaching on sexual ethics? Or, as amazing as the Internet is, why do we tend to worry about those who seem to spend so much of their lives online, making virtual friends and living a “second life”? On a different — but related — note, why do we get up every Sunday and go, in person, to Mass, rather than simply take time to pray at home, alone? Finally, have you ever wondered what could be so morally problematic about “in vitro” fertilization or perhaps same-sex “marriage”?

If one were trying design a bumper sticker that would capture the fundamental concern and insight of Pope John Paul’s teaching on “theology of the body,” it would have to be that “matter matters.” And in its own way, each of the above questions forces us to confront the meaning and significance of the created material world, and especially of the human body.

“Theology of the Body” is the name usually given to a series of 129 catecheses on “Human Love in the Divine Plan” given by Pope John Paul II between 1978 and 1984 at his weekly general audiences in Rome. These catecheses were actually taken from an earlier manuscript, written in Polish, in the 1970s, by then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.

{amazon id='0819873942' align='right'}With so many enormous challenges facing the church and world, one can’t but wonder, why did Pope John Paul devote so such time and attention to a “theology of the body”?

In his 1994 work, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul himself explains: “As a young priest I learned to love human love. If one loves human love, there naturally arises the need to commit oneself completely to the service of fair love. . .” Perhaps these words speak for themselves.

It is also instructive to remember the original manuscript was written in the 1970s. Disco and Studio 54 had arrived: an era of social and sexual upheaval had been ushered in and with it, certain traditional sexual norms had been ushered out. Pope John Paul was also acutely aware of the pastoral and catechetical challenges posed by the publication of the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in 1968. The encyclical affirmed Catholic teaching on the inseparability of the unitive and procreative dimensions of the conjugal act and sought to root this in an “integral vision” of the person.

One has to give the pope credit: he understood that people tend to listen when the topic turns to sex and in his “theology of the body” he provides a comprehensive teaching on our creation, fall and redemption — on our “salvation history” in which our sexuality itself is redeemed and restored to God’s original plan for human love.

Each of these reasons is compelling in itself and complements the others. But John Paul also understood that the growing distortion or misunderstanding of sexual ethics — and the other fundamental questions of the day such as those mentioned above — are largely symptoms of a more pervasive and profound problem: deep confusion about what it means to be a human person, and to find true human fulfilment and happiness.

It is an interesting exercise to ask people what they think it means to be human. In my experience, answers typically focus on our higher capacities: our ability to think, to choose, to self-direct. Even our RRSP products are self-directed. Isn’t it interesting that the body does not figure prominently, if at all? If it is mentioned, it is seen as something we have at our disposal, something we use — raw material or canvas for our own self-creation. That certainly seems to be the understanding of a show like Extreme Makeover.

However, such an understanding of what it means to be human is something of a novelty — at least relatively speaking. Scholars agree that we are children of the Enlightenment project and its anthropology. As we all learned in high school history class, the central goal of the Enlightenment was the human conquest of nature.

According to René Descartes, the 16th-century philosopher who has been called the father of the modern scientific technical project, what distinguishes us as humans is that we can decide freely what to do with nature. With our freedom of choice as the ultimate value, the human is simply the “thinking thing” — whose only real attribute is rational consciousness. The objective world of “extended things,” including human bodies, is other than — inferior to — what is truly human. Thus it is that Descartes is famous for saying, “I think, therefore I am” (Cogito, ergo sum.)

At the risk of oversimplifying the matter, this is the essence of a “dualistic” anthropology. So for Descartes and many today, the “person” is simply the conscious, experiencing subject whose body, with its natural biological processes, belongs to a subhuman world over which we seek total control.

Pope John Paul also understood well the contemporary implications of false anthropologies, especially dualism. As he wrote in his 1994 Letter to Families: “The human family is facing the challenge of a new Manichaeism, in which body and spirit are put in radical opposition . . . . this neo-Manichaeism culture has led, for example, to human sexuality being regarded more as an area for manipulation and exploitation than as the basis of that primordial wonder which led Adam on the morning of creation to exclaim before Eve, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.’ ”

It is this sense of wonder and truly human — and embodied — joy, among other things, which the “theology of the body” invites us to experience.

(Murphy is a Contributing Editor to The Catholic Register and teaches theology at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto. This article is adapted from a talk presented Oct. 19 at St. Augustine’s.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.