Joann Heaney-Hunter, Ph.D.
In recent years, Pope John Paul II’s collection of addresses known as the Theology of the Body (hereafter TOB) has been studied, praised and critiqued. As a major work from a much celebrated and beloved head of the Church, TOB lays the groundwork for ongoing reflection on marriage and family life and the pastoral ministry that the Church undertakes on behalf of couples and families. As an extended treatment of the Church’s official teaching on the necessary connection between life and love, it serves as a valuable tool for scholars and ministers alike, and can be used as a foundation for current and future marriage and family ministry efforts. Some purposes of TOB are to explore the dignity of marriage and sex in a world that often devalues them, to highlight spousal love as a key ingredient of God’s plan for humanity, and to reaffirm the intrinsic connections between life and love.
How should we read and interpret TOB? To begin, we must first articulate what it is and what it is not. In terms of Church documents, catechesis to the church from the Pope carries considerable weight, and is a part of the magesterium. It must be recognized, however, that it is less weighty than a papal pronouncement made excathedra, (from the chair of Peter) for example, or a Dogmatic Constitution resulting from a Council. TOB, therefore, represents an authoritative teaching of Pope John Paul II on a subject that was dear to his heart, human love and marriage. Just as St. Paul wrote letters to specific communities and articulated theologies that addressed the needs and issues of a particular group, Pope John Paul has presented TOB to the Church as a series of addresses from the perspectives of his teaching role and his understanding of contemporary culture.
TOB also reflects John Paul’s theological and philosophical background, and must be read through those lenses as well. Just as it is not usually helpful to take Paul or other biblical texts out of their context, it is not useful to take the addresses that comprise TOB out of their context – which includes a view of the human person as the crowning achievement of God’s creation, a sense of the need to preserve the sanctity of sex, marriage and family life, and a desire to further develop the theology of sexuality presented in Humanae Vitae. (TOB 118-133) Furthermore, TOB must be read in light of John Paul’s understanding that the inseparability of love and life is a principle of natural law and an articulation of God’s divine plan for humanity. (TOB 118, 119, 121, 123, 127, 131,132).
A crucial element for understanding TOB is John Paul’s use of scripture. Throughout the addresses, he makes use of selected texts to illustrate his points about human love and sexual relationship. He does not claim to be a biblical scholar making exhaustive exegeses of every scriptural text on marriage and family life, but serves as a master teacher reflecting on deep scriptural truths about human relationships (TOB 93) and God’s plan for sex and love (TOB 25, 34, 35 among others). Like any other writer, John Paul makes choices about the scriptural texts he uses, reflecting on and interpreting texts that highlight human love as an embodiment of God’s love, and demonstrate the radically life-giving dimensions of sex.
On a practical note, we must remember that as unified as the addresses are, TOB is a series of catechesis, delivered over the course of a number of years. Throughout, we find some repetition, which is to be expected, and careful attention to detail on every point John Paul makes. I see the repetition as a way to help readers focus on important points of previous addresses in the series, or to give them the opportunity to catch up if they missed something, similar to the way television writers sometimes synopsize a previous episode of a multi-part show. The level of detail provides much food for thought on John Paul’s key points of TOB.
Having laid out some helps for reading TOB, let’s consider some of its strengths.
1. TOB emphasizes sexuality as a gift from God and as a total gift of self. (TOB 10, 17, 59, 73, 87, 111, 114, for example). In a world where sex is all too often regarded as a commodity, TOB insists that it is a precious sharing of love and life that cannot be treated lightly. One caveat: it is important to remember that although the ideal of TOB is profoundly beautiful, sexual encounters sometimes reflect imperfect or flawed gifts. Sexual intercourse, for example, may represent the mixed motives and brokenness of individuals trying to live God’s plan for their lives. As long as the lofty vision of TOB is presented as ideal and aspiration, it can help people strive to follow its call to holiness. If people begin to see it as unrealistic and unreasonable, however, they may write it off completely or become discouraged about their inability to realize its vision.
2. TOB consistently highlights that from the beginning, each person has been created as a child of God, in God’s image (TOB 100). This message can never be forgotten, and as marriage and family ministers, we are called to share it with all who cross our paths. When we are tempted to treat some people as inferior to others, we are reminded by TOB that every person is a sacrament of God’s love. TOB also assumes that male and female have been created to share in God’s creative power as fathers and mothers. (TOB 22.6) As marriage and family ministers, however, we must be aware that while biological motherhood and fatherhood are important elements of participating in God’s creativity, they certainly are not the only ones. Part of our task in using TOB is to help those who are not biological parents explore the creative force within them. In individuality and in relationships, in biological generativity and spiritual generativity, we are called to make Christ present in the midst of the world.
3. TOB continues to remind us that the fullest image of God is found in loving human relationships (TOB 9, 10, 12, 67, 69, 71, 77 among others), and that the perfect community, the Trinity, can be embodied by the life of a loving couple. (TOB 95, 100, 103, 104, 105, for example). While we certainly do not image the Trinity perfectly, the person in loving communion stands as a symbol of the love between the persons of God and the love of God that reaches out in generosity to others.
In such a short space, one can only scratch the surface of TOB, highlight key elements of John Paul’s thought, and raise some issues about its use by marriage and family life ministers. TOB is an excellent but challenging resource for those invited to articulate the Church’s vision of love and life presented in Gaudium et Spes, expanded inHumanae Vitae, and reiterated throughout the writings on marriage and family life that spanned John Paul II’s entire papacy. If presented in a way that reduces jargon and dense philosophical constructs, it can be used effectively to educate families of all ages about the Church’s official teaching on the dignity and beauty of their sexuality. Its main points also can be employed effectively as a way to introduce teens to a positive perspective on their sexuality as a gift from God, rather than as a commodity.
Like any tool, however, TOB has limitations. One of the most daunting is its length and complexity. For use in parishes or dioceses, I strongly recommend breaking it down into shorter, more manageable segments, much as John Paul did in his weekly addresses. For local use, it might be best to focus on a few key themes of TOB such as “spousal love,” “sacramentality,” and “inseparability of life and love.” A helpful article summarizing the key points of TOB is Mary Shivanandan’s “John Paul II’s Theology of the Body,” in Living Light 37 (Spring 2001), www.usccb.org/education/catechetics/ livlghtspr2001.shtml#Shivanandan. Another balanced, scholarly, and comprehensive resource is Michael Waldstein’s Man and Woman He Created Them (Boston: Pauline Media, 2006), which provides extensive background on the philosophical and theological framework of TOB.
As did Paul’s communities in the early church, we recognize that while TOB presents an extraordinary vision of the meaning of sexuality and human relationship, its impact will continue to spread only in its use and further development. Pope John Paul addressed the pressing concerns regarding sexuality and marriage in the last 20 years of the 20th century. Since then, our challenges have grown and changed as society has moved in new (and often not so positive) directions. Theologians and pastoral ministers alike will continue to plumb the depths of TOB, extend its theological vision, and build on its solid foundation in future work with couples and families.
Joann Heaney-Hunter teaches theology at St. John’s University, New York, and works as a psychotherapist for Catholic Charities in Rockville Centre, New York..