The ABCs of JPII’s “Theology of the Body”

By Katrina J. Zeno, MTS

Have you ever picked up John Paul II’s writings and slogged through them? Maybe you dipped your toe into his “theology of the body” but put it down in frustration. Be of good cheer! By understanding the ABCs of John Paul II, you’ll have a better chance of deciphering his new language and concepts. In time, maybe you’ll be explaining the theology of the body to others.

 A = ALL

A – It ALL begins with “gift.” God created the world as gift. He created man and woman as gift. We are called to become gift. Why? Because God is Gift. The inner life of God, according to John Paul II, is self-giving love: The Father pours himself out in Gift to the Son, the Son pours himself out in Gift to the Father, and the Holy Spirit bursts forth as the fruit of their self-giving love.

In John Paul II’s writings, “gift” is everywhere. In fact, his favorite passage from Vatican II contains the word “gift”: “Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for himself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 24). If John Paul II hadn’t been elected pope, this passage would have gone unnoticed. Instead, the he incorporated No. 24 into almost every apostolic letter and encyclical.

So how are we to understand “sincere gift of self”? By going back to the Trinity and using God as our model. We are called to make a sincere gift of self in the same way as the Father and Son – in a way that is total, complete, and bursts forth in fruitfulness. When speaking about how we image God in the world, the John Paul II says: “To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist ‘for’ others, to become a gift.” (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, No. 7)  When he describes a woman’s vocation to motherhood, he says: “Motherhood is linked to the personal structure of the woman and to the personal dimension of the gift.” (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, No. 18)

“Gift,” in John Paul II’s writings, is the master key. It unlocks the rest of his thought.

 B = Body

While ALL of John Paul II’s thinking begins with gift, this gift is expressed through the BODY. For John Paul II, the body is sacramental – it is a visible expression of an invisible reality. We would never dream of saying, “Let’s do away with the bread and wine so that we can receive Jesus directly.” So, too, we can never say, “Let’s do away with the body so we can image God directly.” It doesn’t work that way.

Here’s how John Paul II says it: “The body…and it alone is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.” (Theology of the Body, Audience 19:4, Feb. 20, 1980)

What’s the mystery hidden in God? The self-giving love of the Trinity. We can’t see the Father loving the Son nor can we see the Holy Spirit bursting forth as the fruit of their self-giving love. But we can see the human body, the male and female body.

For John Paul II, gender is not accidental. Gender is purposeful. It teaches us about the mystery of God.

How? When Adam is created, he finds himself alone. He can’t make a gift of self to a cheetah, lady bug, or anteater in a way that fulfills the meaning of his existence. So God creates Eve from Adam’s side. Genesis shows us that male and female are from the same body. They share the same nature. This is why Adam exults: “At last, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!” (Gen 2:23)

But because this one nature is em-bodied in two ways, a new possibility exists – the possibility of union. This is precisely what the next verse tells us: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) The body is not just a collection of atoms and molecules that provides a pumping heart and the mechanics for Tiger Woods to shoot 10 under par. The body is made for union.

And that brings us to John Paul II’s most original and misunderstood term: the spousal meaning of the body. Simply put, “spousal meaning of the body” means “the body is made for union.” We are made for union through a sincere gift of self. But who is that union with?

C = Communion

The answer is “C” – COMMUNION. The gift of self through the body is always directed toward union and communion – with God, others, and even creation. This is the way it was “in the beginning,” before original sin, and the way it should be for us. John Paul II says: “Communion of Persons means living in a reciprocal ‘for,’ in a relationship of reciprocal gift.” (Theology of the Body, Audience 9:2, Jan. 9, 1980). In other words, we image God not so much when we conquer the world alone, but when we are in communion.

While these words may seem self-evident, we shouldn’t fly by them too quickly. We live in an individualistic society. The Olympic measuring rod for personhood is self-sufficiency and self-reliant. We win the gold and everyone else’s applause if we can do it on our own.

That’s not John Paul II’s mindset, nor the Catholic one. The new revelation about God in the New Testament was that God was no longer just One (solitary) but Three – a Trinity. God is a communion of persons. We, as human beings, are not just one (Adam, solitary) but two and so we can live a communion of persons in imitation of the Trinity.

Note that John Paul II doesn’t say marriage, sexual intercourse, or romance creates the communion of persons. He says it is mutual self-giving. The gift of self for the communion of persons is meant to be nuptial (for the purpose of union) but this is different from being sexual. The fruitfulness of our self-giving may be procreative, as in marriage, or spiritual as in friend to friend or parent to child. Marriage is indeed designed by God to be a fruitful communion of persons but so is the family, neighborhood, work place, and Church. In each of these contexts, we are called to live in the image of the Trinity.

How does all this apply to the theology of the body? “Theology of the body” simply means “the body reveals God.” When we live in the image of the Trinity through a sincere gift of self, we are revealing God. And that’s what John Paul II”s ABCs are all about: It ALL begins with Gift through the BODY for the COMMUNION of persons.

(Originally published in Our Sunday Visitor, under the title of “The Pope’s Body Language.”)

  • "Man...cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself." (GS 24)