“Theology of the Body and Humanae Vitae”

“Theology of the Body and Humanae Vitae” by Katrina J. Zeno, MTS

Want to ruin your next Thanksgiving dinner? Try dropping this line in the midst of the conversation: “Did you know John Paul II said the conjugal act artificially deprived of its procreative capacity also ceases to be an act of love? Pass the potatoes please…”

This is guaranteed to be a conversation stopper. In fact, you might get booted out because according to a recent Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive poll, 88% of Catholics polled supported easy-access to birth control information and over half supported sales of the “morning-after” pill.

This would surprise Paul VI who said in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, “We believe that the human beings of our day are particularly capable of seeing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle.” What principle was he referring to? Preserving the innermost structure of the conjugal act in which the union of husband and wife is inseparably connected with the capacity to conceive new life.

Rather than seeing the inseparable connection between love-making and life-making as deeply reasonable, our technological age regards it as an imposition. Biology and fertility can and should be controlled for our personal benefit, so the thinking goes. Therefore, the Church should get with the times and revise her teaching to acknowledge that contraceptive intercourse is as natural as a body builder taking steroids. It enhances performance, not detracts from it.

The key issue is not performance, but love. In a collection of reflections known as The Theology of the Body, John Paul II stated that we need an ever “clearer discovery of God’s plan for human love” since “the one and only true good of the human person consists in putting this divine plan into practice.”

Christianity, as the expression of the divine plan, is not a religion of separation, but of integration. It unites, rather than divides. We see this supremely in the Incarnation where divinity is united with humanity; it’s is also inscribed in human nature where body is united with spirit.

In the most intimate love expression between a husband and wife, it’s clearly “reasonable” that God would not design separation as the goal, but union.
“The human body,” John Paul II says, “is not only the field of reactions of a sexual character, but it is at the same time the means of the expression of man as an integral whole…which reveals itself through the ‘language of the body.’”

In other words, we express the fullness of who we are through our bodies. Our sexual impulses do not determine us. Our rational freedom allows us to express the whole truth of our person through body and spirit working together.

No where is this body-spirit integration more critical than in marriage and the marital union. John Paul II says the conjugal act perfects the consent husband and wife gave to each other at the altar. That’s a pretty extreme statement. Most people don’t connect what happens at the altar with what happens in the bedroom, and yet, the two cannot be separated.

Marriage, because it is a sacrament, is a sign of the indissoluble union between husband and wife. At the altar, bride and groom publically promise the whole of their life to each other: “for better or worse; in sickness and in health….” When they enter into conjugal union, John Paul II says, they are reproposing the vows they made on their wedding day. They are saying again with their bodies what they said at the altar, “I give the whole of myself to you.”

As if that wasn’t enough, marriage is also a visible sign of Christ’s love for the Church. As John Paul II reminded us: “The spousal relationship that unites spouses, husband and wife, must…help us to understand the love that unites Christ with the Church.” In this love, Christ gives himself totally to the Church – both body and spirit – to bring about our holiness, our redemption.

Marital union is designed by God to mirror, to reflect, the wedding vows and Christ’s love for the Church. The “language of the body” expressed by husband and wife in every aspect of conjugal life is designed by God to say: “I give myself totally and irrevocably to you. I hold nothing back, including my fertility.”

John Paul II goes a step further: Christ’s love, and therefore marital love, is redemptive as well as spousal. Spousal love is designed by God to be a means of grace.

Those are humbling words – to think that spouses can be a channel of the very life of God to each other and to a brand new human life through one-flesh union. To violate the inner truth of this bodily union by intentionally impeding the total gift of self (and grace) constitutes, John Paul II says, “the essential evil of the contraceptive act.” It brings dis-integration between body and spirit, a separation between conjugal life and love, which can tragically spill from the bedroom into the couple’s life as a whole. Physical contraception can lead to emotional and even spiritual contraception – where I withhold the whole of me from my spouse and God.

Does living redemptive and spousal love require heroic sacrifice? Absolutely. The difficulty in giving up contraception is, ironically, the struggle to integrate body and spirit. Without recourse to contraception, husband and wife must practice periodic abstinence in order to postpone pregnancy. This requires self-mastery, or what has traditionally been called chastity.

Ultimately, Humane Vitae, John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and 2000 years of Catholic Church teaching center on protecting and promoting chastity. Chastity is the integration of body and spirit so that we are free to give ourselves away according to our state in life and God’s design. It is, John Paul II says, “a progressive education in self-control of the will, of sentiment, of emotions,” in order to reach mastery over our sexual drive and arousal. In doing so, this opens up “interior room” within ourselves to “become ever more sensitive to the deeper and more mature values” inherent in divine and human love.

But won’t abstaining from sexual union interfere with the expression of love between husband and wife? The concern is valid. John Paul II’s response moves the question from a single frame (sexual union) to the entire motion picture (all of marital life): “The task of conjugal chastity…lies not only in protecting the importance and dignity of the conjugal act in relation to its potentially procreative meaning, but also in safeguarding the importance and dignity proper to the conjugal act inasmuch as it expresses interpersonal union, by revealing to the consciousness…of the spouses all the other possible ‘manifestations’ that are to express their deep communion.”

Sexual intimacy is one (albeit very important, life-giving, and grace-channeling) dimension of conjugal life but it is an expression of the couple’s entire life of total, self-giving love. Ultimately, such a life in which union and procreation, body and spirit, spousal love and redemptive love are integrated and held in inseparable esteem matures in fully developed personalities enriched with spiritual values. Deep, personal communion is fostered from the breakfast table to the dinner dishes especially when abstinence is the order of the day. Total self-giving in the bedroom becomes total, redemptive self-giving in every aspect of daily life. That’s indeed something every human being is capable of seeing as deeply reasonable – and fulfilling.

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