Gaps in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body

John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” began as a series of Wednesday audience talks in 1979, part of his preparation for the Synod of Bishops on the Family that took place in the fall of 1980; the series, however, was to continue through 1984. He begins to discuss the Christian understanding of marriage with Jesus’ response to a challenge from the Pharisees about divorce (Matthew 19:3ff), in which Jesus points them beyond Moses’ decree to God’s institution of marriage “in the beginning”; that leads John Paul to a consideration of the creation.

John Paul assumes the validity of the historical-critical analysis of the Pentateuch; he assumes a dissonance between Genesis 1 and 2. His focus on this dissonance, and possible meanings in it, leads him to ignore the implications of one of the critical passages in Genesis for a true understanding of a Biblical theology of the body–man’s creation from the dust of the earth, which, when God breathed into it, caused man to become “a living soul.” The dust, plus the breath, created a soul, and this soul was a living body (Genesis 2:7).

John Paul does not ignore the verse entirely. He says, for example,

The Yahwist text never speaks directly of the body. Even when it says that “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground,” it speaks of man and not of his body. (Part 6)

This is to miss the point. The text does not know of man other than as this breathing body.

Nevertheless, man’s bodiliness is critical for John Paul’s understanding of man’s creation. It is awareness of his bodiliness that causes man to be aware of his solitude, to be aware of himself as “a body among bodies.” This leads us to John Paul’s next mention of our text:

Consciousness of the body seems to be identified in this case with the discovery of the complexity of one’s own structure. On the basis of philosophical anthropology, this discovery consists, in short, in the relationship between soul and body. The Yahwist narrative with its own language (that is, with its own terminology), expresses it by saying: “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Gn 2:7).

Here he interjects his prior philosophical assumption of a soul body dualism that is specifically denied by the text that he then quotes. It is this very dualism that keeps him from seeing the foundation of the very theology of the body he is seeking to explicate. And he knows this dualism is not in the text. In footnotes to his seventh and ninth talks, he admits as much:

(7) Biblical anthropology distinguishes in man not so much the body and the soul as body and life. The biblical author presents here the conferring of the gift of life through “breath” which does not cease to belong to God. When God takes it away, man returns to dust, from which he was made (cf. Job 34:14-15; Ps 104:29f.).

(9) The dualistic contraposition “soul-body” does not appear in the conception of the most ancient books of the Bible. As has already been stressed (cf. L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, November 5, 1979, page 15, note 1), we can speak rather of a complementary combination “body-life.”

He does not pursue the implications of this, however.

John Paul goes on to discuss man’s awareness of his bodiliness. It is this that causes him to see that he has a purpose, an activity that is rooted in that very bodiliness. And it is at the moment of the dawning of this awareness that man is given a choice between life and death. His future is conditional; immortality will include his body, or he will die. Here, too, John Paul could have probed further. This text is clear: man will die. Man is not by nature immortal. There is only life, and that a bodily life, only through maintenance of the relationship with God; disobedience will lead to death. Genesis knows of no immortal soul that will survive death of the body; it is the serpent who suggests to man that he will not die.

John Paul continues with a discussion of the creation of woman; the division between sexes, and their creation for each other, their sexual union with one another, is part of the original meaning of creation. Sexuality is part of man’s original blessedness, not part of the Fall. It is a part of the very definition of man.

In this discussion of the creation of Eve, however, John Paul brushes against another important concept. Adam is put to sleep so that God may remove his rib. “Perhaps,” he suggests,

… the analogy of sleep indicates here not so much a passing from consciousness to subconsciousness, as a specific return to non-being (sleep contains an element of annihilation of man’s conscious existence), that is, to the moment preceding the creation, in order that, through God’s creative initiative, solitary “man” may emerge from it again in his double unity as male and female.

“Sleep contains an element of annihilation of man’s conscious existence.” Where else do we hear of “sleep” in Scripture? Why, it’s the most common description of death in both Old and New Testaments. It is “a specific return to non-being.” This is what death will be to man–“a specific return to non-being,” “annihilation of man’s conscious existence.” God’s warning to Adam of the consequences of disobedience is not a warning without reference point: this is the analogy by which man can understand the warning. But again John Paul doesn’t grasp the full significance of the text because of his philosophical presupposition about the nature of the soul and its immortality.

In talk 10, he returns to the topics of marriage and sexuality as they are presented in Genesis. Marriage is a permanent union, a becoming “one flesh,” that is rooted in the choice of a man to “leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.” It is only in this relationship of mutual self-giving that man fully realizes the nature of existence as a person in communion; this he terms the “nuptial meaning of the body,” which is accompanied by the blessing of fertility (13).

From here, John Paul goes on to unpack the meaning of marriage, love, lust, and so forth. He doesn’t stay with the creation story. He doesn’t reflect upon the meaning of death in Genesis. We must wait until talk 63 for some points related to death, when he first begins to talk about the resurrection of the body, which is the essential Christian eschatological truth. In this discussion, however, his position about our state between death and the resurrection of the body is informed more by Plato than by Scripture.

What if John Paul had taken Scripture seriously, that the “living soul” is man as he is created, a body animated by the breath of God, and that having sinned, this soul will die, and that death is an unconscious sleep until the resurrection of the body?

Well, he wouldn’t be able to have dead people appearing to the living (apparitions of various saints and spectres), who give instruction to them (whether to build shrines or offer masses). He wouldn’t be able to present hell as a place of eternal conscious torment or purgatory as a place of intermediary punishment/purification. It wouldn’t make sense then to offer sacrifices on behalf of the dead or to undertake indulgences on their behalf or to engage in conversations with the dead. A theology of the body truly rooted in both man’s creation as described in Genesis and in the future resurrection of the blessed would undermine much of Catholic teaching.

Practically speaking, such a theology of the body would lead us to look forward to the return of Christ in glory as the blessed hope when we will be reunited with both Jesus and our loved ones. Such a theology of the body would give renewed meaning to our present bodily life, and would inspire us both to care for the body we have as the temple of the Holy Spirit and to seek the health and wholeness of all who are suffering.

John Paul II was on the right track, and we can learn from him, but only by abandoning Plato and sticking with a Biblical wholistic anthropology.

2 thoughts on “Gaps in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body

  1. Bill, this post in general and the last ‘graph in particular indicate that might accept the thesis that the early Church “Hellenized” the Gospel, and that this was a bad thing. Do you in fact agree with this thesis, and if *not*, how is Nicaea’s appropriation of Greek metaphysical concepts for Trinitarian & Christological theology different from the same era’s appropriation of Greek anthropological concepts for biblical anthropology?

    Relatedly, Bill, I’m curious if your moral evaluation of contraception has changed along with your ecclesial affiliation.

  2. Regarding your first point, Nicea involved appropriation of terminology, which was infused with new meaning to describe Biblical realities; in the case of anthropology, not only terminology but concepts were appropriated to replace Biblical understandings.

    The issue at Nicea was how to affirm that God is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (from Jesus’ command to baptize), the oneness of God (Deuteronomy 4), and the Biblical way of speaking about God (Jesus is the Son of the Father, he prayed to the Father in the Spirit, he breathed the Spirit, and yet the Spirit was sent by the Father in the name of Jesus). Nicea followed those fathers who took what had hitherto been fairly synonymous terms (hypostasis/ousia) to distinguish between the members of the Trinity as they can be spoken of separately from that which they have in common. Robert W. Jenson is a good author on this point.

    Regarding contraception, I would affirm a preference for a natural approach, but wouldn’t infuse it with the weight of “mortal sin,” just as I would affirm a preference for vegetarianism, but wouldn’t say eating of meat is a “mortal sin.”

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