John Paul II’s Theology of the Body:
Key to an Authentic Marital & Family Spirituality
What is marital spirituality? How does the family become authentically spiritual? For John Paul II, the answers to these questions “of the spirit” are revealed in the body.
This is what we learn from John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” In this collection of 129 general audience addresses delivered early in his pontificate, John Paul developed what promises to be one of his most enduring contributions to the Church and the world.
Establishing an authentic marital spirituality is essential if we are to restore the family and build a culture of life. How do we do it? According to the Holy Father, “Those who seek the accomplishment of their own human and Christian vocation in marriage are called, first of all, to make this ‘theology of the body’ …the content of their life and behavior” (Apr 2, 1980).
More Catholics are hearing about the theology of the body. Still, very few of them know what it actually teaches. The purpose of this article is to introduce some of the themes of John Paul’s teaching and outline the foundations for building an authentic marital and family spirituality.
The Body: Revelation of God’s Mystery
The Pope’s thesis, if we let it sink in, is sure to revolutionize our understanding of the human body, sexuality, and, in turn, marriage and family life. “The body, and it alone,” John Paul says, “ is capable of making visible what is invisible, the spiritual and divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the invisible mystery hidden in God from time immemorial, and thus to be a sign of it” (Feb 20, 1980).
A mouthful of scholarly verbiage, I know. What does it mean? As physical, bodily creatures we simply cannot see God. He’s pure Spirit. But God wanted to make his mystery visible to us so he stamped it into our bodies by creating us as male and female in his own image (Gn 1:27).
The function of this image is to reflect the Trinity, “an inscrutable divine communion of [three] Persons” (Nov 14, 1979). John Paul thus concludes that “man became the ‘image and likeness’ of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning.” And, the Pope adds, “On all of this, right from ‘the beginning,’ there descended the blessing of fertility linked with human procreation” (ibid).
The body has a “nuptial meaning” because it reveals man and woman’s call to become a gift for one another, a gift fully realized in their “one flesh” union. The body also has a “generative meaning” that (God willing) brings a “third” into the world through their communion. In this way, marriage constitutes a “primordial sacrament” understood as a sign that truly communicates the mystery of God’s Trinitarian life and love to husband and wife, and through them to their children, and through the family to the whole world.
This is what marital spirituality is all about: participating in God’s life and love and sharing it with the world. While this is certainly a sublime calling, it’s not ethereal. It’s tangible. God’s love is meant to be lived and felt in daily life as a married couple and as a family. How? By living according to the full truth of the body.
“In fact, how indispensable,” our Holy Father insists, “is thorough knowledge of the meaning of the body, in its masculinity and femininity, along the way of this vocation! How necessary is a precise awareness of the nuptial meaning of the body, of its generative meaning – since all that which forms the content of the life of married couples must constantly find its full and personal dimension in life together, in behavior, in feelings!” (Apr 2, 1980).
One of the greatest threats facing the Church today is a “spiritualism” in which people disembody their call to holiness. Living a spiritual life never means eschewing our bodies. Authentic spirituality is always an embodied spirituality.
This is the very “logic” of Christianity. God communicates his life to us in and through the body; in and through the Word made flesh. The spirit that denies this “incarnational reality” is that of the anti-Christ (see 1 Jn 4:2-3).
Think about this for a moment. John Paul teaches us that the human body – in the beauty of sexual difference and our call to nuptial union – possesses a “language” inscribed by God that not only proclaims His eternal mystery, but makes that mystery present to us. If there is an enemy of God who wants to keep us from God’s life and love, where, then, would he go to do it?
Satan’s goal is to scramble the language of our bodies! And look how successful he’s been. Because of Satan’s scheme, most of us are illiterate when it comes to reading the language of the body. How many of us, for example, think that our bodies are the last place to look for the revelation of God’s mystery?
Building an Authentic Spirituality
In order to build an authentic marital spirituality, then, we must begin by learning to read the true language of the body. We must pray for the eyes to see God’s mystery revealed through our bodies and through the marital union itself. Sin is what blinds us: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 Jn 2:16).
In talking about the love between man and woman, we must contend primarily with the lust of the flesh.
Marriage in no way “legitimizes” lust. Men and women are called by the power of the Holy Spirit to experience a “real and deep” victory over lust. Through the “redemption of our bodies,” the Holy Spirit impregnates sexual desire “with everything that is noble and beautiful,” with “the supreme value which is love” (Oct 22 & 29, 1980).
This is how husbands and wives build an authentic spirituality: by loving one another according to the Holy Spirit in and through their bodies. Marital love is shown in numerous ways, but spouses who are filled with the Spirit realize “among the possible manifestations of affection, the singular, or rather, exceptional significance of [the conjugal] act” (Nov 21, 1984). They come to understand that their sexual union“bears in itself the sign of the great mystery of creation and redemption” (Nov 14, 1984). In a word, they come to understand that their union is “Eucharistic.”
When we receive the Eucharist worthily, it bears new life in the whole of our lives. When we receive it unworthily, we eat and drink our condemnation (1 Co 11:29). Similarly, when spouses open their union to the Holy Spirit, their whole marriage continually bears new life in the Spirit. However, if spouses close their union to the Spirit, they undermine the whole reality of their marriage and their family life.
One of the primary ways we remain open to the Spirit is by remaining open to children. Who is the Holy Spirit but the Lord and Giver of Life? Those couples who close their union to children at the same time close their union to the Holy Spirit. Their union is no longer a sign of God’s Trinitarian love but, in fact, becomes a counter-sign of it.
This is why John Paul says that “the antithesis of conjugal spirituality is constituted, in a certain sense, by the subjective lack of this understanding [of the dignity of the conjugal act] which is linked to contraceptive practice and mentality” (ibid).
For those who are filled with the Holy Spirit, contraception is simply unthinkable. They know it replaces the true language of the body with a lie. And lying within the heart of marital intimacy has a ripple effect, as does speaking the truth. Spouses who strive to speak honestly in the nuptial embrace strive to be open and honest with each in the whole of their married life.
As professor Mary Roussseau expresses it, when spouses live an authentic spirituality, “the love that marks their marital bed spreads …into the kitchen, the yard, the supermarket, the workplace, and beyond. Their love eventually spreads throughout the world, into the realms of politics, work, education, entertainment, health care, and international relations. Such is the exact process by which the civilization of love comes to be” (Chicago Studies, Vol 39:2, p. 175).
This is why, according to John Paul, education in the theology of the body “constitutes …the essential nucleus of conjugal spirituality” (Oct 3, 1984). This education is a clarion call not to become more “spiritual” but to become more incarnational – to allow the Holy Spirit to impregnate our bodies with divine life.
This is what happens in the sacraments. The Eucharist and Penance, in particular, are the “infallible and indispensable” means, John Paul says, “for forming the Christian spirituality of married life and family life. With these, that essential and spiritual creative ‘power’ of love reaches human hearts and, at the same time, human bodies…. This love, in fact, allows the building of the whole life of the married couple according to that ‘truth of the sign,’ by means of which marriage is built up in its sacramental dignity” (Oct 3, 1984).
Through this “sacramental dignity” spouses and families participate in the mystery of the Trinity and proclaim that mystery to the world in an “embodied spirituality.”