Male and female, God created them -- Rethinking John Paul II's theology of the body
ON 129 OCCASIONS BETWEEN 1979 AND 1984, the late Pope John Paul II shared his reflections on sexuality, marriage, family life, and vocation with his Wednesday audiences at the Vatican. Each talk and each audience was unique, but John Paul II held fast to the theme. Using the Bible as his starting point, John Paul II delved into such questions as why humans were created male and female and why it matters which one we are. He pondered the purpose of marriage and asked what the union between a man and a woman says about God’s plan for our lives.
The collection of his Wednesday homilies was published in 1997 as The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Pauline). Although dense and scholarly, the material has spurred a flurry of interest among some Catholics in recent years.
Today colleges and dioceses sponsor seminars on the topic while websites offer discussion boards and resources for both those who are looking for a basic introduction to the theology of the body and those wanting more advanced analysis. Study groups and retreats are energizing individuals and couples, and they’re sharing their enthusiasm with others. In fact, one of my graduate students recently told me how he and his wife had found a new measure of marital unity and depth through this approach.
I, too, find much to admire in John Paul II’s theology. It does indeed offer a theology of sexuality that celebrates its power to unite a couple, one that takes the body very seriously as a sacrament of God’s revelation. Perhaps most importantly it offers a way of reverencing our bodies and sexuality in the midst of a culture that all too often sees sex as a recreational right and our bodies as machines in constant need of improvement.
I doubt that there are many Catholics who do not find something amiss in our culture’s fixation on sexuality and in its dissatisfaction with our mortal, imperfect, and inevitably aging bodies. Even I find myself wishing for thinner thighs and noticing with regret my wrinkles and white hairs while I write about the beauty of our bodies.
Yet as much as John Paul II’s theology offers a real alternative to our sex-obsessed society, I have a mixed response to it. As a lifelong Catholic, a feminist, a wife, and a theologian, I find myself in agreement with some dimensions of it but with concerns about and even strong disagreements with others.
It is impossible to do justice to all the complexities of the theology of the body. Christopher West’s The Theology of the Body Explained (Pauline) runs over 500 pages, and John Paul II’s own output was considerable. So I will focus on some representative statements of the theology of the body and comment on them specifically.
1. John Paul II’s nuptial vision
The late pope saw the metaphor of marriage at the heart of the relationship between God and humanity, Christ and the church, men and women. This metaphor is indeed “cosmic,” as he sees it encompassing the whole universe. It is rooted in the Bible—the creation narrative, the prophets, St. Paul—and reveals the depth and intimacy of God’s relationship to humanity and of ours with each other.
While sin has ruptured our relationships with God and with each other, God has chosen to offer God’s very self to us in the person of Jesus, who comes to us in body. God, then, is in a profound way like the bridegroom who “proposes” to the bride. It is up to us to respond.
My response: Human beings do live by metaphors; imagine what life would be like if everything had to be taken literally—no jokes, no pictures, no literature. But metaphors are there to open up reality, not to stand in the way of it. While I appreciate the marriage metaphor with its history and complexity, I cannot help but recall some of its negative as well as positive connotations.
In the Bible, where God is the bridegroom, Israel is often described as the “harlot wife.” Marriage has been for most of its history a very unequal relationship, which is one of the reasons why it has been helpful as a metaphor for humanity and God: We are definitely not equal to God.
For John Paul II, God is always the bridegroom, never the bride; God is the one who acts, who invites. We, the brides, are the ones who respond. While there is a profound truth to this metaphor in that God is the one who issues us the invitation, I am uncomfortable with the gendered way that this comes across and its implications for real-life marriages, and indeed for society at large.
In an article in America magazine last fall, I asked the question, “Can God be a bride?” My hopeful answer was “yes,” if we as men and women are really both created in God’s image and likeness, if we as women and men are both vehicles of God’s grace to each other.
2. The complementarity of the sexes
As John Paul II saw it, the differences between men’s and women’s bodies are not accidental, nor are they different merely for the sake of reproduction. Our bodies themselves reveal God’s intention for us. So to be male or to be female is, first, to be oriented to the other.
Second, maleness and femaleness constitute “essential” dimensions of the person that are not exchangeable. To be a woman is to be fundamentally “receptive” and open to the other. Thus John Paul II was quite critical of forms of feminism that, in his view, seek to make women “like men.”
There is what he called a “special genius” in womanhood that is oriented toward relationship and nurturing. And, because of the essential differences between men and women, only men can be ordained priests, as they represent Christ the bridegroom in relation to his bride, the church.
My response: No one could deny the obvious differences between the sexes. There are fundamental differences that exist at the genetic level and other differences that seem to accompany being male or female within a given society. Nature and culture are intertwined in complex ways, and a definitive answer as to which differences are “natural” and which are “cultural” is impossible.
Feminists have suggested that not all our differences are “given” to us. Some are learned. Opening up new opportunities to women, and to men as well, has profoundly changed the way we live our lives.
While many women find great fulfillment in bearing and raising children, some do not and instead find happiness in a single life or in a marriage without children. Some women find that they are better mothers or wives by combining their professional lives with their family lives. This shift in our understanding of gender has, by the same token, allowed men to develop stronger relationships with their children, as they are more free to take on nurturing roles.
The profound truth in John Paul II’s understanding of complementarity is that we human beings are relationship-oriented. We are not meant to live alone. But does this mean that women and men are always different in specific ways?
It seems to me that there is still much that we do not know about sexual difference. Indeed, while the overwhelming majority of us is clearly “male” or “female,” there is also a significant minority of people whose gender or sexual orientation is ambiguous. Surely our sexuality is meant for our life and delight. But I am not so sure that my “essential femininity” means that I am intrinsically more nurturing than my husband or that being a woman means that I have a deeper receptivity than he does.
Granted, there are real differences, but there are many more similarities in our personhood as women and as men.
3. Artificial contraception as the antithesis of authentic marital spirituality
For John Paul II the act of sexual intercourse is the place where husband and wife give each other, body and spirit, to the other. God’s plan is that intercourse alone be the place not only of interpersonal union but of the potential transmission of new life, and indeed God’s nuptial love for humanity may be manifest only in such sexual union.
Sexual union with the use of contraception thus becomes a profound negation of this mystery, a means of individual or shared pleasure only, which makes a lie of the mystery of our Creator God spoken through sexual union. Only sexual union open to new life can fully reveal God’s intent for humanity. Parents are morally obligated to engage in responsible planning for children, with the recognition that periodic abstinence reveals the sacrifice that is always involved in real love.
My response: It is well-known that the overwhelming majority of U.S. Catholics do in fact use artificial contraception. But mere numbers cannot constitute a genuine theological response. This may mean that the overwhelming majority of Catholics are morally mistaken. Yet I think it is worth asking whether there is any wisdom in their experience.
Does using contraceptives mean that the couple holds back an essential part of themselves from the other? I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with a friend who is the mother of three children. She and her husband had joyfully welcomed each child, and she could attest to the deep wonder and mystery that accompanied their conception. They had found Natural Family Planning very helpful in the process.
Yet she later found herself at a point in her life where, she told me, the thought of another child elicited panic. Neither she nor her husband felt that they could take on another child, and this fear was having a negative effect on their relationship with each other and with their children. After much thought and prayer, they decided that contraception was the best solution for them. Freedom from fear of conception has had a very positive impact on their relationship and their family life as a whole. I do not think that such an outcome would be associated with significant periods of abstinence.
Surely there are countless examples of couples using contraception purely as an avenue to their individual sexual pleasure, of women feeling less able to decline sex, of both men and women feeling pressured by the culture to have sex, of sex being reduced to “hooking up.” Such practices call for a strong response from people of faith.
I find John Paul II’s teaching on procreation and marital spirituality to be a profound and inspiring picture of marital life. Yet I wonder if this picture does justice to the complexity of married sexuality. John Paul II’s vision suggests that a failure to live out this vision constitutes a grave moral evil. But there are also moral struggles and anguish that have resulted from this teaching.
I think of my own parents, who found themselves overwhelmed with six children within the first nine years of their marriage. I think of women who have very short or irregular menstrual cycles, of couples who try to plan their lovemaking in the midst of illness, care for other children, and work-related travel. And I think especially of the women I met at an international conference who told me that they could not say “no” to their husbands’ sexual demands or whose cultures emphasized men’s power to father many children with little or no thought to women’s situations or needs. Are there not moral evils involved here?
Beyond that, is abstaining regularly from shared sexual delight really what God wants of couples? Many couples have answered that question with a strong “No.”
The complex issues involved in a response to the church’s position on artificial contraception are too complex to treat in depth here, but I would simply note that there are thoughtful theological arguments that take a different position, that note the need for couples to follow their consciences on how best to plan their families, that suggest that the church’s longstanding opposition to contraception relies on an understanding of sexuality that looks to the experiences of men more than of women.
Indeed, in a church whose leaders are committed to complete abstinence from sexual union, a theology of the body that relies on abstinence as a central dimension of married sexuality is not surprising. This is not to say that celibates cannot understand sexuality, but rather that the lived experience of sexual activity also has a wisdom greatly worth hearing.
I suggest that Catholics and others ought to listen respectfully to John Paul II’s message about the body and sexuality. As the former bishop of Rome, John Paul II was and is our teacher. Yet the role of students is not simply to accept without thought what they are taught. For me, the theology of the body calls us to delight in our bodiliness, which we share with our brother Jesus. It calls us to treat our sexuality with respect and reverence, knowing that sexual union is one of the most profound ways that we experience the love of God through another person.
But John Paul II’s theology of the body also raises questions about how women’s bodiliness and experiences are drawn upon in theological discussions. His understanding of gender complementarity sees women and men occupying separate spheres, with women, modeled on Mary, as the receptive and listening ones. In her book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum), Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. notes that, for John Paul II, “the so-called feminine is not fit for the public, official sphere, at least in the church.”
As a Catholic, a woman, and a theologian, I know that receptivity in relation to God’s gifts is part of the human, not just the feminine, vocation. But a fundamental attitude of receptivity on the part of women in relation to men has not always been life-giving to women; indeed, it has far too often resulted in ignorance, a failure to develop the self, and even the tragic acceptance of violence from one’s spouse.
As someone whose vocation for 25 years has been to encourage the voices of young women and men, I would suggest that the Bible and the Christian tradition have other stories to tell as well: of the Canaanite woman who challenged Jesus’ reluctance to heal her daughter, of the early Christian leaders Phoebe and Prisca who were some of the first Christian missionaries, of the 12th-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen who was known for her preaching and even for admonishing the clergy for their failures—these women are hardly examples of pure receptivity.
I would also suggest that the stories of married women and men need to be told: our experiences of our fragile, tender, and passionate bodies; the development and complexity of our sexual lives amid the challenges of loving our spouses, children, parents, in-laws. Surely our theologies of the body can shed light on this complex mystery.
As John Paul II placed a high premium on complementarity as the recognition that we are not complete on our own, let me suggest another way of expressing it: The wisdom of the clergy is not complete without the wisdom of the lay faithful.
Susan A. Ross is a professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago.All active news articles