It’s no exaggeration to say that the sad task of the 20th century was to rid itself of the Christian sexual ethic. If we’re to build a culture of life, the task of the 21st century must be to reclaim it. But the often repressive approach of previous generations of Christians (usually silence or, at most, “Don’t do it”) is largely responsible for the cultural jettison of the Church’s teaching on sex.
We need a “new language” to break the silence and reverse the negativity. We need a fresh theology that explains how the Christian sexual ethic — far from the prudish list of prohibitions it’s assumed to be — corresponds perfectly with the deepest yearnings of our hearts.
As many people are only now discovering, Pope John Paul II devoted the first major teaching project of his pontificate to developing that theology; he calls it a “theology of the body.” This collection of 129 short talks has already begun a sexual counterrevolution that is changing lives around the world. The fire is spreading, and in due time we can expect global repercussions.
George Weigel said it best in Witness to Hope when he described the theology of the body as “a kind of theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences…perhaps in the twenty-first century.”
A Reply to Our Universal Questions
By focusing on the beauty of God’s plan for the union of the sexes, John Paul II shifts the discussion from legalism (“How far can I go before I break the law?”) to liberty (“What’s the truth that sets me free to love?”). That liberating truth is salvation in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter what mistakes a person has made or what sins he has committed — the pope’s theology of the body wags a finger at no one. It is a message of sexual salvation offered to one and all.
Through an in-depth reflection on the Scriptures, the pope tries to answer two of the most important universal questions: (1) “What does it mean to be human?” and (2) “How do I live my life in a way that brings true happiness?” His teaching, therefore, isn’t only for married people, or even for those who hope to be married. If you have a body, this theology applies to you. It is a reflection on the meaning of life and God’s “nuptial plan” for the universe.
To answer the first question — “What does it mean to be human?” — the pope follows Christ’s invitation to reflect on the three different “stages” of the human experience of sex and the body: in our origin before sin; in our history darkened by sin, yet redeemed in Christ; and in our destiny when God will raise our bodies in glory.
In response to the second question — “How do I live my life?” — John Paul applies his distinctive Christian humanism to the vocations of celibacy and marriage. He then concludes by demonstrating how this provides a new, winning explanation of Church teaching on sexual morality.
Why is the Body a Theology?
According to John Paul II, God created the body as a sign of His own divine mystery. This is why he speaks of the body as a “theology,” a study of God.
We can’t see God. As pure Spirit, God is invisible. Yet Christianity is the religion of God’s self-disclosure. In and through Christ, God has revealed Himself as an eternal Communion of Persons, as a Trinity living an eternal exchange of love. Furthermore, in and through Christ, we are invited to participate in that eternal communion. Somehow the human body makes this eternal mystery visible.
How? Specifically through the beauty of sexual difference and our call to communion. The union of the sexes is a created version in some sense of God’s uncreated exchange of love. And right from the beginning, the union of man and woman foreshadows our eternal destiny of union with Christ. As St. Paul says, the “one flesh” union is “a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).
The Bible uses spousal love more than any other image to help us understand God’s eternal plan for humanity. God wants to “marry” us (see Hosea 2:19) — to live with us in an unbreakable bond of love that the Bible compares to marriage. And He wanted this great marital plan to be so plain to us, so obvious, that He impressed an image of it in our very being by creating us male and female and calling us to become one flesh.
Thus, in a dramatic development of Catholic thought, John Paul concludes that we image God not only as individuals but also through the communion of man and woman. The original vocation to be “fruitful and multiply,” then, is nothing but a call to live in the image in which we’re made — to love as God loves.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that God is Himself sexual. We use spousal love only as an analogy to help us understand something of the divine mystery. God’s mystery remains infinitely beyond any human image. But at the same time, the pope gives pride of place to the spousal analogy. He believes there’s no other human reality that corresponds more to God’s mystery of communion.
The Original Experience of the Body
We tend to think the war between the sexes is normal. In His discussion with the Pharisees, Jesus points out that from the beginning it was not so. Before sin, man and woman experienced their union as a participation in God’s eternal love. This is the model for us all, and although we have fallen from this, Christ gives us real power to reclaim it.
The biblical creation stories use symbolic language to help us understand deep truths about ourselves. For example, the pope observes that their original unity flows from the human being’s experience of solitude. At first the man was alone. Among the animals there was no “helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:20). It’s on the basis of this solitude — an experience common to male and female — that we experience our longing for union.
The point is that human sexual union differs radically from the mating of animals. If they were the same, Adam would have found plenty of helpers among the animals. But in naming the animals he realized he was different; he alone was a person called to love with his body in God’s image. Upon sight of the woman the man immediately declares: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). That is to say, “Finally, a person I can love.”
How did he know that she too was a person called to love? Her naked body revealed the mystery. For the pure of heart, nakedness reveals what John Paul calls the nuptial meaning of the body. This is the body’s capacity of expressing love. The body enables men and women to become a sincere gift to each other. And through this gift, the pope says that spouses fulfill the very meaning of their existence.
Jesus reveals this meaning when he invites us to love one another as He loved us. How did Jesus love us? Through the gift of His body. God designed the union of the sexes to image this; He created sexual desire as the power to love as He loves. And this is how the first couple experienced it.
For this reason, the first man and woman felt no shame, no fear, no threat being naked before the other. Nakedness without shame is the very key for understanding God’s original plan for human life. It unlocks the intimacy and ecstasy of love that God intended from the beginning.
The Historical Experience of the Body and Sex
Original sin caused the death of divine love in the human heart. The entrance of shame brought the dawn of lust, of erotic desire void of God’s love. Men and women of history now tend to seek the sensation of sexuality apart from the true gift of themselves — apart from authentic love.
And so we cover our bodies not because they’re bad, but to protect their inherent goodness from the degradation of lust. Since we know we’re made for love, we feel instinctively threatened not only by overt lustful behavior but even by a lustful look.
Christ’s words are severe in this regard. He insists that if we look lustfully at others, we’ve already committed adultery in our hearts. John Paul asks whether we should fear the severity of these words or rather have confidence in their power to save us.
Christ didn’t die and rise from the dead merely to give us coping mechanisms for our sins and lusts. Christ’s redemption is effective. As we open ourselves to the work of redemption, Christ’s death and resurrection effectively “liberate our liberty from the domination of lust,” as John Paul describes it.
On this side of heaven, we’ll always be able to recognize a battle in our hearts between love and lust. Even so, John Paul insists that the redemption of the body is already at work in men and women of history. This means as we allow our lusts to be crucified with Christ, we can progressively rediscover in what is erotic that original nuptial meaning of the body.
Living a redeemed sexuality is very different than repressing sexuality. Christ doesn’t aim to annihilate sexual desire with His warnings about lust. He wants to infuse it with everything that is true, good, and beautiful. He wants to impregnate eros with agape so that men and women can once again love one another as He loves.
The Ultimate Experience of the Body and Sex
What about our experience of the body in the resurrection? Didn’t Christ say we will no longer be given in marriage when we rise from the dead? Yes, but this doesn’t mean our longing for union will be done away with. Rather, it will be fulfilled.
As a sacrament, marriage is only an earthly sign of the heavenly reality. We no longer need signs to point us to heaven when we’re in heaven. The marriage of the Lamb — the union of love we all desire — will be finally and eternally consummated.
This eternal reality is what the “one flesh” union foreshadows from the beginning. Marriage does not reveal the definitive meaning of our creation as male and female — it’s only the preliminary manifestation of that meaning and call to communion. In the resurrection of the body we rediscover — in an entirely new dimension — the same nuptial meaning of the body. But this time it is lived in union with God Himself and in the communion of all the saints who have responded to the wedding invitation.
This will be a completely new experience — beyond anything we can imagine. Yet it will not be alienated in any way from God’s original plan for us as male and female. In the resurrection, all that is true, good, and beautiful about the union of the sexes, marriage, and family life will be taken up, transformed, glorified, and fulfilled beyond our wildest imaginings.
The Christian Vocations
By looking at who we are in our origin, history, and destiny, we can properly understand the Christian vocations of celibacy and marriage. Both are an authentic living out of the most profound truth of who we are as male and female.
When lived authentically, Christian celibacy isn’t a rejection of sexuality and our call to union. It actually points to their ultimate fulfillment. Those who sacrifice marriage “for the sake of the kingdom” (Matthew 19:12) do so in order to devote all of their energies and desires to the marriage that alone can satisfy — the marriage of Christ and the Church. In a way, they’re skipping the sacrament (the earthly sign) in anticipation of the ultimate reality. By doing so, celibate men and women declare to the world that the kingdom of God is here.
In a different way, marriage also anticipates heaven. The joys of marital intimacy are meant to be a kind of foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb. However, in order for marriage to bring the happiness it is meant to, spouses must live it as God intended from the beginning. This means they must contend diligently with the effects of sin.
Marriage does not justify lust. As a sacrament, marriage is meant to symbolize the union of Christ and the Church. The body has a language that is meant to express God’s free, total, faithful, and fruitful love. This is exactly what spouses commit to at the altar. “Have you come here freely,” the priest asks, “to give yourselves to each other without reservation? Do you promise to be faithful until death? Do you promise to receive children lovingly from God?” Bride and groom say “yes.”
In turn, spouses are meant to express this same “yes” with their bodies whenever they become one flesh. Sexual intercourse is meant to be a renewal of wedding vows — where the words of marital consent are made flesh.
A New Way to Understand Sexual Morality
The Church’s sexual ethic begins to make sense when viewed through this lens. It isn’t a prudish list of prohibitions but a call to embrace our own greatness, our own God-like dignity. It is a call to live the love we’re created for.
Since a prophet is one who proclaims God’s love, John Paul II describes the body and sexual union as “prophetic.” But, he adds, we must be careful to distinguish between true and false prophets. If we can speak the truth with our bodies, we can also lie. Ultimately all questions of sexual morality come down to one simple question: Does this truly image God’s free, total, faithful, and fruitful love or does it not?
In practical terms, how healthy would a marriage be if spouses were regularly unfaithful to their wedding vows? On the other hand, how healthy would a marriage be if spouses regularly renewed their vows, expressing an ever-increasing commitment to them? This is what is at stake in the Church’s teaching on sexual morality.
Masturbation, fornication, adultery, intentionally sterilized sex, homosexual acts, etc. — none of these things images God’s free, total, faithful, and fruitful love. None expresses and renews wedding vows. They aren’t marital. Does this mean people who behave in such ways are inherently evil? No, they’re just confused about how to satisfy their genuine desires for love.
If I offered you a million-dollar bill and a counterfeit million-dollar bill, which would you prefer? Dumb question, I know. But what if you were raised in a culture that incessantly bombarded you with propaganda convincing you that the counterfeit was the real thing and the real thing was a counterfeit? Wouldn’t you be confused?
Real Sexual Liberation
Why all the propaganda? If there’s an enemy who wants to keep us from heaven, and if the body and sex are meant to point us there, what do you think he’s going to attack? The tactic behind sin is to twist and disorient our desire for the eternal embrace. That is all it can do. When we understand this, we realize that the sexual confusion so prevalent in our world and in our own hearts is nothing but the human desire for heaven gone berserk.
But the tide is changing. People can only put up with the counterfeits for so long. Not only do they fail to satisfy, they wound us terribly. Sadly, the truth of the Church’s teaching on sex is confirmed in the wounds of those who have not lived it. Our longings for love, intimacy, and freedom are God-given. But the sexual revolution sold us a “pill” of goods. We haven’t been liberated. We have been duped, betrayed, and left wanting.
This is why the world is a mission field ready to soak up John Paul II’s theology of the body. And this is why it’s already changing so many lives around the world. The pope’s teaching helps us distinguish between the real million-dollar bill and the counterfeit. It helps us untwist our disordered desires and orients us toward the love that truly satisfies.
As this happens, we experience the Church’s teaching not as a burden imposed from without but as a message of salvation welling up from within. We discover the truth that sets us free. In other words, we experience what the sexual revolution promised but couldn’t deliver — real sexual liberation.
This article originally appeared in the January 2005 issue of Crisis Magazine.