Pontificates are hard things to peg. When they begin, we can never be sure how they are going to turn out. In 1978, a Polish cardinal who had been an active participant at the Second Vatican Council was elected the 263rd Successor of Saint Peter. He was following an Italian (Albino Luciani) who had died just one month into his pontificate. So, at 58 years of age, Karol Wojtyla had time on his side. Little did we know that the fairly young Pole would wind up having the third longest pontificate in history. When he died in 2005, the list of accomplishments was long and substantive. One of those impressive accomplishments goes back, all the way back, to the beginning of Saint John Paul II’s pontificate. For then, not even a full year into his pontificate, John Paul II started Wednesday General Audience talks on what would become known later as the Theology of the Body series.
The talks themselves and their availability in numerous languages by way of books and other means have caused a shift in how some Catholics look at sexuality, marriage, morality, and a whole range of other topics over the last couple of decades. The product of his own thinking as a university professor, author, and pastor, the Theology of the Body was most influential with young Catholics who had come of age in the 1980s and 1990s. These young Catholics, through things like World Youth Days and retreats in parishes and schools, came into contact with a fresh, new way of thinking about timeless truths. The Theology of the Body was, we could say now, an answer to a prayer for a Church that had done rather poorly in the Sexual Revolution. Perhaps, though, the Church through the Theology of the Body could ignite a counter-revolution, thereby re-establishing traditional sexual ethics as a mainstay of long-term cultural health and sustainability.
In the Theology of the Body, there is what Saint John Paul calls the “nuptial meaning of the body.” In using this expression “nuptial meaning of the body,” the Holy Father is conveying the idea—not difficult to grasp—that besides speaking with words, we also communicate what is in our minds and hearts through our bodies. It is close to what we mean by the term “body language.” We all use body language to convey thoughts and feelings apart from our words, but also in conjunction with our words—almost as if to emphasize and make clear what our words may not fully convey. Indeed, at times, our body language may communicate far more effectively what we are thinking and feeling than our words could ever do in some of life’s situations.
Given the force and influence of the Theology of the Body, it is not surprising that it shows up in Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis cites the Wednesday General Audience addresses multiple times in Chapter Four of his post-synodal exhortation. Indeed, he even uses the signature expression “the nuptial meaning of the body” right after referring to sexuality as embodying “an interpersonal language.” But, unfortunately, Pope Francis only goes part of the way in his reliance on the Theology of the Body.
To speak and write of sexuality as a language, it requires that we deal with certain categories intrinsic to language, categories like truth and falsehood. This is exactly what Saint John Paul II does in his formulation of the Theology of the Body. He says, for instance, that sexual behaviors may or may not be in conformity with the fundamental truth of the language of the body. If sexual behaviors are not in conformity with the language of the body, then there would be lying and falsification. Well, what about an example then?
A lie or falsification is what results when a man and woman engage in the marital act although the two of them are not married to each other. What we have in this situation is a lack of conformity due to the fact that the state (that is, not being married to each other) and the act (sexual union exclusive to spouses) are incommensurate. The two non-spouses have claimed falsely a behavior that does not accord with their true state in life. In other words, their acts are out of step with their words. The language of their bodies says “married” when in fact there has been no such commitment given to each other in a prior exchange of vows.
The man and woman in the example cited above are not married to each other, nor are they married to anyone else. They are what we call single persons. We all know this is not the situation Pope Francis is addressing in Amoris Laetitia. There, it is a matter of addressing the situation of those who have married but then divorced and subsequently entered a second union under the prescriptions of the civil law. It is to Catholics in this situation that Pope Francis wishes to offer a way by which they can share in the sacramental life of the Church even though they have entered into invalid second unions. It is also at this point that we find no more references to the Theology of the Body in the post-synodal exhortation.
What we get in Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia are rules for discerning who might be able to receive Holy Communion. The discernment, the pope points out, is so that we avoid “thinking that everything is black and white.” This warning by the Holy Father that we not see everything in terms of black and white is, with all due respect, quite beside the point. For most of us, I dare say, are capable of right judgments of conscience all the while we take into account the gray or ambiguity in situations. The challenge we all have, I think, is to live with the gray or the ambiguity in situations, and still choose the higher value of the truth over falsehood. Yes, conjugal love is not black or white; but it is true or false. And what makes it true or false is whether the spouses have spoken their love to each other and expressed that same love for each other with their bodies, or just had sex with each other.
Central also to the prescribed discernment urged by Pope Francis is what the Holy Father calls the logic of pastoral mercy. The Church herself is to lead the way in practicing mercy, the pontiff adds. For the Church “is the house of the Father.” With this allusion to the house of the Father, it is hard not to think of the parable of the prodigal son in Saint Luke’s Gospel. We all know the story and we only recall here that something has happened to the son in between leaving his father’s house and returning to it. What has happened is that he has been converted. Conversion is an interior change sought by the human will and effected there. It cannot be presumed or, worse yet, forced upon anyone.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) had warned against cheap grace. Likewise, we must be on guard against cheap mercy, that is, wrapping ourselves and others in a mantle of mercy before it is right to do so. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput comments in this regard that
a therapeutic age tends to translate ‘accompaniment’ as ‘thou shall not judge,’ affirming people indiscriminately as they are. This is not mercy. God’s mercy always moves us forward and upward. No sin places us beyond God’s forgiveness. His mercy endures forever…. But again, it would be the opposite of mercy to say ‘come’ and then imply that we need not move, need not step out of our present romance with sin and toward the obedience to God’s life-giving righteousness, the law of Jesus Christ.
This too is true about the Theology of the Body: we need to engage it fully with our wills. If all we do is accept it on an intellectual level, we will not be moved to conversion. For our present romance with sin extends to contraception as well, and haven’t we seen enough of the cultural wreckage due to not observing Humanae Vitae? All of these things then—sacramental marriage, the Holy Eucharist, the morally right way to regulate fertility—come down to a faith and reason which are not arbitrary, but have a connaturality with our anthropology—all of it.
(Photo credit: CNA / L’Osservatore Romano)