A Disembodied 'Theology of the Body'
John Paul II on love, sex & pleasure
Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson
Papal teaching on human sexuality has received some positive reviews recently. A number of these have appeared in the journal First Things. In “Contraception: A Symposium” (December 1998), Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., declares that Pope Paul VI has a lock on the title of prophet because, Smith thinks that people who regard the papacy’s condemnation of contraception to be based on the “artificial” methods employed simply have not acquainted themselves with the richness of papal teaching. In particular, she says, “those who appreciate precise and profound philosophical reasoning should read Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility,” while offering a strong recommendation also for “the extensive deliberations of Pope John Paul II.” Even more recently, Jennifer J. Popiel (“Necessary Connections? Catholicism, Feminism, and Contraception,” America, November 27, 1999) states that “unlike many women, I find the church’s doctrinal statements on contraception and reproduction to be clear and compelling,” and argues that Natural Family Planning is fully compatible with feminism, since “only when we control our bodies will we truly control our lives.”
George Weigel joins this chorus of praise in his biography of John Paul II, Witness of Hope (Cliff Street Books, 1999). Under the heading, “A New Galileo Crisis,” Weigel traces the pope’s systematic response to the “pastoral and catechetical failure” of Humanae vitae in a series of 130 fifteen-minute conferences at papal audiences beginning September 5, 1979 and concluding on November 28, 1984. The conferences were grouped into four clusters: “The Original Unity of Man and Woman,” “Blessed Are the Pure of Heart,” “The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy,” and “Reflections on Humanae vitae.” These talks were brought together under the title Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Pauline Books and Media, 1997).
Weigel himself considers John Paul II’s work to be a “theological time bomb” that may take almost a century to appreciate fully, or even assimilate. It “may prove to be the decisive moment in exorcising the Manichaean demon and its deprecation of human sexuality from Catholic moral theology,” because the pope takes “embodiedness” so seriously. Weigel considers these conferences to have “ramifications for all of theology,” and wonders why so few contemporary theologians have taken up the challenge posed by the pope. He is surprised as well that so few priests preach these themes and only a “microscopic” portion of Catholics seem even aware of this great accomplishment, which he considers to be “a critical moment not only in Catholic theology, but in the history of modern thought.” Weigel provides three possible reasons for this neglect: the density of the pope’s material, the media’s preoccupation with controversy rather than substance, and the fact that John Paul II is himself a figure of controversy. It will take time to appreciate him and his magnificent contribution.
Is Weigel right? Have the rest of us missed out on a theological advance of singular importance? Can the claims made for the pope’s Theology of the Body be sustained under examination? Recently, I devoted considerable time (and as much consciousness as I could muster) to reading through the 423 pages of the collected conferences, and I have reached a conclusion far different from Weigel’s. For all its length, earnestness, and good intentions, John Paul II’s work, far from being a breakthrough for modern thought, represents a mode of theology that has little to say to ordinary people because it shows so little awareness of ordinary life.
I want to make clear that I am here responding to the theological adequacy of papal teaching. I do not dispute the fact that in some respects papal positions can legitimately be called prophetic. Certainly, John Paul II’s call for a “culture of life” in the name of the gospel, against the complex “conspiracy of death” so pervasive in the contemporary world, deserves respect. Likewise, the pope’s attention to the “person” and to “continence”, stand as prophetic in a time of sexualized identity and rationalized permissiveness. It is small wonder that those worried about moral confusion in matters sexual would want to accept all the papal teachings, since some of them are incontestably correct.
But I want to ask whether we ought to make some distinctions even where the pope does not, whether while approving some of his positions we can also challenge others. Weigel is correct in noting that these conferences are dense and difficult to read—what must they have been like to hear? But Weigel fails to note how mind-numbingly repetitive they are. He does not seem to notice that the pope only asserts and never demonstrates, and that he minimizes the flat internal contradictions among the conferences. For example, on October 1, 1980, the pope declares that a husband cannot be guilty of “lust in his heart” for his wife, but a week later, in the conference of October 8, he states confidently that even husbands can sin in this fashion. But beyond such relatively minor deficiencies (how many theological writings are not dense, repetitious, and inconsistent?), the pope’s Theology of the Body is fundamentally inadequate to the question it takes up. It is inadequate not in the obvious way that all theology is necessarily inadequate to its subject, and therefore should exhibit intellectual modesty, but in the sense that it simply does not engage what most ought to be engaged in a theology of the body. Because of its theological insufficiency, the pope’s teaching does not adequately respond to the anxieties of those who seek a Christian understanding of the body and of human sexuality and practical guidance for life as sexually active adults.
If the pope had only made casual or passing comments on the subject in a homily, then a critical response would be unfair. But everything suggests that John Paul II intended these conferences to be read as “theology of the body” in the fullest sense of the term “theology.” The pope uses academic terms like phenomenology and hermeneutics, refers to contemporary thinkers, provides copious notes, and in the very commitment to the subject over a period of five years in 130 conferences, indicates that he wants his comments to be given serious attention. It is perhaps appropriate to offer a number of observations concerning things that someone far removed from the corridors of doctrinal declaration, but not unschooled theologically, and certainly not disembodied, might want to see yet does not find in John Paul II’s discourses.
A starting place is the title itself, which, while perhaps not chosen by the author, legitimately derives from his frequent references to a “theology of the body” and his constant focus on “human love in the divine plan.” Surely, though, an adequate theology of the body must encompass far more than human love, even if that were comprehensively treated! The pope cites 1 Corinthians 6:18 approvingly: “Flee fornication. Every sin a person commits is apart from the body. But the one who fornicates sins in his own body.” But Paul’s rhetorical emphasis cannot be taken as sober description. Do not the sins of gluttony and drunkenness and sloth have as much to do with the body as fornication, and are not all the forms of avarice also dispositions of the body? Reducing a theology of the body to a consideration of sexuality falsifies the topic from the beginning. Of course, an adequate theological phenomenology of the body as the primordial mystery/symbol of human freedom and bondage must include every aspect of sexuality. But it must also embrace all the other ways in which human embodiedness both enables and limits human freedom through disposition of material possessions, through relationships to the environment, through artistic creativity, and through suffering—both sinful and sanctifying. The pope’s title provides the first example of the way in which a grander—or to use his word “vast”—conceptual framework serves to camouflage a distressingly narrow view of things.
The pope’s subtitle is “Human Love in the Divine Plan,” but no real sense of human love as actually experienced emerges in these reflections. The topic of human love in all its dimensions has been wonderfully explored in the world’s literature, but none of its grandeur or giddiness appears in these talks, which remain at a level of abstraction far removed from novels and newspapers with their stories of people like us (though not so attractive). John Paul II thinks of himself as doing “phenomenology,” but seems never to look at actual human experience. Instead, he dwells on the nuances of words in biblical narratives and declarations, while fantasizing an ethereal and all-encompassing mode of mutual self-donation between man and woman that lacks any of the messy, clumsy, awkward, charming, casual, and yes, silly aspects of love in the flesh. Carnality, it is good to remember, is at least as much a matter of humor as of solemnity. In the pope’s formulations, human sexuality is observed by telescope from a distant planet. Solemn pronouncements are made on the basis of textual exegesis rather than living experience. The effect is something like that of a sunset painted by the unsighted.
The objection may be made: isn’t it proper to base theology in Scripture, and isn’t John Paul II correct to have devoted himself so sedulously to the analysis of biblical texts, rather than the slippery and shoddy stuff of experience? Well, that depends on how seriously one takes the Catholic tradition concerning the work of God’s Holy Spirit in the world. If we believe—and I think we have this right—that revelation is not exclusively biblical but occurs in the continuing experience of God in the structures of human freedom, then an occasional glance toward human experience as actually lived may be appropriate, even for the magisterium.
As for the pope’s way of reading Scripture, the grade is mixed. Certainly he is careful with the texts. Nor does he misrepresent those aspects of the text he discusses in any major way—although he leaves the impression that Matthew’s “blessed are the pure of heart” (5:8) refers to chastity, when in fact he knows very well that the beatitude does not have that restricted sense. Even more questionable are the ways John Paul II selects and extrapolates from specific texts without sufficient grounding or explanation. First, he scarcely treats all the biblical evidence pertinent to the subject. His discourses center on a handful of admittedly important passages, with obligatory nods at other texts that might have rewarded far closer analysis, such as the Song of Songs (three conferences) and the Book of Tobit (one). Other important texts are given scant or no attention. A far richer understanding of Paul would have resulted, for example, from a more sustained and robust reading of 1 Corinthians 7, which truly does reveal the mutuality and reciprocity—and complexity—of married love.
Second, John Paul II does not deal with some of the difficulties presented by the texts he does select. For instance, he manages to use Matthew 19:3-9, on the question of marriage’s indissolubility, without ever adverting to the clause allowing divorce on the grounds of porneia (sexual morality) in both Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. What does that exceptive clause suggest about the distance between the ideal “in the beginning” evoked by Jesus, and the hard realities of actual marriages faced by the Matthean (and every subsequent) church?
Third, for all of his philosophical sophistication, John Paul II seems unaware of the dangers of deriving ontological conclusions from selected ancient narrative texts. He inveighs against the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” but the remedy is not an uncritical reading that moves directly from the ancient story to an essential human condition. He focuses on the Yahwist creation account in Genesis 2, because that is the account cited by Jesus in his dispute with the Pharisees concerning divorce (Matt. 19:5), and, I suspect, because its narrative texture—not to mention its human feel—allows for the sort of phenomenological reflection he enjoys. But as the pope certainly understands, this creation account must also be joined to that in Genesis 1 if an adequate appreciation of what Jesus meant by “from the beginning” (Matt. 19:8) is to be gained. If Genesis 1—which has God creating humans in God’s image as male and female—had been employed more vigorously, certain emphases would be better balanced. John Paul II wants, for example, to have the term “man” mean both male and female. But the Genesis 2 account pushes him virtually to equate “man” with “male,” with the unhappy result that males experience both the original solitude the pope wants to make distinctively human as well as the dominion over creation expressed by the naming of animals. Females inevitably appear as “helpers” and complementary to the already rather complete humanity found in the male. Small wonder that in virtually none of his further reflections on sexuality do women appear as moral agents: Men can have lust in the hearts but not women; men can struggle with concupiscence but apparently women do not; men can exploit their wives sexually but women can’t exploit their husbands sexually.
Such tight focus on male and female in the biblical account also leaves out all the interesting ways in which human sexuality refuses to be contained within those standard gender designations, not only biologically but also psychologically and spiritually. What appears in the guise of description serves prescription: human love and sexuality can appear in only one approved form, with every other way of being either sexual or loving left out altogether. Is it not important at least to acknowledge that a significant portion of humans—even if we take a ludicrously low percentage, at least tens of millions—are homosexual? Are they left outside God’s plan if they are not part of the biblical story? Would not an adequate phenomenology of human sexuality, so concerned with “persons,” after all, rather than statistics, take with great seriousness this part of the human family, who are also called to be loving, and in many fashions to create and foster the work and joy of creation?
Even within this normative framework, out of all the things that might be taken up and discussed within married love and the vocation of parenting, John Paul II’s conferences finally come down to a concentration on “the transmission of life.” By the time he reaches his explicit discussion of Humanae vitae, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that every earlier textual choice and phenomenological reflection has been geared to a defense of Paul VI’s encyclical. However, there is virtually nothing in this defense that is strengthened by the conferences preceding it.
What the Pope Leaves Out
John Paul II is certainly to be appreciated for trying to place the knotty and disputed question concerning procreation into a more comprehensive theology of the body. But there are a number of things lacking in these conferences and in the various declarations of the pope’s apologists. I will simply list some obvious ones without development.
Most important, I would like to see a greater intellectual modesty, not only concerning the “facts” of revelation but also the “facts” of human embodiedness. In everything having to do with the body, we are in the realm of what Gabriel Marcel called mystery. The body does not present a series of problems that we can solve by detached analysis. The body, rather is mystery in two significant ways. First, we don’t understand everything about the body, particularly our own body. The means by which we reveal ourselves to others and unite lovingly with others is not unambiguous. The body reveals itself to thought but also conceals itself from our minds. Second, we cannot detach ourselves from our bodies as though they were simply what we “have” rather than also what we “are.” We are deeply implicated and cannot distance ourselves from the body without self-distortion. Our bodies are not only to be schooled by our minds and wills; they also instruct and discipline us in often humbling ways. Should not a genuine “theology of the body” begin with a posture of receptive attention to and learning from our bodies? Human bodies are part of God’s image and the means through which absolutely everything we can learn about God must come to us.
In this regard, I find much of contemporary talk about “controlling our bodies” exactly contrary to such humility, whether such language derives from technocrats seeking to engineer reproductive processes or from naturalists who seek the same control through continence. I am not suggesting that a lack of continence or temperance is a desirable goal. But self-control is not the entire point of sexual love; celibacy is not the goal of a marriage! And it may help to remember, in all this talk of controlling the body, that Dante assigned a deeper place in hell to the cold and the cruel than to the lustful. It can be argued, especially from the evidence of this century, that more evil has been visited upon us by various Stalins of sexless self-control than by the (quickly exhausted) epicures of the erotic. Recognition of the ways in which we suffer, rather than steer, our bodies is a beginning of wisdom.
Along these lines, I would welcome from the pope some appreciation for the goodness of sexual pleasure—any bodily pleasure, come to think of it! Pleasure is, after all, God’s gift also. A sadly neglected text is 1 Timothy 6:17, where God supplies us all things richly for our enjoyment. Sexual passion, in papal teaching, appears mainly as an obstacle to authentic love. Many of us have experienced sexual passion as both humbling and liberating, a way in which our bodies know quicker and better than our minds, choose better and faster that our reluctant wills, even get us to where God apparently wants us in a way our minds never could. Along the same lines, papal teaching might find a good word to say about the sweetness of sexual love—also, I think, God’s gift. Amid all the talk of self-donation and mutuality, we should also remember, “plus, it feels good.” Come to think of it, why not devote some meditation to the astonishing triumph of sexual fidelity in marriage? Faithfulness, when it is genuine, is the result of a delicate and attentive creativity between partners, and not simply the automatic product of “self-control.” In short, a more adequate theology of the body would at least acknowledge the positive ways in which the body gifts us by “controlling” us.
As with pleasure so with pain. A theology of the body ought to recognize the ways in which human sexual existence is difficult: how arduous and ambiguous a process it is for any of us to become mature sexually; how unstable and shifting are our patterns of sexual identity; how unpredictable and vagrant are our desire and craving, as well as our revulsion and resistance; how little support there is for covenanted love in our world; how much the stresses of life together—and part—bear upon our sexual expression. John Paul II and his apologists seem to think that concupiscence is our biggest challenge. How many of us would welcome a dose of concupiscence, when the grinding realities of sickness and need have drained the body of all its sap and sweetness, just as a reminder of being sentient! I would welcome the honest acknowledgment that for many who are married the pleasure and comfort of sexual love are most needed precisely when least available, not because of fertility rhythms, but because of sickness and anxiety and separation and loss. For that matter, a theology of the body ought to speak not only of an “original solitude” that is supposedly cured by marriage, but also of the “continuing solitude” of those both married and single, whose vocation is not celibacy yet whose erotic desires find, for these and many other reasons, no legitimate or sanctified expression, and, in these papal conferences, neither recognition nor concern.
The pope does not examine these and many other aspects of the body and of “human love in the divine plan.” Instead, the theology of the body is reduced to sexuality, and sexuality to “the transmission of life.” The descent to biologism is unavoidable. What is needed is a more generous appreciation of the way sexual energy pervades our interpersonal relations and creativity—including the life of prayer!—and a fuller understanding of covenanted love as life-giving and sustaining in multiple modes of parenting, community building, and world enhancement.
Revisiting ‘Humanae Vitae’
John Paul II’s conferences and the recent articles I have quoted have meant to defend the correctness of Humanae vitae, but paradoxically they remind readers with any historical memory how flawed that instrument was, and how badly it is in need of fundamental revisiting. George Weigel calls it a “pastoral and catechetical failure,” as though the encyclical’s deficiencies were merely those of tone or effective communication. John Paul II’s biblical reflections, in fact, appear as nothing less than a major effort to ground Humanae vitae in something more than natural law; an implicit recognition of the argumentative inadequacy of Paul VI’s encyclical. As my earlier comments indicate, I would judge his success as slight. It would be a weary business to take up the entire encyclical again, but is important at least to note five major deficiencies that require a genuinely theological response rather than enthusiastic or reluctant apology.
In these comments, I will speak of “artificial birth control” only in terms of using a condom, diaphragm, or other mechanical device, mainly because I have considerable unease concerning chemical interventions and their implications for women’s long-term health.
First, the encyclical represents a reversion to an act-centered morality, ignoring the important maturation of moral theology in the period leading up to and following Vatican II, which emphasized a person’s fundamental dispositions as more defining of moral character than isolated acts. I am far from suggesting that specific acts are not morally significant. But specific acts must also be placed within the context of a person’s character as revealed in consistent patterns of response. The difference is critical when the encyclical and John Paul II insist that it is not enough for a married couple to be open to new life; rather, every act of intercourse must also be open, so that the use of a contraceptive in any single act in effect cancels the entire disposition of openness. But this is simply nonsense. I do not cancel my commitment to breathing when I hold my breath for a moment or when I go under anesthesia. Likewise, there is an important distinction to be maintained between basic moral dispositions and single actions. The woman who kills in self-defense (or in defense of her children) does not become a murderer. The focus on each act of intercourse rather than on the overall dispositions of married couples is morally distorting.
Second, the arguments of Paul VI and John II sacrifice logic to moral brinkmanship. When Paul VI equated artificial birth control and abortion, he not only defied science but also provoked the opposite result of the one he intended. He wanted to elevate the moral seriousness of birth control but ended by trivializing the moral horror of abortion. Similarly, from one side of the mouth, John Paul II recognizes two ends of sexual love, unitive intimacy and procreation. But from the other side of his mouth he declares that if procreation is blocked, not only that end has been canceled but also the unitive end as well. He has thereby, despite his protestations to the contrary, simply reduced the two ends to one. This can be shown clearly by applying the logic in reverse, by insisting that sexual intercourse that is not a manifestation of intimacy or unity also cancels the procreative end of the act.
Third, the position of the popes and their apologists continues to reveal the pervasive sexism that becomes ever more obvious within official Catholicism. I have touched above on the way John Paul II’s reading of Scripture tends to reduce the moral agency of women within the marriage covenant and sexual relationships. This becomes glaringly obvious in the argument that artificial birth control is wrong because it tends to “instrumentalize” women from men’s pleasure by making the woman a passive object of passion rather than a partner in mutuality. Yet the argument makes more experiential sense in reverse. Few things sound more objectifying that the arguments of the natural family planners, whose focus remains tightly fixed on biological processes rather than on emotional and spiritual communication through the body. The view that “openness to life” is served with moral integrity by avoiding intercourse during fertile periods (arguably times of greatest female pleasure in making love) and is not served (and becomes morally reprehensible) by the mutual agreement to use a condom or diaphragm, would be laughable if it did not have such tragic consequences. And what could be more objectifying of women that speaking as though birth control were something that only served male concupiscence? How about women’s moral agency in the realm of sexual relations? Don’t all of us living in the real world of bodies know that women have plenty of reasons of their own to be relieved of worries about pregnancy for a time and to be freed for sexual enjoyment purely for the sake of intimacy and even celebration?
Fourth, the absolute prohibition of artificial birth control becomes increasingly scandalous in the face of massive medical realities. One might want to make an argument that distributing condoms to teenagers as part of sex education is mistaken, but that argument, I think, has to do with misgivings concerning sex education—and a general culture of permissiveness—as a whole. But what about couples who can no longer have sexual relations because one of them has innocently been infected with HIV, and not to use a condom means also to infect the other with a potentially lethal virus? When does “openness to life” in every act become a cover for “death-dealing”? Given the fact that in Africa AIDS affects tens of millions of men, women, and children (very many of them Christian), is the refusal to allow the use of condoms (leaving aside other medical interventions and the changing of sexual mores) coming dangerously close to assisting in genocide? These are matters demanding the most careful consideration by the church, and the deepest compassion. It is difficult to avoid the sense that the failed logic supposedly marshaled in the defense of life is having just the opposite result. If the political enslavement of millions of Asians and Europeans led the papacy to combat the Soviet system in the name of compassion, and if the enslavement and murder of millions of Jews led the papacy to renounce the anti-Semitism of the Christian tradition in the name of compassion, should not compassion also lead at the very least to an examination of logic, when millions of Africans are enslaved and killed by a sexual pandemic?
Fifth, and finally, shouldn’t Humanae vitae be revisited rather than simply defended for the same reasons that it was a “pastoral and cetechetical” failure the first time around? It failed to convince most of its readers not least because its readers knew that Paul VI spoke in the face of the recommendations of his own birth-control commission. The encyclical was, as Weigel calls it, a “new Galileo crisis,” not simply because it pitted papal authority against science, but also because the papacy was wrong both substantively and formally. It generated and unprecedented crisis for papal authority precisely because it was authority exercised not only apart from but also in opposition to the process of discernment. Sad to say, John Paul’s theology of the body, for all its attention to Scripture, reveals the same deep disinterest in the ways the experience of married people, and especially women (guided by the Holy Spirit, as we devoutly pray) might inform theology and the decision-making process of the church. If papal teaching showed signs of attentiveness to such experience, and a willingness to learn from God’s work in the world as well as God’s word in the tradition, its pronouncements would be received with greater enthusiasm. A theology of the body ought at least to have feet that touch the ground.
Since God is the Living One who continuously presses upon us at every moment of creation, calling us to obedience and inviting us to a painful yet joyous quest of wisdom, theology must be inductive rather than deductive. Our reading of Scripture not only shapes our perceptions of the world, but is in turn shaped by our experiences of God in the fabric of our human freedom and in the cosmic play of God’s freedom. Theology that takes the self-disclosure of God in human experience with the same seriousness as it does God’s revelation in Scripture does not turn its back on tradition but recognizes that tradition must constantly be renewed by the powerful leading of the Spirit if it is not to become a form of falsehood. Theology so understood is a demanding and delicate conversation that, like sexual love itself, requires patience as well as passion. If we are to reach a better theology of human love and sexuality, then we must, in all humility, be willing to learn from the bodies and the stories of those whose response to God and to God’s world involves sexual love. That, at least, is a starting point.
(Luke Timothy Johnson, a frequent contributor, is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Among his more recent books is Living Jesus [Harper San Francisco])
(Reprinted with permission from Commonweal, Jan. 2001 issue, published by Commonweal Foundation, 475 Riverside Dr., Rm. 405, New York, NY 10115, (212) 662-4200)