The following essay is part of Don Pietro Leone's book on marriage and family, The Family Under Attack (available on Amazon and on Amazon UK), and is exclusively published by Rorate Caeli by kind permission of thr author.
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‘Theology of the Body’ is the title that Pope John Paul II gave to a series of discourses delivered between September 1979 and November 1984. When we evaluate this doctrine in the light of Tradition, we see that in its principal positions it does not represent a development of Catholic teaching (in the sense of a clarification or deepening of that teaching), but rather a rupture with it, that is to say something novel. For this reason it cannot be described as Catholic doctrine, but rather as a series of personal meditations by the then Pope.
As our source for this chapter we take the book ‘Theology of the Body for Beginners’ by Mr. Christopher West (Ascension Press, 2004), which affords a useful summary of this theory. This lecturer and writer has done much to popularize the said theory on the international level.
The following critique (made in the briefest possible outline) will consist in the main of the application to this theory of the philosophical and theological principles established in the present book. This will involve a certain repetition of material already discussed, in the interests of providing a brief synthesis and analysis of the theory both in detail and as a whole.
We proceed as follows: we evaluate this theory first as a personalist doctrine, then in its understanding of conjugal love in itself, and finally in its understanding of conjugal love in relation to God.
Now the Church teaches that marriage has three finalities: 1) the procreation and education of children; 2) the mutual assistance of the spouses; 3) the remedy of concupiscence (see the Roman Catechism expounded in chapter 10 above). The Church teaches further that the first finality is also the primary finality (see chapter 5 for the relevant declarations of the Magisterium, and for the arguments from Scripture, patristics, and speculative theology).
In opposition to this teaching, certain modern authors hold the view that the good of the spouses (cf. the second finality) is on the same level as, or on a higher level than, the good of the children (cf. the first finality). We refer the reader to chapter 5 of the present book.
This modern view has been condemned by the Magisterium. A Declaration of the Holy See of March 1944 (AAS XXVI p.103) poses the question: ‘Can one admit the doctrine of certain modern writers who deny that the procreation and education of the child are the primary end of marriage, or teach that the secondary ends are not essentially subordinate to the primary end, but rather are of equal value and are independent of it? They replied: No, this doctrine cannot be admitted’. In his Allocution to the Midwives (1951) Pope Pius XII refers to such doctrines as ‘a serious inversion of the order of the values and of the purposes which the Creator has established Himself.’
Despite these declarations, we have seen (in the same chapter 5) how this modern view was re-proposed on the floor of the Second Vatican Council, how it found its way (albeit in covert form) into the texts of Humanae Vitae, and from thence into the New Code of Canon Law, the New Catechism, and Familiaris Consortio, inter alia.
Theology of the Body must be seen against this background. Even if it does not explicitly deny that the procreation and education of children is the primary finality of marriage, it is almost exclusively concerned with spousal love, at best mentioning procreation simply as an adjunct, as when the Pope, in reference to ‘the communion of persons which man and woman form…’ adds: on ‘all this, right from the beginning, there descended the blessing of fertility’ (Nov. 14th 1979, West p.25).
As for the particular understanding of conjugal love manifest in Theology of the Body, namely that of reciprocal self-gift, we observe that this understanding was already present in certain of the authors who denied the absolute priority of the procreative finality of marriage. The Declaration quoted above states that certain of these authors take as the primary finality: ‘the reciprocal love of the spouses and their union to be developed and perfected by the physical and spiritual gift of their own person’ and Pope Pius XII in the Allocution quoted above states similarly that some of these authors take as the primary finality of the exercise of the marital right: ‘that the bodily union is the expression and actuation of the personal and affective union’, and adds that: ‘We are face to face with the propagation of a body of ideas and sentiments directly opposed to serene, deep, and serious Christian thought.’ In the following pages we shall see how these ideas are developed in Theology of the Body.
We proceed to offer a detailed critique of Theology of the Body, first in regard to conjugal love considered in itself, and second in regard to conjugal love considered in relation to God.
Now the foundation of the Theology of the Body is the proposition that the act of conjugal love consists in ‘the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife’ (Familiaris Consortio 32, quoted in the The New Catechism 2370). If this proposition is false, then the whole edifice of Theology of the Body falls.
In chapter 4 of the present book we have argued to the falsity of this proposition: first metaphysically, because the human person is incommunicable; second physically, because the act of conjugal love essentially involves the seeking and taking of pleasure, without which it would indeed be impossible; and third morally, because total self-giving love is commanded (and indeed only possible) to God alone (Lk. 10.27), whereas man is commanded to love his neighbour to a lesser degree, and where conjugal relations are concerned, with modesty and moderation (cf. Roman Catechism on the Use of Marriage). Indeed to love one’s neighbour with a total love would be idolatry.
In Theology of the Body, at least as it is presented by Mr. West, Grace enables men and women to live in the mutual and sincere gift of self (cf. Papal Discourse Jan.30th 1980, West p.42), just as in the beginning man and woman were infused with Grace. Through this Grace, the Holy Spirit impregnates our sexual desires ‘with everything that is noble and beautiful’, with ‘the supreme value which is love’ (Papal Discourse Oct. 29th 1980, West p.43-44). Similarly purity ‘lets us perceive the human body - ours and our neighbour’s – as a
Temple of the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of the divine beauty’ (The New Catechism 2519, West p.47).
There is a suggestion here that Grace (albeit in conjunction with mortification, West p.47) enables man to regain the state of his first parents. And yet their state, that of elevated nature, has been irremediably lost by Original Sin, and moreover it differs from our state, that of fallen nature, not only in regard to Grace, but also in regard to concupiscence, that is to say the dominion of the passions over the reason, which is one of the evils consequent on the Fall to which all humankind is subject (with the exception, of course, of the Blessed Virgin Mary. See chapter 2 of the present book). Theology of the Body, intent on presenting the positive side of conjugal love, largely neglects concupiscence, hence giving an incomplete and unrealistic picture of this love. The Church, by contrast, had always recognized and taken seriously this objective disorder in human nature, and has indeed defined the third finality of marriage as ‘the remedy of concupiscence.’
According to the Theology of the Body, the nuptial meaning of the body is the body’s ‘capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift…’ (Papal Discourse Jan.16th 1980, West p.29). In other words the nuptial meaning of the body is the fact that it expreses total self-giving love. The Pope continues: ‘… and – by means of this gift – fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence.’ At another point in the same discourse he describes the nuptial meaning of the body as ‘the fundamental element of human existence in the world.’ In a later discourse (April 28th 1982, West p.74) he adds: ‘On the basis of the same nuptial meaning of (the) body…there can be formed the love that commits man to marriage for the whole duration of his life, but there can be formed also the love that amounts to a life of continence ‘for the sake of the Kingdom.’’ Moreover, those who rise to eternal life will experience ‘the absolute and eternal nuptial meaning of the glorified body in union with God himself.’ (March 24th 1982, West p.61.)
In reply, according to the natural law, the meaning of the body in the domain of sexuality is different from that which the Pope proposes, for according to the natural law (see the beginning ofchapter4), all that one can say of the human body in this domain is that 1) the sexual differentiation of man and woman is oriented towards sexual union; and 2) this sexual union has as its natural outcome the procreation of children.
In regard to the first fact, we have no evidence on the level of the body, that is to say on the purely natural level, that this act of union is characterized by giving, or by taking, or by both. In regard to the second fact, we note that the Theology of the Body, like the Personalism of which it is a part, in its insistence on the subjective realm: on the secondary and intermediate end of sexuality and marriage, which is love, neglects the objective realm: the primary and final end of sexuality and marriage, which is procreation.
As for the Pope’s assertion that the nuptial meaning of the body forms the basis both for marriage and for a life of perfect chastity, it must be said that if, as we have denied, the body expressed the orientation towards total self-giving love, it would not be on the basis of this fact about the body that man undertook a life of perfect chastity, but on the basis of the total self-giving love that it expressed; and that the life of perfect chastity does not involve a love characterized by the body, but rather by the renunciation of such a love.
As for the Pope’s assertion that the nuptial meaning of the body will be experienced in Heaven, we recall that the conjugal union is a sign of Christ’s union with His Church in virtue of the intimacy, benevolence, and holiness of marital love, and not in virtue of bodily union; indeed since the act of conjugal union is ordered towards procreation, it exists only for this world and not for the other, for which reason ‘in the Resurrection they shall neither marry nor be married, but they will be as the angels of God in Heaven.’ (Mt. 22.30.)
Finally, the suggestion that Theology of the Body in general, or the nuptial meaning of the body in particular, somehow reveals or constitutes the meaning of life, we reply as we have done in regard to perfect chastity above, that, even if, as we have denied, the body expressed an orientation towards total self-giving love, what reveals or constitutes the meaning of life is not the Theology of the Body, the nuptial meaning of the body, or indeed anything essentially connected to the body, but rather total self-giving love itself.
In Familiaris Consortio 11(West p.65) the Pope writes: ‘Christian revelation recognizes two specific ways of realizing the vocation of the human person, in its entirety, to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy.’ The Pope again has total self-giving love in mind, here as the constitutive feature both of marriage and of virginity/celibacy. We observe that he does not specify here, as he does elsewhere, that this virginity/celibacy is for the
, therefore amounting to the consacrated life. This omission opens his statement to a naturalizing interpretation. Kingdom of Heaven
In commentary, whereas the love of spouses cannot be termed total self-giving love, the love for God on the part of those who lead the consacrated life can be so termed, because it constitutes a love with undivided heart (cf.1Cor.7.33 as expounded by Pope Pius XII in Sacra Virginitas 15, 20, 24, 30-1. See chapter 4 of the present book).
As far as vocation is concerned, the concept of vocation to marriage as an alternative to the vocation to the consacrated life is a further instance of naturalization, or, more fully, of the confusion between the natural and supernatural orders, for it involves placing something purely natural on the same level as something purely supernatural. We have analyzed this tendency at the end of chapter 4, where we pointed out that vocation in the traditional, in the most obvious, and also in the deepest, sense of the term signifies: 1) a call, 2) from a person without, 3) id est immediately from God, 4) in order absolutely to transcend the possibilities of human nature; whereas the propensity towards marriage is 1) an instinct, 2) which originates within human nature, 3) and therefore only mediately from God, 4) in order to realize a potential of that same human nature.
We may conclude with the following question: if both states of life involved total self-giving love and both were the object of vocation, in what sense would the life of virginity or celibacy be ‘better and more blessed’ than the married life, as the Council of Trent dogmatically declares?
Pope John Paul II relates the act of conjugal love to God in two ways: first to God’s love for Himself within the Most Blessed Trinity, and secondly to Christ’s love for the Church.
The Pope states that God’s mystery of love ‘becomes a visible reality through the union on the first man and woman’ (Discourse Oct. 13th 1982, West p. 89). Mr.West, in his exposition of the Pope’s theory, asserts that ‘marital union is meant to be an icon in some way of the inner life of the Trinity’ (West p.25), and explains that ‘becoming one flesh’ therefore refers not only to the joining of two bodies (as amongst animals), but is ‘a ‘sacramental’ expression which corresponds to the communion of persons’ (Discourse June 25th 1980, West p.25); and man images God ‘not only through his humanity, but also through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning’ (Nov.14th 1979, West p.25).
Here we have the theory, then, that the act of conjugal love is the expression, or sacramental sign, of the innerTrinitarian divine love. Now to say that one thing is the expression or the sacramental sign of another implies at least that: 1) it must be connected to that other thing by a relation of direct causation, and 2) it must manifest that other thing. However this is not the case for the act of conjugal love, for 1) this act is not directly caused by the Holy Trinity, but rather by the couple, acting as free agents; and 2) this act does not manifest the innerTrinitarian love because (as we shall proceed to argue) it is too dissimilar to it.
The act of conjugal love is too unlike the innerTrinitarian divine love to be an expression of it, for, unlike divine love, a) the former love is a love between two human persons (rather than a love between two divine persons); b) the act does not necessarily participate in the love of God for Himself, for one or both of the spouses may not be in the state of Grace; c) the act of conjugal love is not an act of total self-giving love; d) the act is marred by concupiscence; e) the act is a means to an end, namely to procreation in this world.
Far from looking to the love between humans for the expression of innerTrinitarian love, the Church points us for this end to the Word of God, Who is the expression of the Father: ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col.1.15), for as St. John says (1.18): ‘No man has seen God at any time: the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.’ In short, all we can know about the innerTrinitarian love, the love between Father and Son, is what we can learn from the doctrine and the works of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Church’s Tradition, the form of love on the part of man which comes the closest to the innerTrinitarian love is man’s love for God in the state of Grace: that is to say Charity, the perfection of which is sanctity. For it is by this love of Charity for God that man imitates God’s love for Himself (just as by Faith he imitates God’s knowledge of Himself. Summa I q.93 a.4 cf. the discussion of the natural and supernatural dignity of man in chapter 2 above). Indeed it is by reference to this form of love that the Fathers of the Church interpret the biblical phrase that ‘man is made in the…likeness of God’.
We conclude this section by comparing Pope John Paul II’s view of that love by which man imitates God’s love for Himself with the Traditional view, in other words by comparing his view of the act of conjugal love with the Traditional view of Charity.
The Pope presents the body as an image of God both in itself and in the relation of communion: it is a ‘sacrament’, ‘capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine’(Feb.20th 1980, West p.5); moreover ‘man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion’(Nov.14th 1979, West p.25). The Catholic Tradition, by contrast, understands the soul as the image of God, both in itself and in the relation of communion: in the Penny Catechism (TAN 1982 chapter 1 q.4) we read: ‘Is this likeness to God in your body or in your soul? This likeness to God is chiefly in my soul’; in the Major Catechism of St. Pius X (q.55) we read: ‘Why do we say that man was created in the image and likeness of God? We say that man was made in the image and likeness of God, because the human soul is spiritual and rational, free in its workings, capable of knowing and loving God and of enjoying Him forever: perfections which reflect in us a ray of the infinite greatness of the Lord.’
The former love is presented (erroneously, as we have argued) as total self-giving love; the latter love, in its highest form, that is as the perfection of Charity which is sanctity, may in fact be described as such.
The former love is presented (again erroneously, as we have argued) as an expression of the innerTrinitarian love; the latter love is understood (not as an expression, but) as an imitation and participation of that love.
If conjugal love is not the expression or sacramental sign of divine love, how is it related to it? According to Catholic Tradition, things are related to God in proportion to their imitation of Him: the angels and men are related to Him as His image and likeness; while the rest of creation is related to Him as His vestige. Conjugal love, as we have said above, is characterized by the fact that it is a radically sensible form of love, which is only called ‘love’ by analogy with rational love. As such it can only be said to relate to the innerTrinitarian love in a remote manner, as a vestige of that love.
The Pope compares the union between Christ and His Church on one hand and conjugal love on the other on various different counts.
1. The Mutual Subjection of the Spouses
In his commentary on Ephesians 5. 21-2 that husbands and wives be ‘subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’ and that ‘women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord’, the Pope asserts that mutual subjection means ‘a reciprocal donation of self’, that the husband is ‘simultaneously subject to the wife’ (Aug.11th1982), and that this reverence ‘is none other than a spiritually mature form’ of the mutual attraction of the sexes (July 4th 1984, West p.81).
In reply, there is nothing in these two verses to suggest the act of conjugal union. They may most readily be interpreted as referring to conjugal love in general, that is to say to the mutual assistance of the spouses (as the second finality of marriage). This interpretation is confirmed by the similar sentiment expressed in Romans 12.10: honore invicem servientes: with honour serving each other.
As to the wife’s subjection to her husband, St. Thomas (in Summa I q.96 a.4) recalls that every society needs some form of authority in order to direct the activities of that society to its common good. And indeed Christian authority is not imperious or egoist but involves service and devotion in the example of the Son of man, Who came not to be served but to serve (Mt.20. 25-8). As for the reverence for Christ, it expresses the spirit which should move the spouses to submit themselves to each other, a spirit far removed from servility.
Union in One Flesh
We turn now to the Pope’s interpretation of the union ‘in one flesh’ (Eph.5.31, cf. Gen. 2.24, Mt.19.5). He understands this phrase of the act of sexual union as a sign of Christ’s union with His Church. In his exposition, Mr. West writes: ‘Pure men and women…realize that the call to union inscribed in their sexuality is a ‘great mystery’ that proclaims the union with Christ and His Church’.
In commentary, we observe first that this interpretation is a further example of the confusion of the natural and supernatural orders: a purely natural phenomenon is taken as a sign of something purely supernatural; and second that the Council of Trent interprets the union in one flesh not as the act of sexual love, but as the unity which is the first property of marriage, just as it interprets the words spoken by Our Lord (in the following verse in Mt 19.6) ‘what God has joined together, may no man put asunder’ as the the indissolubility which is the second property of marriage (Trent s.24).
3. The Language of Agape
Continuing to supernaturalize sexual, or ‘carnal love’, The Pope calls it: ‘the language of agape’, and asserts that it proclaims the love of Christ and the Church ‘by means of gestures and reactions, by means of the whole dynamism…of tension and enjoyment.’ (Aug.22nd1984, West p.91). He lists four points of comparison between the two forms of love: both forms are free, total, faithful, and fruitful.
In reply, all types of love are free by their very nature; all love which has man as its object is fruitful (as we have argued in chapter
2 in the section on the nature of love); it is true that both forms of love are faithful; Christ’s love for His Church is total, whereas we have argued that conjugal love is not so.
The Roman Catechism compares Christ’s love for His Church not so much with the act of conjugal love as with conjugal love in general: It compares Christ’s most intimate union with the Church, His immense benevolence towards us, and the divinity of the mystery with the fact that the marital union is the most intimate bond that exists between humans, that no love is stronger than it, and that this union is holy.
In regard to the act of conjugal union in particular, the Catechism, in its discussion of the second blessing of marriage, which is fidelity, speaks of a ‘special, holy, pure love’…a love which is ‘immense’. At the end of the section on Matrimony, it specifies that this love should be both moderate and modest.
4. The Most Profound Sign of Agape
‘Nowhere do spouses signify God’s love more profoundly than when they become ‘one flesh’ explains Mr.West (on p.104), and adds later: ‘John Paul says that the essential element for marriage as a sacrament is the language of the body spoken in truth. This is how spouses ‘constitute’ the sacramental sign of marriage’ (Jan.12th1983).
Leaving aside the linguistic metaphor, we may reply that since God’s love is the love of Charity, the spouses come closest to this love in their love of Charity. The act of conjugal love can be an act of Charity (as we have said above), but, when so, is an act characterized less by its Charity than by its sensuality: an act characterized less as the love of Charity than as sensible love. Clearly the greater the Charity of one spouse to the other, the closer he comes to God’s Charity. It follows, ironically, that if a spouse on a given occasion relinquishes his conjugal rights from motives of Charity towards the other, then he will have come closer to God’s love than if he had made use of them.
In general, the greater the suffering that one person undergoes for another, the greater is his Charity. This is ultimately true of the love of Christ for His Church, and so is also true of spousal love. In this context Jolivet (as quoted in chapter 4 above) speaks of ‘the hardest sacrifices demanded by faithfulness to duty’.
As for the act of conjugal union, it is considered in Tradition less as the paradigm of love than as a compensation for love. The Catechism of Trent states that the three goods or blessings of marriage: children, fidelity, and the Sacrament, compensate for the ‘tribulations of the flesh’ referred to by
St. Paul (I Cor.7.28). St Thomas comments (in Suppl.q.49) that the blessing of fidelity compensates for the sollicitudo molesta of the spouses for each other and in regard to the child.
In fine, we see clearly that Theology of the Body is a personalist, phenomenological system. As such it is concerned with the subjective realm, such as the person and love, and neglects the objective realm, be it Catholic dogma (as with the doctrine that the primary end of sexuality and marriage is procreation or as with the distinction between the natural and supernatural orders,) or be it the perennial or scholastic theology, philosophy, or morality (as with the distinctions between the different forms of love). The outcome is a shift from the virtue of love to the passion of love, from supernatural love to natural love, and in the final analysis from sanctity to sexuality.
In this lack of catholicity, Theology of the Body, although presented as the praise of Catholic conjugal love, becomes instead a paean to Eros, with greater resonance for the world than for the Church. As such it constitutes certainly one of the more remarkable fruits of the much vaunted rapprochement  between the Church and the World.
 At the beginning of this treatment it will be useful briefly to distinguish three basic forms of love which have been enumerated in detail in chapter 2. First there is sensible love (or the passion of love), of which sexual love is an example; second there is rational love (or the virtue of love); third there is Charity, which is that form of rational love which is elevated by Supernatural Grace. In the light of these distinctions, the act of conjugal union in its ideal form is to be understood as an act of sensible love informed by rational love, which enables one spouse to love the other not as an object but as a person, and further informed by Charity, which enables the spouse to love the other in, and for the sake of, God.
 In this connection we refer to his concept of ‚original innocence‘ in the address of 26th Sept. 1979, by which he perhaps intends to justify the possibility of a return to the state of our first parents, even if this concept lacks clarity. The Pope speaks of ‚this real innocence of man as his original and fundamental state, as a dimension of his being created in the image of God.‘He says in addition that: ‚These situations (‚original innocence‘ and ‚original sin‘) have a specific dimension in man, in his inner self, in his knowledge, conscience , choice, and decision‘; and that they are linked, for the ‚state of sin‘ which is part of ‚‚historical man‘ plunges its roots, in every man without exception, in his own theological ‚prehistory‘ which is the state of original innocence‘, At another point he describes Original Sin as a state whereby ‚man has lost his primitive innocence‘, and in the address of 12th Sept. 1979 he says that ‚the first account of man‘s creation is of a theological nature.‘ This doctrine is unclear inter alia because it oscillates between a supernatural and a natural concept of ‚original innocence‘. This concept has a supernatural colour in so far as ‚original innocence‘is presented as a property which man acquires in the ‚theological‘ account of creation, and which man loses by the Fall; it has a natural colour in so far as it derives from creation (in the traditional, Catholic understanding of creation), and in so far as it is presented as persisting as a state in man, indeed in all men.
 One of the criticisms of Mr.West’s account made by Dr. Alice von Hildebrandt in her article comparing this account with her husband’s work in the field, is that he ‚underestimates the effects of Original Sin on the human condition’.
 In fact, since it is the virtue of chastity which combats (carnal) concupiscence, those who pursue this virtue perfectly (through the vow of perfect chastity) resemble our first parents prior to the Fall more closely than spouses.
 in a similar vein the Pope states that the Theology of the Body is…’essential and valid for the understanding of man in general: for the fundamental problem of understanding him and for the self-comprehension of his being in the world.’ (Dec.15th 1982, West p.2.)
 Si quis dixerit…non esse melius ac beatius manere in virginitate aut caelibatu quam iungi matrimonio…Anathema sit (S.24 Can.10).
 It is true that this act of human love, if it is performed in the state of Grace, also constitutes an act of Charity, and hence also constitutes a certain imitation and participation in divine love; and yet the act of conjugal love is a radically sensible form of love, and is therefore characterized rather by this form of love rather than by Charity. For this reason the act of conjugal love cannot, even in this case, be said to be an expression of divine love.
 Both the term ‚sacrament’ for the body, as the term ‚Theology of the Body’ which denotes the theory which attributes sacramentality to the body, exemplify the tendency to confuse the natural and supernatural orders.
 if one did not know that it was composed by the Pope himself, one might perhaps be excused for ascribing it to a personalist philosopher influenced by Christianity, such as Max Scheler.
 or aggiornamento
 see chapter 6 of the present book. There we illustrate how sexual love is the main theme hymned by the World – although characteristically in the form of fornication.