By John and Claire Grabowski
On assuming the Chair of Peter, Pope Saint John Paul II chose to devote his weekly general audiences for some five years (1979– 1984) to a catechesis on the human person, the body, and sexuality that has come to be known as the “Theology of the Body.” Almost every Wednesday (except when he was recovering from an attempted assassination in 1981), he gave an address to a gathering of pilgrims either in Saint Peter’s Square or in an audience hall. In these talks, he provided the universal Church with a very profound understanding of the human person as a gift, the human vocation to love, and the way in which this can be realized in the states of marriage or religious celibacy. Because the Church understands Scripture to be “the words of God, expressed in the words of men,” Saint John Paul II turned to Scripture to unpack this understanding of the human person.
Created in the state of innocence, the first man discovers his uniqueness compared to the creatures of the world around him through his body. The animals are created by God (see Gen 2:19–20) and are living things with value, goodness, and purpose; yet they are different from the man. Unlike them, he is aware of himself as a “self” and can freely choose to do or not do certain things. That is to say, he is a person. The other creatures of the world are living things with bodies, but they cannot think, deliberate, and act as he can.
The second story of creation sounds a note of disquiet: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). The human person, created for communion with others, discovers a longing in his heart for other human persons with whom he can share his existence and to whom he can give himself in love. For all of us—men and women—solitude can be a gift to discover more deeply our relationship with our Creator, but it can also be a burden that produces loneliness.
God’s answer to this dilemma posed by the original solitude of man is to cast the deep sleep on him (the same sleep that precedes Abram’s covenant with God in Genesis 15) and to create woman. The man’s reaction is a poem of joy which anticipates the later exultation of the Song of Songs: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man this one has been taken” (Gen 2:23). He rejoices, Saint John Paul II observes, because he has encountered another body which expresses the person—a body at once like his own and yet wonderfully different. She is a unique and complimentary way of being a person, a “second ‘I.’” In encountering her femininity, he discovers the meaning of his masculinity, and vice versa. The discovery of the opposite sex brings with it “a new consciousness of the meaning of one’s [own] body.” Yet these sexual differences are themselves the basis for the two being drawn together in attraction and in mutual love. In their movement to “original unity,” man and woman become fully the image of God who is Himself an eternal communion of Persons. The full expression of this unity is conveyed through the bodily gift of themselves to one another: “The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame” (Gen 2:25).
Pope John Paul II’s reflections on the text of Genesis help us to see more clearly the dignity of the human person, the importance of the body, and the deep longings of the human heart. In essence, the person is a gift who discovers his or her purpose by learning to give him- or herself to others in love. Saint John Paul II frequently recalled the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in this regard: “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
This understanding of the person as gift underlies the Church’s vision of the vocation of the human person. Every person discovers the meaning and purpose of his or her humanity in love: “God who created man out of love also calls him to love—the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (CCC 1604). The term “vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare (to call). So the understanding of the Church is that God has called the human person to fulfill the meaning of his or her existence through learning to receive and give love. And given that the body is the means through which the person discovers and gives him- or herself, the body is an integral part of this vocation. The central role of the body in the person’s capacity to give and receive love is at the heart of what Pope John Paul II called “the spousal meaning of the body.”
John Grabowski is an Associate Professor and the Director of Moral Theology and Ethics at The Catholic University of America. John and his wife, Claire, were appointed as a Member Couple to the Pontifical Council for the Family by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. They have been married since 1985 and are the authors of One Body: A Program of Marriage Preparation and Enrichment for the New Evangelization.