John Paul II’s upcoming canonization gives new impetus to his “ground-breaking” theology of the body, which has the potential to “completely transform” contemporary culture, one theology professor says.
“Catholics who have been presented with the teaching in its fullness have experienced profound conversions,” said Professor Mary Shivanandan.
She explained that the theology of the body has the potential to change what John Paul II called a “culture of death” into “a civilization of love.”
Shivanandan is a retired professor of theology at The Catholic University of America’s Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. She commented on Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” an explanation of marriage, family and human sexuality which was developed in 133 general audiences delivered between 1979 and 1984.
In an April 23 interview, Shivanandan told CNA that John Paul II’s theological work “has given a new breadth to the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage.”
The theology of the body focuses on “who the person really is,” she said. The person is “rooted in the body.” Both men and women are made in the “image of God.”
John Paul II’s work explains the Christian understanding of the human person as “destined body and soul for ultimate communion with the Trinity,” the professor said. This understanding affects all areas of life, especially Christians’ “call to communion in the one-flesh union of marriage.”
According to Shivanandan, the late pontiff stressed that God is “the author of love.” Central to this love is “the idea of gift.” In the Trinity there is a reciprocal “giving and receiving,” a relationship reflected in the self-giving marriage of a man and a woman.
Shivanandan said John Paul II was “under no illusions” about the difficulties of marriage, but he “elevated the vocation to a renewed call to holiness and sanctity.”
The Pope focused on the theology of the original creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as Jesus Christ did in his consideration of the Pharisees’ questions on divorce in Matthew 19, the professor observed. Although this original innocence has been damaged by the original sin that has caused “shame and disordered desires,” the redemption and grace of Jesus Christ now allow men and women to “once again receive each other as a gift.”
The Pope’s thought is also relevant to consecrated celibacy, which according to Shivanandan, “looks forward to the resurrected state” in which there is no marriage but where there are perfect relations between persons.
Shivanandan said John Paul II’s theology is rooted in Scripture and in the Pope’s experiences as chaplain to young couples.
His work was an effort to respond to how the sexual revolution undermined Church teaching on the goodness of marriage, family and procreation, she said. It was also a response to the “huge dissent” in the Catholic Church against “Humanae Vitae,” Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical which reaffirmed Catholic teaching on sexual morality, including its recognition of the sinfulness of contraception use.
The late pontiff’s work is “critically important” because of flawed “dualist” contemporary views about man, woman and marriage, Shivanandan stated.
Instead of responding to the “call to communion,” she said, “modern secular man and woman treat the body as an appendage that they can manipulate.” This includes “blocking the natural fruitfulness of sexual love.”
Men and women “can never be used just as objects,” she stressed. “They must always be treated as persons who freely will to love.”
Modern approaches attempt to change the meaning of marriage and to justify “all kinds of relationships that are ultimately destructive to the true good of the human person in the name of a false freedom,” Shivanandan said.
She suggested that John Paul II’s approach does not accuse others, but rather it appeals to the “inner hunger for truth and freedom.”
The former Pope’s theology of the body “has provided a language to uncover the true meaning of such words as freedom,” she added.