October 01, 2013

Body and love

By Fr. Gilfredo Marengo *

The reflections on human love are central in the magisterium of John Paul II. These reflections, well known from his more frequently quoted works, have now become the common patrimony of the life of the Church, and as such they are mentioned in a number of key texts. Starting from Familiaris Consortio, going on to Mulieris dignitatem and up to the Letter to the Families, together with the catechetical cycles dedicated to human love, certain categories are punctually recognized and have become more generally familiar.

From a certain point of view one can affirm that everything moves in the direction of arriving to “understanding the reason and the consequences of the decision of the Creator that the human being exists always and only as female and as male.” (MD, 6)

If one asks which the constitutive elements are leading to this line of thought and teaching, one can imagine that the answer lies in the recognition of the self-evidence of the body and of love in the experience of man. The body and love are immediately given to everyone and, as such, are endowed with a logos whereby every man, starting from his body and from his desire for love, discovers himself and is revealed to himself.

Very typical of the anthropological reflection of John Paul II is the solitude-body-subjectivity phrase, according to which human behavior and the consciousness of his own body allow man to form a conscious awareness of himself.

In finding himself “alone,” man is manifested to himself as man. Here we see a first “self-definition” of man as one in his relationship with what surrounds him (the visible world): such unity is the real revelation of man to himself. This is why the Pope can affirm that there is continuity between man’s solitude and his subjectivity. The intimate connection between self-definition and relationship with the world suggests a great unity between the subjective and the objective dimensions of knowledge: “by this knowledge which makes him come out, so to speak, of his own being, at the same time man reveals himself to himself in the whole peculiarity of his being.” (Catechesis 5, 6)

Later on, in the articulation of solitude-body-subjectivity, the dictatum of the catechesis identifies the “central problem of anthropology” to be examined by maintaining man’s acting and his own body awareness as the elements allowing him to begin to have a reflected self-awareness.

Therefore, through a specific intuition on his own body, man perceives his own uniqueness amongst all the living beings through his habits and/or his behavior. It is worth remembering that the body, though able to assimilate man to all other living beings, at the same time becomes that constituent element which manifests his uniqueness (his objective difference from the other creatures) and therefore, becomes the reason for his solitude.

The journey, started with man’s discovery of himself through his own body, seems to find its fulfillment in the renewing work of Christ’s grace, by keeping a unique continuity which illumines the whole novelty of the Son of God’s redeeming action, once again filtered by the human body. “Through Redemption, every man has received himself and his own body almost anew from God. Christ has inscribed into the human body – in the body of every man and of every woman – a new dignity, since in himself the human body has been admitted, together with the soul, to the union with the Person of the Son-Word.” (Catechesis 46, 4)

This first level of self-discovery through his own body opens man to the second original element indicated by the category of unity. Solitude, in fact, presents itself as the element leading man to discover not only the “proper transcendence of the person” but also the original call to experiencing that fundamental communio personarum which represents the raison d’être of the sexual difference between man and woman. It is important to note how the Pope insists on the point that there is no solution of continuity between the discovery of the one’s own personal subjectivity through the experience of the body in one’s solitude and the awareness of the reciprocity man-woman, since “All that constituted the foundation of the solitude of each of them was indispensable for this reciprocity. Self-knowledge and self-determination, that is, subjectivity and consciousness of the meaning of one's own body, was also indispensable.” (Catechesis, 6, 1)

The glance of Adam on Eve is not successive to his glance upon himself (and vice-versa), but the unity of the two glances recalls the centrality of self-definition and relation of oneself with another. Once again, the Pope is concerned with pinpointing that the discovery of oneself is inseparably and simultaneously subjective and objective: to look at oneself and to look at another.

The first man and the first woman see themselves and each other naked without experiencing any shame: the first event of this communio personarum is illustrated by the experience of exchanging glances. It is important to note that the text invites us to consider the simultaneity between the glance on oneself and that on the other. Between the two glances there is no solution of continuity. On the other hand, this is the perspective contained, somehow, in the awareness that the man has of the woman, created from his rib as “a helpmate that is suitable to him.” In fact, the Pope John Paul II observes that, in his original solitude, man acquires personal awareness in the process of distinguishing himself from all other living beings (animalia); at the same time, in this solitude, he opens himself towards a being similar to him, which Genesis defines “a suitable helpmate.” (Gen 2, 18. 20) This openness tells much of the man-person about his distinction from others. The solitude of man in the creation narrative is presented not only as the first discovery of the person’s transcendence; it is also the discovery of an adequate relation “to” the person, and thus an opening towards, and expectation of, a “communion of persons.”

This gaze, then, seems to reflect man’s surprise in discovering himself and the woman and, reciprocally, woman’s surprise in discovering herself and the man. At the same time, this highlights the given and perceived possibility of the fullness of a reciprocal relationship, defined by the absence of shame in the actual nakedness. This leads to the interesting consideration that within such gazes, by which man and woman participate in the absolute positivity of created reality in God’s eyes, they can look at each other the way God himself looks at them: they can surprise themselves in the very heart of the mystery of Creation.

The role assigned to the experience of the body by the man and the woman in their nakedness without shame is also significant. It is to do with shedding light, as in the case of the reciprocal glances. In the light of the fullness of intimacy given them, the bodily experience now testifies as a unique reciprocity and becomes the epiphany of the “spousal” significance of the same body and thus of a unique human subjectivity.

Up to now we have quoted the words of John Paul II, especially those from his famous reflections on the texts of the first chapters of Genesis, which objectively represent the background to the various magisterial interventions of the Polish Pope. They clearly imply that man is able to recognize the truth about himself by discovering how much is revealed to him through his body: not only his irreducible subjectivity, but also his constitutive vocation to love. For these reasons, it seems important to underline the anthropological value of that which we have called the “self-evidence” of the body and of love.

The elements collected so far allow us to recognize the value and originality of John Paul II: they are invaluable for a better understanding of human love, marriage and the family. At the same time, we must point out that in his body of his writings are contained some concepts which, if deriving from the specific situations they are dedicated to, nevertheless assume a value that exceeds the level of a sectorial contribution to an area of theology. In fact, through a reflection on human love and matrimony, these concepts follow the path, as John Paul II so often said, towards a convincing “adequate anthropology.” This adequate anthropology starts with some elements from the first few chapters of Genesis (solitude, unity, nakedness); together with these elements a method is suggested, “adequate” in that it is able to satisfy man’s need to understand and interpret himself.

Fr. Gilfredo Marengo was ordained a priest for the Diocese of La Spezia, Sarzana and Brugnato, Italy in 1979. He earned his doctorate in Sacred Theology under the direction of Cardinal Angelo Scola. He has served as a visiting professor at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, UK and Seat of Wisdom Catholic University in Lima, Peru and is a member of the Center for the Studies on the Second Vatican Council of the Pontifical Lateran University. He has published and edited several books, including his most recent, "John Paul II and the Council – A challenge and a task."  Currently, he is a Professor of Theological Anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family in Rome.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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