The many ways in which one can depart from God’s call to chastity and marital fidelity are more than evident in American culture. The exploitation of sexuality for commercial gain is manifested in countless ads and other means of engaging our attention through television and allied media. The cult of the body, not just for health reasons but for hedonistic attraction, is a prime example of the effect of an exaggerated focus on sex and sexuality.
What is needed is a healing vision of sexuality, the body, and the human person. Pope John Paul II offers us this perspective in his theology of the body. He begins with the idea that God willed each human being for his or her own sake. This means that none of us is merely a part of something else, or a means of gaining some result. God created us as free and unique human persons. We are not things to be used, but persons to be respected.
God created human beings to love one another. Since God is a communion of persons, it makes sense that we, being made in his image, would reach out to love others, forming our own communion of persons. Marital love witnesses the total self-giving of man and woman. The miracle is that in the act of self-giving, each spouse gains a greater sense of self while enriching the other spouse.
The Nuptial Meaning of the Body
We experience our selfhood through our bodies. We are embodied as man and woman. Genesis teaches that it is not good for man to be alone. We are rescued from our solitude by a complementary existence as man and woman. Pope John Paul II calls the capacity of the male body and the female body to serve mutual self-giving the nuptial meaning of the body.
Sin, particularly lust, obscures the nuptial meaning of the body and its capacity to witness the divine image. In this case, the woman’s body ceases to reveal her as a person to be loved, but rather as an object to be used. Conversely, a man’s body would not disclose him as a person to be loved, but rather as an instrument to be exploited. Sin erodes spousal love.
Shame may enter the relationship. Pope John Paul II notes there is an instinctive shame that can ward off utilitarian sex. Shame leads the woman to protect herself from the aggressive, lustful sexuality of the man. In the opposite case, shame causes the man to resist a sexual advance from the woman that is merely lustful. God calls for spousal love as the remedy for moving beyond the sex appeal of the body alone to its nuptial meaning, revealing the person as made in his image.
The Redemption of the Body
Pope John Paul II retrieves the nuptial meaning of the body by taking us back to life before the Fall, to a time of original innocence and original nakedness. The first man and woman did not experience any shame in their nakedness because the attraction of male and female served love alone. This was more than virtuous self-control. The man and woman dwelt so intimately in their bodies that each body expressed to the other the beauty of the human person and the image of God. Bodily sexuality was integrated into the energy of spousal love.
Original Sin caused a rupture in the unity of body and soul. The body now could obscure as well as reveal the person. Christ’s saving act included the redemption of the body by which he restored the lost unity of soul and body. This is a process of restoration, partly completed here and fully restored in the next life. While there will not be marriage in the future life, masculinity and femininity will endure. Pope John Paul II relates this to consecrated celibacy and virginity in which the nuptial meaning of the body is not denied. The body’s nuptial meaning serves love in ways other than marriage.
We seldom do justice to the ways in which our bodies share in and reveal our interior personal lives. We have drawn attention here to Pope John Paul II’s meditation on the nuptial meaning of the body because we believe it is a vision of sex, marriage, and the person best suited to rebuilding a wholesome, faith-filled, and loving approach to these most precious gifts.
You can read more from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, order your own copy, or read questions about it at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.
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