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Telling Lies with Our Bodies: What the Pope Thinks About Sex

by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, C.S.B.

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  • Description:
    J. Michael Miller, CSB, discusses the Pope’s teaching on human sexuality and the theology of the body. He writes, "One of the longest-lasting contributions of John Paul II's pontificate will probably be a vision of human sexuality resting on his theology of the body. To recognize the sexual meaning of the body is key to understanding the pope's view of sex. Once we understand the role of the body in God's plan for our salvation, the Church's teachings on sex emerge clearly."
  • Larger Work:
    Crisis
  • Pages: 16-21
  • Publisher & Date:
    The Morley Institute, Inc., March 1991

In a society characterized by a sexual revolution, it should not be surprising that the Catholic Church has something to say. The Bible itself lays the groundwork for how we are to live our sexuality. God created us male and female and ordered us to be fruitful and multiply. But, until recently, what it means to be a man or a woman has not been well explored in theology. No pope has spoken on sexuality with such frequency, bluntness, and originality as John Paul II.

From 1979 to 1984, the Holy Father directed his Wednesday discourses to the theme of human sexuality. Since then he has dedicated innumerable public talks and writings to this topic. His teaching on sex has promoted a quiet revolution, which has slowly begun to make an impact. Although the Holy Father teaches no "new" doctrines on sex, passing on to us "what was from the beginning" (1 John 1:1), his explanations are innovative. The pope brings us face to face with God's plan for our sexuality as revealed in the Bible and proclaimed by the Church.

One of the longest-lasting contributions of John Paul II's pontificate will probably be a vision of human sexuality resting on his theology of the body. To recognize the sexual meaning of the body is key to understanding the pope's view of sex. Once we understand the role of the body in God's plan for our salvation, the Church's teachings on sex emerge clearly.

The book of Genesis introduces a theology of the body. Our human and sexual dignity are rooted in our having been created in God's image and likeness (Genesis 1:27). From the experience of our first parents in paradise, we discover our identity as male and female. In His "very good" creation God gave us more than one language to speak. Besides the gift of speech, He gave us our body. This body expresses itself through actions, which are themselves a language. Just as our verbal speech reveals who we are, so also does our body language.

The Lord intends that we speak this "sexual language" truthfully. An action that denies the God-given significance of entrusting one's body to another through sexual intercourse is a lie. It perverts the significance the Lord gave to our sexual language. What God thinks about premarital sex, adultery, and contraception He told us at the dawn of creation. With the help of John Paul II's theology of the human body we can now explore the sexual language we should speak.

Heavenly Body?

The first question about the body arises at the Bible's beginning: "What does it mean to be made in the image of God?" Most would respond by saying something about "being spiritual" or "having a soul." We mirror God because we are self-aware persons, endowed with an intellect with which to know and a free will with which to love.

Yet this teaching does not suffice; it omits any mention of the body or of sex. In daily life the body seems all-important. It brings pain and pleasure, of which sexual pleasure is the highest form it knows. So we have a problem. What is most desirable in our ordinary bodily life has nothing to do with how we image God.

In the past, some theologians have even thought the body was evil, a hindrance to the spiritual life. As "flesh," it warred against the spirit. Following Plato, some early Christians believed the body was the prison of soul, to be discarded when we arrive at the heavenly court. All such dualism excludes the body, and even more so its sexual activity, from having anything to do with our salvation.

In today's sex-sated and health-conscious culture, many still think the body to be unimportant in God's saving plan. Unlike dualism's total disdain for the body, many contemporaries minimize the salvific dimension of our bodily and sexual actions. Only the spirit counts. Even sexual activity derives its moral meaning from our intentions, not from what we do with our bodies. Stressing the intentions of one's sexual activity is healthy when it reminds us of the need to live our sexuality with purity of heart. This takes a bad turn, however, if it implies that the moral goodness of sex can be divorced from the body.

The human body is the thread that ties together the Catholic vision, and sexual actions enter into the mystery of creation and redemption. For Christians, salvation does not entail escaping from a hostile material world. On the contrary, as the Creed instructs us, "we look for the resurrection of the body." God's plan is for the salvation of our flesh, through the flesh of the crucified and risen Lord.

Human persons are more than spirits: we are, in fact, the only persons who have bodies. Catholicism insists that the divine and human, the spirit and the body, go together. As the pope puts it: "in the body and through the body, one touches the person himself in his concrete reality." With the spirit, the body is essential to being a person who "bears the divine image imprinted on his body," as the pope writes. God has created us to transcend our materiality, which we realize through the body. The body itself manifests the spirit; it is the visible expression of the whole person.

God wills to save us, to bring us to himself, through the created material world he has given us. Because God created us in his image with a body, we can express and receive love through that body. It gives us the means by which to show our love and by which others receive our love.

Adam's Original Choice

Out of deference to the example of Christ, who told the Pharisees that divorce was not allowed "in the beginning" (Matthew 19:4-6), the original design of God's creation must be our point of departure. To discover the full meaning of our sexuality, then, the pope says we must "return to the depths of the mystery of creation," to this "gospel of the beginning." The Christian understanding of human sexuality starts with the Old Testament accounts of the Creation and Fall (Genesis 1-3). Christ continues to direct our attention back to the beginning where we can see the total vision of the human person revealed.

Before the Fall, Adam and Eve provide the true model for sexual living. Humanity's origins will help us to discover how we should speak the truth with our body. According to the account of creation in Genesis (2:4-25), in the beginning Adam was alone, but amidst the wonder of creation experienced an agonizing loneliness (Genesis 2:18). Experiencing this original solitude, he recognized that his humanity was radically different from the rest of creation. No other being offered Adam the possibility "to exist in a relationship of mutual giving," as the pope writes. Alone he was incomplete.

Adam recognized that he could only express his love for another in and through his body, but lacked someone else to love in that way, since his own body separated him from the rest of material creation. Like the divine persons, in whose image he was created, Adam was destined to live with others. He yearned to receive the bodily gift of another person and to give himself bodily to another.

Adam was created for Eve, just as Eve was created for Adam. Although each is an individual with inherent dignity, the Lord calls man and woman to live together as a communion of persons, because we discover our own humanity only with the help of another human being. As God says, "It is not good that man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18). Thus, man recognizes and finds his own humanity "with the help" of woman (Genesis 2:25), just as woman discovers her humanity with the help of man.

In the pope's analysis, the unity of Adam and Eve replaced the solitude of Adam. God created man and woman "for marriage." Only when this marital communion of persons is realized do man and woman fully become the image of God: "Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion."

Written into the mystery of our creation is our existence as male and female. The pope maintains that man and woman are "two complementary dimensions, as it were, of self-consciousness and self-determination and, simultaneously, two complementary ways of being conscious of the meaning of the body." Even in the heavenly kingdom, where those raised from the dead "neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Mark 12:25), the human body will not cease to be male and female, though its sexual meaning will be different from what it had been in the beginning.

Man and woman are attracted to each other because of both their spiritual and bodily relationship. Loneliness and longing give way to discovering the immense joy of loving union expressed through the body. Adam, on first seeing Eve, expressed wonder, admiration, and fascination. When he awoke from his deep sleep, Adam did not refer to Eve's powers of thinking and willing, but he cried out, "This one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" (Genesis 2:23). Upon becoming a "male," Adam was exuberant to find his fulfillment in the "female." Delight accompanied this discovery of his bodily sexuality that would express how he could exist with and for someone else.

Only through his wife can a man fully discover his masculinity, just as only through her husband can a woman fully discover her femininity. Man and woman express their married love by "becoming one flesh" (Genesis 2:24) in their conjugal relations. This mutual bodily gift of Adam and Eve tells us that it is only in the unselfish giving of ourselves to another that we can find ourselves.

Body Language

Our sexual actions are a kind of "body language" through which man and woman speak to each other. Through this language of the body man and woman carry on that dialogue which had its beginning on the day of our creation. This precious gift of being able to "speak sexually" discloses God's plan for us. God gives us this sexual language to use as He intended.

When the bride and groom say "I take you as my wife/as my husband," they pledge to express their mutual love in conformity with the language of the body. Whenever we speak sexually, the pope says, our expressions are "subject to the demands of truth, that is, to objective moral norms." Our sexual "words"--the actions we use to embody our love--can say something either true or false. "The body, in fact, speaks the truth through conjugal love, fidelity, and integrity, just as non-truth, that is, falsity, is expressed by all that is the negation of conjugal love, fidelity, and integrity." Honesty demands that our sexual gestures should mean what they say: our body language should express that God-given meaning unambiguously. A simple rule to judge the goodness of our sexual activity, therefore, is to determine whether it reflects the truth about sexuality as God planned it.

Before the Fall, Adam and Eve did not experience disorderly sexual desire. Sexual harmony existed in this state when the first humans "were naked" and yet "were not ashamed" (Genesis 2:25). Their mutual experience of the body, that is, the man's experience of femininity and the woman's of masculinity were expressions of chaste desire. Far from being disturbing, nakedness provided Adam and Eve with the opportunity to image God by truthfully showing their love through their bodies. In their nakedness they were totally free to give themselves bodily as a gift.

The Fruits Of Sin

Sin introduced a fundamental disquiet in all human existence. Because of this concupiscence, the inclination to evil that resulted from the first sin, our sexual body language is now constantly threatened with being separated from the truth. Original sin opened up the possibility that we could use our body language dishonestly. When misused, our sexual activity falsifies what creation tells us about what it means to be male or female. Deceitful sexual activity frustrates communion between persons. Instead of being illuminated by the heritage of original grace, our own sexuality now shares in the heritage of original sin.

The shame attached to nakedness symbolizes sexuality gone askew. Almost immediately after the first sin, "they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons" (Genesis 3:7). Of Adam's ashamed cry, "I was afraid because I was naked" (Genesis 3:10), the pope has written:

Through these words there is revealed a certain constitutive break within the human person, almost a rupture of man's original spiritual and somatic unity. He realizes for the first time that his body has ceased drawing upon the power of the spirit, which raised him to the level of the image of God. Adam and Eve clothed their nakedness because they no longer trusted each other, hiding visible femininity and masculinity.

Lust should not be confused with passion or desire. As an act of self-love, lust treats the other as an object to satisfy one's own instinct. Because we are heirs to this tendency to replace desire with lust, all men and women are distinguished from the Adam and Eve of original innocence. Within ourselves we are torn between telling the truth and lying with our bodies: the heart is what the pope calls "a battlefield between love and lust." The more lust dominates the heart, the less the person manifests the authentic meaning of the body, and the less he shows sensitivity to the gift of the person.

When lust entered the human situation, our embodied masculinity and femininity almost lost their ability to express love. The nuptial meaning of the human body was compromised. The relationship of mutual giving became one of mutual appropriation. The original ability of Adam and Eve to express their mutual communion was shattered. Their bodies no longer expressed their persons and their love but became instruments of their lust. The difference between the sexes "was suddenly felt and understood as an element of mutual confrontation of persons," as the pope puts it.

We are all heirs to this fallen sexuality. Even in our fallen state, however, we should not use sexual activity, the language of conjugal love, to distort the truth of God's plan for us. To be faithful to creation, we should never corrupt our body language by using our sexual powers and organs for actions that are untrue. Why not?

A New Creation

Despite the Fall, the pope argues that a truthful language of the body can still be spoken since it is "inscribed in the depths of the human heart, as a distant echo of original innocence." After original sin, purity of heart is still possible for us who are baptized into Christ in order to become a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17). Even with its concupiscence, fallen humanity is nonetheless "capable of discerning truth from falsity in the language of the body and . . . can be the author of the meanings, true or false, of that language."

Grace allows us to achieve this capacity to love in truth. Christ has made us capable of integrating our sexual desire with our persons through the "redemption of our bodies"; that is, we can once again live our sexuality as God intended it in the beginning. Our sexual life has been restored because Christ offered his own body in sacrifice for us. Everyone's sexual language can once more be truthful. Insofar as we are now "in Christ," in His Body, our sexuality is itself affected.

When our hearts are pure, Christ's redemption also bears fruit in our bodies. If open to the life of the Spirit, we can rediscover and realize the value of the body, freed through redemption from the bonds of lust. According to St. Paul, the redemption of the body is an object of hope, planted in our first parents immediately after the first sin. We can therefore reforge the link of our broken sexuality and live it out according to the original will of the Creator. With grace we can learn to tell the sexual truth with our bodies.

The temptation to lie with our bodies is just as severe as it is to lie with our tongues. Throughout his discourses on human sexuality, John Paul II has scrutinized such issues as premarital sex, adultery, and contraception by recourse to his theology of the body and its language of sex.

Sex Outside Marriage

Conjugal relations speak fully and truthfully only within the permanent and exclusive commitment between husband and wife. God brought us forth as man and woman--as husband and wife--for that is what Adam and Eve were to each other: friends, spouses, lovers, parents-to-be. Adam and Eve were not two single persons but a couple, a married couple. The pope calls marriage "the original sacrament of creation," and only here can sexual relations be totally honest. Honest sexual language requires a pledge of permanent fidelity. The "one flesh" the lovers become represents a permanent commitment, impossible outside of marriage. Premarital sex of those who intend to marriage is different, of course, from that which is merely casual. Yet even when two people care for each other, their sexual relations outside marriage are flawed.

The giving of one's body is "a real symbol of the giving of the whole person." No act between man and woman is more intimate. The gift of the body symbolizes the total gift of self. Yet this gift cannot be given when the couple is unmarried. They are saying one thing with their bodies--"I love you totally and definitively"--but another with their minds--"I love you now but will commit to nothing permanent."

In non-marital sex a couple tries to give themselves totally to the other through their bodies without choosing to give themselves fully to each other through their wills. Since love is an act of the will, an essential element is lacking.

Non-marital intercourse is lying because by their bodily act the partners are saying that they belong totally and irrevocably to the other. By its very nature love should be unconditional. Yet in their choosing not to be married, their gift of the body is transient and incomplete, because they have reserved the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future. In this way each retains the right to act similarly with someone else in the future; neither partner is fully entrusting his or her total self to the other in the action of entrusting his or her body to the other.

The more casual the premarital sex the more such relations are a statement about the "replaceability" of the other. The pope writes that such intercourse really involves "carrying out an experiment with human beings whose dignity demands that they should be always and solely the term of a self-giving love without limitations of time or of any other circumstance." In premarital relations the body of the other becomes a means of self-gratification, a "body-for-me" in the present. Because the partner is robbed of his or her dignity and of the right to be totally accepted, as the sexual body language demands, sex outside of marriage is dishonest.

Adultery And Divorce

In a similar, though more serious way, adultery represents a deceitful use of sexual intercourse. When the partners are saying with their bodies, "I am wholly yours, you are mine forever," they know this is not true. One of the partners has already given himself or herself to a spouse in this way. The gift of the body, meant to be a total gift of self to the other, cannot be realized in adulterous relations. Adultery lacks what the pope calls "the character of the truthful sign." It, too, deforms the language of the body.

The sexual language of the body helps us to understand why the bond formed by marital relations should last until the death of one of the spouses. Jesus's demand that no one can divide what God has joined together (see Matthew 19:6) restored sexual language to its original and authentic meaning.

Just as Christ will never break his relation to the Church, nor the Church, despite her infidelities, ever abandon her Lord, neither can the spouses break their covenant relationship as long as they are both alive. The fidelity of the Lord to His one bride, despite her faults and infidelities, makes clear that human marriage should be monogamous, one husband and one wife. Husband and wife are to model their mutual relationship on the relationship of Christ to the Church. As the pope writes, "Christian couples are called to participate truly in the irrevocable indissolubility that binds Christ to the Church His Bride, loved by Him to the end." The language they speak in their acts of conjugal love demand irrevocability. Without that intention their body language is unauthentic.

The permanence of the marriage bond rests on recognizing that our sexual language should show not only who we are but also who God is. As the image of God, the conjugal couple must tell the truth about the Trinity whom they reflect. Each divine person is a total and permanent gift of himself to the other. In the same way, a couple forms a permanent covenant. To break such a covenant and to try to make a similar pledge again can only be a "lie" because its sole basis is the refusal to honor previous pledges. No wonder that a true marriage, one, which is properly celebrated with the approval of the Church and consummated, is indissoluble.

The Fruitfulness Of Love

To be fully authentic, the language of the body must express its fruitfulness. When God "rested" after the work of His creation, He entrusted to the newlyweds the dignity of prolonging His work, of becoming "co-creators" with Him. As fruitful as God's love for His creation, so must a husband and wife's love be for each other. Their unity in the "one flesh" is necessarily linked with the blessing of fertility, that is, of procreation (compare Genesis 1:29).

Masculinity contains within itself the gift of fatherhood just as femininity contains that of motherhood. Through his bodily love, the husband fulfills his wife by gifting her with motherhood, as the woman fulfills her husband by gifting him with fatherhood. True lovers desire to give the gift of parenthood to the other. In Familiaris Consortio, John Paul states that:

. . .The couple, while giving themselves to one another, give not just themselves but also the reality of children, who are a living reflection of their love, a permanent sign of conjugal unity and a living and inseparable synthesis of their being a father and a mother.

God's eternal love is life-giving. Love is necessarily creative, reaching beyond itself. Because both husband and wife exist for the other in inter-personal communion, "this mutual gift of the person in marriage opens to the gift of new life, a new human being, who is also a person in the likeness of his parents." Through their bodily love, with its inherent dynamism toward motherhood and fatherhood, spouses bring the family into being.

The Language Of Contradiction

We do not speak two languages with the body: one of love and another of fecundity. The life-giving and love-giving purposes of our sexual language are inseparable from each other. For this reason John Paul insists that the Church's teaching on contraception "belongs not only to the natural moral law, but also to the moral order revealed by God."

All arguments supporting artificial contraception accept as their point of departure the possibility that a couple can separate the procreative and unitive meaning of sex in a particular act of conjugal relations. In other words, the pleasurable purpose of sex can be divorced from its life-giving purpose. Church teaching regards this willful divorce of what God has joined together in sexual relations as immoral.

Contraception is wrong, however, for reasons that go deeper. Although those in favor of contraception maintain that the practice does not in any way compromise the conjugal act as an expression of love, this is not so. God has inscribed in man and woman a sexual language that is to express total love. That includes the fruitfulness proper to conjugal relations. Intentionally suppressing potential parenthood introduces what the pope calls a "contradiction" in the very act of making love. In contraceptive intercourse, couples "act as arbiters of the divine plan and they manipulate and degrade human sexuality--and with it themselves and their marriage partner--by altering its value of total self-giving." Contraception distorts the language of the body.

Because contraceptive intercourse withholds the pro-creative power of conjugal love, it is a refusal to give the full gift of one's masculinity or femininity. It violates the truthful communion that ought to characterize spousal relations. Without this truth, the language of the body is falsified. One neither gives nor receives the full bodily gift of the other, a gift that includes possible parenting.

In truthful intercourse a couple either wills to share their generative power or, as in natural family planning, they accept their periodic unfruitfulness. The nuptial gift of the body, which involves surrender of one's entire self, including one's fertility, is not total when contraception is used. What appears to be a "full" marital act is, in fact, stunted.

Nothing But The Truth

In his catechesis on human sexuality, Pope John Paul II has gone to great lengths to help us appreciate the reasons why Catholic sexual morality presents "the full truth about the human person"; why it is not arbitrary, impersonal, and changeable, but anchored in the very order of creation. The Church's moral norms on sexual questions emanate from God's wisdom, from what is good for us. If we do not recognize the divinely given bodily truth about ourselves, then our sexual expressions cannot be truly loving.

Recognizing the salvific importance of the human body is an antidote to the contemporary trivializing of our sexual identity and activity. For John Paul II, the body is not apart from the real "me" but is its visible expression. Since masculinity and femininity are inextricably tied to person-hood, the body and its sexual language cannot be regarded like a machine or toy to be treated like any other piece of property. Any failure to recognize the value of the body leads us to regard sex as recreation, as a not too serious activity that satisfies sexual desire but has nothing to do with expressing the person. A Christian is one who strives to speak the language of the body according to the truth, that is, according to the will of God as manifested first in creation and then restored in Christ.

The pope's theology of the human body enriches Catholic teaching and ties it together: man and woman are created with bodies in the image of God; they are saved through the crucified and risen body of the Savior; they are fed on the flesh of the Risen Lord; and they await the resurrection of their bodies in life everlasting.

J. Michael Miller, CSB, is vice president for academic affairs at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.

© Crisis, 1814 1/2 N Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20036 or call 1-800-852-9962, mail@crisismagazine.com.

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