Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Listen to Your Body!

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 15, 2010

A great deal of what is morally wrong with modern culture, as well as the lion’s share of the personal unhappiness it engenders, is caused by a philosophical error which rejects the body as part of the human person. Beginning with Descartes, developed by Kant, and taken up by such theologians as the ex-Episcopalian priest Joseph Fletcher and the renegade “Catholic” Daniel Maguire, there has been a growing cultural shift in the understanding of the body from something that is deeply personal and constitutive of who we are to something purely instrumental, to be employed as our own disembodied consciousness sees fit.

This drift into philosophical dualism with respect to the human person has been, quite literally, deadly. It leads directly to the use of the bodies of others as sexual objects, contraception, homosexuality, genetic engineering, sterilization, sex-change operations, embryo harvesting, abortion, and euthanasia—all of which manipulate or discard the body. It causes persons to be profoundly disaffected from themselves, leading to unrealistic expectations, stress, self-mutilation and even suicide. It leads to all these ills and more because it misunderstands what it means to be a man or a woman with a vocation to love rooted in our bodily nature as human persons.

Paradoxically, there is a strong and almost instinctive counter-current to this dualism in holistic medicine, in which the patient’s body is viewed less as a complex machine to be technologically manipulated and more as part of a deeply personal reality which must be healed at more levels than one. The exclamation “Listen to your body!” derives from this sort of attitude, in which the body is regarded as part of our personal identity with very important things to tell us. At the same time, primarily because of our culture’s preoccupation with sexual manipulation, most people seem incapable of understanding that our bodies provide us not only with physical information, but with critical information about our identity, purpose and moral structure.

The Nuptial Meaning of Man

Pope Paul VI, in his landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which he condemned contraception and upheld the unitive and procreative ends of marriage, rooted his vision of the human person firmly in our bodily nature. “In relation to the biological processes,” Paul wrote, “responsible parenthood means the knowledge and respect of their functions; human intellect discovers in the power of giving life biological laws which are part of the human person” (10). It was largely to sustain and develop this insight that Pope John Paul II subsequently presented his remarkable Theology of the Body, in which at both the natural and supernatural levels, he articulated the nuptial meaning of the human person.

At the natural level, this nuptial meaning is expressed by the complementary nature of the male and the female, who through a strong desire to bond as one are able to bring forth and nurture a new person. The creation story in Genesis captures this instinctive sense of things beautifully. Prior to the Fall, the man (Adam) is seen as fundamentally different from all the animals (he alone is a person, with intellect and will and, in consequence, has the ability to name everything else). Adam is therefore lonely. But when God casts Adam into a deep sleep to form the woman out of his own body, in effect also recreating the man as a sexual being, Adam exclaims with joy: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gn 2:23)—another human person, defined bodily like Adam in a complementary way, so that the man and the woman yearn to cleave together and “become one flesh” (Gn 2:24).

John Paul is careful to emphasize that this nuptial meaning of the human person, expressed and even determined by bodily identity, is wholly good. It is part of man’s innate dignity from the first, for “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Gn 2:25). After the Fall, nakedness will never be mentioned without shame in all of Scripture, but here it further demonstrates the simple fact that God created man out of love and for love, and incorporated into the personal bodily identities of the man and the woman their very vocation to love.

The Body as Machine

The philosophical dualism which defines the person in terms of his consciousness, while defining the body as an instrument to be manipulated, lies at the heart of what is called “the new morality”. Those old enough to recall the rapid moral shift which took place beginning in the 1960’s will also recall that the thirst to embrace the new morality was driven primarily by sexual desire; the new morality was, in effect, a rationalization for sexual licentiousness (generally called “liberation”). This same effort to rationalize has rather obviously been the engine of nearly all non-orthodox moral theology over the past two generations, just as it has been the cause of most of the rejection of Church authority—and indeed of many of the scandals that have weakened that authority—during the same period.

At the same time, this unfortunate tendency has been reinforced, and made to seem logical, by the prevailing attitudes of a technocratic culture. A culture which experiences enormous technological success, and which gradually learns to measure human happiness in terms of technological achievement, runs the risk of viewing all of nature as something to be manipulated according to human desire, rather than something which expresses a message about reality from the Creator. It is not surprising, in this context, that the natural law tradition should have given way to a pervasive technocratic manipulation, an attitude which makes it extremely difficult to see the fundamental errors of the shaky philosophical dualism underlying contemporary moral thought.

For this reason, even those who are not themselves driven by the need to rationalize their sexual desires tend to accept the prevailing mythology of the body as instrument. The first moral point on which this mythology gets most of us into trouble is contraception, which enjoys close to universal moral acceptance today, despite the fact that it was just as universally rejected a century ago based on a deep sense of propriety ingrained by the natural law tradition. But in an intellectual context which accepts contraception—that is, the manipulation of sexual functions to suit conscious desires—it becomes almost impossible to see a moral problem with other forms of bodily manipulation, including the killing of those bodies which do not seem to bear within them a sufficient consciousness or a sufficient ability for self-actualization to be regarded as persons: The embryo, the unborn child, the retarded, the severely handicapped, those who are seriously ill, those who wish to die—or even those retarded purely by external circumstances, such as the very poor or powerless or vulnerable.

After all, those who really can self-actualize need to get spare parts somewhere.

A Supernatural Marriage

I am indebted in this article to an exposition of “Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, Anthropology, Morality, and Holiness” published by moral theologian William E. May in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly (pp. 19-27). Dr. May also explains the supernaturalization of the bodily person’s nuptial meaning through the saving action of Christ. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body demonstrates how, through the very Incarnation of God the Son in the human nature of Jesus Christ, Our Lord redeemed the body and elevated the embodied human person into a supernatural relationship which is nuptial as well.

The Catholic sacraments derive their efficacy from the Incarnation, and all of them emphasize both the bodily character of our redemption and the deep union with God to which we are called in our bodily selves. As Dr. May expressed it:

Our union with Jesus unites us to him by enabling us to share his divine life through the infusion of sanctifying grace. It is eminently a union bodily in nature. He is the bridegroom, and we, his brothers and sisters, are living members of his Bride, the Church. Our union with the incarnate Word, the Word made flesh, is in short a nuptial mystery….

In its femininity and masculinity, the human body is an image of the Trinity, which is Itself an eternal relationship of love. Moreover, Christ’s body, taken on and freely given for others, is a further sign of man’s Divine call to love. The fundamental truth here is that both the person and the vocation of the person are revealed in the body. As bodily persons, we are both ordered and called to offer the gift of ourselves, male and female, in love.

It is one thing to write this here, of course, and quite another to lead others to this luminous truth. A great many persons in our culture have made fundamental decisions and commitments which deeply obscure contradictory aspects of reality. Clearly, as William May counsels, a thorough re-evangelization is necessary. Nonetheless, I believe that a proper understanding of the bodily identity of the human person will strike countless others as the key to a great mystery which has thus far eluded them. This understanding has the capacity to turn our moral universe right side up again. It can cause a radical cultural shift. And wherever it takes hold, it will lead to the wholeness and happiness that can come only through the vocation of the embodied human person to love.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 21, 2010 4:23 PM ET USA

    I believe in this "move" which has been occurring over the centuries deeply and enthusiastically. It would seem that when Platonic thought invaded the Church it latched on in some ways inappropriately with the ultimate spiritual act which was Jesus' sacrifice of His Body on the Cross. The "body" was then more considered as a "means to an end" rather than an important element of the tripartate nature of Man who was made in the image of the Trinity. Under normal circumstances, God is for the Body

  • Posted by: - Jul. 18, 2010 9:55 AM ET USA