Theology of the Body: A Perilous Pastoral Shift

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

French, italiano

Whereas the Second Vatican Council had opened a liberal breach in ecclesiology, Paul VI’s Encyclical Humanæ vitæ, issued on 25 July 1968, came to the defense of traditional morality with regard to the use of marriage. Consequently, it roused violent opposition among theologians and  episcopates worldwide. Against this dissensus, a defense of the doctrine of marriage was developed from scratch, namely, by seeking to render it palatable to the contemporary world by taking advantage of the modern-day exaltation of the body and of sexuality, but not without risk and peril.

Reasserting the three goods of marriage

It is suitable, in order to have a firm grasp on the subject, to refer to the Thomistic synthesis which, like the entire great medieval tradition, depends on the establishment by Saint Augustin, against the Manichaeans, of the doctrine concerning the three goods of marriage: proles, fides, sacramentum, that is, children, fidelity (the faith given for the union of the bodies), and the sacrament.[1]

Yet, contrary to the affirmations reiterated today, this synthesis – undoubtedly demanding due to the mere fact of its having a virtuous aim – is the complete contrary of “negative”. The primary good, that is, the fundamental good of human marriage, a natural institution elevated by Jesus Christ to the dignity of sacrament, resides in the offspring, in the begetting of children and their upbringing, which specifies the humanity of the institution, as Saint Thomas explains in the Summa contra Gentiles.[2] There is an “objective ordination of marriage to its primary end which is included in its nature,” as the Roman Rota states in a particularly important judgement issued on 22 January 1944.[3]  

In his commentary on the First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, 7, 2 (“But for fear of fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband”),[4] Saint Thomas shows that the first two goods, as natural as they may be in non-sacramental marriages of non-Christians, are ordered, for the first (the engendering of offspring), to the virtu of religion, since it entails lending oneself to the creative work of God and giving him children for His praise, and, for the second (fidelity), to the virtue of justice (Suppl. q 41 a 4). In a Christian marriage, the exchange of consent is the sacramentum, the representation of the union of Christ with his Church (Ephesians 5, 32). Grace sanctifies the procreation and gives the union of the spouses a value of sacred indissolubility: one can no more separate a spouse from his wife than Christ from his unique Spouse.

The most beautiful Thomistic text on the subject is perhaps to be found in the Summa contra Gentiles, in book 4, chapter 78. There, we are reminded that the res, the sacred reality or grace signified by the sacramental sign of marriage (which is the consent of the spouses) is the participation in the union of Christ and of the Church, a medicinal grace all the more important that the carnal and terrestrial realities of marriage are not detached from Christ and the Church.

The carnal union is good (and thus meritorious), if it is not disordered (Suppl. q 41 a 4), without, however, its being indispensable in order for the essential union of the marriage to exist.[5] It is the sacrament which sanctifies the carnal union and not the carnal union which determines the sacrament.

John Paul II’s Theology of the Body

All the liberal demands in the Church concerning marriage, since the 1960’s, had consisted precisely, to the contrary, in accentuating the value of the carnal union of the spouses in itself, disconnected from the end of procreation, so as to legitimize contraception, the sterilization of women in order to render procreation impossible, which had been condemned by Pius XII in 1958[6] and again in Humanæ vitæ in 1968.[7]

John Paul II took the reins and without doubt was the great defender of Humanæ vitæ and, more broadly, of marriage and family. Yet instead of insisting on the essential argument of the encyclical, namely, contraception as a violation of the natural law, deemed not easily comprehensible by modern mentalities, he preferred an anthropological demonstration according to the personalist perspective which was his own, grounded in the affirmation of the person as subject and not as object which one makes use of for personal purposes.

To this end, he developed a “theology of the body”, already found in his book, Love and Responsibility,[8] as well as in his Wednesday catecheses dedicated to the theme of marriage and sexuality, from 5 September 1979 to 28 November 1984.[9]

The union of man and woman within the communion of love they share with one another has been the principal image of God in humanity since the origin, and mirrors the communion of love between the divine persons: “This […] constitutes even the deepest theological aspect of all that can be said about man” (TOB, p. 167). This affirmation constitutes a considerable novelty, to the extent that it is no longer solely through his spiritual soul that man is said, strictly speaking, to be in the image of God, as taught, for instance, by Saint Thomas (Summa theologiæ, 1a q 93, a 6). “Man,” says John Paul II, “has become the ‘image and likeness’ of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons that man and woman represent from the beginning.” (TOB, p. 167, emphasis added by John Paul II)

Consequently, marriage is a “primordial sacrament” that expresses in a privileged way the  trinitarian being of God (TOB, p. 471). This thereby enhances the value of the corporal union, highlighting that man, being created as gift, expresses what he is through the spousal gift (TOB, p. 185): “The spousal union of the man and the woman through the body is the original and effective sign by which holiness entered the world.”[10]

By adopting this anthropological detour, John Paul II arrived once again at the condemnation of concupiscence, adultery, and contraception, as well as a defense of purity, but with a manner of expressing himself which lacks limpidity: “The transposition of artificial means breaks the constitutive dimension of the person, deprives man of the subjectivity proper to him and makes him an object of manipulation.” (TOB, p. 554, emphasis added by John-Paul II)

Be that as it may, this theology, reiterating the opposition of the Church to contraception, is decried as “unrealistic” by those who despise traditional morality,[11] which is to their credit. However, it might appear imprudent insofar as it sacralizes corporal pleasures, in themselves inferior to the spiritual or intellectual pleasures, yet more vehement (Saint Thomas, ST, Ia, q. 31, a. 5). And above all, his emphatic personalism minimizes the fact that the reproductive function of man is solely destined to earthly life (“for in the resurrection they shall neither marry nor be married; but shall be as the angels of God in heaven,” Matt. 22, 30), this function ordering the spouses to the service of the City they perpetuate. The most troublesome aspect of John Paul II’s developments is perhaps the fact that he does not give the specific appellation of “state of perfection” to consecrated virginity, but more broadly to the reunion of the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in view of perfection (TOB, p. 405).

The risks that this theology entailed would be accentuated among those who later dealt with this theme, among whom some notably abandoned the Christian modesty necessary in this matter, in which the wound of human nature manifests itself strongly. One is left with the impression that the literature concerning the theology of the body, which targets a public made up of moderate Catholics attached to Christian family values, considered its mission to consist in disinhibiting this public, supposedly marked by a “Jansenist” morality.

Hypertrophy of the body and of sexuality

Yves Semen, father of eight children, through his book Sexuality According to John Paul II,[12] which has become the classic manual for marriage preparation in conservative and even traditional circles, is the quasi-official commentator in France – as well as amplifier – of John Paul II’s theology of the body. According to Semen, Wojtyla’s theology of the body has sparked a true revolution in this domain, enabling one to defend the Church against the critics who present Her as hostile to sexual fulfillment and to clear Her of Her unfortunate reputation of harboring disdain for the body.

The thesis which emerges from his work, concerning which it is important to note some very positive points,[13] can be summarized in five points, which are all developments of John Paul II’s catecheses:

1) In the beginning, man became the image and resemblance of the Triune God through communion, especially sexual communion, between man and woman, because “sex, with all that it signifies, is not an accidental attribute of the person.” Admittedly, Semen intends to criticize the powerful and influential “gender” ideology, according to which sexual differences, along with the diverse roles they determine, to be the product of cultures and their evolutions. Furthermore, there is no denying that the mark of the creative Trinity, according to a great Augustinian theme, is found in all of creation. The human couple is thus one of the examples of these “vestiges”, important indeed, as it is ordered to the continuation of creation, procreation, but it is not the image of God pure spirit in the manner of the spiritual soul. According to the personalist perspective of Semen, echoing that of John Paul II, grounded in a metaphysics of the gift for which the act of self-giving specifies the being and not the reverse, one is through the gift of self, and one exists through communion. And this gift is allowed because of “the sexual difference [which] constitutes us as a person by allowing the complementarity necessary for the gift of ourselves.” (pp. 95, 96)

2) Thus the inversion of the ends of marriage is clearly affirmed: the sexual body as such is not ordered firstly to procreation, but to communion between persons, the fecundity resulting from the latter being a “superabundance of love”: “The human body with its sexual organs and through its sexual organs is made for the communion of persons. The fruit of this communion, like its radiance, is the fecundity in another person, but one cannot, without betraying the sense of the conjugal vocation of the body, reduce sexuality to a procreative function: what is primary is communion; procreation is secondary, for it is the fruit of the communion. In this sense, it is the pledge of the truth of the communion.” (pp. 109-110) One notices – besides the optimism involved in supposing that in every marriage there is love of communion – the sophism which transforms an instrumental priority into an essential priority by affirming that, since the carnal union precedes procreation, it is therefore primary. The communion, which is firstly corporal, acts in the manner of a sacrament, as it signifies and produces the spiritual communion. Quid then of the marriage of Mary and Joseph?

3) The “sacred erotism” of the Canticle of Canticles would be a confirmation of this thesis,  based on a theme which has been in vogue for some time in wedding homilies. In fact, all the traditional interpretative tradition had insisted on the symbolic sense of the text, to the point of making the metaphor of the marriage of Israel with its God the literal sense of this book, the spiritual or allegorical sense residing in the fact that this mystic marriage of Israel is itself a figure of the espousal of Christ and of the Church or of Christ with the Christian soul. On the contrary, for Semen, the literal sense is truly carnal, even erotic, making clearer still that this is erotism “in the deepest sense of the word, extreme and, at the same time, of a total purity.” (p. 105)

4) Thus the sins committed in marriage are such through the omission of self-giving. Sin is defined in this domain as a dissociation between sexuality and aspiration to the gift of self. Hence this erroneous symmetry: since there is sin in the use of marriage when reduced to solely hedonistic pleasure, there is sin in the use of marriage when reduced to the mere utility of procreation. And also: “If the proscription of all acts which aim to exclude the procreative signification was often emphasized, one perhaps omitted to denounce in the same manner and by virtue of the same ethical norm,the acts which cause harm to the unitive signification.” (p. 197, emphasis added) And there would be “adultery” just as much in the desire towards one’s own wife in a union without communion, as in the desire for someone else’s wife.[14]

5) This, de facto, entails a devaluing of the vocation to consecrated virginity, which Semen is at a loss to know how to specify. Admittedly, he quite rightly highlights that consecrated virginity is a prophetic nuptiality, anticipating what marriage represents. Yet as he overestimates the carnal union in the qualification of the communion between spouses, it is ultimately the carnal union which is sublimated in the communion of saints in God, and not the spiritual communion between spouses.

“Catholic” sexology

This Catholic sublimation of the carnal union becomes trivial in other publications. Neither the title, nor the contents of the book by Olivier Florant and Denis Sonet, Don’t Spoil your Pleasure, It is Sacred. For a Liturgy of Orgasm,[15] trouble themselves with decent discretion. This notion of liturgy is  highlighted in an interview organized by Benjamin Coste for the magazine Famille chrétienne, on 27 May 2006, entitled “Couples, Don’t Spoil your Pleasure”, in which Olivier and Marie-Noëlle Florant, parents of five children and founders of the website Chrétiens avec vous, sexologues pour vous (Christians with you, sexologists for you), compare conjugal relations to the Mass, which is, indeed, rather demeaning towards the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Let us evoke in passing, though it deals with sexuality without referring to the theology of the body, the book interview by Mgr Emmanuel Gobilliard, today bishop of Digne, France, and Thérèse Hargot, a “Catholic” sexologist, which is entitled Love, and Whatever You Desire, Just Do It![16]. Thérèse Hargot, who was close to the “Manif pour Tous” movement (the “March for All” against gay marriage) and who develops some interesting themes (for example, her opposition to the contraceptive pill and her defense of “natural methods”, pp. 168 and following), considers the troublesome morality of the permissible and the forbidden as a straitjacket: “To write in the catechism [CCC] that masturbation is ‘an intrinsically and a gravely disordered act’ […] is to moralize a normal and even necessary discovery in order to give oneself to the other.”

However, immodesty reaches new heights, if we may say, with Fabrice Hadjadj, father of ten children, a philosopher very well integrated in conservative and even traditional Catholic circles, in his essay: La profondeur des sexes. Pour une mystique de la chair (The Depth of the Sexes. For a Mysticism of the Flesh)[17]. A critique of this work has been published by Catherine Énisa in Une mystification des catholiques fidèles[18] (A Mystification of Faithful Catholics) which is summarized on the website of Riposte Catholique (https://riposte-catholique.fr/archives/187889). The emphatic crudeness, presented in a humorist mode, goes beyond all bounds, since, as Catherine Énisa states, this “mysticism of the flesh” goes so far as a blasphemous eroticization of the mystery of the Incarnation and of the Virgin Mary. Moreover, Hadjadj makes his own, in words we will spare our readership the pain of reading, the thesis of John Paul II and Yves Semen concerning the husband-wife communion as image of God: “Undoubtedly the soul is first in the image of God, but consequently the body must also be so, since the soul is the form of the body (p. 271).” From there he derives the image of the Trinity in the corporal configuration of  man and woman for the continuation of the species, from which a third is born (p. 273).

We can apply to this literature, of which we give only a brief glimpse, the words of Pius XII, in his address to midwives on 29 October 1951: “Alas! Unceasing waves of hedonism are invading the world and threaten to submerge in the swelling tide of thoughts, desires and acts the whole marital life, not without inciting serious dangers and causing grave damages to the primary function of spouses. This anti-Christian hedonism, too often, is shamelessly elevated and established as a doctrine, […] as if in matrimonial relations the whole moral law were reduced to the regular accomplishing of this act, and as if all the rest, in whatever way it is done, were to be justified by the effusion of mutual affection, sanctified by the sacrament of matrimony, worthy of praise and of reward before God and conscience.”

“Creating an atmosphere favorable to education in chastity”

It is necessary, today more than ever, that Christian preaching on marriage and its preparation insist on its sanctity, which can only shine through an education in chastity and modesty to which Saint Paul calls all Christians: “Let it not so much as be named among you, as becometh saints: Or obscenity, or foolish talking, or scurrility, which is to no purpose” (Ephesians 5, 4). Humanæ vitæ, this document which resonates in the post-conciliar period as a document from a foregone era, rightly calls to the attention of “educators and of all those whose responsibility it is to provide for the common good of human society, the need to create a climate favorable to education in chastity, that is to say, to the triumph of wholesome liberty over licentiousness, through the safeguarding of the moral order.”

It is also highly suitable to develop the theme of Saint Thomas in his commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (7, 29-31), drawing the signification of marriage towards virginity, in order to explain that we must permanently place all things in the order willed by God: all, even spouses, are called to live virginally, as it were, “for all things of this world pass away,” meaning that they must fully assume responsibility for all their conjugal duties, with the sole intention of honoring God.[19]

This is what Fr. Serafino Lanzetta does in his book, Semper Virgo. Mary’s Virginity as the “Form” of Christian Life, (Ontario, Canada: Arouca Press, 2023). He insists on the fact that the highest degree of this configuration to the Marian form which all Christians must accomplish is firstly that of consecrated persons or clerics vowed to celibacy, who “follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth” (Ap 14, 4), but that it also quite truly exists for Christian spouses, whose matrimonial state is in a certain sense elevated by the state of consecrated virginity. Against those who “so exalt marriage as to rank it above virginity and, because of this, depreciate chastity consecrated to God and clerical celibacy” (Pius XII, Sacra virginitas, 25 March 1954), Fr. Lanzetta thus reaffirms the superior value of religious virginity and of perfect chastity for the service of God, as this state of perfection is a spiritual driving force for the common state of marriage.

It is an understatement to say that a rehabilitation of consecrated virginity is pastorally urgent. Pius XII noted in the same encyclical Sacra virginitas, that it represented a more perfect accomplishment, though not sacramental, referring to Ephesians 5, 25-30 (where Saint Paul affirms that marriage symbolizes the union of Christ and of the Church): “Virgins make tangible, as it were, the perfect virginity of their mother, the Church and the sanctity of her intimate union with Christ. In the ceremony of the consecration of virgins, the consecrating prelate prays God: ‘that there may exist more noble souls who disdain the marriage which consists in the bodily union of man and woman, but desire the mystery it enshrines, who reject its practice while loving its mystic signification’.”

Father Claude Barthe

[1] “It is certainly not fecundity only, the fruit of which consists in offspring, nor chastity only, whose bond is fidelity, but also a certain sacramental bond in marriage which is recommended to believers in wedlock” (Saint Augustin, De nuptiis et concupiscentia).

[2] l 3, c. 122, also in Supplement to the Summa theologiæ, q 41, a 1, ad 1.

[3] In Le Mariage, Les enseignements pontificaux, Desclée, 1960, p. 4*.

[4] Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, translated by Jean-Éric Stroobant de Saint-Éloi, Cerf, 2002, p. 212. See also: Suppl. q 49 a 2.

[5] The “essence” of marriage is perfect as of the exchange of consent, even without its “operation”, that is to say its carnal consummation (Suppl q 42, a 4 ).  Undoubtedly, a marriage that has not been consummated could be dissolved by the Church, but a marriage lived in virginity, like that of Mary and Joseph, as exceptional as it may be, is a true marriage.

[6] By “the use of medication with the aim of impeding conception by preventing ovulation” (address of 12 September 1958).

[7] “Equally to be condemned, as the Magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.”

[8] Published in Poland in 1960; published in French by Parole et Silence in 2014.

[9] They are introduced and gathered together by Yves Semen in Jean-Paul II. La théologie du corps (Cerf, 2014).  (John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them. A Theology of the Body, translated and introduced by Michael M. Waldstein, Pauline Books & Media, 2006.) 

[10] Yves Semen, in Jean-Paul II. La théologie du corps, op. cit., Introduction, p. 25.

[11] Élodie Maurot,  « La « théologie du corps » de Jean-Paul II, une vision de la sexualité audacieuse mais idéalisée », La Croix, 23 March 2023.

[12] Presses de la Renaissance, 2004, Abeille-Plon 2020. References are from the 2004 French edition.

[13] For example, Yves Semen doesn’t hesitate to remind us that the systematic use of marriage during periods of non-fertility can become illicit for spouses if it is motivated by the selfish refusal to give life without proportionate reason. (La sexualité selon Jean-Paul II, op. cit., p. 198.)

[14] Y. Semen refers to the general audience of 8 October 1980, whose substance he accentuates to the maximum by affirming that the essence of adultery resides in the nature of the desire and not in the fact that this desire is directed toward someone else’s wife. La sexualité selon Jean-Paul II, éd. 2004, op. cit., pp. 146-147.

[15] Presses de la Renaissance, 2006.

[16] Albin Michel, 2018.

[17] Seuil, 2008, réédition Points 2014.

[18] Presses de la Délivrance, 2024.

[19] Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, op. cit., p. 240.