Wednesday, September 5, 1979, St. Peter’s Square in Rome. The pilgrims who flock in the early morning for the general audience do not know that John Paul II intends to speak to them that day about the couple and the wedding. This will be the first of 129 catecheses given by the Polish pope every Wednesday until November 1984. They form what is known as his “Theology of the body”, which is above all a theology of sexuality and conjugality.
John Paul II’s interest in these questions goes back a long way: to the first years of his ministry when he was chaplain to students, then to his teaching in moral theology at the Catholic University of Lublin (Poland). “Human love has always fascinated John Paul II, from the very beginning of his ministry as a priest, in the accompaniment of young people and engaged couples, from whom, by his admission, he learned everything, underlines François de Muizon, philosopher and professor of theology at the Catholic University of the West (UCO) (1). From the 1950s, he showed great audacity in approaching the body and sexuality, with the resources of sexology and psychology, which he integrated into the overall dynamism of the person. It was very innovative for a priest, in Poland and before the Council, to approach these subjects. »
These catecheses are also a way of responding to the debates, and even the scandal, provoked among Catholics by the encyclical Humanae vitae (1968), which condemned modern means of contraception. “The theology of the body of John Paul II is in fact a rewriting of Humanae vitae, starting from the concept of human person preferred to that of natural law, which has become difficult to understand”, explains theologian Francine Charoy, former teacher of theology ethics at the Catholic Institute of Paris (ICP).
This work of reformulation goes through a very personal meditation on Scripture, notably Genesis, the prophets, the Song of Songs and the Book of Tobit. They are mixed with philosophical influences borrowing from the personalism of Max Scheler and from phenomenology, “where the body is considered as an expression of the person, manifestation of the invisible, body-subject, signifying body and language, and not only body- object or organism,” says François de Muizon. His teaching is also nourished by references to the spirituality of John of the Cross and to “the nuptiality of love”.
What does the “Theology of the Body” contain? It begins with a meditation on the original human condition “of which we keep an echo within us in the form of a fundamental aspiration to love and to give ourselves”, explains François de Muizon. The sexed body is considered to bear the trace of the Creator, as the language of the Creator and of the person. The subject then continues with a meditation on the historical condition, where man and woman appear marked by sin, which manifests itself in the temptation to instrumentalize the body and make it an object of lust. It continues with a reflection on the future “glorious condition” of bodies in the resurrection.
John Paul II thus intends to respond to the cultural context of sexual liberation, but also to those who, within Christianity, still have a condescending view of sexuality. He wants to offer a discourse that puts an end to the suspicion weighing on the body, to the dualism between body and mind, and fully recognizes marriage as a path to holiness. But his speech also intends to set the standard for genuine human love. “John Paul II is carrying out a work of strengthening the doctrine. He does not hesitate to go further than Humanae vitae, by affirming that a sexual union which is not open to life is not an authentically human relationship, points out Francine Charoy. By affirming that the spouses reenact the creative act in the sexual act, this discourse gives sexuality a deep meaning, but also an eminently normative one. »
In fact, the “Theology of the body” leaves in the dark everything that goes beyond the norm of single, heterosexual and indissoluble marriage: sexuality outside marriage, the reality of divorced and remarried and single people, homosexuality… “We are in an idealized and somewhat irenic discourse, as if sexuality were a reality without shadows, objectifiable and controllable by knowledge or effort on oneself, notes the psychoanalyst Jacques Arènes. This discourse does not take into account the death drive that runs through it. He also constantly moves from what is “desirable” to what would be “sacred”. This puts an enormous weight on the shoulders of Catholics and can cause terrible anguish of not being “up to it”. »
In his research, John Paul II mobilizes the Scriptures, but he implements a reading that favors what comes to reinforce the doctrine, without pointing out the dissonances or silences that could qualify it. Sometimes leaves to twist the texts. In his interpretation of Genesis, he thus links the blessing of Adam and Eve to that of their fertility. It also offers a meditation on the original solitude of man, which questions theologians.
“This has great implications for the status of women,” notes theologian Philippe Bordeyne. When you start from an original solitude and not from an original relationship between man and woman, you have a much greater tendency to develop the specificity of the feminine starting from a masculine reconstruction. It’s kind of a highway for patriarchal thinking. »
Forty years after its formulation, this theology of the body deserves to be the object of peaceful critical discussions. “Unfortunately, this is often impossible. If we discuss it, we pass for not having read or understood it, ”regrets Francine Charoy. The crisis of sexual abuse in the Church should, however, make this work unavoidable, as its language has been misused by the abusers, some of whom were close to John Paul II. “All this theology of the body, which has thrilled many clerics, has been the realm of perversion for abusers, continues the theologian. Victims have been confronted with the complete reversal of his discourse on the total donation through sexuality. »
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