"And the Word became Flesh (Jn 1:14)"
A Theological Reflection on the Human Body

Most Reverend John Joseph Myers
Archbishop of Newark
December 8, 2002
Reproduced with Permission

1. This is the season when we celebrate God's entrance into history in bodily form. The word Advent comes from the Latin Adventus -- "the coming." God came to dwell among us in a particular and profound way in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who was and is truly God and truly man. We Catholics express our reverent awe for the incarnation of Jesus, the son of God, like us in all things but sin, by bowing our heads (or, at Christmas, kneeling) at the words of the creed: "By the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man." We commemorate special moments of his human life in our calendar: his incarnation at the feast of the Annunciation (March 25), his birth at Christmas (December 25), his presentation in the Temple (February 2), his transfiguration on Mount Tabor (August 6), his passion, death, and resurrection at Easter.

This document setting out Catholic teaching on the human body holds up and affirms truths about what it means to be a bodily person. It emphasizes the body's goodness and corrects certain false views of human existence. In publishing it, I hope to spark discussion and teaching about the good news of our creation and redemption as bodily beings. I invite all who read it to meditate on what it means to be truly and fully human -- bodily persons created in the image and likeness of God.

In short, this pastoral letter is intended to draw us into a conversation as a community. From grade schools to universities, in homilies and families, let us consider the implications for our daily lives of this fundamental fact: we are bodily persons.

A Biblical Reflection

2. Paul's Letter to the Romans is his most systematic work, highly structured like all of his writing. Its central portion is divided into two major sections: doctrine and morals. At the beginning of the moral section Paul makes a comprehensive statement as the basis for his teaching:

I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect (Rom 12:1-2).

Paul here states two fundamental truths of moral theology: the need for each and every Christian to offer his or her entire self to God, and the requirement that our minds, our way of thinking, be renewed by the transforming power of God's grace.

"Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice." To Paul, offering one's body meant offering God one's entire existence in space and time. But, aware that right living flowed from right thinking, he called upon the early Christians to begin by changing the way they thought. Rather than conform their thinking to the fads of the day, they should drink deeply from the wellsprings of eternal wisdom in the teaching and person of Jesus Christ.

We might say Paul challenged the early Church at Rome and all Churches of all time to think biblically -- to think with the mind of Christ: "The mind in you must be the mind that is in Christ" (Phil 2:5). This is particularly true of how we think about ourselves as human persons -- bodily beings created in the image and likeness of the triune God.

Over the centuries, what it means to be a person has often been distorted, and it often is distorted today. Some have repudiated the bodily nature of the human person, seeing a human being as a "ghost in the machine" -- a spirit or mind lodged in a material body. Others have denied the spiritual essence of the human person, and looked upon a human being as a material entity and only that. Against radical dualism or materialism or any other false notion of humanity, biblical wisdom makes it clear that the human person is a psychosomatic unity of body and soul.

3. Among the disorders that mark our society, confusing people and leading many astray, is a misunderstanding of human sexuality rooted in deep misunderstanding of the human person and the human body. Often, these misconceptions serve as a basis for public policy and personal decisions; church leaders sometimes are criticized for not speaking clearly enough about such matters.

In this pastoral, then, I want to set out the Church's doctrine and to do so in a fundamentally positive way. The approach is based on the 'theology of the body' that, though thoroughly consistent with the Church's faith across the centuries, is one of the great themes in the teaching of Pope John Paul II. I hope to help Catholics and others grasp the fact that our teaching is not negative -- that it expresses profound respect for the human person, the human body, and human sexuality.

Pope John Paul II Teaches About the Human Person

4. Pope John Paul's genius for innovation, visible in so many ways throughout his pontificate, extends to his teaching on human bodiliness. Starting in 1980 and continuing for four years, he used his Wednesday audience talks to set out an exciting new approach to this subject. This is the theology of the body.

For a Christian, the body's significance is good, inescapable, and central; Christianity itself cannot be understood apart from an appreciation of the body. It is a myth that the Catholic Church teaches as it does about sexuality because it undervalues sex. The Church teaches as it does because it values human sexuality so highly. And in valuing sexuality, it necessarily values the body.

5. That is hardly new. Standing in the Areopagus of Athens two millennia ago, Paul proclaimed the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many of his sophisticated listeners laughed him to scorn. For although they thought of themselves as tolerant folks -- they even had an altar dedicated to "an unknown god," lest any touchy, anonymous deity feel left out -- they couldn't abide the idea that the body had such extraordinary dignity (cf. Acts 17.22-32). Didn't all the cleverest people say the body was evil and corrupt? So how could this itinerant preacher, Paul, ask up-to-date Athenians to believe in a god who would stoop to rising from death with a human body? Too foolish for words!

St. Paul nevertheless understood that a version of Christianity that left the body out of account would be worse than incomprehensible -- it would subvert Christianity from within. "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins," he bluntly told the people of Corinth (1 Cor 15.17). John Paul II also grasps the fact that central dogmas of Christianity like creation, the Incarnation, the redemption, and the truths of eschatology cannot be understood without reference to and profound respect for the human body.

A Signpost to Truths of Faith

6. The body points to the doctrine of creation. God created our first parents as bodily beings. "Male and female he created them" (Gen 1.27), a distinction most evident on the bodily level. God's deliberate creative design means women aren't "misbegotten males," as Aristotle erroneously believed. Nor is the difference between the sexes a biological accident, a cultural artifact, or some kind of mistake.

Sex, then, is not a code word for discrimination or what the civil rights lawyers call a "suspect category." We are obliged to take sexual differentiation seriously, indeed to reverence it, for, written into our very chromosomes, it is part of the gift of creation and an expression of God's will.

God gives only good gifts. As one of these, our bodiliness is a blessing. The refrain running through the first chapter of Genesis -- "And God saw that it was good" -- drives home this point. And after the creation of man and woman (in God's own image, we are told), there is an important shift: "And behold, it was very good" (Gen 1.31).

7. The body points to the doctrine of the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God became a flesh-and-blood human being. The gospel of John puts it with uncompromising clarity: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1.14). The late Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, Primate of Poland, expressed this in a phrase of exquisite domestic tenderness: in Jesus Christ, he said, we encounter "God in diapers."

All the same, the reality of Jesus' bodiliness has been a stumbling block for many from St. Paul's day to ours. Ancient heresies with names like Arianism, Nestorianism, and Monophysitism sought to evade the fact of Jesus' corporeality and avoid its consequences. Like the skeptical Athenians before them, their adherents couldn't abide the fact that God had a human body. They have counterparts today.

8. The body points to the doctrine of our redemption by Christ. Jesus suffered and died to redeem us. Mental suffering -- fear, dread, anguish -- is a reality of course, and Jesus surely suffered that way. But his Passion was something more: bloody sweat on a human forehead, a back shredded by scourging, thorns thrust into a man's head, three body-wracking falls under the weight of a cross, spikes driven through arms and legs. John scrupulously records the flow of blood and water from Jesus' pierced side (cf. Jn 19.34) to underline the fact that he was a real human being who suffered in a real human body.

Jesus died for us. His body was anointed, shrouded, and placed in a grave. We don't say, "Jesus' body died for us," but, "Jesus died for us." His body is no appendage, not something borrowed but not really his. His identity as God incarnate and the fullness of his redemptive life and death both are bound up with his human body.

So much so, in fact, that his victory over death is signaled by bodily resurrection. Jesus did not conquer sin and death only by dying. All good people die, but Jesus' victory was accomplished in his rising. He is our redeemer, and our redemption will be fully accomplished when "the last enemy…death" (1 Cor 15.26) is abolished by the power of the risen Lord and we rise in our bodies with him.

9. The body points to eschatology -- the Christian doctrines concerning the end times or final things. We say in the Creed, "we believe in the resurrection of the body"; and we believe that on the last day, at the end of time, all men and women will enter body and soul into that life of eternal fulfillment called heaven or else into that "second death" called hell (Rev 21.8). Just as we have lived good or evil lives body and soul, in this world, so also, body and soul, shall we be rewarded or punished in the next.

God does not bestow bodily resurrection on human beings arbitrarily. If Jesus rose from the dead, then his body rose. From the first ages of the Bible to the last it is clear that the primary curse brought on us by sin is bodily death: To disobey God is to die. But our God is the God of the living (cf. Mt 22.32, Mk 12.27, Lk 20.38), who opens graves and raises bodies. This resurrection of the body is part of the reintegration and restoration of all things in Christ, who "fills all in all" (Eph 1.23). And in the end, "death shall be no more" (Rev 21.4).

Lessons of Experience

10. Along with the truths of faith, our own experience also points to the importance of the human body. Although the tangibility and immediacy of our bodies can hardly be ignored, thinkers over the centuries sometimes have sought to downgrade the body's significance and, instead of recognizing the body as a constitutive element of the human person, spoken of it as something apart from our core identity.

From ancient Manichaeism to the "cogito ergo sum" -- I think, therefore I am -- of the seventeenth-century philosopher Rene Descartes, whose thought took scant notice of the human body, errors of this sort express what generically is called body-soul dualism. This alien anthropology, which takes a false view of the unique body-soul composite that is the human person, is incompatible with Christianity. Yet it persists. It is alive and well -- and profoundly destructive -- today.

On some level, of course, everyone knows perfectly well that the body is intrinsic to his or her identity. Think how we speak. If I suddenly and unexpectedly struck you, very likely you would demand, "Why did you hit me?" Not "Why did you hit my body?" but "Why did you hit me?" We all know that someone or something that touches our bodies is touching us. That is why crimes like assault and battery are crimes against the person, not just property violations.

A Philosopher-Pope Speaks of Sexuality

11. Up to this point I haven't said a lot about Pope John Paul. There is a reason for this. No matter how indebted we are to him for the theology of the body, we need to make it our own. Studying and quoting the Pope are all well and good; but the theology of the body is not just an object of study, to be examined and then returned to the shelf. This way of thinking -- this way of seeing reality -- must be applied to contemporary life. There can be no greater tribute to John Paul than for others to carry his thought forward; there could hardly be a greater betrayal than to pay only lip service to what he says.

Although the expression 'theology of the body' has become widely familiar only since he became pope, Karol Wojtyla began developing this theology as an important part of his academic work as a professor and his ministry as a priest. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of his first writings on sexual morality: in 1952, as a young priest, he wrote an article called "Instinct, Love, and Marriage" that discussed the virtue of purity.

Seeking, unlike some of his predecessors and contemporaries, to develop a positive understanding of the virtues, Wojtyla says purity is not negative, not fundamentally a 'no,' even though practicing the virtue requires saying no to some forms of behavior. Purity is primarily a 'yes,' a positive response to two things: what the human sexual instinct stands for and what sexual intercourse symbolizes.

12. A human being, the future pope points out, is more than a collection of bones, muscles, organs, and tissues, $3.95 worth of this and that, plus a few gallons of water. And what comes into existence as a result of sexual intercourse is a human being. Not a potato, not a toad, not a mass of cells—a human being. Thus the human sexual instinct has more than biological meaning; it has existential meaning, since it is oriented to human life. This orientation is important for two reasons: because what's at issue in any concrete instance is a living human being; and because the link between the sexual instinct and the transmission of life was placed there by God the creator, who only gives good things.

A man and woman ought to experience sexual intercourse as a mutual giving and receiving in open self-surrender to each other; it is a kind of communication -- the language of the body -- a sign of sincere giving of self and sincere acceptance of the other's gift, and of their mutual opening up to God's gift of life. This kind of giving and receiving without reserve requires the foundation of stable, permanent love.

Thus, considered as communication, intercourse outside marriage and contraceptive intercourse both are lies told with bodies; the two parties do not truly give and receive openly and unconditionally but only use each other for pleasure. They do not say with their bodies, and from their hearts, what they speak with their lips. Indeed, all sexual sins are at their heart sins of dishonesty.

For Karol Wojtyla, purity is a yes to the goodness of God's creation, including the share spouses have in it through the use of the sexual instinct, and a yes to the unreserved and permanent commitment of love that sexual intercourse symbolizes and expresses. Purity is needful not because there is something unclean about sex but because the body's language should be consistent with the language of the heart and mind. It is a way of ensuring honesty and integrity of heart, mind, speech, and bodily act. One ought only to say with one's body what one can rightly mean with one's heart.

13. Pope John Paul is a staunch defender of marriage. It is interesting to consider why. Certainly his stand is grounded in Tradition, Church teaching, and Sacred Scripture, but his defense of marriage also comes in large part from the theology of the body.

If sexual intercourse naturally expresses the giving and receiving of love that is open to the possibility of life -- of children -- then the love itself requires certain things of sex, and sex already images certain unavoidable requirements of love.

Among these are: unity -- one beloved, one husband, one wife; exclusivity -- this man, this woman; permanence -- not for a single encounter, nor a brief season, but for all the rest of life; totality -- complete giving and receiving, with no strings attached (how strange it would be if a man said to a woman, "I love you eighty-five per cent"); and life-giving -- because the language of the body means giving to and receiving from a spouse in the totality of his or her being, which includes the fact of fertility that sometimes, through the grace of God, results in conception, new life -- a new human being. The Church's teaching in effect is that someone who here and now can't mean what sex intrinsically means shouldn't 'say it.' The message is: Be honest, don't lie.

14. Children have a right to be conceived, born, and reared through and in the love of their parents. This is why in vitro fertilization and other techniques of producing human beings that violate the bodily integrity of sexual intercourse are wrong. These technologies separate the creation of a new human person from the only human context worthy of it -- the loving conjugal union of husband and wife. Children conceived by these means are truly human of course; and because they are, they deserve better.

Techniques of this kind reduce human embryos to the status of products of technology. That is clear in the routine discarding of 'imperfect' embryos and the production of 'spare' embryos to be subjected to experiments and then destroyed. Today we are learning to our horror that these assaults against the dignity of the human person pave the way to human cloning (whether for experimentation or reproduction). This is another step in replacing the language of the body with the language of the laboratory dish.

In Defense of Human Dignity

15. Sometimes you hear it said that "Sex is between two people and only them. It is nobody else's business." One implication is that the fundamental reality of sex is a psychological interchange between consenting adults.

This represents a central part of the rationale for homosexual sex. Defenders of homosexual intercourse do not take the body too seriously but not nearly seriously enough. Sex is not exclusively or essentially a psychological encounter, and it cannot be divorced from the meaning and language of the body.

Confused thinking on this subject -- an updated version of our old Manichaean and Cartesian nemesis, body-soul dualism -- goes a long way to account for the fact that marriage no longer has a clear, specific meaning in some people's minds. They imagine that 'marriage' refers to something altogether fluid, shifting, malleable, and manipulable, subject to constant reshaping and revision to suit changing preferences, including the preferences of homosexual partners who want their relationships recognized as marriages.

16. And, after all, if marriage is just a mental state, a psychological something -- or -- other and only that, why not say two men or two women (or three men, or two women and a man, or any other recipe for gender stew that suits somebody's taste) are 'married'? Start down this road, and marriage can be redesigned at will. Or at least it can be until such time as the redesigners come face-to-face with the reality of the human body and its language.

As this suggests, in insisting on the body's significance, the Church is fighting for human dignity. "We are in the front line of a lively battle for the dignity of man," Cardinal Karol Wojtyla already pointed out in 1976 as he preached that year's Lenten retreat for Pope Paul VI. As Pope himself, John Paul II has powerfully delineated the opposing worldviews now battling for human hearts, minds, and bodies. He calls them the culture of life and the culture of death. Appealing for a new evangelization, he asks all Catholics, all Christians, and indeed all people of good will to join in proclaiming the Gospel of Life.

Some may proclaim that Good News from philosophical conviction about the dignity of the bodily human person and the cause of human rights. Some may proclaim it from commitment to God as creator and redeemer, the one who made us and saves us as bodily persons. Some may even proclaim it from self-interest -- for most people see the merits of the culture of life when the life involved is their own. Wherever the impetus comes from, the proclaiming of this Gospel of Life is an instance of practical ecumenism that embodies a shared vision of human dignity that all men and women of good will can embrace and advocate.

17. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s encouraged Catholics to take note of the 'signs of the times' in the awareness that the gospel must be preached in many different cultural circumstances. In that spirit, today's disciples seek to respond to the imperatives of the new evangelization by proclaiming the Gospel of Life.

This work begins at home. Christians, says Pope John Paul, "need to begin with the renewal of a culture of life within Christian communities themselves. Too often it happens that believers...end up separating their Christian faith from the ethical requirements concerning life" (The Gospel of Life, n. 95). The family, the basic Christian community as well as the fundamental cell of society, must be a "sanctuary of life" (ibid., n. 92), where life is welcomed and cherished.

Then this vision of the dignity of human life must radiate from the family and the community of faith and inform society and the sphere of civil law and policy. Recall that Pacem in Terris, the great encyclical of Blessed Pope John XXIII whose fortieth anniversary we mark next spring, begins with the simple yet profound words: "Peace on earth...can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order" (Peace on Earth, n. 1).

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