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

Implications of the Theology of the Body

18. So far we have utilized John Paul II's theology of the body to reflect especially on the meaning and purpose of the family and human sexuality. But it has many more implications besides. These extend to how we live and enjoy our bodiliness and the threats and dangers associated with our bodily existence.

19. Human persons should always strive to participate fully in the good of bodily health and life. Christian faith condemns any practice or thing that harms health or threatens life, from the abuse of drugs to intemperance in food or drink and unsafe driving. We are to be good stewards of our life and health. Exercise, healthy diet, access to and use of proper health care are all part of this stewardship.

This also is part of the reason why we should embrace the cycle of work and rest intended by the Creator. "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God" (Exodus 20:9-10a). For Catholics, keeping holy the Sabbath means active and full participation in the communal worship in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass together with observing a day of rest and recreation. The weekly Sunday holiday is good for individuals, families, and the whole community.

20. Faith also recognizes the goodness of a healthy life of the senses. Recreation and exercise, good music and good food, art and aesthetic experiences all belong to a full life. As G.K. Chesterton says in his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, a Christian is someone "who believes that deity or sanctity has attached to matter or entered the world of the senses."

Sometimes Christians are depicted as people who don't enjoy life. The way we have presented our faith or lived our lives may sometimes have lent support to this caricature. But it is far from the truth. Jesus came that we "may have life and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10), in this world as well as in the next. Again and again scripture and the Church's teaching speak of life in heaven as complete fulfillment in all the goods of human existence (cf. Rev. 21, Gaudium et Spes 38-39). Participating here and now in human goods like friendship and beauty and truth is a foretaste of what heaven will be.

21. Bodiliness also deeply affects how we worship and pray. This is clearest in the sacraments. God uses tangible, 'fleshy' things like bread, wine, oil and water as signs and symbols of his sacramental grace. He takes us most seriously as bodily beings in the Eucharist. By allowing us to receive his very Body and Blood, Jesus forges a one-flesh unity between himself and someone who receives him. This unity -- akin to the one-flesh unity of husband and wife made tangible in the physical act of love-making -- is both spiritual and physical.

What is true of the sacraments is true also of the rest of the life of prayer. Our bodies participate in our praying. We spontaneously kneel in the presence of our Lord and God when engaged in either communal or personal prayer. We turn naturally to physical objects and sensual signs -- candles and bells, incense and statues, stained glass and crucifixes, rosary beads and holy cards, chant and sacred music, icons and countless other sacramentals -- to help us pray.

22. God takes us seriously as bodily persons by himself becoming bodily. He sanctified all created reality in this way, enabling us to experience him in his creation and honor the divine artist in his art. It is right to find God in the beauty of his creation. Pope John Paul reminds us that prolife commitment should extend to care for the environment and created reality.

23. Important as it is to emphasize the positive implications of the theology of the body, the threats and dangers can't be ignored; they must instead be resisted and overcome.

The most serious of them may be precisely the practical denial of bodiliness and its consequences. As we have seen, this underlies the present campaign to claim the dignity of marriage for homosexual relationships. Still more destructively, it gives impetus to the attacks on human life originating with the culture of death: euthanasia, abortion, techniques of research and reproduction that violate human life.

While the euthanasia movement advocates killing the sick and incapacitated, its supporters know most people would be horrified by a proposal to kill another person. Thus they seek to depersonalize the sick or handicapped. To kill them, it is said, is merely to terminate bodily life that has become burdensome, not an assault on the person at all. Killing a body doesn't count.

The same mentality is at work among those who support abortion. The genetically unique bodily being who came into existence at conception and now is growing beneath his or her mother's heart is -- so we are told -- not a person but merely a 'blob of tissue' or a 'mass of cells.' Remarkable -- a mass of cells with a beating heart at 25 days, a brain producing brain waves at 43 days, eyes that begin to form at 19 days, tiny fingers that open and close during the sixth week! That this bodily being is a child preparing to be born is censored out.

Still less do we hear about abortion's bodily consequences. How often do proponents of 'choice' mention the little arms and legs ripped off in vacuum aspiration abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy? When was the last time an abortion propagandist in the media spoke or wrote of the scalded skin of a body aborted by saline infusion in the second trimester? When was a 'personally opposed' politician brave enough to admit that, yes, the face in the surgical bucket after a third-trimester hysterotomy really does look troublingly human? How likely are we to see, outside the pages of prolife publications, a child's fingers distended as surgical scissors are plunged into her or his skull in a partial-birth abortion?

Abortion in any of its forms is a grievous violation of the dignity and rights of the human person by a direct assault upon the person's bodily integrity and life—the deliberate and direct killing, as Pope John Paul puts it, of "a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth" (The Gospel of Life, n. 58). Abortion includes the deliberate interruption of pregnancy before viability, the deliberate prevention of the embryo's implantation in the mother's womb by the use of 'morning-after pills' or other abortifacient drugs, including so-called contraceptives that produce their effect by early abortion, and the direct killing of an unborn child after viability is reached. Abortion in any of its forms is one of the deeds condemned as "abominable crimes" by the Second Vatican Council (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n. 51).

24. The body and the view one takes of it are central to all human life issues. No doubt that is one reason why such pains often are taken today to deny or ignore the human person's bodily reality. Abstract arguments for the 'right to choose' and the 'right to die' are at risk of being overwhelmed by the flesh-and-blood reality of a human body. No wonder the culture of death tries so hard to avoid it!

In an old movie called "The Guns of Navarone," one character asks another why he hesitated to kill a villain only an arm's length distant. The answer: "You shoot a man at two hundred yards, he's just a moving target. You kill him with a knife, you're close enough to smell him. I smell them in my sleep." The culture of death sleeps better at night by keeping reality two hundred yards away.

But the body puts people immediately, tangibly, in touch with reality. That experience in itself can have a salutary restraining influence on evil impulses, something like the bracing effect of a splash of cold water in the face. It is easy to talk about termination of pregnancy, perhaps not so easy to look at a dismembered baby. The difference is the body, which obliges us to confront reality as it is.

25. If denying the body's reality is dangerous, so is its unreal glorification to excess. In today's cult of the body, physical appearance becomes a matter of absolute, ultimate importance. Consider the obsessive fixation on youthful looks and fashions that leads to the squandering of money, time, and resources in pursuit of Hollywood's idea of beauty while futile attempts are made to deny the facts of age and mortality. The cult and culture of the body make it cause for stigma, marginalization, and severe loss of self-esteem to be ill, elderly, or merely less than super-glamorous according to somebody else's notions.

The scourge of pornography is another byproduct of this mentality. Both the gross hard-core pornography trafficked in films, magazines, and pervasively on the Internet and the soft-core pornography that pervades the media, especially advertising, cheapen and distort human beauty and sexuality. Those involved in any way in the production and dissemination of pornography corrupt themselves and contribute to the corruption of others by encouraging the moral evils of sexual arousal outside marriage, masturbation, and the sexual abuse of women and children. No society sincerely concerned with the well being of its members can tolerate the evil of pornography.

26. At the root of many threats to and abuses of bodiliness lies concupiscence. This is the tendency to sin remaining in us even after baptism. It is not sin in itself but is the tendency to sin resulting from disordered passions. As a result of concupiscence, we do not always easily think, feel, and will as we should; often we are drawn, sometimes strongly, to what isn't good for us.

This makes cultivating a strong, active spiritual life imperative. Through grace, God's supernatural help, it is possible to resist temptation; and if we cooperate consistently with grace, disordered passions over time are healed and brought into line. Especially helpful in this struggle to win the authentic freedom of self-control are frequent reception of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, a strong, daily life of prayer, fasting and mortification of the senses, and devotion to the Mother of God, especially by prayerful recitation of her Rosary.

State of Life as Total Gift

27. As bodily beings, we are called to offer our entire existence in space and time to "God, our spiritual worship." Two ways of doing this, traditionally called states of life, are marriage and celibacy (or consecrated life for the sake of the kingdom). In marriage, a man and woman give themselves completely, each to the other, in a stable, permanent commitment that lasts until death, thus forming the community of life and love -- the family -- that is the suitable place for the begetting and rearing of children. As a community of persons, the family is akin to the community of life and love that is the Triune God.

Celibacy or consecrated life for the sake of the kingdom is another way of offering oneself as a sacrifice pleasing in the eyes of God. This charism also involves a total gift of self, by which one enters into a nuptial relationship with Christ and his Church. This gift empowers men called to celibacy to devote themselves fully to their bride, the Church, and enables women to give themselves totally to their spouse, Jesus Christ, in loving and serving him and the Church. Both marriage and celibacy or consecrated life are ways of making a bodily gift of self; both are ways to love as Jesus loves; both call for total, intimate, unreserved love.


28. At the start of this pastoral I spoke of the familiar fact that in the season of Advent and Christmas we celebrate the coming of the Son of God into human history as Jesus of Nazareth. Because he was born into a human family, we celebrate in a particular way the gift of family life.

But we also look forward in this season to Jesus' second coming at the end of history. Together with Christians of every age we pray Maranatha -- "Come, Lord Jesus!"

Living between two advents, two comings of Jesus, we live in history. That is to say: we live as bodily beings in space and time. Praying Jesus will come to us in grace, to sustain and sanctify us and the entire world, we respond to his advent in our lives by offering our selves entirely to him -- an oblation of heart, mind, body, and soul.

We do this in communion with the whole Church extended through space and time -- those living and also those who have gone before us "marked with the sign of faith or whose faith is known to God alone" (Fourth Eucharistic Prayer). Especially we are united with Mary of Nazareth, who already shares bodily in the Resurrection of Her Son. In her we see the ultimate meaning and purpose of bodily existence -- total and complete union with Jesus.

We human persons are bodily beings. Only a philosophy, a theology, and a system of law that take the body seriously as an integral part of who and what we are can protect real human beings and defend real human rights. Pope John Paul II has pointed the way.

God creates us as bodily persons. Jesus Christ, our brother in human flesh, redeems us by his bodily life, death, and rising. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to rise with Jesus from death and to live forever, body and soul, with God. Let us ask Mary, who bore the Deity in diapers, who was and is Theotokos -- Mother of God, and who exemplified the meaning and dignity of the human body for her Son, to be our model and patroness in the work that lies ahead.

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