Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 2, 2009
The Human Body: Gift of self or Object for Pleasure
Sister Timothy Prokes spoke at the second Nothing More Beautiful session Feb. 12 on Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. Here is an excerpt from her address:
The human body in God’s creative design: this is the mystery that Archbishop Richard Smith has invited us to reflect on prayerfully tonight. . . .
The lived body is not merely a chance mutation in an unfolding universe. Rather, it has been revealed that divine loving intent is involved in the design and creation of the human body – male and female – whatever may have preceded this during billion-fold years of preparation. Only in Jesus Christ has the full potential of the human body been realized – exceedingly beautiful, beyond our limited understanding of beauty. . . .
Perhaps no one has reflected more intensely on the meaning and privilege of the lived body than the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II. . . . In 129 public audiences from 1979 to 1984, Pope John Paul II laid foundations for his theology of the body. He did not invent a new meaning of body. Rather, he brought into new expression the richest insights concerning the meaning of human life as received from Scripture, tradition and magisterial teaching – and he applied them to the most urgent issues of contemporary life. . . .
Capacity for true self-gift is the ultimate meaning of the human body. John Paul calls this bodily self-gift “spousal.” . . .
Pope John Paul’s series of audiences culminates in basic insights of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical which had impelled him to develop a theology of the body. As Jesus Christ exemplifies, mutual self-gift is sacrificial; it takes commitment and requires truth, fidelity and forgiveness.
The very design of the human body manifests its spousal quality, and invites communion of persons. For example, unlike the animals, human beings are upright. Our eyes are designed for communion with the eyes of others. They invite encounter, face-to-face communication.
It is understandable that John Paul began that series of audiences dealing with contemporary challenges to spousal meaning in a sin-conditioned world, by reflecting on the saying of Jesus found in Matthew 5.27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you: Whoever looks at a woman to desire her (in a reductive way, explains JPII) has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” . . .
Some people were aghast when, in a later audience, John Paul said: “Adultery ‘in the heart’ is not committed only because the man ‘looks’ in this way at a woman who is not his wife, but precisely because he looks in this way at a woman. Even if he were to look this way at the woman who is his wife, he would commit the same adultery ‘in the heart’” (audience, Oct. 1, 1980).
We are as it were, woven of one piece, body and soul, inner heart and outward act. What Christ and John Paul II were describing is the loss of integrity involved in lust. To lust is to desire the use of another for one’s pleasure in a manner that treats them as an object.
So that, what John Paul was indicating by saying that a man could commit “adultery in the heart” regarding his wife – was that such desire did not stem from faithful, spousal self-gift – but was the desire to satisfy a carnal urge apart from committed relationship – a “taking” rather than an act of mutual self-gift.
Op-ed pages in the United States press ridiculed the pope’s words because of an inability or unwillingness to understand the truth of the whole person and the meaning of spousal love in and through the body.
One writer opined that maybe men in Italy did not lust for their wives – but in the U.S. it was different. “If you can’t lust for your wife, for whom can you lust?” one writer asked.
What John Paul was touching upon is the sacredness of marital mutual self-gift. More than a person casually walking down the street, or a woman seated at a bar, a spouse enduring the look of lust from a partner knows a degradation that touches to the interior heart. There is immense sadness in marriage, if lust masquerades as love and there is no effort or desire to change. . . .
A TOTAL VISION
Doctrinal principles taken up in Humanae Vitae stem from a “total vision of the human person,” and they express the meaning of responsible parenthood with respect for the nature and purpose of the conjugal act.
In article 12 of Humanae Vitae, there is succinctly stated what Paul VI termed a “teaching, often set forth by the magisterium” and “founded upon the inseparable connection willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.”
Pope Paul VI expressed his belief that people of his day would be “particularly capable of seizing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle.” We know that, sadly, that has not been the general response.
In contraception, the body is used to simulate the truth of authentic and free self-gift. Bodily, in the most intimate act of intercourse, contracepting spouses render mutual self-gift infertile in some manner. To enter a spouse’s body, sheathed against interchange – or assured that whatever bodily self-gift received is rendered sterile — devastates a most intimate expression of marital love. . . .
The splendour of the human body is lived-out in a sin-conditioned world, where concupiscence is fed not only by human weakness, but by blatant messages and legal decisions that disfigure the beauty of God’s creative design. You know them; you recognize them.
This moment of history calls for a renewed “John the Baptist spirit,” crying out in the wilderness of contemporary values the truth of the body-person. This wilderness is howling with pornographic imagery, and is increasingly replacing what is real with what is only virtual and changeable at whim.
Many commercials treat sexuality as a force that can only be controlled from outside the person or couple – through pharmaceutical or surgical interventions in which the conjugal act is often termed a “performance.”
The beauty we have been reflecting upon can only be sustained when spouses and those vowed in celibacy take responsibility for the truthfulness of their self-gift. This requires work and the virtue of chastity, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (n. 2337). . . .
All of life is intended as loving self-gift and every relation beyond one’s spouse is also called to be life-giving in ways that are appropriate.
Sometimes we come to know this truth in ways we would never have imagined. A few months ago, the husband and father of a family in our area blessed us all with such witness.
After several days of intense rain, he was working outside with the youngest of his seven sons – a young man 21 years of age, with Down Syndrome. There is a septic pool on their land, and in the course of their work, the sodden ground gave way beneath the son and he plunged into the septic field.
To save him from drowning, the father dove in after him. I don’t understand how such systems work, but I have been told that the father had to move the son’s body sideways, submerged in the toxic waste, in order to reach an opening.
He did this and, then standing below the surface, he held his son up so that the young man’s head could rise above the waste-field and be rescued. The father drowned.
He had never dreamed that this would be his moment of most intense life-giving love in his body: total self-gift in one flesh with his spouse. It was not beautiful as we usually think of beauty, but it was the father’s defining spousal act, culminating all spousal moments he had known with his wife and their children, whose bodies they carried: she in her womb, he in his dying arms.
May each of us be blessed in the unique beauty of our own bodies – in whatever way we are called to be total self-gift.
Letter to the Editor - 03/02/09
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