If you ask someone what John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love (which includes the Theology of the Body) is, you will typically hear it is the Pope’s theology on sex, how to understand the human body, etc. Some will even say a major part of it is how to understand the body in relation to nakedness. As even an occasional reader of this column will learn, I reject these concepts as alien to the text itself. If we want to properly understand the mind of the Pontiff, we need to broaden our understanding of these texts by giving less weight to the commentators and experts (even this one), and instead return to the actual text itself.
When we dive into the texts, we will see that yes, John Paul II did spend some time talking about nudity. He mentions words such as nakedness and nudity around 100 times over 129 audiences spanning two years. To put this in perspective, there are roughly 176,000 words in these addresses. Word searches aren’t conclusive, but they do give us a good idea what the priorities of a text are. One thing he talks about with greater frequency than nudity is the subject we will discuss today: the interior life. John Paul II uses the word interior (or interiorly) 207 times in those addresses, or twice as much as talk about nudity. Not surprisingly, we spend most of the time in this culture talking about nudity and sex. Yet we cannot accept this state of affairs as a faithful representation of the text.
Why is John Paul so concerned with the interior life? As always, John Paul II builds his argument from the Holy Scriptures. When God creates the world in Genesis, we read that five times God “saw it and it was good.” When He creates man in His image, we read that God saw it and it was “very good.” God’s creation was unambiguously good. While this might sound like a tired cliché in today’s culture, this was an incredibly radical teaching when Judaism first presented it, and the first doctrinal heresies of Christianity centered on this verse.
These heresies were typically connected with Gnosticism, a heresy which had as one of its central tenets the idea that the merciful, all powerful and loving God could not become flesh, because flesh was evil. Further developments of this Gnosticism believed that the “god” who created man was an evil deity, and the “God” of the New Testament was the greater power, helping man to break free from his evil creation. As absurd as this sounds to our modern ears, this concept was rampant within the world Christianity inhabited, and even some of her greatest minds (such as Tertullian and Augustine) struggled with it and were influenced in lesser or greater ways by it. We even see this teaching in modern times, when people in despondency say things such as “I’ve done far too many evil things to be saved” or the joke that someone would “burst into flames” when stepping into a Church.
For Christianity, our teaching is diametrically opposed to this. We state that God is one, and that He created all things and that they were good. When evil appeared it was only because man abused his free will and acted contrary to the divine plan. As a result, it is the choices we make that are evil, while we ourselves still maintain the inherent dignity we had from our creation, even if it is corrupted and shines less than it should. You only redeem something because it is good, and we only love that which is truly beautiful. God redeems us because we are good, and we are beautiful, no matter what shape we are, or how wounded our life is by sin.
John Paul II focused on the interior life for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: it’s where what matters is housed. Christ drove home this point in the Gospel when he pointed out that it wasn’t the things man ate which defiled him (that is, the things of this creation), but rather what proceeded from his heart which defiled him. (Matthew 5:27-28) Another way of saying it is that how we use our free will that matters. He did this to drive home a powerful message: we have to stop blaming everyone else for our sins and imperfections. Most importantly, we have to stop blaming God for “making us this way”, for creating our passions and desires. It isn’t God’s fault we abuse them.
In addition to opposing those who perverted the understanding of matter, Christianity also opposed those who perverted the understanding of the spirit as well. They believed that it was what was on the inside that counted. They were a good person. They honored their parents interiorly, but couldn’t be bothered to express that honor visibly. (Matthew 15:6) They didn’t hate their brother, but they sure spent every waking moment demeaning him. They didn’t cheat on their spouse, but they spent every waking moment wishing they had the opportunity. They looked, but they didn’t touch. Or, if one prefers a more modern understanding, they looked, but they didn’t lust.
Why did Christ condemn these ideas with the strongest words? He devoted the entire second half of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:17-48: the part modern Christianity and the world always ignores) pointing out that our actions must match the interior disposition, otherwise we are lying. Over a period of five months (December 1980 to April 1981), John Paul II devoted ten different audiences towards how to live out this part of the Sermon on the Mount. He offered a hermeneutic to interpret this question through: works of the flesh (that is, being concerned only with life here in the immediate sense on earth) and works of the Spirit, a life focused on godliness and also our original call to communion. (General Audience 1/7/81) Our bodies are meant to be a visible representation of this life according to the Spirit lived interiorly in the heart. This is the dimension of the discussion that is frequently forgotten when discussing the concept of mature purity: the connection not only to the interior, but how we act in the exterior as well. Without this understanding, the doctrine of mature purity we are about to discuss makes little sense, and is essential to the “adequate anthropology” the Holy Father attempted to build in his Wednesday audiences.