Mary Shivanandan’s most recent book, Crossing the Threshold of Love, is an accessible and comprehensive interpretation of John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” Shivanandan, a professor at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family (Washington, D.C.), helps readers perceive the true significance of the Pope’s work by delineating the theological, philosophical and social context surrounding John Paul II’s articulation of a new anthropology of the human person. Teachers and students alike will benefit from Shivanandan’s helpful suggestions regarding classroom use of the text.
Beginning with his early plays, Shivanandan shows how Karol Wojtyla gradually developed the major themes that culminated in the series of Wednesday audiences, given from 1978 to 1984, now known as Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” Shivanandan’s discussion of the philosophic foundations of Wojtyla’s thought emphasizes the Pope’s fundamental grounding in Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. John Paul II enriches Thomas’s observations by attempting to show, in “The Acting Person,” how man’s awareness or consciousness of himself includes and validates the experience of moral freedom. It is through action that man attains self-knowledge. Argues Shivanandan, “the person’s fulfillment only takes place through action. This finally leads [Wojtyla] to the conclusion that the person reaches his greatest fulfillment through acting together with other persons, both divine and human, in a communio personarum or community of persons.
John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” employs many of the philosophic insights discussed in the pope’s prior works in order to shed new light on crucial scriptural passages regarding marriage, chastity and love. Shivanandan particularly emphasizes the concept of “original solitude,” which the Pope develops in reference to Genesis 2:18: “It is not good that man [male] should be alone; I will make a helper for him.” In becoming conscious of his own body, man discovers that he is alone. This solitude is a precondition of human consciousness, which, in turn, reveals man’s capacity for rational self-determination. In recognizing that he is not like the rest of creation, man is opened to receiving the revelation that he has been created “in the image of God.”
The experience of original solitude inspires man to recognize his need to be part of a “communion of persons.” Notes Shivanandan, “This is a vital point of [John Paul II’s] anthropology and opposes radically the autonomous individuality of the Enlightenment. And yet it affirms the essential subjectivity of man. Only on the basis of a ‘double solitude,’ in which both the man and the woman have full subjectivity and consciousness of the meaning of their bodies can they have a true reciprocity.” Double solitude prepares the way for “original unity” and knowledge of the duality of sex and physical fertility.
The body, however, does not simply exist for the sake of procreation. The body has a “nuptial meaning” signified by its capacity to express love in the marital act, a love only satisfied by a total self-giving and unification of persons. “The man and the woman,” writes Shivanandan, “are a gift to each other as persons, and through the gift fulfill each other.” “Yet,” adds Shivanandan, “the need [to give oneself] is not primarily physical but spiritual, stemming from man’s nature as a person…. Union with another human being cannot satisfy this need.” The human person is only fulfilled by eternal union with God.
One of the strengths of Crossing the Threshold of Love is Shivanandan’s discussion of the significance of the Theology of the Body in relation to the historical development of the Church’s teaching regarding contraception. Also interesting is Shivanandan’s correlation of sociological studies of contraceptive and NFP marriages with various insights drawn from John Paul II. Crossing the Threshold of Love, however, would be a better book if Shivanandan were less concerned with defending the merits of “experiential learning” and devoted more space to integrating the findings of contemporary social science with those of the Theology of the Body. Certain sections of Part II read as if they were written for a different book altogether.
Such weaknesses aside, Crossing the Threshold of Love is still the best available single introduction to John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
Jameson Taylor is a writer at HLI. This article is reprinted courtesy of HLI Reports, a publication of Human Life International.