One can think about Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body in two ways. It can be seen as an introduction to and catechesis on basic themes in Catholic theology (the imago dei, the Trinity, creation as gift, the importance of embodiment, persons as made for communion) by way of the ordinary experience of romantic love and marriage. Or it may be an attempt to construct a positive narrative of romantic love that conforms to and reinforces certain highly contested moral norms for sexuality. Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, and the Rev. José Granados, who teaches at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, have written a follow-up to Anderson’s very successful text on John Paul’s social vision (A Civilization of Love), which can be read in both ways, but which highlights the first.
The present book is organized in three parts, corresponding to the divisions of the original work. The first presents John Paul’s phenomenology of the “original experience” of the person as embodied gift, called to communion with another. The second works through the “rifts” that block our access to that original experience, as well as God’s remedy for them (Christ). The third then considers the concrete forms in which this original and redeemed experience is lived out (marriage and virginity).
The first and second parts contain much attractive theological “catechesis,” as mentioned above, in particular explaining the “gift” character of God’s creation, of human relationship and of God’s own self. The authors also emphasize the characteristic theme that self-giving love is not experienced on some purely spiritual level, but in fact given through and in the body itself. The third part contains some detailed explanations of specific moral problems, notably I.V.F. and contraception, but the authors do not even mention any of these issues until page 184. They keep the focus on John Paul’s overall vision.
The most striking characteristic of the text is that it is not simply an exegesis of the pope’s talks. The authors quote extensively from John Paul’s literary corpus, indicating the continuity in the romantic vision found there and John Paul’s reading of Genesis. The literary emphasis distinguishes this book from many “popularized” presentations of the theology of the body (by, for example, Christopher West), offering us a far more adult style and reflecting more richly the theological foundations of the work. The authors succeed in placing sexuality within a grace-filled, sacramental narrative of humanity’s relation to God. These general theological claims take up far more space than, for example, discussions of “lust.” The authors instead describe “concupiscence” in terms of “the logic of domination” or “possessiveness.” Not simply excessive sexual desire, concupiscence is rooted in a lack of genuine trust and openness to the other. Thus, the book’s overall vision is likely to appeal to both supporters and critics of theology of the body. Finally, in line with Anderson’s prior book, the text closes with a rousing discussion of the mission of the family in the larger world. The authors write that “if the family refuses to go beyond its own boundaries, contenting itself instead with the pursuit of purely private goals, it ceases to be a true family.”
Of course, any book indebted to a single thinker, which does not really deal with potential criticisms, cannot help but share in some of the weaknesses of the subject. Two are worth mentioning. First, especially for a theory that claims to resonate with experience, the book is very abstract—especially in its early parts. While the authors offer occasional examples, and do a good job continually repeating summaries of how the argument is proceeding, the pope’s description of the dynamics of “original” love sounds detached from reality. Some readers, however, may find resonances with their experience of the joys and pains of romantic love in John Paul’s literary characters. Second, the pope’s general discussion of theological anthropology highlights the gift character of every person, and our call to communion with all. Examples used include a story of caring for a beggar. But how is all of this displayed most vividly in spousal love?
Further, phrases such as “the body entered theology” through the Incarnation, or “Christ’s suffering flesh fulfills what we have called the ‘nuptial meaning of the body’” suggest that the primary bodily communion offered by Christ is one of eucharistic fellowship, the communion of the whole church. Certainly this vision includes familial love (appropriately transformed). But familial love is not the foundation. Is not the church’s communion in Christ the foundation on which spousal love rests? Isn’t that why we marry in church?
These concerns, however, do not undercut the excellent work Anderson and Granados have done in offering a rich and mature version of John Paul II’s work.