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Masters of Suspicion vs. the Meaning of Life: Getting ‘Theology of the Body’ Right

December 3, AD2013 19 Comments


“The meaning of the body is in some way the antithesis of Freudian libido.

The meaning of life is the antithesis of the hermeneutics \’of suspicion.\’”

(Blessed Pope John Paul II, TOB 46:6)


So, have you ever wondered whether, somewhere in the hundred-plus audiences of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” he actually said what the meaning of life is? Yes. Yes, he did. Right there in that quote.

Okay, it’s true that he says what the “meaning of life” actually is the opposite (antithesis) of, but it’s a start, right?

The truth is that Blessed Pope John Paul II does develop the idea of what he calls the “meaning of life” positively, and in great detail when he addresses the “masters of suspicion” in this general audience from October 29, 1980.

Who are the “masters of suspicion”?

The Holy Father mentions a trio of them: Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche—and the “whole system each one represents.” He further says their “hermeneutics” (principles of interpretation) correspond to the threefold concupiscence (Nietzsche = pride of life, Marx = concupiscence of the eyes, Freud = concupiscence of the flesh). The Pope says that such masters of suspicion “seem in substance also to judge and accuse the human ‘heart.’” He says that they judge and accuse precisely “due to what biblical language calls concupiscence.” He adds that these hermeneutics \”of suspicion\” put the heart in a state of continual suspicion.

He goes on to say, “Man cannot stop at casting the heart into a state of continual and irreversible suspicion due to the manifestations of the concupiscence of the flesh and of the libido uncovered, among other things, by a psychoanalyst through analysis of the unconscious.”

Hoping your eyes haven’t glazed over completely, but all this is important to get to the heart of this “meaning of life” being proposed here. At the opposite pole of Christ’s call to purity of heart for every human person is the hermeneutics of \”suspicion\” represented so vividly by these “masters of suspicion.” The very meaning of “the whole of existence”—the very meaning of my life and  your life—is to choose Christ’s call to purity of heart and avoid this continual, and supposedly irreversible suspicion rooted in concupiscence.

To miss this important guidepost is not only to miss the “meaning of life” but, unfortunately, missing this guidepost also means getting Blessed Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” exactly wrong.

This hermeneutics of \”suspicion\”—the continual and supposedly irreversible suspicions that “accuse” the human heart–has, in my view, entered the Catholic arena in which the “Theology of the Body” is discussed, both at the academic and blogospheric levels of Catholic discourse. In the last few years, there has been a small chorus of pessimistic voices serving as “masters of suspicion” regarding the very meaning of the TOB corpus. And the primary message being delivered is that Blessed Pope John Paul II’s optimistic presentation of “purity of heart” is somehow being “oversold” as a possibility for the human person—that the only realistic path involves this continual “suspicion” and “accusation” regarding concupiscence’s domination of the heart. The “masters of suspicion” effectively assert that there can be no real victory over concupiscence in this life, despite the fact that the Holy Father clearly says there can be.

And one of my brothers in Christ—veteran Theology of the Body author and presenter Christopher West—has likewise found himself continually “accused” of handing on this encouraging teaching on purity of heart. Why? In this instance, because he has faithfully communicated the deep optimism of Blessed Pope John Paul II in addressing Christ’s call to us to overcome concupiscence. Of all the other errors critics have made regarding interpreting West’s work, this is, in my view, the biggest, because it involves the very “meaning of life” as expressed above by Blessed Pope John Paul II.

The pull of concupiscence.

Make no mistake—neither Blessed Pope John Paul II nor Christopher West under-estimate the pull of concupiscence. But neither would they ever claim that God’s grace was not sufficient to allow the human person victory over it. Nonetheless, an enormous amount of intellectual and spiritual energy has been spent—among Catholics—arguing over just how “optimistic” we should really be about the power of God’s grace to transform us! The “masters of suspicion” seem unwilling to accept the idea that the domination of concupiscence over us is reversible.

But continuing to lament this lost opportunity for mutual understanding over the last few years doesn’t help. Instead, what can we do about it?

Let’s go back to the Theology of the Body “playbook”—let’s stop listening to our own narratives and our own suspicions and listen instead to each other. Let’s seek to repair and rebuild the “communion of persons” that should exist among fellow Catholics by seeking understanding—as though for the first time—regardless of how much we think we already “know” about another’s view of the Theology of the Body.

Let’s strive mightily to embrace the joyful optimism of Blessed Pope John Paul II regarding our call to purity of heart. Like him, let’s reject the hermeneutics \”of suspicion\” and instead reclaim our interior dignity so as to fully experience—from the inside out—the real “meaning of life.”

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Deacon Jim Russell is a lifelong St. Louis resident, "cradle" Catholic, husband, father of eleven, and grandfather of two. Ordained to the Diaconate in 2002, Deacon Russell serves as Director of Liturgy for Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, the second-largest parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He remains an active supporter of Catholic radio and the Catholic blogosphere and has just begun blogging here at Catholic Stand. Deacon Russell’s theological interests include the sanctity of marriage and the work of Blessed Pope John Paul II, particularly his “Catecheses on Human Love” (Theology of the Body). Follow Deacon Russell on Twitter at @MarriageSTL.

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