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

Deacon Jim Russell - Hermeneutics


“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.”

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest

19 thoughts on “Masters of Suspicion vs. the Meaning of Life: Getting ‘Theology of the Body’ Right”

    1. The “who” is not really important, particularly when one is seeking to re-examine the truth of what JPII taught and how it is faithfully presented in order to restore communion with fellow Catholics with whom such disagreements have occurred. Whenever JPII’s optimism has been tempered by suspicion regarding the capacity of grace to enable real purity of heart, and whenever a fellow Catholic like Christopher West is subjected to animus and ridicule for accurately presenting JPII’s teaching, there is work to be done.
      Naming names, so to speak, merely creates and maintains division, not unity. As Catholics, our project should be genuine unity and charity, exemplified by a willingness to seek to understand each other in the best possible light. Often, this requires subjecting our own comfortable narratives to the illumination of greater objectivity, while also being willing to stop objectifying a person (like West) as an ideological target and instead treating that person in a more respectful and Christ-like manner.
      Imagine how much better off we would all be if we sought to listen to each other in hopes of creating communion instead of harboring the suspicions that preserve our comfort zones at the expense of the dignity of other persons.

    2. Would this be considered an example of one of the “masters of suspicion?”

      “Married people ought not to keep their affections fixed on the sensual pleasures of their vocation, but ought afterwards to wash their hearts to purify them as soon as possible, so that they may then with a calm mind devote themselves to other purer and higher activities.”

    3. I only ask because back in 2010, several of those who are more likely to agree with you said this was indeed him being one of the masters of suspicion….. until they realized it was him who said it. For example, Mr. West’s editor said this idea was evidence of Manichean tendencies….

      I covered it awhile ago back in 2010:

      It’s a question I lead with everytime this subject comes up, and being blunt, you wouldn’t believe how many I get to say amongst the TOB Institute Types that the quote is evidence of Manicheanism, Jansenism, “suspicion of the body”, etc etc.

    4. The editor in question had this to say, in context: ***”Perhaps the saint was thinking that even in marriage concupiscent desire can enter in, as John Paul also says. De Sales might have been looking at it from that angle.
      “But when he says ‘wash their hearts to purify them’ he seems to imply that they were somehow made impure by conjugal union. But authentic conjugal union marked by love is not an impure activity, so why would they need to be thereafter purified? Even some of the saints had traces of Manichaean attitudes, as probably most of us do still have them in some ways.”****

    5. Kevin–I’m going to need your help in establishing precisely where St. Francis de Sales is supposed to have said the above quote. The source given is “Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 39”–“The Sanctity of the Marriage Bed”–but the text below is what I found there. Can you tell me the source so I can see the quote in original context?
      THE marriage bed should be undefiled, as the Apostle tells us, i.e. pure, as it was when it was first instituted in the
      earthly Paradise, wherein no unruly desires or impure thought might enter.

      All that is merely earthly must be treated as means to fulfill the end God sets before His creatures. Thus we eat in order to preserve life, moderately, voluntarily, and without seeking an undue, unworthy satisfaction therefrom.
      “The time is short,” says S. Paul; “it remaineth that both they that have wives be as though they had not, and they that use this world, as not abusing it.”

      Let every one, then, use this world according to his vocation, but so as not to entangle himself with its love, that he may be as free and ready to serve God as though he used it not. S. Augustine says that it is the great fault of men to want to enjoy things which they are only meant to use, and to use those which they are only meant to enjoy. We ought to enjoy
      spiritual things, and only use those which are material; but when we turn the use of these latter into enjoyment, the reasonable soul becomes degraded to a mere brutish level.

    6. Okay–so I found the unabridged translation of the De Sales quote (see below). I think the context makes his meaning very clear, and it doesn’t involve any question of “impurity” pertaining to marital relations (and thus in context represents no challenge to any aspect of purity of heart in the TOB corpus).

      The Saint’s point is that married couples are not supposed to…shall we say “fantasize”?…about the pleasures of marital relations either before or after relations. Would you agree with my assessment here?

      Unfortunately, by presenting only the part quoted above, one might think the “washing” image has something to do with sin or impurity–but it really only has to do with….elephants! 🙂
      He’s encouraging spouses to avoid inordinate attachments to created pleasure, which is contrary to the “freedom of spirit” that enables us to encounter the more noble and pure actions of union with God, as I see it.
      All in favor….?
      Not, in my view, a good “test quote” regarding the hermeneutic of suspicion; but I can understand the reply from years ago, as the quote wasn’t presented in the context St. Francis de Sales meant, in my opinion.

      7. It is a true sign of a beggarly, ignoble, mean and shameful spirit to think of food and eatables before the time for meals. More so, when after meals, one takes delight in the pleasure which one had in eating: enjoying it by words and thoughts, and revelling one’s spirit in the memory of the pleasure one had in swallowing the mouthfuls. Such are those who before dinner keep their minds on what is being cooked and after dinner on what was eaten. They deserve to be scullions (154) in the kitchen who, as St.Paul says, make a god of their belly (Ph. 3:19). Persons of honour do not think of the table except when they sit down. After the meal, they wash their hands and mouth in order to have neither the taste nor the smell of what they have eaten.

      The elephant is only a huge beast but the most dignified and most intelligent animal which lives on earth. I wish to tell you an instance of its excellence. It never changes its mate and loves tenderly the one it has chosen. However, it does not mate with it except every third year, and that for five days only, and so secretly that it is not seen doing this act. Nevertheless, it is seen on the sixth day on which before anything else, it goes straight to some river. There it washes completely its whole body without any wish to return to the flock before it is purified. (155) Are not these beautiful and chaste characteristics of such an animal an invitation to the married? They are not to remain entangled in attachment to sexual pleasures which they have experienced according to their vocation. When they are over, they are to wash their hearts and affection for them, and purify themselves as soon as possible. Thus, soon after, they can practise with freedom of spirit other purer and more noble actions.

      The perfect practice of the excellent teaching which St.Paul gives to the Corinthians consists in this counsel: The time is short, he says, it remains that those who have wives be as if they do not have any (1 Cor. 7:29). According to St.Gregory, he who has a wife as if he has not any, means that he takes such bodily comforts with her that by them he is not turned away from his spiritual aims. What is said of the husband extends reciprocally to the wife. Let those who use the world, says the same Apostle, be as if they do not use it (1 Cor. 7:31). Let all, therefore, use the world, each one according to one’s state of life, but in such a way that they do not attach their love to it. They ought to be free and ready to serve God as if they do not use it at all. ³It is the great evil of man,” says St.Augustine, ³to wish to enjoy things which he should only use, and to wish to use those which he should only enjoy.” We must enjoy spiritual things and only use bodily things. When the use of bodily things is turned into enjoyment, our rational soul becomes brutal and irrational like an animal.

    7. Btw, Kevin, we can see how our exchange on this subject has yielded some good fruit–by re-examining a three-year-old comment and the conclusions drawn from it, we can now more clearly see why the quote from St. Francis de Sales, presented out of context, was ultimately questioned, and how such questioning seems reasonable when the quote is examined in isolation from its context.
      In context, though, we can see that it offers no disharmony when compared to what we all agree is being said in the TOB corpus and presented by folks like C. West.
      This is precisely the kind of re-examining and re-considering I’m proposing at the end of my original post above.

    8. I will also add a rather obvious consideration: in some blogospheric recesses, one sees the word “heresy” associated with Christopher West’s work, *despite* the incontestable fact that West’s catechetical work bears the imprimatur and nihil obstat and that he has the endorsement of numerous Catholic bishops. As such, it would seem fair to consider such commenters operating under a hermeneutic of suspicion, a hermeneutic that is ultimately incompatible with both the authentic teaching of JPII and the clear guidance of the episcopacy regarding West’s works.

    9. Anyway one slices or dices the history of church teaching on sex, it comes out one of the more lowly, less pure, less noble aspects of life. I think this is sad and discouraging to lots of people.

    10. Don’t be sad guest. This mixing of elephants and oranges is the
      theology of those who worship hard dogma and hair shirts. They
      are Paulian in nature which places them in a prison of their own
      making. They speak of and seek perfection and by postulating such an impossible course for all ( except the very few who beg the grace to try) they are bound to fullfill it. We are to love God
      with all are heart and mind and strength. For the many who are
      wallowing, treading water and swimming with effort in this ocean of birth it is easier to say, Lord, I am not worthy and trust that He
      will find us a way..

    11. Hi, guest–be encouraged! “Church teaching on sex” in all its authenticity has actually been resplendent in its optimism despite times in culture and history in which these truths were perhaps less clear than they are today. In terms of the call to holiness, we do well to keep in mind that nuptial communion is the primary lens through which we can understand our call to communion with God–so, when compared to union with the Creator, the “sign” that marriage is is distinct from union with God, but marriage’s inherent nobility and purity is in no way called into question by such a comparison.

    12. James and Jim, thank you for those kind and enlightening words. I really do appreciate your thoughts on this issue.

  1. Pingback: Why Pope Francis is Time's "Person of the Year" -

  2. Patti Maguire Armstrong

    Thanks for a nice article and encouragement to embrace joyful optimism even in the face for so much difficulty. God bless you.

  3. Thank you for the article Jim. You are right. We need to change our world view and to approach these things from a Catholic perspective and not as students of the “masters of suspicion.”

  4. Thank you for a very clear article on a very complex subject. You defined for me those “three bad boys,” Freud, Mark and Nietzsche. And the issue of suspicion, that the goal of purity is impossible, so we might as well give in to our flawed natures, our lusts for the flesh and the material. I know in my own conversion story that as a young man I often told myself, “You’ve sinned so much that no one would forgive you; you’re hopeless, so you might as well “keep on, keeping on,” down the highway to hell.” But there is One who will forgive us. The Lord of Mercy, Jesus Christ.
    St. Augustine speaks for me when he says, “O late have I loved Thee, O beauty ever ancient, ever new. O how late have I loved Thee.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.