This month marks the first anniversary of the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’. Upon reading it, I was struck by certain parallels of thought between it and something I had not initially expected to be relevant: Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. However, if we are to emphasise the importance of the body in Catholic teaching, the environment in which that body resides must also be important. These parallels may in places be broad, to be sure, but the nature of Catholic thought is such that its themes echo throughout many different issues, and so I offer these comments as starting points for reflection on both Laudato si’ and the Theology of the Body.
In the Beginning
Both Francis and John Paul want to understand just what humans were created to be, and so they examine the creation stories in Genesis. John Paul is most explicit; in his first audience of the many that constitute the Theology of the Body, he reflects on what it means for Jesus to say that in the beginning, divorce was not part of God’s plan. In his exploration of what it means to be “in the beginning,” he concludes that it is an appeal to reflect on how humans were originally created and how we existed in a state before sin, when we were not separated from God and could stand before each other without shame. In seeing how God originally intended man and woman to relate to each other, John Paul believes that we can see how man and woman should still relate to each other. This knowledge is essential because masculinity and femininity are so closely tied to the basic meaning of human existence; being able to understand what it means to be a man or a woman does not simply provide us with a correct way of living one’s life, but a way of fulfilling our nature as human beings.
Francis similarly wants to get at “the heart of what makes us human.” Like John Paul, he turns to Genesis in order to understand the primordial elements of human nature, but his focus is the original relationship between the first humans and the earth itself. Ultimately, he says, “We were created with a vocation to work.” Work, especially care of the earth, is fundamental to being human. In knowing the original human vocation, and seeing how the first humans were told to keep the earth, Francis believes that we can see the standard by which our present relationship with the earth should be judged, but again, this standard is not merely the recommended course of action. Understanding this standard provides a way to be most fully human. By appealing to the creation stories, Francis and John Paul emphasise that they are not only concerned with how we should act, but how we should be.
What, exactly, might this right human existence look like? In part, it will involve a concern for the dignity of others. As John Paul says, “Each of them, the man and the woman, is not only a passive object, defined by his own body and his own sex, and in this way determined ‘by nature.’ On the contrary, precisely through being man and woman, each of them is ‘given’ to the other as a unique and unrepeatable subject, as ‘I,’ as person.” As humans, we are not merely members of a species, but are persons who can choose to give ourselves to another. We are created in the image of God, Who is love, Who gives Himself to us, and so we are like Him. Sexuality involves us in the mystery of creation, allowing us to rationally and lovingly participate in the ongoing process of new life coming into the world, and therefore grants us an unimaginable dignity amongst other creatures. Moreover, it compels us to recognise other beings as being precious and individual persons bearing the image of God and possessing the same dignity we do.
Much of Francis’s concern for how humans treat the world is in fact tied to his concern for human dignity; he immediately notes that “the destruction of the human environment is extremely serious… because human life itself is a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement.” He describes how the poor bear the greatest burden of environmental degradation, and how they are frequently victims of a throwaway culture that disposes of used things and useless persons, even though we should “see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object.” When persons live in an environment that is damaged by various sorts of pollution, for example, they may not be able to grow food or find drinkable water, and thus must struggle merely to exist.
The danger in the cases of both the environment and the body is that, because they are so rich with goodness, we will become motivated by the desire to just consume them. We can be overcome by the want to extract every resource, and every ounce of pleasure. In these cases, we see ourselves as having dominion over the world, instead of being its keepers, or cease to see others as “thou,” but merely as “it.” The relationships at the foundation of our humanity become disordered, and we begin to take instead of receiving gifts, or giving ourselves. The world is not something that has no meaning save than which we impose upon it, or an empty stage on which we can display our powers. As Marc Barnes of Bad Catholic writes in America Magazine,
Sexuality and the land both have a life of their own. The cycles of the land, determined by soil, weather and biology, exist quite apart from the decisions of the farmer. Nor do we control the cycles of sexuality, which are governed by desire, fertility and menstruation.
It is therefore actually quite appropriate to link the body and the earth, as they are both others which give to us, and with which we must cooperate in order for them to bear fruit most effectively. The very nature of a sexual body implies another being. Barnes describes a farmer who “uses what is given, and only because it is ‘already going on’ can he use it at all. His is a work of cooperation with the land, not sheer mastery over it.” As co-creators, we cannot ourselves bring things into being, but must instead allow ourselves to understand and accept how creation already functions.
Furthermore, it is in fact essential to associate the earth and the body because John Paul highlights how the body is what manifests the person in the world. We are not merely spirits who will one day be liberated from the material; in our creed, we profess looking forward to the resurrection of the dead, which underlines just how essential to our being we believe our bodies to be. Therefore, the environment in which our bodies reside should be used in such a way so that we may thrive.
Finding God in all Things
We do not believe in a watchmaker deity who designs a universe and steps away from it, but in a God in Whom all things live, move, and have their being, and both Popes emphasise the structures of sexuality and creation reflect this. When it comes to the nature of the human body John Paul argues that “man became the image of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons, which man and woman form from the very beginning.” He then goes further, saying, “The theology of the body, which is linked from the beginning with the creation of man in the image of God, becomes in some way also a theology of sex, or rather a theology of masculinity and femininity.” Just as the Trinity is a communion of persons giving themselves to each other and giving life, humans, bearing the image of God, give themselves to each other and play the role of co-creators, bringing about new life. The sexual nature of a body is not something that only points to another body, but also helps us to understand, however inadequately, something about God’s nature.
Along these lines, Francis approvingly quotes the Canadian bishops, who call nature “a continuing revelation of the divine,” and himself says that “the contemplation of creation allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us.” Creation is a way of encountering God. One example of this is natural law, the idea that the right use of things is knowable by understanding for what end they are made, and so the correct moral use of things is written into the very structure of creation.
When we are not able to actually see creation, and feel awe at its vastness, or at the profundities of love, but can see only the things that we have built, and believe that we can (or will be able to) describe every last natural happenstance in the most minute detail and thus can say we understand the universe, we can forget that God is the true Creator, and that we are only using what He has given us, and that we have limited powers. Personally, it still surprises me that this Jesuit pope never cites the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, famous for his poems about how the world reveals God through His boundless creativity, about how the “world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
In Laudato si’ and the Theology of the Body, Francis and John Paul are concerned with how God is visible in the world and right human existence. In a world without God, we are no longer co-creators, but creators, and we must decide for ourselves how to be, even though we cannot assign to the environment or our bodies any lasting meaning. A true humanism, therefore, cannot stand without good theology. Secular humanism can only appeal to a randomly created universe populated by a species whose history is one of sin, while a Catholic humanism has a more sure foundation: a nature which reflects the Creator.