The Theology of the Healthy Body – Part I

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St. John Paul II realized that the term “theology of the body” in his work, Theology of the Body,1 was a “working term”2 and that his catechesis that concentrated on marriage had much broader implications:

We must immediately note that the term “theology of the body” goes far beyond the content of the reflections that were made.3

His insights can bear theological fruit in a logical and interesting extension of his work to the Theology of the Healthy Body.

Each Person as Soul Body
Each person is a souled-body, an embodied soul. In the venerable terms of the Baltimore Catechism: “Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.”4

A variety of definitions and discussion stress that a person is not a soul that possesses or that uses a body. A person is not a body which has a soul in it. To John Paul, a person is “a complimentary combination of ‘body-life’.”5 The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes a human being as “a being at once body and soul.”6 The Catholic Encyclopedia presents a clear concise summary:

Together with the body, the soul constitutes the substantial unity of the human being . . . Human identity is … constituted by the unity of soul and body. The relation of the soul to the body is not an instrumental one, but a real, substantial one.7

William May speaks of a person as “the body person, i.e., the human person made in God’s image.”8 A person’s body is not merely a disposable tool that can be used to get to heaven or abused to damn one to hell.

In his penetrating teachings, John Paul demonstrated that the body is nuptial, symbolic, free/fallen, and redeemed. Considering each of these aspects leads directly to a Theology of the Healthy Body.

The Body as Nuptial, as Gift

For John Paul, a person’s body expresses the person;9 reveals the living soul;10 is a manifestation of the spirit11 and makes visible what is invisible about the person.12 The nuptial quality of the human body is the capacity to express love.13 It is both an expression of the human need for community14 and a statement that the essence of a human person is existing for another.15 This nuptial or gift character is a result of God’s generous loving creation. Consequently, every creature bears within it the sign of God’s original and fundamental gift.16

The body as gift is realized when the gift is given, to another or to others:

The communion of persons means existing in a mutual “for,” in a relationship of mutual gift….the expression of that gift – and for that reason the expression of his existence as a person – is the human body in all the original truth of its masculinity and femininity.17

If a person’s body has this nuptial quality, if the body is a gift, then what kind of gift should the person choose to give? How is the gift cared for and nurtured? And, perhaps most importantly, why care for the gift and nurture it? What about the gift of the body of others-how can a person help another to give the best gift possible? The asking of these questions and the answers to them lead to a Theology of the Healthy Body.

The Body as Symbolic

A symbol points beyond itself and conveys something besides its visual impact and its literal meaning. For John Paul the body as symbol has several roles. The body reveals the person in all the person’s corporality or bodiliness as a creature, but a creature similar to God.18 Each person’s body reveals a living soul;19 manifests a person’s spirit;20 expresses the person;21 and reveals a unique unrepeatable creature.22 In addition to the body’s symbolic role of revealing each individual person, the body “points toward the human need for community;”23 i.e., the gift symbolized is, inter alia, a gift to others.

In one of the most-quoted passages of John Paul’s work, he says: “The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine.”24 This is an echo of St. Augustine’s view that a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible reality.25 John Paul refers to the human person as the “sacrament of man in the world”26 and the human body is that sacramental sign:

By means of his corporality, his masculinity and femininity, man became a visible sign of the economy of truth and love … So the very sacramentality of creation, the sacramentality of the world was revealed in a way, in man created in the image of God.27

… the body … assumes the value of a sign – in a way, a sacramental sign.28

If the body is symbolic, how does a person best present the symbol? How is a body nurtured and cared for so that the symbol is most effective? Why care about whether one’s personal bodily actions symbolize anything? To whom is and to whom should be the symbol’s meaning manifested? The asking of these questions and the answers to them are the basis for an introduction to facets of the Theology of the Healthy Body.

The Body as Free and Fallen

John Paul comments on the freedom of persons before the Fall:

Understanding the nuptial meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity reveals the depths of their freedom, which is freedom of giving.31

Prior to original sin, when persons enjoyed and exercised a freedom of giving, the human body was untainted, pure, healthy, and undying. Why does the body deteriorate and die now after the Fall? What were bodies like before the Fall? What does the condition of human bodies before the Fall mean for persons’ bodies now, especially if they are to be gift and symbol? The asking of these questions and the answers to them provide further insights for the Theology of the Healthy Body.

The Body Is Redeemed

St. Paul said: “We who have the first fruit of the spirit groan inwardly as we wait for…the redemption of our bodies.”32 For John Paul, the “reality of redemption” is also “redemption of the body;”33 and a final important quality of a person’s body is that each person’s body is redeemed:

Precisely this perspective of the redemption of the body guarantees the continuity and unity between the hereditary state of man’s sin and his original innocence…34

Through redemption, every man has received from God again, as it were, himself and his own body.35

If the body is redeemed, if it has a new dignity imprinted on it through Christ’s redemptive sacrifice of His own body, what behavior should the Catholic engage in (and what not) with the body? Why care for a redeemed body which will decay until death – especially if there is the possibility of a glorified body in eternity? If the body is now holy in a new way, how must it (and the bodies of others) be treated? If the body is now really and truly bodily part of Christ, how is it to be treated and cared for? All these questions and their answers point to the Theology of the Healthy Body.

ENDNOTES for Part I

1. Pope John Paul II, The Theology of the Body. Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1997. (henceforth “TB”).

2. TB 422.

3. TB 420.

4. Baltimore Catechism No. 1. Boston: J.L. Spaulding, 1885; Answer

5. TB 97.

6. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Boston: St. Paul Books and Media, 1994. 1146 (henceforth “Catechism”).

7. “Soul,” Catholic Encyclopedia. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1991. p.899.

8. William May, The Communion of Persons in Marriage and the Conjugal Act, 2003.

9. TB 61.

10. Id.

11. TB 63.

12. TB 76.

13. TB 63.

14. TB 17.

15. TB 60.

16. TB 57.

17. TB 61.

18. TB 47.

19. TB 61.

20. TB 163.

21. Id.

22. TB 65.

23. TB 17.

24. TB 76.

25. St. Augustine, Tractate 26 on John.

26. TB 76.

27. Id.

28. TB 163.

29. Tertullian, Ad Address to the Martyrs, III.

30. Ignatius of Antioch, An Address to the Romans, Chap. 5.

31. TB 74.

32. Rom. 8:23

33. TB 207.

34. TB 34.

35. TB 207.

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4 thoughts on “The Theology of the Healthy Body – Part I”

  1. Errant theology comes in many forms as when allegorical lessons become a part of human history –
    like the Adam and Eve story. What God told them is that if they ate the fruit it would become their fate to die – to lose their bodies through death. The opposite of everlasting life is everlasting death or rebirth. Why put so much weight on Paul’s primitive theology when Jesus said it best in Mark 8 35-36.
    ” For whoever wishes to save his life ( his body, since souls do not die ) will lose it, but whoever loses
    ( gives up ) his life (body) for My sake will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? ” In other words you would only want to gain the world for a body, not a soul. What one would lose their soul to, is a body -.It is the soul that gives life to a body – it is a soul that can not be extracted from the body if you are serving that body.

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