His Teachings on Human Sexuality and the Theology of the Body

Human sexual acts are designed by God to be practiced only within a monogamous, indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman which unite them in a love that is open to new life. This is the teaching of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae (On Human Life).

Pope John Paul II saw the fulfillment of Pope Paul VI’s prophecies of the consequences of the practice of contraception, which violates God’s design. Pope Paul VI wrote:

Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection. (No.17).

In 1995, Pope John Paul wrote his Encyclical Letter, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) and made the connection between contraception and abortion. He said:

Contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree. The close connection which exists, in mentality, between the practice of contraception and that of abortion is becoming increasingly obvious. It is being demonstrated in an alarming way by the development of chemical products, intrauterine devices and vaccines which really act as abortifacients in the very early stages of the development of the life of the new human being.

The various techniques of artificial reproduction, which would seem to be at the service of life, actually open the door to new threats against life. They are morally unacceptable, since they separate procreation from the fully human context of the conjugal act.

To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance; that of an absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of true freedom: “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (Jn. 8:34).

We are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the “culture of death” and the “culture of life.” We find ourselves not only “faced with” but necessarily “in the midst of” this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life. “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” (Dt. 30:15, 19).

Between 1979 and 1984, the Pope gave several Wednesday Catechetical Addresses compiled as the “Theology of the Body”. In one of these Addresses, the Pope concluded his teaching about a conversation that Jesus had with the Pharisees regarding divorce. (See Matt. 19:3-8). He said, “In the answer to the Pharisees, Christ laid out before his interlocutors also this ‘integral vision of man’ without which no adequate answer can be given to the questions connected with marriage and procreation. Precisely this integral vision of man must be built from the ‘beginning’ ”.

And so, the Pope built his theology of the body “from the beginning” where God’s original creative intent is set forth in the book of Genesis that a man and woman should leave their families and come together as one flesh, going forth to multiply.

His theology of the body, as it applies to marriage, teaches that spousal bodies are created for communion through the mutual self-giving and receiving of the bodies of the husband and wife. He called this the “nuptial meaning” of the bodies.

John Paul II said, “That beatifying ‘beginning’ of man’s being and existing, as male and female is connected with the revelation and discovery of the meaning of the body, which can be called ‘nuptial’. The man’s words of joy, ‘this at last’ are followed by the verse which establishes their conjugal unity (Gn. 2.24) and then by the one which testifies to the nakedness of both, without mutual shame (Gn. 2.25). Precisely this significant confrontation enables us to speak of the revelation and at the same time the discovery of the ‘nuptial’ meaning of the body in the very mystery of creation.” (14.5). (Citations are to the number of the address followed by the paragraph number). This union is a reflection of the inner life of the Most Holy Trinity, which is self-giving and life-giving love.

Just as the Father and the Son hold nothing back in their love from which proceeds the love of the Holy Spirit. Neither can spouses in truth hold anything of themselves back, including their fertility, when they unite in sexual intercourse which is open to new life. That is why contraception is a lie because it withholds the gift of a spouse’s fertility, proceeds from lust and not true love and treats the other spouse as an object and not a human person, in violation of the dignity of the spouse.

This lust destroys the spouses call to a communion of their persons and distorts the nuptial meaning of the body. John Paul said that because of lust the man will want to “dominate” the woman and the woman, who will desire her husband (cf. Gn. 3.16), will feel a lack of full unity. Thus, the “original beatifying conjugal union of persons will be distorted in man’s heart by lust” (30.4).

The Pope explained that the lack of spousal mutual total physical self-giving is a lie. He wrote, “Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and a woman commit themselves totally to one another until death. The total physical self-giving would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving, in which the whole person, including the temporal dimension, is present: if the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally.” Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) 11

Christ’s redemptive call, the Pope said, is to “the rediscovery of the meaning of the whole of existence, the meaning of life, in which there is contained also that meaning of the body which here we call ‘nuptial.’ ” Christ appeals to man’s “heart” to the “supreme value that is love,” called “as a person in the truth of his humanity, therefore also in the truth of his masculinity and femininity, in the truth of his body” (46.6).

The man, male and female, who is “pure of heart” is the one who has taken possession of his or her desires; he or she is the one who has, through union with Christ, “redeemed” his or body, has rediscovered its “nuptial meaning” and is now able, thanks to Christ’s redemptive work, to “give” himself or herself away in love and to become fully one flesh in the beautiful reality of marriage.

For more information, see Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1998).