In the very first year of his papacy, Pope John Paul II planted a time bomb in the Church that is not likely to go off until about twenty years from now. Beginning in September 1979, he devoted fifteen minutes of each weekly general audience over a five–year period to sustained, dense, and rigorous meditations on human sexuality. Reflecting on key biblical passages, the Pope began by wondering what it meant to Adam, walking in the garden, to discover that he was alone as an embodied self. He also asked what it means to Karol Wojtyla, and the rest of us, to be embodied selves. Even during the papal conclave that elected him, Cardinal Wojtyla had been working on these lectures, intending to use them in his teaching in Krakow. He was unsatisfied with the reception to Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae of 1968, and unsatisfied, too, with the state of the argument in the Church, thinking that it did not go as far as it could in answering certain basic puzzlements that humans have about themselves. In particular, certain passages in the Bible about male and female, love and lust, matrimony and divorce are not transparent in their meaning, and stirred Wojtyla’s wonder. What on earth could they mean? To get to the bottom of the mystery that we are to ourselves, must we not go down more deeply into a philosophy of the human self, that is, the human subject?
In the 129 public addresses that Pope John Paul II delivered over those five years, in four long sequences of a varying number of weeks, he went back to the Word of God to try to fathom the Creator’s intentions in this puzzling work of His. The Pope began with Adam in his solitude. Adam walked alone as a species, neither vegetable nor mineral, neither God nor animal, and not an angel, either. He stood alone in all creation. He did not have the company of his own kind. Neither could he procreate, and so assure the continuation of his species. His was a poignant solitude, a truly silent solitude. It was not, the Bible tells us, good. It lacked an essential part.
And so from Adam’s flesh—to underline the oneness of the human essence—God created Eve. Not just “woman,” but a person with a name, face, shape, and personality. One inescapable point of this account is that the human being is two–in–one. “Male and female He created them in the beginning.” To make man two–in–one was God’s intention, from even before time began.
Further, if the human being is made “in the image of God” (the second point the Bible insists upon), it is as “male and female” together. Something in our male–and–femaleness–together pulls back the veil on what God is like. The distinctness of our being male and female is revelatory of God’s own being and inner life.
We human beings are not “persons” in the way an angel is. We are each embodied male or female, and it is in our communion with one another that we are “images of God.” Each gender alone is incompletely human. We are made for the communion of male with female.
Why then, so soon, did Adam and Eve become “aware of their nakedness” and filled with “shame”? That this shame is not due to their bodies, or merely to their being naked, is made plain by one glaring fact: shame had no part in their original being; it is not of their essence. On the contrary, the shame arises only when Adam and Eve violate the will written into their natures by their Creator, when they use each other to suit their own individual appetites, wishing to put self in the place of God. Their shame arises when they become enemies of one another, through the war for dominance on the part of each. Then they must hide from one another, and in order to become master, learn the arts of seduction.
Their sexed individuality was given Adam and Eve so that, in becoming one, they might heal their essential incompleteness, and come into existence as the one essence God intended “from the beginning.” By willing the good of the other—that is, by self–giving love—male and female become one in spirit, will, and truth. That gift comes not solely from one, unrequited; the gift of one is matched by the gift of the other, freely given; their love is mutual. To speak of Adam and Eve as “in communion” is to capture their gift of each to each. Their beings come to rest in one another.
Thus, however imperfectly, our sexuality reveals to us that, whatever else He might be like, our Creator lives in self–giving communion. This experience of communion between woman and man, self–giving, in mutuality, and without either’s dominance, is more like the inner life of God than anything else that we encounter in creation. To self–giving communion, willing wholly the good of the other as other, giving of self freely and in accord with the creative will of the Creator, nothing else in the experience of the race comes close.
Wojtyla’s views on sex reflect the riches of the Catholic tradition—erotic, poetic, profound. In two of the deepest, most lovely lines in the poetry of any language Dante captures the essence of this love and all its range:
En’ la sua volonta e nostra pace . . . L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle
In His will, our peace . . . The love that moves the sun and other stars.
Propelled by its most divine–like energies, l’amor is sexual, erotic, physical, and in that form its communio is procreative. From two–in–one there comes a third. From the love of two there comes the miraculous and startling creativity of birthing, pushing forth a newborn child—not just “child,” but “girl” or “boy.”
Consider the relation of Wojtyla to Aquinas. Thomas Gilby once said of Aquinas that he paid things, in the act of rendering them in their complexity, “the compliment of attempting to do so without breaking into poetry.” Yet, as Gilby shows in putting together a miscellany of Aquinas’ texts on love, Aquinas did not fall short of poetry by much:
Love is more unitive than knowledge in seeking the thing, not the thing’s reason; its bent is to a real union. . . . Other effects of love he also enumerates: a reciprocal abiding [mutua inhaesio], of lover and beloved together as one; a transport [exstasis] out of the self to the other; an ardent cherishing [zelus] of another; a melting [liquefactio] so that the heart is unfrozen and open to be entered; a longing in absence [languor], heat in pursuit [fervor], and enjoyment in presence [fruitio]. In delight, too, there is an all at once wholeness and timelessness that reflect the tota simul of eternity; an edge of sadness similar to that of the Gift of Knowledge; an expansion of spirit; a complete fulfillment of activity without satiety, for they that drink shall yet thirst.
Wojtyla, too, is a poet, but he grew up under Nazi occupation, and was driven to deeper depths by the knowledge of sheer terror and the need for steely will. When all around his friends were being brutalized, dehumanized, and exterminated with ruthlessly systematic purpose, the “communion of subjects” came to seem to him more rare and precious. It was to the interiority of the human subject that events had driven him. Where Aquinas had written, “Love is more unitive than knowledge in seeking the thing, not the thing’s reason,” Wojtyla would write “subject” in the place of “thing.” Rigorously, he would take Aquinas and drive every term of his analysis inward, toward the subject, and toward that communio in which two subjects fuse as one. The only trustworthy path, experience had shown the young Wojtyla, is self–donating will, willing the good of the other, no matter how one feels. Under terror, one’s own feelings cannot at all times be trusted.
For the young priest and later pope, even celibacy is understood in the light of matrimony, the sacrament by which the Creator revealed to humankind the communio of His own nature. Thus, the second set of the Pope’s meditations, begun in 1980, concerns the trick question the Sadduccees put to Jesus: If a woman was married and widowed seven times, with which husband shall she be joined in Paradise? Jesus answered that the Sadduccees misapprehended Paradise. It is not that humans there are bodiless but that communio comes to the fore, communion with “the Love that moves the sun and other stars,” in Whose will is peace. The unity with God that constitutes Paradise is to will the good of the other, to be one with God’s own love for all.
This is the love that enflames the person who commits his life, for that Kingdom of Heaven’s sake, to celibacy. He wills totally the will of God, in Himself and for all humankind. His communio does not falsify, it vindicates, the love that a man offers to a woman, a woman to a man, in its total self–givingness. The two kinds of love, matrimonial and celibate, shed a kind of light upon each other. Matrimony reminds us of the earthiness of human clay, breathed upon by God’s love, and of the completed, united twoness of our essential nature. G. K. Chesterton was being more than merely witty when he defined the married couple as a four–legged animal infused with love. But celibacy dramatizes for us that the source of unity in love is the total giving of two wills, focused on the good of the other. Celibacy is no denial of the body, only a leapfrog over to the gift of will for the Creator and Redeemer’s use. Married and celibate teach each other depths of love.
In this perspective, the Pope thoroughly refashioned the standpoint of Humanae Vitae. Instead of visualizing the moral task in married love as “endurance,” the Pope asks: How can married love grow into the fullness of human nature, in its highest possibilities for self–giving love? Instead of focusing on “birth control,” the Pope turns to the first of the cardinal virtues, practical wisdom (prudentia, phronesis), and speaks of the excellence of prudence in deciding, in God’s presence, how many children to have—how to “regulate” fertility. Practical experience teaches a couple that, willy–nilly, they will need to practice abstinence at times, just as they at times enjoy ecstasy—and the tension of that drama is a large part of human excellence. Prudence, temperance, justice, courage—excellence in all four cardinal virtues heightens excellence in married love.
Instead of asking, “What am I forbidden to do?,” moral inquiry ought to ask: “How do we shape our lives of sexual love in ways that fulfill our dignity?” The Pope suggests that married couples regard sexual love in marriage as a school, always bringing out in them new excellences, and bringing them deeper into participation in God’s own love within them.
Four things are novel in Wojtyla’s thought on “love and responsibility” (to allude to a title of another of his books). First, there is a turn to interiority, to subjectivity, beyond the Thomistic synthesis. He could not have done this without the experience of modernity, and the simultaneous turn of some phenomenologists to both the subject and the real.
The second is the refusal to separate the “person” from its body. Wojtyla refuses to adopt a physicalist theory of sexual love. He refuses to be a Manichee. He refuses to be gnostic. He loves the human body—has always enjoyed his own strength and vitality, climbing in the mountains, kayaking in mountain waters, until an assassin’s bullet and other maladies made him bear the cross of the body’s infirmities. He loves the sights and smells and sounds of the liturgy of the Holy Mass. He loves the oils of the sacraments. Everywhere he sees the ways that spirit and body are made for one another, enter into one another, interpenetrate in the secret recesses of our being. Embodied selves, indeed. Thus do we believe in the resurrection of the embodied self.
The third insight is that the unity of man and woman comes in the giving of the will, each to each. The giving of the self makes truthful the bodies being one, and the bodies being one express united selves. The heart of love is a communio of selves. In matrimony, human selves are one in both their bodies and their selves.
The fourth insight is that in our sexuality lie glimpses of the Godhead. Our vision of God becomes clearest when our minds grasp the communion of persons in matrimony. Marriage between man and woman is the most beautiful (as Aquinas put it) of all friendships known to us. God is more like the communion of persons than He is like anything else we know of. That, at least, is the way He has revealed Himself to us, not only in Scripture and in His Son, but also in the way our embodied selves are joined in matrimony.
At the very head of the Book it is written: “Male and female He made them from the beginning. He made them in His image.” Should we miss the point of that, it’s hard to believe we’d get much right about the rest.
For some time, Western culture has been in a fever of free love, contraception, and the pill. Doing what we will with our bodies—doing what our bodies will—has become a worldwide passion, the acme of fulfillment. The project must not be going very well. Why else would there be so many books on sex, so many manuals, so many grapplings to understand the widespread disappointment?
But just wait. Boredom is as boredom does. Disordered sexual love and death are partners in a deathly dance. There will come a time when minds are open. When women and men begin to wonder, When He wrote Eros into our embodied selves, what did God intend?
Then it may be that they will not find many guides as daring as Karol Wojtyla.
Published in First Things Online February 27, 2004, First published by First Things, February 2003
Copyright (c) 2003 First Things 130 (February 2003): 18-21