According to Michael Waldstein’s introduction, the “single main argument” that runs through Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology Of The Body (TOB) is “the teaching of Humanae Vitae about the inseparability of the unitive and procreative meaning of the conjugal act,” and the insistence of that encyclical that this inseparability is “re-reading the ‘langauge of the body’ in the truth.’”
I don’t doubt that this is the trajectory of the text, especially for a Catholic reader. Reading it as a Protestant and as something of an outsider to the internal Catholic debates about Humanae Vitae, I came away with a different impression of the central theme. It is true that the issue of the “indissolubility and unity of marriage” and the union of “unitive” and “generative” meanings of sex both appear early and often (1.3; 3.1). Yet I was more persuaded by an earlier comment of Waldstein’s, where he explains where John Paul’s treatise fits into modern thought (p. 94):
We can define the project in terms of its place in modern thought. From this angle, the purpose of the TOB is to defend and articulate the spousal meaning of body against alienation between person and body in Cartesian view of nature and human life. In particular, he wants to refute the dualism of Cartesian anthropology, the notion that the human body is a mechanism or a tool. There is a complex knot of issues involved here that go far beyond the merely philosophical: Questions about technology, personhood, modernity, subjectivity are all tangled up with concerns about the body and about sex. In response, John Paul aims to present an “integral vision of man.” Referring to John Paul’s formation in the personalism of St. John of the Cross and some themes of Gaudium et Spes, he says that “he focuses on the lived experience of personal subjectivity and develops the Sanjuanist triangle: love is a gift of self; spousal love is the paradigmatic gift of self; the Trinity is the archetype of such gift.”
If the aim is as Waldstein suggests, I would have to judge TOB a grand failure. Both times I’ve worked through the text, I’ve been struck by the sudden turn that the text takes in the final ethical sections dealing with Humanae Vitae. Instead of the rich biblical meditations that make up most of the text, JP urges conformity to natural law. Though he claims that the encyclical does not represent a “biologism” in Catholic ethics, it is hard to resist that interpretation.
I agree with most of what John Paul says about Christian fertility, the unity of the diverse purposes of sex, the virtue of continence, the direction of arousal and emotion, but none of it leads to the conclusion that Humanae Vitae draws concerning “artificial” contraception. The distinction of natural and artificial methods comes out of nowhere; nothing in TOB prepares us for it. It comes across as an assertion of tradition and the authority of the magisterium, rather than as an obvious implication of the rich theology of the body that the Pope develops through his addresses.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Tuesday, October 2, 2012 at 9:30 am
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