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Did John Paul Reverse Church Teaching?

In the September 2006 issue of This Rock, a letter by Fr. Peter Stravinskas stated that Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” has been viewed as “a necessary corrective to various forms of Jansenism,” which holds totally negative views of human sexuality. To the contrary, John Paul’s work Theology of the Body, written before he became pope, reinforces Jansenism and comes dangerously close to some of the abnormal positions of Manichaeism.

Possibly influenced by Immanuel Kant—and contrary to Catholic moral teaching—John Paul appears to have taken the position that conjugal relations have to involve reciprocal acts of love or communion to be morally appropriate, even if procreation is desired. This was the position of the Krakow Commission, which he created as archbishop and reflected his views. (Catholic teaching, on the contrary, holds that only one of these.aspects is necessary.) This outlook led him to the conclusion that a man could commit “adultery of the heart” with his own wife (Theology of the Body, p. 157), apparently a grave sin.

He even seemed to think that concupiscence makes the conjugal act morally inappropriate, since it “makes impossible the interior freedom of giving. . . . The relationship of the gift is changed into the relationship of appropriation.” Although he later used lesser terms than “impossible” (such as “almost incapable” of coexisting with the unitive or loving dimension of conjugal relations), he apparently thought that concupiscence prevented or nearly prevented the communal or unitive aspect of conjugal relations and was at least deleterious to the communal.aspect.

According to John Paul’s biographer, George Weigel, the Pope believed that to desire one’s own transitory sexual pleasure is lust (Witness to Hope, pp. 208 and 338). Thus it would seem that concupiscence turns conjugal sex into an act of lustful appropriation of another.

But without concupiscence, the human race would not have survived.

As St. Teresa of Avila said, “To wish to act like angels while we are still in the world is nothing but folly.” 

Andrew J. McCauley 
St. Augustine, Florida 

Editor’s reply: The theology of the body does not contradict prior Catholic teaching on human sexuality, although it certainly deepened it. While certain theologians in the history of the Church may have emphasized procreation over and above the communion of persons in the marital act, the Church has never taught that the sexual act is morally appropriate without reciprocal acts of love. Without reciprocal acts of love, how could it be a reflection of Christ’s love for the Church (Eph. 5)? The gift of Christ’s body to his Bride was not simply so that she would have life but so that she would be loved.

It appears that you misread the passages you cited from Witness to Hope. John Paul II did not teach that lust was synonymous with desiring one’s own transitory sexual pleasure. Rather, as Weigel explained, “Lust desires my own transitory pleasure through the use (and even abuse) of the other.” Therefore, the Holy Father did not believe that it was morally wrong to look forward to or enjoy the pleasure of the marital act. Rather, he taught that lust enters the picture when one appropriates another as an object.

Concupiscence makes such selfish appropriation possible—even within the sacrament of marriage. Concupiscence is the inclination toward sin, which manifests itself in our darkened intellects, weakened wills, and disordered appetites. If we consider this classical definition, it is understandable that the Holy Father said that concupiscence threatens the unitive.aspect of conjugal relations. If one spouse lacks self-control and sees the other simply as a means of selfish enjoyment, their union is not a true gift of self.

But our inclination to sin is not outside the scope of Christ’s redeeming power. If the theology of the body teaches us anything, it proclaims the good news that Christ’s redemption is real and that, through his transforming grace, we can be free to love.

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