Rocco Buttiglione, John Paul II Professor of Philosophy and History of European Institutions, Pontifical Lateran University, Rome, – and a well-known Italian politician – writes of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, calling it a hidden treasure vital to our world today.
The method of Wojtyła: learning from experience
Pope Francis has said that St.John Paul II was the Pope of families. Of course, this is true. Today we want first of all to ask the question: how is it possible that a man who had no family could penetrate so deeply into the inner dynamisms of Family love and Family life? We hear often people saying: priests should not speak about things they do not know and have no experience of. They have ( as a rule) no experience of sex and of falling in love and of having a family. Why can they pretend to know. Only those who live all these things from within can really understand the way in which they work and what they mean. How can unmarried priests pretend to explain to us what is the essence of conjugal love and give us laws governing this so fascinating but also so problematic domain of human life? This is the common wisdom on which the dominating culture consents.
How could then Karol Wojtyła speak so convincingly about marriage, sex, and family?
But is it true that priests have no experience of family life and of women? We are all born in a family and we all have mothers. We meet the femininity, that terrible and fascinating mystery that accompanies us throughout our lives, first of all in the smile of our mothers ( not to mention our sisters). There we encounter the woman not as a body that can give pleasure to our body but as a person who radiates joy and peace, who takes care of us and introduces us into life.
We do not only have mothers. We have also fathers. Someone has said that we see our mothers through the eyes of our fathers. We see the way in which our fathers look at our mothers and our first idea of what a (sexual) relation between a man and a woman arises out of the observation of the way in which father and mother look at each other and act the one towards the other.
Wojtyła as a child received a lasting imprinting of the love between his mother and his father and of how this love was poured out on their children. His mother died when he was only 9 years old but he still remembered her throughout his life. For her, he wrote his first poem. Her name was Emilia Kaczorowska. His father never remarried and he kept carrying in his heart the memory of his wife and giving witness to their children of the force of their love.
Let us stop for a while considering the tenderness and the joy of this love that bound this man and this woman and generated and educated the young Wojtyła and his brother ( the brother also was a very remarkable personality. He was a physician and died at the age of 26 assisting a patient who had an infectious disease. Karol had also a sister who died before he was born). The first idea of masculinity and femininity and of conjugal love St.John Paul II received from his Mather and his Father together with the Faith that had given strength and perseverance and power of enchantment to their human love.
After having been a child and before he became a priest Karol Wojtyła was an actor of the Theater of the Word.
What does it mean to be an actor? An actor is a man who steps in the shoes of another human being and tries to relive his actions from within. To do this he must divest himself, in one sense, of the particularities of his own upbringing, of his particular culture, of all his prejudices,
of his own identity. In order to become the other, he must first become, in one sense nobody. He is nobody and can become everybody. Luigi Pirandello has written a piece with the title One, Nobody, One hundred thousands. It describes well the paradox of the actor, the peculiar ascesis of the actor. The actor must recognize in each character one possibility inherent to humanity as such, a possible modality of presentation of the human substance. Given certain conditions I could have been any other human being, could have committed his same deeds, sublime or atrocious. Even the worst criminal has had good reasons to become what he has become. There is a French motto that says: « tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner ». We all share the same common humanity and who am I to judge another person?
The profession of the actor seems to incline to moral relativism and in many instances it does. The Theater of the Word that the young Wojtyła practiced had, however, some distinguishing peculiarities. It wanted to relive the human experience of the character in the light of truth.
We can better understand what this means listening to the witness of a fellow actress of Karol. They performed under very unusual circumstances, under Nazi occupation of Poland. All cultural activities were strictly interdicted and the Theater of the Word acted in the underground. If they were caught they must suffer immediate deportation, or worse. They had, therefore, to renounce to all scenography and to count, literally, only on the force of the naked word.
Once they performed one of the great classics of polish literature: Kròl Duch, the King Spirit. One of the characters is King Bolesław the Bold ( or the Cruel, according to another possible translation of Bolesław Chrobry ). Bolesław was a great king who dominated not only over Poland but also over the Czech Duchy and large swaths of Ukrainian lands. He was, however, a harsh ruler and committed many injustices. When the saint bishop Stanisław reproved Him because of his ill deeds Bolesław killed him in the Church of Skałka. Wojtyła performed the role of Bolesław. In a first performance, he was really fascinating, strong, intrepid, intolerant of any opposition, sovereignly challenging any power in heaven or on earth that dared to oppose his will. It was a great success. On the second performance, however, he changed completely his style of acting. His voice trembled and he was full of sorrow, uncertain of himself, almost begging comprehension and forgiveness. The public and his fellow actors were less than enthusiastic. He, however, defended his style of acting. He asked: “ don’t you understand that this is a kind of confession in which the king reconsiders his act in the light of truth? “. This is the power of the living word: to relive from within but in the light of truth. After a few weeks, Karol Wojtyła quitted Acting and entered the underground seminary of Cracow.
Between these two vocations of Wojtyła, there is more continuity than it may seem at a first sight. The priest is also, in the etymological sense of the word, an actor: he acts in the mass “in Persona Christi” in the role of Christ. If the actor is a nobody the priest is everybody or rather ( in the language of the poetical drama of Wojtyła) Adam: a man who is all men. He enters into the life of others and understands those lives from within. This does not lead however to any relativism. He understands from within but in the light of the truth and in order to help the others to see their own lives in the light of truth. He can do this because he entered first of all in the life of Jesus Christ, the light that enlightens all things, through the intercession of his mother Mary. This is the meaning of the motto of St. John Paul II: Totus tuus. Since he belongs entirely to Christ through Mary he can enter into the lives of all men helping them to see themselves in the light of God’s mercy. He would have felt at ease in Pope Francis teaching during the Year of Mercy.
I hope that now it has become clear the reason why Wojtyła could understand so deeply the dynamism of human love. He learned from his parents. He learned from the great characters of the theatrical pieces he performed ( I wish here to remember Miguel Mañara of Lubicz-Milosz). He learned through the people he confessed as a priest and especially from the young couples he accompanied to their marriage and through their conjugal life. He was a friend of many, just like his character Adam in the Jeweler’s Shop. He entered into their lives to help them in their pilgrimage towards truth. He taught them and he learned from them. Many have explained the different philosophical and theological influences that have entered in the composition of the thought of Karol Wojtyła. I have written myself a ponderous volume on this subject and it goes without saying that Wojtyła was a learned scholar. His main textbook, however, was the life of his friends, the life of the living Church.
Sex, Falling in love, love
The young people entrusted to the pastoral care of Wojtyła discovered in themselves the first sexual impulses. What is their meaning? What should one do? Sex is the most powerful force through which we became aware of the fact that man is made for communion. Through the sexual instinct, we become aware of the fact that it is not good for man to be alone. We need a fulfillment that only another human being of the other sex can give us. Sex is a phenomenon that regards a large part of the animal world. We humans however live sex in a manner that is peculiar to us. Of all animals only humans go around not naked but dressed. We go around dressed in Winter, when is is usually cold and we could not survive if we were naked, but we go round dressed also in Sommer, when it is warm and the dresses are often just a nuisance. We want to cover our sexual organs. Why? Are they ugly? No, we do not think they are ugly and we do not regret at all possessing them. We are rather proud of our sexual organs. The reason why we cover them is that we do not want to be considered and treated as mere sexual object. We want first of all to be recognized as human persons, and we want to lead the eye of an observer towards the global image of our body and first of all towards our own eyes. Through the eyes, the interiority of the person is expressed in the most direct way. We do not want just to satisfy the sexual urge. We want first to enter into a personal relation with the other and only later, within this relationship, the problem may arise whether sexual acts may be appropriate or not.
The virtue of chastity has the function of ordering the sexual potentialities of the person towards their proper satisfaction, where proper means human. Girls want to be properly courted, that is recognized in their personal value before considering the possibility of making love. Humans do not mate, they fall in love.
In one sense the body is a language. The acts of the body convey meanings. Girls know very well the different shadow of the meaning of a smile. It may mean just friendship or compassion, or it may mean something more, the openness to the possibility of a more engaging relation. Guys must learn to understand and differentiate these different shadows of meaning, if they want to avoid dangerous misunderstandings. As well as the smile the sexual act also has a meaning. It says: I belong to you entirely and through this act, we blend our destinies into one. There is a German poem, the first of German literature, that expresses this meaning very well:
“I am yours, you are mine
Of this you must feel sure
You are contained in my heart
The key went lost
There you will dwell forever”.
Of course, we can arbitrarily attribute to some acts a meaning different from their own. We can falsify the language of the body. Then we deceive the other and ourselves and, if this becomes a habit, in the end, we become unable to speak and to understand the language of the body, we become emotionally deaf and dumb, incapable of entering in a correct relation to other human beings.
Man and woman, He created them
Why did God create man and woman? Let us start the discussion of this point with some considerations on the very essence of the Christian God.
The God of Jesus Christ is a person and a person is a being that exists in the relation with other persons. Although the concept of person can be perceived and described in purely philosophical terms, nevertheless this concept is presented for the first time in theology in the course of the discussions on the Trinity in the IV and V century. Jesus says : those who see me see also the Father. Jesus however is not the Father. How can those who see Him see at the same time also the Father? If they are two how can they be one? Then, of course, you must take into account also the Holy Spirit and then they are three. How can three be one? The concept of person is exactly the answer to this question. Jesus lives entirely in the relation ( person, upostasis in Greek, means relation) to the Father as well the Father lives in the relation to the Son. They are what they are only in this relation and out of this relation they cannot be.
If we look for an analogy within the realm of human relations the first idea that comes to our mind is that of a man and a woman in love. When we are in love the center of our emotional life is displaced in the other person we are in love with or in a point that is located between us. I like to be with her and I like what she likes, I cannot imagine my life without her and in her presence, I acquire an energy, a force, an intelligence of life I did not possess before. The places that are graced with her presence or contain the memory of our being together receive a new wealth of colors and sounds and smell: there everything is more delicate and more intense. The Song of songs in the Holy Scripture gives us an insuperable description of this state of affairs.
To be in love, however, is not yet to love. To be in love is an emotional state of affairs. It happens in us without , at least in the beginning, the participation of our will. It may happen that we fall in love with the wrong person, with somebody who does not love us or somebody who cannot love us or with somebody we should not love. This is the reason why when we fall in love we cannot let ourselves be carried right away by the emotions we feel. We need to stop for a while, think things over, discuss with our friends ( Adam, the confessor, is or at least should be the best friend) in order to objectify the emotions we feel within ourselves, in order to see the situation we are involved in in the light of truth. If after this careful scrutiny we are convinced that to belong to each other is the path to the full growth to human maturity than we can love. We confirm with a free act of our intelligence and of our will the decision that our sentiments had suggested to us: we get married. Marriage in the Church, marriage as a sacrament, has also a further dimension that emerges through the faith from the natural dimension of marriage. We become for each other particularly responsible witnesses of the love of God. In front of my wife, I become a particularly responsible witness of the fact that God loves her and will never abandon her whatever may happen, in good and in bad luck, in health and in sickness, until death part us. We call God as witness of our love as well as we bear witness to His love. This is the reason why divorce is such a terrible sin. It is as if one said to his spouse: it is not true that God loves you. This is the proton pseudos, the first lie that the devil tells men in order to lead them into despair. If the divorce is a terrible sin the persons who divorce and remarry are not always wholly responsible for what they do. A sin, as in general all human actions, has an objective and a subjective side. The objective side is the gravity of the matter. The subjective side is the full awareness and deliberate consent. We are not always full responsible for the evil that we do. This is the reason why in Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis invites the remarried divorcees to go to confession, to evaluate together with the confessor (Adam) the level of their responsibility, to ask for forgiveness and to enter into the path of a full reconciliation with God and with the Community of the Faithful.
St. John Paul II has now accompanied us through three stages in our discovery of human sexuality and of its meaning. The first step is chastity, that is the refuse of a merely animal satisfaction of the sexual urge through masturbation and the use of the body of the other as a mere instrument of pleasure. This is hard but is the indispensable precondition in order to discover the true meaning and also the true fascination of sexuality: the discovery of the other as person and also of the new shape and wealth of our own personality in the relation with her or with him. The second stage is the experience of falling in love and of what it means to be for the other and in the relation with her or with him. The this is love in the proper sense of the word, conjugal love. Here we confirm with our intelligence and our will the hypothesis that our emotions have proposed to us. Here the sexual relations are fully justified and fully human. Here we can really “make love” and not just “make sex”. It is not easy to tread the path of true love and we must take for granted that we can make errors, get lost for a while, even have moments of regression. This is the reason why we stand in need of friends. The first friend is the confessor who administers the sacrament of penance. Almost equally important is the witness of the families of origin, of the parents of the spouses. In his drama Love and responsibility, Wojtyła shows us how we carry in ourselves the love experience of our parents. If they give us a model of true human love ( that is not an abstract perfection and includes errors repentance and forgiveness) this will be a source of strength in time of need. Our children are of course different from us. They belong to another generation. This is the reason why sometimes the support of friends just a few years older, who have just gone true the difficulties, the threats and the ordeals the new couple is about to face, may be decisive. At the beginning of the pilgrimage towards true love stands the virtue of chastity, at the end the virtue of perseverance. For all couples comes the time of the great temptation, an ice wilderness in which the tenderness of the beginning seems to be overcome by the implacable dullness of everyday life, and the only route of salvation seems to be an escape towards new emotions that falsely promise to fill the void of our hearts. Many marriages go broken because in those
moments no one gives a credible witness of the fact that after the cross comes the resurrection and if we persevere at the foot of the cross the tenderness of the beginning will come back one hundred times greater and brighter. When I got married don Giussani told me: “ and now pray to the “Virgin of Perseverance”, that is Mary at the foot of the cross.
It is time now to give a clear answer to the question we have asked at the beginning of this section: why did God create the human being man and woman? In order that they might overcome the limits of a selfish self centered existence, love each other and enter through this love into the very mystery of the love of God. Philosophers talk at length about human dignity and the value of the human person and the fact that man properly realizes himself through the gift of himself in love. The common folk however makes the experience of this truth in conjugal love and in the life of the family. Here are born the archetypes of friendship, the capacity of recognizing the rights of the other, the capacity for self sacrifice that later are extended to other human beings outside of the family and in the end to humanity at large. This is a kind of preparation in the order of nature of the supernatural reality of communion and this is the reason why marriage in the economy of salvation becomes a sacrament.
Why did God create the human being man and woman? A reconsideration
We have given a first answer to the question: why did God create the human being man and woman. We have phenomenologically described the experience of being a sexed being, that is a male or a female. We have done this repeating ideally the movement of a young human being who discovers his sexuality and its true meaning as so many youths did with the help of their true friend Karol Wojtyła, the young priest.
Now we change our perspective and at the same time, we deepen it. Let us try for a while to glance an eye on this whole process from the point of view of a man who is now, for instance, seventy years old or more and reconsiders his sexual experience and his family life. He would say that all what we have said so far until now is true but the best and most important part has remained out of the picture. The best part of sex are the children. I did not think so when I got married. Usually, young people do not get married in order to have children. They get married because they desire each other, they want to have sex respecting and increasing their own dignity as persons and, first of all, that of their partner. When you grow old you realize that these inner dynamisms of sexuality have been created by God in order to protect the coming into the world of the child. Since the beginning, the living community of the two was oriented towards a third partner: their child, the fruit of their love. Father and mother constitute a kind of spiritual uterus in which the child enters when he is born and is contained until he or she reaches his or her full maturity. The child grows in the love of his parents. Let us make clear one point now: the child does not need just the love of the father and the love of the mother as if they were two different loves united only in their object that is the child. The child needs the love of the spouses for each other that outpours on him or her. Only this love constitutes the best in which the child can safely feel at ease and be educated. The best gift a father can give to his children is to love their mother and vice versa. Not just to remain with their mother because of the children but rather love the mother of his children. We love our children in the love of our spouses and we love our spouses in the love of our children. This is the family, the family as the small Church in which we learn the love of God through the reciprocal love. I do not find any better words to express this than those of a song a friend of St.John Paul II wrote many years ago. The name of this friend was Claudio Chieffo and these are the words of the song:
I wish I could love you
In the same way in which God loves you
With the same tenderness
With the same force
With the same liberty
That I do not have.
I do love you and I thank God for it
God who gives me the tenderness
Who gives me the force
Who gives me the liberty
That I do not have”
No human love may be true, out of the love of God that encompasses and embraces all our lives.
When we get married nut seldom children stand in the focus of our intention. We want to make love to the girl we love. We are of course more or less vaguely conscious that she will become pregnant and we will have to stand by her and be the father of her children. This is present, however, on the backside of our intention. To be sure we may also say that, at a deeper layer of our consciousness, the desire for maternity and paternity plays a much more important role. Since our childhood, one of our most powerful desires is that to become one day like our father and to be, like him, the husband of a wife similar to our mother and the father of children similar to us. This desire inhabits however a deeper layer of our personality and remains largely unconscious in those golden years in which we experiment the hormonal turmoil that leads to our first falling in love. It is good if somebody now and then makes us aware of this side of our personality.
As you know boys look at girls and comment upon them, mainly on their physical appearance, and I suppose that girls also comment upon boys, although I cannot say for sure because I do vaguely remember having been a boy but I do not remember, not even vaguely, having ever been a girl. When I was a boy a great friend, don Francesco Ricci, a priest, used to comment on girls with us. He said: look at girls, that is not wrong, but first of all look at their head and at their heart and try to imagine that girl with a child in her arms, who is your child. If you ever do this experiment of thought this will change forever the way you look at girls and speak about girls. You will say that they are fair, beautiful, enchanting, glamorous, fascinating. You will not say that they are just “sexy”.
When you grow old you realize that the sense of all the romance was to allow you to make the extraordinary experience of becoming a father and, the even more extraordinary experience of becoming a grandfather.
Sexual acts, not always but with a certain regularity, call into life children. This is the reason why sex is so important and has the capacity of merging two destinies into one. This is also the reason why sex is not a kind of pleasurable gymnastics that can be severed from moral responsibility. The moral rules of sex have two sides. One is the respect of the integrity of the person in the spouse and in oneself and the other the protection of the child.
In this respect, my generation had a certain advantage on the present one. Although the anti/conceptional pill was discovered immediately before my marriage I and my wife grew up in an age in which the anti/conceptional mentality was not yet dominant. We did not need to decide to have a child. Children arrived, in a sense, by themselves as the unintended consequence of sexual acts, Now, after the pill, it is different. It is possible to severe sex from procreation. This makes more difficult to perceive the importance of chastity before marriage. If you can have sex without consequences what is wrong in having it? What is wrong is that sex loses the capacity of joining two destinies , it becomes more difficult to properly fall in love and even if we arrive at loving a spouse we are likely to have contracted habits that will be an hindrance to the development of a strong and healthy conjugal love. After the pill ( also because of the lack of appropriate policies favoring the formation of new families ) young people marry too old and wait too much before having a child and many end up having none. In this way they are deprived of one of the greatest joys of life and of one of the primary channels of grace through which God educates man to communion.
We must not however be too severe with the young. Even if sex before marriage and out of marriage is becoming increasingly commonplace young man and women keep looking for true love, the great love that fills one’s heart and one’s life. It has become more difficult for them to find it and therefore they stand in need of help from the older generation and from the Church. On the other hand fathers and mothers know that to beget a child implies a heavy responsibility of educating him or her up to the time of maturity. We must avoid to have too many children that we cannot appropriately educate and support in life. We have the responsibility not to artificially severe sex from procreation but also that to exercise with human responsibility our capacity to procreate.
The dignity (and the mistery) of the woman
More than once St.John Paul II has meditated upon the dignity and the mystery and the identity of the woman. Can a man understand what it means to be a woman? Yes, perhaps if he enters, with the respect, the delicacy and the wonder of a true friend, in the life of a woman.
There have been many attempts to understand the peculiarities of the feminine soul, especially in the period of romanticism. The feminists ( Simone de Beauvoir first of all) arose against these characterizations of the feminine soul considering them as attempts to justify and rationalize the subordination and the enslavement of women. They have protested that womanhood is not just a state of fact given by nature but the result of culture. Girls become women through culture.
As a matter of fact, St.John Paul II does not begin with the female soul. He begins with the female body. Women are women because they have an ovary and a uterus. This is the reason why they can become pregnant. Pregnancy is a unique experience men will never have. Another human being lives for 40 weeks in the uterus ( St.John Paul II preferred to say “under the heart”) of the mother, lulled by the rhythm of her heart, impregnated with the smells of her body, listening to the sound of her voice. If to be a person is “to be able to carry another person in one’s heart to generate her in eternal life”, that is to be able to love, the woman experiences what it means to be a person in her own body. This creates between mother and child a unique bond that will grow when the child will be breastfed and the mother will be for him or her the totality of their world. This creates a bond that will last throughout the whole life. The father, in the beginning, is just a gentleman who moves around the mother. He will be discovered only later by the child and the relationship to the father will remain forever qualitatively different from that to the mother. He has rather the task of protecting the link between mother and child. After all, we know that our kids are our children because our wives present them to us.
It is however true that girls become women through culture. Every civilization tries to prepare girls to the terrible and fascinating experience of motherhood. There is a tradition, a delivery of values and life habits that goes from mother to daughter and constitutes the backbone of human culture. All human culture is a reflection on the mystery of the person and in pregnancy and in the act of giving birth we find the most archetypal forms of personhood and of love as the only correct attitude in front of the person. Motherhood, of course, is a bonum arduum: a very great good that is also extremely taxing and demanding for the woman. She needs to be defended and supported in the act of giving birth. Ours is the only society that does not prepare girls to become women. Even more: our society is the only one that does not revere motherhood. If a woman renounces to becoming a mother in order to make a professional career she receives a full social respect and recognition. A woman who renounces to a career to take care of her children is often despised and we lack policies that help women to pursue a career and to be mothers. Do we honor fathers and mothers? Hardly so. A sign of this oblivion of the meaning of motherhood and fatherhood is today also the attempt to define sexual roles without making reference to pregnancy and parenthood.
St.John Paul II proposes to us as a model Mary, the mother of Jesus. He proposes this model not only to women but to men also. She teaches us to be persons, to accept the other in our life to generate him or her in the eternal life. Does this mean that we males have something to learn from our women? Definitely yes, it does. We have to learn something of the utmost importance that is the beginning of being and of culture. IWe begin learning this from our mothers but perhaps we will never end learning this just attitude in front of man that is , simply, love. This is the spousal meaning of the body. Spousal means here, of course, at the same time maternal. Poets and philosophers and theologians elaborate on these first and fundamental meanings that we receive from our mothers. They implant in our hearts the first seeds of our culture and our faith. For culture is a systematic and critical reflection on experience and they provide us with the archetypal experience we have to reflect upon. We learn it from our mothers and we learn it again from our wives when they become mothers. This is the reason why women are the first carriers of culture: they cultivate our humanity and from them we learn the first and fundamental attitudes and value responses that our constitutive of our humanity. We learn love and we learn that love must be united with truth.
Let us conclude with a few lines taken from the poetical masterpiece of Wojtyła: The Jeweler’s Shop. They summarize, in one sense, the program of Karol Wojtyła from the beginnings in the Theater of the word up to his teaching on the theology of the body as John Paul II: to lead his friends ( who are, in the last instance all human beings) along the path of love united with truth, that is along the path of true love.
“ Life is an adventure.
It has however a logic of its own
That links the actions with their consequences
And our thoughts and our imagination
Cannot be left to dwell with themselves.
“Where should they dwell then” Anna asked
The thought, of course, should dwell with truth”.