Talk given at the Third Truth of Love Conference, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Gaming Campus, Austria, September 8-9, 2023.
In the first year after their birth, our children often slept with my wife and me in the same bed, mostly between us, at right angles to us, the head toward my wife, the feet toward me. I had to learn to sleep on the very edge of the bed without falling out. This is how it was already with our first child, Johannes.
He had no difficulty at all to distinguish between male and female. In the morning when he woke up I—as a milkless man—could not go near him, let alone touch him. He wanted only his Mama and her breast. I had to keep my distance and wait. When he had nursed enough, he audibly let go of the breast, turned around toward me, began to laugh, and slapped me in the face. This was his sign. Now you may play with me.
We were together in one bed, but each in another place, all inside their own skin limited to their own being, isolated.
At the same time, a web of relations was present. Johannes was not my child alone, but our child in common. He was not in the first place a cause of distance, but of connection and unity. That he did not want me at first and then turned away from my wife toward me was not primarily aversion, first from me and then from her. It was above all turning toward us, two different sorts of turning, one toward the mother, the other toward the father. Together they formed an inseparably bodily, sensual and spiritual whole that was a great common good for us.
The Conjugal Act as Speech of the Person
In Theology of the Body 10:2, John Paul II interprets the words “be one flesh” (Gen 2:24). The text is not easy. Let us take it step by step.
The unity about which Genesis 2:24 speaks (“and the two will be one flesh”) is without doubt the unity that is expressed and realized in the conjugal act. The biblical formulation, so extremely concise and simple, indicates sex, that is, masculinity and femininity, as that characteristic of man—male and female—that allows them, when they become one flesh, to place their whole humanity at the same time under the blessing of fruitfulness.
This sentence is the first that speaks directly about the conjugal act. And the first indication of the nature of this act is the phrase, “place their whole humanity under the blessing of fruitfulness.” The conjugal act is not the fabrication or directly causal production of a child. Rather, man and woman place their whole humanity under the blessing of fruitfulness. Their whole humanity is also called into action when they take responsibility for a child.
When they unite with each other (in the conjugal act) so closely so as to become “one flesh,” man and woman rediscover every time and in a special way the mystery of creation.
The concept of the mystery of creation has a three-step meaning for John Paul.
God, (1) who as triune is love,
(2) creates man and woman out of love
(3) for love.
Man and Woman rediscover this mystery in each conjugal act. They discover each other in their union as an image of the Trinity.
Thus they return to the union in humanity … that allows them to recognize each other reciprocally and to call each other by name, as they did the first time.
Unity in the image of God allows them to recognize each other. It is you, but with a depth that is not a matter of every-day. And to call each other by name as they did the first time. In the memory of couples, the first meaning, the first calling of each other by name has a special meaning. It is right to remember an oak tree as the acorn it was at the beginning.
This means reliving in some way man’s original virginal value, which emerges from the mystery of his solitude before God and in the midst of the world.
What is the original virginal value. Virginal means not having given oneself in a sexual act to another person. Since a radical gift of self to another human being takes place in this act, to be virginal means to belong to God alone in a spousal manner and to realize one’s self-possession in this spousal belonging to God.
Why, then relive this virginal meaning in each conjugal act? Even though a definitive belonging to another human being is realized by the marriage vow and its consummation in the conjugal act, each person’s self-possession and spousal belonging to God is preserved.
When one gives a gold ring to someone, the giving is completed once and for all. It does not make sense to return on the next day to give that same gold ring again.
It is different in the spousal gift of self. It is a gift that springs each time afresh from the same depth of self-belonging.
On the level of man and in the reciprocal relationship of persons, sex expresses an ever-new surpassing of the limit of man’s solitude, which lies within the makeup of his body and determines its original meaning.
This sentence speaks like the one before it about the freshness of gift in each act as a new surpassing of the limit of original solitude.
The next sentence is difficult again.
This surpassing always implies that in a certain way one takes upon oneself the solitude of the body of the second “I” as one’s own.
In ancient philosophy a friend is called a second I. It is a matter of course that each person sees itself as a center of concern. I am glad when something good happens to me, sad when the opposite is the case. In friendship, a new such center of concern is formed. When something good happens to my friend, I am glad and conversely.
In this concern for the other, John Paul underlines that one should take on oneself the concern for the solitude of the body of one’s spouse.
One of the dangers in the at times grey repetitiveness of daily life is that man and woman treat each other like pieces of furniture. One sits down on a favorite chair without asking it for permission. Care about the solitude of the body of the second I prevents this emptying of the sexual act by refocusing on the other person as a person who belongs to himself or herself. While one does not need to say, please, when one sits down on a chair, to one’s spouse one ought to say it before the conjugal act, or express this attitude, likewise gratitude in or after the act.
It is astonishing that the human body can express these depths: the image of the Trinity, the original virginal value, the freshness of the gift of self, and the care for the solitude of the body of the second I.
If Descartes the contemporary natural sciences that largely follow him were right, then our senses should perceive an inanimate apparatus reduced to geometry (res extensa).
Our real perception is quite different. We can say to each other, “I see you.” The being of the person and the person’s interior life express themselves in the body.
What is the expression of the person and the person’s interior life? How does it happen? It is mysterious. When one squeezes toothpaste out of a tube, the interior becomes itself something exterior, exactly as exterior as the tube. Once the inner has come out, it can be directly seen and touched like the tube.
When persons express the gift of self in their bodies, the interior remains interior and mysterious. Nevertheless, it appears in its own reality and can be experienced in its own power.
Hans Urs von Balthasar describes this relation between inner and outer with great precision:
The order of body and spirit in the world, more generally the order of outward appearance in matter and of inwardness which appears (the free rational spirit of man, or the soul of an animal, or the principle of life in a plant, or something indefinably spontaneous in matter) is in an indissoluble paradox the foundation of the mystery of beauty. For that which appears in its appearance is at the same time that which does not appear. The soul presents itself in the living organism, and yet precisely in this presentation it is that which exists “behind” the appearance and builds itself a cell, a cover, and a cave. Not only “measure, number, and weight” of organized matter belong to beauty, but so does the “power” of the organizing principle which expresses itself in a form. What belongs to beauty is the power of being free, and still more deeply, the power of being able to spend oneself in love. Together with the seen surface of the appearance, a depth is perceived which does not appear. Only this paradox gives to the beautiful its ravishing and overpowering character.
When one compares a sentence in TOB 13:1 in the Polish original with the Italian translation used by John Paul II, one is led to reflect about the close relation between body and soul. The context of the passage is the section on the original innocence of seeing, according to Genesis 2:25. “Both, the Man (Hebrew Adam) and his wife were naked, but did not feel shame before each other.”
The Italian Text says the following:
By seeing each other, as it were,
through the Mystery of Creation as such,
Man and Woman see each other more fully and clearly
THAN through the sense of sight itself,
that is, through the eyes of the body (TOB 13:1).
The Word THAN separates the Mystery of Creation from the eyes of the body. The eyes directly see color, but not the Mystery of Creation. Only an act of understanding in the spiritual mind illumined by faith can understand this Mystery. Through a purely spiritual act of understanding, therefore, man and woman see each other more completely and more clearly THAN through the eyes of the body.
In the Polish original, the word THAN is absent. The Italian translator added it to the text, presumably to make the sentence more conventionally understandable.
Let us read the sentence once again, this time without THAN:
By seeing each other, as it were,
through the Mystery of Creation as such,
Man and Woman see each other more fully and clearly
THROUGH THE SENSE OF SIGHT ITSELF,
that is, through the eyes of the body (TOB 13:1).
Without the word THAN, the sentence is more difficult to understand. Yet, it stresses something decisively important for the theology of the body, namely, the experienced unity of sense perception and understanding, which corresponds to the expressive power of the human body. One can distinguish the spiritual act of understanding and the seeing of color, but one must not overlook the expressive power of the body and the corresponding unity of sensory-spiritual perception.
The body, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it (TOB 19:4).
John Paul is not alone with this claim. In a more general context, Thomas Aquinas follows Aristotle’s philosophy when he writes:
For the mind to understand its own object in act,
it must turn to sensible images (phantasmata)
in order to observe the universal nature as existing in the particular (Thomas, Summa, I.84.7, c).
Despite his Platonist inclinations which cause trouble in many other places, Augustine maintains this unity between the sensory and the spiritual, expressly against the arguments of the Platonists.
The philosophers seek to prove by rational arguments that the intelligible is seen in such a way with the vision of the mind, and that the sensible, that is the bodily, is seen in such a way by the senses of the body that the mind cannot perceive the intelligible through a body… Real reason and prophetic authority, however, show that these arguments are ridiculous… We live among living human beings who express themselves in their vital movements. As soon as we see them, we do not merely form the opinion but see that they are alive. Without their bodies, we cannot see their life, but through the body, we see it without a doubt.
The Common Good in the Relation Between Man and Woman
The dignity of persons is closely connected with their capacity to lead their life consciously in self-determination. The only way of recognizing this dignity is to will the good for a person for his or her own sake. To use persons as mere instruments or means for one’s own purposes wounds this dignity by external subordination under foreign ends. The most complete form of such external subordination is slavery.
Man and woman wound each other’s dignity by subordination when they use each other as mere means for sexual pleasure. More one-sided is the subordination of a woman by a man when he pays her for sexual service or as a surrogate mother. In this case he is in large measure responsible for the wound she inflicts on herself.
Wojtyła shows that man and woman can love each other in truth only if their sexual acts and the procreation of children are a common good.
The bond of a common good unites the two acting persons “from within” and so constitutes the essential core of every love. In any case, love between persons is unthinkable without some common good that binds them together… will. Man’s capacity to love is determined by the fact that he is ready to seek the good consciously with others, to subordinate himself to this good because of others, or to subordinate himself to others because of this good.
To understand this text, one must raise the question, What is a common good (bonum commune)? How does it differ from its opposite, the private good (bonum privatum)?
The Common Good: Definition and Examples
A common good is a good in which several persons can share without diminishing it. The reason why a good is common is not that several persons share in it. If this were the reason, then one and the same good would be common when several people share in it, and private when only one shares in it. The difference depends rather on the essence of a good and on the way of sharing in it. A common good remains common even if only one person shares in it.
A birthday cake is for everyone in the family. It seems, therefore, to be a common good. Yet, it is only imperfectly common. Each only receives a particular piece, not the whole cake. The piece lands in a particular stomach. Nobody else can have a share in it. The cake is diminished and used up by being shared in. It is an essentially particular good, a private good, not a common good.
At the same time, however, the cake contributes to a completely common good, namely to joy-filled peace in the family. Peace is a common good in the full sense. The more each family member makes peace his or her own, the more it can belong also to the others. Participation in peace does not mean that each only receives a part. Everyone can possess peace as a whole.
Even more: One can possess peace only when one wills its possession also for others. If one says, “I want peace for myself and for you, but not for these two others in the family,” then by this limitation of its commonness one has already lost peace. Peace is an essentially common good, common not because several people happen to share in it, but because it is impossible to possess it in the manner of a private good and to exclude others from it. One can will it for oneself only as a member of a greater whole, a community.
The Streets of a city do not belong to anyone privately. They are there for everybody. They look like a common good. When one drives on a street, however, no one else can at the same time drive on exactly the same part of the street. Granted, one does not cut a street into pieces like a cake and consume them. Still, a traffic jam shows that a street cannot be a common good in the full sense. One does not want to share in the street as a whole. At any one time, one only needs a little piece of it, and one immediately moves away from it again.
Children are a common good of their parents and of the whole family. When some of the children are already older and a new one comes home from the hospital, a circle forms around this new center. The baby sleeps much after the effort of birth. In addition, it cannot speak. And yet its presence radiates. Everyone in the circle suns itself in this presence. It is a little bit like eucharistic adoration.
Parents give not only physical life, but also spiritual and cultural life by education. By participating in the education of a child, they do not cut the child into pieces, but take joy together about its growth.
When love between man and woman fails and they get a divorce, custody battles sometimes follow. In these battles, the parents privatize their child. They do so with violence against the child’s role as a common good, which belongs to it essentially.
Man and woman are called to express the mysterious “language” of their bodies in all the truth that properly belongs to it. Through gestures and reactions, through the whole reciprocally conditioned dynamism of tension and enjoyment—whose direct source is the body in its masculinity and femininity, the body in its action and interaction—through all this man, the person, “speaks.” In the “language of the body,” man and woman carry on the dialogue that—according to Genesis 2:24–25—began on the day of creation. Precisely on the level of this “language of the body”—which is something more than mere sexual reactivity, and which, as an authentic language of the persons, is subject to the demand for truth, that is, to objective moral norms—man and woman reciprocally express themselves in the fullest and most profound way made possible for them by the somatic dimension itself of their masculinity and femininity. Man and woman express themselves in the measure of the whole truth of their persons. (TOB 123:4)
 John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theolog of the Body, transl. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006), quoted as TOB by audience number and paragraph.
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Herrlichkeit, I.424–25.
 Augustine, De Civitate Dei, 22.29, PL 41, 800.
 Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, Ignatik translation, 12–13.