This is the seventh article of a series outlining St. John Paul II’s thought on human embodiment and sexuality. You can read the sixth installment here.
After delving into the original experience of our first parents as recounted by Genesis, and there discovering the revelation of the spousal meaning of the body—a meaning still available for discovery for historical man and woman—St. John Paul reflects upon state of the human person fallen away from this state of original innocence. To our first parents, the deceitful serpent whispers, ‘Did God really say?’ (Gen. 3:1), and ‘You shall not die’ (Gen. 3:4). In choosing to listen to these words of the Evil One, our first parents allowed doubt to be sown in their hearts. This doubt cast a shadow over the gift of creation and on the deepest meaning of that gift, that is, on the love of God. In this way, our first parents turned their back on the covenantal love of God and cast the grace of participation in the inner life of God out of their hearts, a grace that was intended as inheritance for all subsequent human generations, all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. In turning away from a stance of trustful surrender to God’s love, disorder enters into the being of the human person, discord invades human experience, and strife is introduced into human relations. Consequently, creation changes in the experience of our first parents, and in all human generations, and is now no longer experienced as the place of seamless encounter with God.
The sin of our first parents brought with it a transition from the original state of harmony and peace to a state St. John Paul calls ‘original shame.’ (See Theology of the Body, 26:4-28:5) As a direct result of the loss of graced friendship with God, the human person is deprived of the power to order his own being harmoniously. In direct consequence of the rational and free rejection of graced friendship with God, the human spirit no longer has the power to properly order the manifold of powers of the human soul, especially those associated with the body and sexuality. In the personal spirit’s ‘separation’ from God through doubt, there results an inevitable ‘separation’ of the body from the spirit, a ‘separation’ characterised by a loss of dominion over the body and the powers of the body (and a prelude to the ultimate separation of spiritual soul and material body at death). In this way, through the wounding and loss of the fall, the human person suffers a deformation of his being, revealing ‘a specific difficulty in sensing the human essentiality of one’s own body… [revealing] a certain constitutive fracture in the human person’s interior, a breakup, as it were, of man’s original spiritual and somatic unity.’ (ToB, 28:1) A direct consequence of this fracturing of the human person is a depersonalisation of the body and sexuality. This depersonalisation is the source of profound shame.
The experience of bodily and sexual shame is twofold, both immanent and relative. The human person experiences shame within himself as a result of the depersonalised disorder of his being, and relative to the other as a result of the disorder of desire now manifesting a depersonalised relation to the body and sexuality of the other. A fault-line now runs through each human person, rupturing the original integrity of spirit and body resulting in a disintegration of personal unity. The original harmony of desires working in tandem toward the true spiritual and personal good is now experienced as a dissonance of conflicted desires, with the desires of the body somewhat ‘at war’ with the desires of the spirit. This disorder of desire represents a depersonalisation of desire that is most commonly called the concupiscence of the flesh, a depersonalisation that especially troubles in the sexual sphere. Shame highlights this depersonalisation since such a depersonalisation threatens the integrity of the human person and the harmony of human relations. In this way, shame reveals the concupiscence of the flesh now present in human experience and action, and represents a positive reaction to the negative of depersonalisation.
Concupiscence is a repercussion of the fallen human condition that tends to lead the human individual to a further turning away from God towards a world without God—in concurrence with and according to the pattern of original sin. As such, the disorder of concupiscent desire causes a negative reordering of the hierarchy of the goods in creation, where goods are no longer seen as gifts of divine love arising from God, but are seen in radical isolation from their source in the Creator. Concupiscence is thus a symptom of the fracture which runs through human nature as a consequence of our turning away from God. Without the guiding impulse of the spiritual soul—through the original integration of bodily desire with rational desire, and accomplished through the free dominion of the will—the body tends to draw the person towards bodily goods and in accord with bodily desire, but without their due and harmonious order to the good of the person. What the body was designed to do, desire bodily things, it now does without the guiding power of the spirit. The human person lacks his proper integration. As a result, the desires of the human body and sexuality now have a compulsive and coercive character, and represent an experiential limitation of the human spirit, a humiliating constraint of the personal spirit. In consequence, the human person, precisely as a being created for the fullest realisation of personal freedom, becomes ashamed of his or her own body and sexuality. This shame leads to a fundamental disquiet in the whole of human life and experiencing. Accordingly, the harmony and peace of man’s original innocence is disrupted by a restless conscience, which becomes the source of great inner tension in the life of the person.
The chief problem with this waywardness of desire is not the body and sexuality, but the fact that the body now threatens the possibility of self-giving love. The body remains good, and sexuality remains a path of self-giving love. However, the disorder of sexual desire, now no longer perfectly subject to the personal spirit, threatens the possibility of self-possession and self-mastery, and thereby threatens the human being’s moral unity as a person. Fragmented from the spirit, bodily desires roam somewhat waywardly and threaten man’s interior freedom. Concupiscence has thus limited and restricted self-mastery from within the structure of the human person, bringing with it the loss of the interior freedom of the gift. Yet this interior freedom is required precisely for the possibility of personal love and for the realisation of the spousal communion of persons through self-gift. The human person knows that love is still required of him and that love is his calling, and, moreover, that love is both desirable and possible. Yet, this search for the realisation of love is now experienced with great interior difficulty, and has more of the character of a task and a challenge than a free and simple response to the value of the true good. Given the great importance of gift to the fulfilment of the human person, this limitation of the freedom of the gift is obviously experienced as a profound constraint in the life and experience of the human person.
Along with this limitation of interior freedom, concupiscence also brings with it a ‘corruption of the spousal meaning of the body.’ (See ToB, 31:5-33:5) In concupiscent desire a devaluation of the human person takes place. Concupiscent desire reduces the deep mutual attraction of masculinity and femininity to the mere satisfaction of sexual desire. The human person becomes for the other an object for sexual gratification, rather than a subject to be loved and by whom to be loved. Because of this devaluation of sexuality a deformation takes place in the person’s consciousness of the meaning of his own body and the bodies of others. The human person has difficulty seeing the true meaning of the body and is apt to reimagine its meaning in a corrupt way. It is now possible to give the body a different meaning, one that stands squarely opposed to the meaning the body ought to have according to its native structure and goodness as inscribed by the Creator’s intention. Of course, the objective reality of the body hasn’t changed and this corruption of meaning is not a legitimate re-imagining of the meaning of the body, yet, such a deformation meaning is possible. If such a deformation is allowed to take root in the heart of the human person, the meaning of the body as the manifestation and expression of the personal spirit is utterly eclipsed. The body is then identified as an object for the gratification of sexual desire rather than as the manifestation of the personal subject—someone destined for personal love through spousal self-giving.
In these two interconnected ways, then—first, in the restriction of the interior freedom of the gift; then, in the following devaluation and objectification of the body—concupiscent desire limits the possibility of a full and mature consciousness of the meaning of the embodied person: that is, in the body as the manifestation and expression of the person, and in the body as the power of personal self-giving love according to its spousal meaning. And since the meaning attributed to the body shapes one’s attitude and ethos, and is decisive for the way of living as a bodily being, the meaning attributed to the body by the human individual and the human couple profoundly shapes the course of human love. Should the body according to its true structure and goodness not be appropriated as having a spousal meaning, many negative effects will follow for the human couple in all relational areas, not least in the specifically sexual sphere. Consequently, disharmony enters the male-female relationship and, through it, a fundamental disharmony enters marriage and the family. All of this is indicated by Genesis in highlighting the experience of original shame—a shame that has become the lot of historical man and woman in all subsequent generations. Shame reveals that what now ‘shows itself through ‘nakedness; is man deprived of participation in the Gift, man alienated from the Love that was the source of the original gift, the source of the fullness of good intended for the creature.’ (ToB, 27:2)
Is this the end of the story? Certainly, the stark facts of man’s fallen state are grave and are for many a cause of intense distress. Yet, St. John Paul says that we must admit that ‘awareness of sinfulness is not only a necessary point of departure… but also an indispensable condition of the aspiration to virtue, to ‘purity of heart,’ to perfection.’ (ToB, 49:7) To this struggle for purity, and the conquering of shame through love, we turn in the next article: ‘the redemption of the body’ (Rom. 8:23).
Robert McNamara is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, on their European study abroad campus in Gaming, Austria. He was educated at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) and Maynooth (NUIM), where he studied physics and applied science, and philosophy and theological studies, respectively, and at the International Theological Institute, Austria, where he completed a master’s degree in the theology of marriage and family. He is currently engaged in research studies at Liverpool Hope University towards a doctorate in philosophy, and is writing his thesis on the human person as understood by St. Edith Stein in her reading of St. Thomas Aquinas. Robert is an associate member of faculty at Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, U.K., and a founding member of the Aquinas Institute of Ireland, for which he currently holds the position of secretary, and at whose summer and winter schools he tutors. Robert is originally from Galway, Ireland.
John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them (Boston: Pauline, 2006).