The human person as a gift

The human person as a gift

This is the sixth article of a series outlining St. John Paul II’s thought on human embodiment and sexuality. Read the fifth instalment here.

In the theology of the body St. John Paul focuses our attention on the significance of the fact that the human person is created in two different but inherently related ways of being human, that of male and female. In both accounts of creation, as referenced by Christ in Matthew 19, Genesis highlights the sexual differentiation of the human person and indicates that this dimension of human nature has central significance for human life and happiness. Masculinity and femininity are there presented as two diverse modes of realisation of one and the same human nature, representing the incarnation of humanity in two different bodily and human configurations. However, and importantly, the differences of the sexes are there revealed not as mutually opposed differences—as something that would, so to speak, found the battle of the sexes—but rather as differences with a fundamental complementarity, where each sex is discovered as the fitting counterpart of its complement, such that a unique duality of relating is made possible between man and woman.

St. John Paul II describes the experiences related in Genesis—of our first parents originally, but also available to historical man and woman—as leading to the revelation and discovery of the spousal meaning of the body. Through the sexual character of the body, the body is discovered not only as the manifestation of the human person in the visible created sphere (through original solitude), but also as the ‘power to express love… that love in which the human person becomes a gift and—through this gift—fulfils the very meaning of his being and existence.’ (Theology of the Body, 15:1) Genesis presents the human body as having a structure and goodness that is oriented toward definitive personal self-giving whereby two human persons—a man and a woman—become ‘one flesh’ in an intimate community of life and love. And though the potential for self-gift is rooted in the human person’s inner personal freedom, in what St. John Paul calls the ‘freedom of the gift,’ this freedom is realised only in and through the body, and, primarily, in and through the sexual character of the body. (ToB, 15:1-4) This means that the law of the gift—detailed in a previous article as the fundamental law overarching all personal kinds of beings—is revealed in Genesis as inscribed upon the human body according to its sexual character. (So considered, light is cast upon the Gospel paradox recounted in all four Gospels to a total of six times: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk. 17:33). See also, Matthew 10:39, 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; John 12:25) St. John Paul highlights this, saying:

The body, which expresses femininity ‘for’ masculinity and, vice versa, masculinity ‘for’ femininity, manifests the reciprocity and the communion of persons. It expresses it through gift as the fundamental characteristic of personal existence. (ToB, 14:4)

Genesis puts before us the vital significance of sexuality: Sexuality founds the self-giving potential of the human person and is decisive for the realisation of the personal communion for which we have been made, a communion genesis calls ‘one flesh,’ and which can also rightly be called spousal. (‘Spousal,’ coming from the Latin, ‘spondere,’ means to be poured out in self-gift through the taking of a vow in a religious rite.)

When the sexual character of the body is adequately understood and accepted by the individual, and carried over into consciousness and action, the human person becomes aware of the body as having a spousal meaning—that is, personal self-giving love. The root of the spousal meaning lies in the objective order of the structure and goodness of the body, yet this objective order becomes effective in human life only inasmuch as it enters into conscious experience as grasped and appreciated by the knowing subject — the body then becomes meaningful. Consequently, suitable reflection upon the structure and goodness of the human body, especially with regard to the sexual character of the body, is essential towards discovering the meaning of being a human person. Such reflection unveils that the body comes from the hand of the Creator and Redeemer and is inscribed with His loving design. And, moreover, that the human body is ordered toward personal self-giving love precisely because it has been created and redeemed by Him who is love, through His love, and for the sake of His love. As such, the body ‘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, 96:6)

To have the eyes to see this inscription of divine love, and thereby to discover the divine plan for human embodiment and love, one needs to re-read the meaning of the body through rereading bodily experience in the light of Sacred Scripture, and with an eye to the gift of creation—that is, according to what the Holy Father calls ‘the hermeneutics of the gift.’ (ToB, 16:1) The hermeneutics of the gift is the principle interpretive key for human life, it means rereading bodily experience from the perspective of the creative logic of the gift. Returning to ‘the beginning,’ and therein discovering the fundamental and radical giving of the Creator casts light upon our own embodied experience. The creative activity of God does not remain insulated in the distant past but continues into the present as something perpetually available to human experience. St. John Paul guides our access to this original depth that lies hidden experience.

Discovering the Spousal Meaning of the Body through Gift

In Genesis, God reveals himself primarily as Creator, as He who calls all things into being out of nothing. After each phase of creation God repeatedly beholds His newly created creatures and declares their goodness. Yet, since we know that it is only love that gives rise to the good and, moreover, that it is only love that is well pleased with the good, we can discern that creation must be rooted in love and must be motivated by love—a divine love which first gives the good and then delights in the good that is given. And, moreover, creation is not merely a gift but a radical gift: Creation is an act of giving wherein both the gift and the receiver of the gift come into being precisely through the giving of the gift. As such, the gift of creation reaches down into the very roots of being so that ‘every creature bears within itself the sign of the original and fundamental gift.’ (ToB, 13:4)

Now, though this gift-signifying character is true of all creatures, it bears full significance only for the human person. Why? Because gift giving needs not only a giver but also a receiver, as well as a relation established between the giver and the receiver. Yet, in the visible created sphere the world has meaning only for the human person. As the only creature able to understand the order of creation and freely accept the gift of creation, the human person is the only creature adequately able to receive the gift of creation and stand in relation to the gift giver. Therefore, the human person has evidently been created as a gift for himself and the entirety of the visible world has been created as a gift to the human person. (Gaudium et Spes, 24:3) This gift giving and receiving then establishes a primordial relation of the creature to the Creator, a relation founded upon the human creature’s own being precisely as gifted. To receive the gift of being and life from God and, thereby, to live in the relation of giver and receiver with God, was for the first man a source of great joy. Yet, without another personal being on the horizontal plane of creation, there was no possibility for the man to live in a relation of reciprocal personal self-giving love. Alone without somebody ‘with’ whom and ‘for’ whom to live in a relationship of personal gift, the first man could not fully realise the logic of gift that permeated his being. With the creation of another embodied person, different but complementary—the woman for man, and the man for woman—the first human couple was able to realise the logic of the gift in their personal union in ‘one flesh’—‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and unite with his wife, and the two will be one flesh’ (Gn. 2:24). (ToB, 15:5) In this way, the spousal meaning of the body reaches consciousness for the first human couple, and becomes the centrepiece of their embodied personal existence.

Further to this mutual personal self-giving in ‘one flesh,’ and inherent to their union as a happy potential, the first couple realise the blessing of sexual fruitfulness. In the first account of creation, God says, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…’ (Gn. 1:28). God’s ‘first commandment,’ so to speak, highlights the procreative dimension of human sexuality. Through their ‘one flesh’ union, Adam and Eve realise a further depth to the mystery of the gift when they experience the gift of the child: ‘Adam knew his wife, who conceived and gave birth to Cain, and said, “I have acquired a man from the Lord”’ (Gen. 4:1). In ‘knowing’ one another with all the personal intimacy and vulnerability of sexual self-gift, the human couple comes to ‘know’ a fresh gift of the Creator in the gift of the life of the child, truly ‘flesh of their flesh, bone of their bones.’ The spousal meaning of the body is thereby revealed and discovered as possessing an additional depth that comes to penetrate the consciousness of the first couple in the act of procreation. Not only is the body revealed through the sexual act as potentially unitive in meaning, but is further discovered as potentially procreative—and procreative precisely through the unitive. With full awareness of this manifold of meaning inherent to their bodies and manifest in sexual union, our first parents placed themselves at the service of life and cooperated with the Creator in giving children the gift of life. In this way, the cycle of loving giving that pervades creation finds its proper completion.

This ‘revelation and discovery’ of the spousal meaning of the body, though now greatly affected by the fall of man, still lies at the heart of the human person’s embodied experience. And though the discovery of this truth is evidently not without difficulty, sometimes great difficulty, the experience of this manifold meaning of the body remains a real and live possibility. In the next article, we will deepen our understanding the spousal meaning of the body by reflecting upon the fall of the human person and the experience of what the Holy Father calls ‘original shame.’


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.


Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility (Boston: Pauline, 2013).

John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them (Boston: Pauline, 2006).

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