The Meaning of Marital Love

December 2000By Monica Migliorino Miller

Monica Migliorino Miller teaches theology at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois, and is Director of Citizens for a Prolife Society.

Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II’s Anthropology.  By Mary Shivanandan. The Catholic University of America Press. 324 pages. $24.95.



“It is not good for the man to be alone.” This biblical statement sums up the most basic anthropological truth about the human person. Man is called to unity, but this great Judeo-Christian truth does not dissolve difference — it is achieved through that difference, in which the full glory of the male and female is constituted and celebrated. Original solitude, original unity, and the nuptial meaning of the body form the essence of personhood and the foundation for Christian marriage, and it is this essence of love and marriage that has captured the attention of Pope John Paul II, who has made an extremely valuable contribution to the Church’s understanding of personhood, marriage, and ethics.

Mary Shivanandan has successfully accomplished a daunting task: the distillation of John Paul’s profound and complicated vision of the essence of man and the meaning of marital love.

Her book is divided into two parts, the first being the more important one. In the 170 densely-packed pages of Part One, Shivanandan takes us on a detailed tour of the development of John Paul’s thought. Shiva-nandan begins by explaining the importance of Karol Wojtyla’s dramatical writings, The Jeweler’s Shop, Radiation of Fatherhood, and Our God’s Brother, in which the Pope explores issues of alienation, community, and intimacy.

Early on, the Pope was influenced by phenomenology — a philosophical system in which the meaning of our existence is located in self-awareness or consciousness. He was particularly interested in the work of phenomenologist Max Scheler “who reinstated the notion of person at the center of ethical life,” and Immanuel Kant. Scheler, who stressed “lived experience and the interior life,” locates ethics in the personal emotions of the subject. Kant, however, is at the other extreme, where the basis for ethics is duty rooted in the construct of the human mind. The Pope found Scheler’s personalism and subjectivity attractive; however, he faults both Scheler and Kant for their failure to recognize the importance of human will, human action, and the objective moral order. In short, the Pope seeks to provide a philosophical corrective to the modern (as well as ancient) dualist tendency to divide the mind and will from the ontological truth of the created order — a tendency that wreaks havoc on authentic marriage and family life.

Part One covers the experiential, philosophical, and theological foundations of John Paul’s thought and introduces the reader to John Paul’s important works: The Acting Person, Love and Responsibility, Sign of Contradiction, Familiaris Consortio, Mulieris Dignitatem, “Letter to Families,” the Splendor of Truth, the Original Unity of Man and Woman, as well as several lesser known but extremely significant philosophical essays and articles.

The Acting Person contains the foundation for the Pope’s insight into the meaning of “original solitude, transcendence of the person, self determination and self possession, rootedness in the body and the communio personarum and parenthood.” Shi-vanandan notes that “This combination of an abiding interest in the person and in love, especially love in marriage, directed all Wojtyla’s literary and intellectual developments.” The Pope is particularly interested in marriage as a communion of persons, and within this subject he explores the meaning of participation and alienation. The importance of these ideas cannot be underestimated. The dichotomy between participation and alienation sums up the contemporary experience as regards the meaning of human sexuality, marriage, and procreation. Participation requires complementarity, dialogue, recognition of the other as a gift, recognition of the transcendent value of the person, and openness to life. Alienation, on the other hand, annihilates the communion of persons, the subjectivity of the I-Thou relationship.

Shivanandan reveals Woj-tyla’s occasional tendency, rooted in the Aristotelian dualism of body and soul, to talk about the body as if it were foreign or separate from the person. This commentary is followed by a lengthy footnote on whether the person has a body or is a body, etc. Wojtyla’s occasionally dualistic language should be analyzed more deeply, as it contradicts his general view of the body as something constitutive and personal to the human being. How does the notion that the body is external to the person escape the dualism of secular thought which identifies personhood with mind, soul, and will, and the body as lesser or subhuman nature? If the person is not the body, what or where is the true person?

John Paul finds the truth about man, human sexuality, marriage, and the body by going “back to the beginning.” Between 1979 and 1984, he provided a catechesis on Genesis 1-3, finding three key ideas: original solitude, original unity, and original shame, in what is essentially a profound theology of the body. Chapter 4 of Shivanandan’s book concentrates on this theology and focuses on how the anti-contraception encyclical Humanae Vitae “advanced Wojtyla’s theology of the body.” Humanae Vitae is the antidote to the modern dualistic approach to the human body — that the real person is separate from the body (i.e., is located in mind, will, or soul) and that the body represents impersonal nature that must be subordinated to the mind. Instead, the body has an inherent nuptial meaning that encompasses a full giving of self, including one’s fertility.

Shivanandan is right to note that in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians we find the answer to the questions, what does the body mean? what does it mean for man to be male or female? In Ephe-sians 5 the orders of redemption and creation come together. We see that the redeeming love of Christ is irrevocably linked to His spousal love — as He gives Himself up as the Bridegroom of the Church. The body is the expression of the “I” given up in love. Marriage, from the very beginning, was created by God to be the visible expression of God’s invisible redemptive plan. And here we are very far from any idea that the body is mere biology, nature without meaning.

Beginning with Adam and Eve, marriage is the primordial sacrament. Male and female sexuality is a language — a language that expresses the truth about man and God. As Shi-vanandan states, “Every language is an expression of knowledge, and as such is characterized by either truth or falsehood.” Thus, language — in this case, the language of human sexuality — must be used properly. In the conjugal act spouses speak, and in doing so speak a mystery greater than themselves. Thus, in marriage, the full meaning of being a man or a woman must be spoken, revealed, made known in the un-manipulated word of the body.

Part Two is a lengthy exposition on the difference between contraception and Natural Family Planning, interpreted through the philosophy and theology of John Paul. Shivanandan examines how certain sociological methods approach the subject of birth control and how various methodologies treat the significance of the person in regard to birth control. Shivanandan is interested in how the social sciences can help provide a clearer understanding of, and appreciation for, Natural Family Planning, particularly in light of the personalist thought of John Paul II.

In light of the intense, rich, and elegant exposition of the Pope’s thought in Part One, the second part of the book (while it would have merit as a separate article) is narrowly conceived and thus awkward.

One might ask why Shi-vanandan concentrates only on the issue of birth control (to be sure, an important issue) when the application of John Paul II’s thought on marriage and family could have been made to many other issues as well. For example, the modern dualistic anthropology that leads to a pro-contraception position is the bedrock of the homosexual movement and the contemporary push to redefine the family. A broad-ranged critique of the contemporary secularized sexual ethic that is so opposed to a true Catholic vision of man would have been truer to what the author of this book had done so beautifully in Part One.

In summary, while Part Two sacrifices something of the organic sense of the work, Part One is a very valuable presentation of the thought of John Paul on human sexuality, marriage, and the family. Anyone who wants to understand the Pope on these matters must have Shivanandan’s book as part of his personal or formal curriculum.



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There is no doubt that amidst the current confusion in many areas of life - politics, society, family, careers, etc. - there are genuine and sincere seekers of truth. Once can say that this can be sensed not only among those interested in religion, but also among those who delve into philosophy and sciences and history...even among those who claim to be atheists.

But I could not ignore the feeling that being led to the truth, itself, is a grace. And coming across this essay, in addition to having been aware of JPII's Theology of the Body, appears to be another step towards penetrating the mystery of truth, itself.
Posted by: humblesoldier2
April 04, 2012 05:58 PM EDT
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