JPII’s ‘Game Changer’

Does Theology of the Body develop the moral doctrine of Humanae Vitae?



Review of: Mere Marriage: Sexual Difference and Christian Doctrine. By Andrew D. Cannon, Ph.D. Alphonsus Publishing, available at 215 pages. $24.95.


George Weigel devoted eleven pages of his 1999 biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, to the saint-pope’s Theology of the Body. He concluded that the 130 catechetical addresses that formed the teaching “constitute a kind of theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.” Weigel posited that “the Theology of the Body may well be seen as a critical moment not only in Catholic theology, but in the history of modern thought.”

Pope John Paul II left “the historical stage” six years later, in 2005. Andrew Cannon, author of Mere Marriage, devoted several years to the project of demonstrating to the world the importance of the Theology of the Body to Catholic theology and modern thought. This book is the fruit of his effort. Cannon was a retired lawyer when he commenced his doctoral studies in theology, doing so with a focus on this one “game changer” subject. Mere Marriage is his dissertation, with a Foreword by Professor Rocco Buttiglione, the intellectual biographer of the saint-pope, and with recommendations by Christopher West and Mary Ellen Bork.

When the saint-pope was delivering his weekly general audiences on this subject, from 1979 to 1984, when Weigel was writing his biography fifteen years after the last general audience on this subject had been delivered, and even when Cannon started his doctoral studies, could any have foreseen transgenderism, an anti-Christian perversion? Yes, actually, because the saint-pope, a teacher of philosophy and nemesis of Communist Poland, was intimately acquainted with the Marxist attempt to recreate man.

Cannon’s thesis is that Pope Saint John Paul II’s understanding of the marital act “develops the [moral] doctrine of Humanae Vitae and opens a new horizon for theological anthropology,” the Christian view of man. This affects our understanding of all the Christian mysteries. The saint-pope “brought a vision of the Christian mysteries of Creation, Redemption and Sanctification, vocations, grace and sacraments into view all unified in a sacramental presentation of Christian Marriage.” Additional mysteries impacted by this vision are the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union (one person; two natures), the Paschal Mystery, and the Eucharist. On the Trinity, Cannon writes,

[T]he Theology of the Body develops the moral doctrine of Humane Vitae by identifying the conjugal act…as a mystical image of the Blessed Trinity, in addition to being the mysterium magnum [great mystery] of the relationship between Christ and the Church of Eph. 5:32, and the [“]mystery hidden from eternity in God” of Eph. 3:9. This…imaging of the Blessed Trinity, as a scriptural interpretation, goes beyond the boundaries of analogy. …Instead, as used theologically, the image belongs to a mystical category which includes image, icon, sign and sacrament…

By transcending the constraints of analogy…, this scripturally grounded mystical symbolism unfolds the anagogic dimensions of the conjugal act — its ultimate mystical and spiritual meaning…

Cannon did not find his thesis acceptable among some academics. Some thought that the saint-pope could not have taught this, that Cannon was “too radical, over the top, an innovation, outside the main currents of theology and sacred tradition…” I humbly convey that, when I started reading the book, I had the same reaction. But Cannon says nothing the saint-pope did not say, and his work is replete with citations to the 650-page 2006 English language edition of Theology of the Body.

Cannon urges that the Theology of the Body be regarded, favorably, as a development of doctrine, of Humanae Vitae’s doctrine, in the manner that St. John Henry Newman described authentic development in his 1845 work An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

Forty-three years ago this October, John Paul II was elected pope. With the youthful exuberance of a 58-year-old he proclaimed, “Open wide the doors of Christ!” We could not know on October 16, 1978, what grace and love the Father bestowed on us in that moment and in the ensuing 27 years of his papacy. Cannon’s work further cements this papacy as a turning point in human history.


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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