The “Sexual Revolution” of the 1960's introduced many errors into modern thought. Blessed John Paul II recognized this before his papacy, and once he became Pope he made it a priority to address new challenges in the area of sexual ethics.
So early in his papacy, the late pontiff introduced what we now call the Theology of the Body, a series of 129 general audience addresses given over four years.
Blessed John Paul II began his first address with a scriptural reflection, leading into an analysis of Eve’s creation in Genesis 2. He shows that this story of woman’s creation underscores that male and female are created equal in dignity. Adam and Eve shape one another’s identity. As the Catechism puts it, “Man discovers woman as another ‘I,’ sharing the same humanity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 371).
Due to this shared dignity, Blessed John Paul II later writes: “Authentic conjugal love presupposes and requires that a man have a profound respect for the equal dignity of his wife.” Man “is called upon to develop a new attitude of love, manifesting toward his wife a charity that is both gentle and strong like that which Christ has for the Church” (Familiaris Consortio, 25).
This equality in dignity does not mean that man and woman are the same, though. As the late Holy Father put it, “Man, whom God created ‘male and female,’ bears the divine image impressed in the body ‘from the beginning;’ man and woman constitute, so to speak, two diverse ways of ‘being a body’ that are proper to human nature in the unity of this image” (Theology of the Body, 13.2).
In these two diverse ways of “being a body,” man and woman were made for each other. This point of his is reinforced in the Catechism: “Man and woman were made ‘for each other’- not that God left them half-made and incomplete: he created them to be a communion of persons, in which each can be ‘helpmate’ to the other, for they are equal as persons (‘bone of my bones…’) and complementary as masculine and feminine” (372).
So men and women are different in ways that complement the other, in that they each bring different gifts to a relationship. This can be seen most clearly in the nature of sexual attraction: “The body, which expresses femininity ‘for’ masculinity and, vice versa, masculinity ‘for’ femininity, manifests the reciprocity and the communion of persons” (TOB, 14.4; CCC, 371).
The way man and woman complement each other in the sexual act is what allows them to become “one flesh.” Blessed John Paul II describes the effects of this completeness beautifully, saying that, “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, thus returning to the union in humanity (‘flesh from my flesh and bone from my bones’) that allows them to recognize each other reciprocally and to call each other by name, as they did the first time” (TOB, 10.2).
As a Church, we are still mining the beautiful richness of Blessed John Paul II’s teachings on male and female complementarity and what it means for a theology of marriage. As we countdown to the late Holy Father’s canonization, we express our gratitude for him and his great work!