John Paul II’s “Triptych” of the Human Person | Charles Dern | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
An introduction to the first part of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
We have good news! The rich teaching of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB) is beginning to filter into seminaries, undergraduate theology courses, and into specialized seminars. But despite this good news, many of today’s priests, deacons, and religious likely were educated before the insights from the TOB were integrated into various seminary and monastic programs. Adding to this problem is that the TOB was originally delivered as a series of talks, with its style complicating and confounding what the late Pontiff was trying to communicate. This problem is unfortunate (but not insurmountable) because his Theology of the Body is essentially a series of reflections on scripture passages, many of which appear in the regular Sunday reading cycles. Given that most lay adults receive what precious little instruction they do through Sunday homilies, they may be missing out on some very profound insights that counteract utilitarian views of the person, and misunderstandings of marriage, that so pervade contemporary society.
John Paul II began his work for the Theology of the Body in the early 1970s as a book project when he was still Cardinal Karol Wojtyła. As an academic philosopher, Wojtyła concerned himself in particular with the philosophical question of what it means to be a human person. In addition to a number of articles, Wojtyła published two books on this subject. His earlier work, Love and Responsibility (1960), examines the nature of human love—and by implication, Divine Love—and concludes that love’s very essence includes both communion (gift of self to the other, such as occurs in the Trinity)—and creativity (an outpouring of something new from the communion, such as God’s outpouring of Love in creation). 1 In response to the dualistic vision of the person (separation of mind and body) spawned primarily by Rene Descartes, Wojtyła’s second book, The Acting Person (1969), argues that persons act as an integrated, unified being. 2
This article focuses on the first part of his Theology of the Body which, “takes a step back” as it were, and broadens the vision of humanity from not just this life (historical man), but to what God intended for man before the Fall (original man), as well as what God has in store for those who love Him (eschatological man). The three reflections are likened to a “Triptych” or three-panel painting in which all three sections are required to see the whole picture. This stands in contrast to the sciences that tend to analyze the person only in a single dimension (e.g., biology), and contemporary philosophies, that look at this life only (e.g., existentialism). These approaches offer what John Paul II calls an “inadequate anthropology” of the human person.