The Human Person as Gift: Theology of the Body

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Written by Glennamarie Rivers (Mount St. Mary’s University) | Edited by Zach Maher

The following was a college essay written by Glennamarie Rivers. It has been edited and approved by Zach Maher. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

Source of Man’s Identity and Dignity

Over the course of studying and questioning – with the intent to understand and actively implement – the works of Pope St. John Paul II, particularly his Theology of the Body, a most beautiful and profound truth of the Catholic faith was revealed: human persons are gifted by God for each other, and therefore are called to receive one another as gift. Through careful and close reading of Scripture, John Paul II exegetes the Catholic perspective of the human person as male and female created by God, and the unique relation and responsibility men and women have to each other. While the reciprocal self-gift in the vocation of marriage is magnified in his Theology of the Body, John Paul II also ascertains the entire communion of persons relies on a reciprocal giving of a gift, as first exemplified in the beginning before the Fall.

To understand how the communion of persons relies on a reciprocal gift requires an in-depth synthesis of themes interwoven through the Theology of the Body. Namely, these are the themes surrounding the identity of mankind, the source of that identity, and man’s relation to woman and woman’s relation to man. John Paul II follows the teaching of Christ (Matthew 19:3-8) and looks to the beginning as it is written in Genesis 1 and 2 to answer questions surrounding the identity and dignity of mankind as both man and woman. He writes:

If the account of the creation of man in the two versions, that of Genesis 1 and the Yahwist version in Genesis 2, allows us to establish  the original meaning of solitude, unity, and nakedness, by this very fact it allows us also to reach the basis of an adequate anthropology, which seeks to understand and interpret man in what is essentially human.[i]

In other words, John Paul II is confident that proper understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 will lead to the uncovering of the timelessly relevant human question: who is man?

Man is created in the very image and likeness of God. However, man is not distinguished as male until the more detailed account of man’s creation, discussed in Genesis 2 where Eve is made from Adam. John Paull II makes it clear the creation of woman from man introduces a new dimension of mankind:

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 body’ that are proper to human nature in the unity of this image.[ii]

What is highlighted here is a) the inherent and equal dignity of man and woman, b) while the male and female personhood consists of different bodies, each explicitly reflects the image of God, and c) God then presents male and female to each other, simultaneously, as gifts.

While the reciprocal gifts of self are total and mutual, the giving and receiving are uniquely distinct for man and uniquely distinct for woman. Eve is created from Adam and so given to him as a gift. Adam must first accept and receive Eve as a gift and then give of himself in return. Eve must first give of herself and receive Adam in return, as illustrated in Figure 1:

John Paul II illuminates this message from God Himself: Humanity is a gift from God — a man’s humanity is a gift from God to that man, to the whole world, and to every human in the world. Before Eve is tempted to pick the forbidden fruit and before Adam succumbs to the same temptation, humanity experiences and fully lives the spousal meaning of the body as God intended from the beginning. In other words, humanity fully lives united through a common good oriented around cooperation with God for the bringing out of new life and for union with each other.

Original Innocence and Living After the Fall

“The dimension of gift,” John Paul II writes, “is decisive for the essential truth and depth of the meaning of original solitude-unity-nakedness”[iii] that Adam and Eve fully experienced in the Garden. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were able to live out fully the reciprocal giving of gift to one another because God had gifted them humanity itself, and so original innocence reigned in the Garden of Eden. Humans lived as God intended, in the fullness of their own human nature, as referenced in Figure 2:

Figure 2:

Fullness of Human Nature
NatureSupernatural Supernatural
Soul, Body, Intellect, WillPreternatural GiftsSupernatural Gifts
 Integrity, Immortality, Impassibility, KnowledgeSanctifying grace, Theological Virtues (faith, hope and charity)

To summarize, John Paul the II concludes man’s identity is a gift, given by the Creator God. Man’s identity consists of his dignity as a reflection of God’s image in two distinct yet complementary bodies that share in a universal human nature. The state of original innocence enabled Adam and Eve to live in the beauty of their own human nature which in turn allowed them to live in communion with God and with each other as reciprocal gifts. Essentially, man and woman by nature are inherently gift! If Adam and Eve were intended for this communion of gift united by common good, then the rest of humanity is intended to flourish in the same way – simultaneously receiving others and giving oneself as gift. This is why communion of persons relies on reciprocal self-gift, because in the beginning, God intended it as such. Had original innocence remained, the rest of humanity would have experienced the fullness of their human nature as it was in the Garden. However, Adam and Eve failed to endure in this communion because they ceased receiving themselves as gift:

Now the snake was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He asked the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from the trees in the garden’?” The woman answered the snake, “We may eat of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it, or even touch it or you will die.’” But the snake said to the woman: “You will certainly not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” The woman saw the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.[iv]

When Eve plucked and consumed the fruit because she desired, as the snake said, to be “like gods,” she refused to accept herself as gift and undermined the dignity of her own life. In also succumbing to the snake’s temptation, Adam, too, refused to accept himself as gift and undermined his own dignity. Thus, in their desire to be something they were not, Adam and Eve stopped receiving their own humanity as a gift from God to themselves. This wounded their ability to give of themselves as gift to each other, and to God. Furthermore, this wound extended to the rest of humanity and continues to inhibit our ability to give and receive.

Humanity no longer experiences the fullness of human nature as intended in the Garden. Though the soul, body, intellect, and will remain, the preternatural and supernatural gifts are lost due to original sin. However, while the wound is deep, it is not a complete severance. Even in the consequences of this wound, humans have a duty to persevere in the seeing, giving, and receiving oneself and each other as gifts. As persons, there is a duty to orient our lives in such a way that glorifies one another as a gift, despite the entrance of sin, because, as John Paul II reminds us, “every creature bears within itself the sign of the original and fundamental gift.”[v] However, in order to give of oneself and receive another in community, one must first do what both Adam and Eve failed to do: receive, accept, and recognize oneself as a gift from God.

The New Adam, the New Eve, and Grace

The communion of persons relies so fundamentally on a reciprocal self-gift, yet Adam and Eve are inadequate models to exemplify that self-gift. For such an extraordinary and radical way of life, Christians need to look to the ones who lived it perfectly: Jesus Christ, and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Christ surpasses Adam and fulfills the vocation of man perfectly as He is the full revelation of human nature. The Passion is the most clear and beautiful example of Christ’s self-giving love for His Church. It also reveals how the Church is to respond to this gift. Christ’s role is to love and to suffer love; in other words, He gives in order to receive. Reciprocally, the Church’s role is to suffer – experience – love and to love, meaning she must receive in order to give. Man looks to Christ to fulfill his vocation of self-sacrifice. Further, where Eve condemns the soul by turning away from God, Mary, the Immaculate Conception, conversely gives the soul hope by trusting totally in God. Mary’s role as Mother of God and Spiritual Mother of humanity, while also remaining ever-virgin, is the perfect example of living out the vocation as woman.

It is evident that, through the gifts of Christ himself and the Immaculata, God does not abandon humanity, even in its fallen state. Briefly consider John Paul II’s reflection of original innocence: “If creation is a gift to man, […] then its fullness and deepest dimension is determined by grace, that is, by participation in the inner life of God himself, in his holiness”[vi]. Where a person may fail to receive one’s self as gift, the Holy Spirit intervenes through the Sacraments, instituted by Christ, and allows for a person to share “in the inner life of God” once again, which then helps a person in the acceptance of self as gift. For example, through the Sacrament of Baptism, a person is reunited with God, through a union with Christ – God incarnate – and regains the supernatural gifts lost during the Fall; i.e. sanctifying grace and the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity). Moreover, grace not only brings a person closer to the fullness of his own nature, it strengthens him to prevail over the residual effects of sin.

Every Person’s Vocation

In the Sacrament of Marriage there is a radical, precious, intimate, and mutual self-gift between one man and one woman. However, John Paul II makes it clear the spousal meaning of the body is a fundamental quality of every human being. Regardless of vocation, every single person, by nature, is called to share in the truth of the spousal meaning of the body:

Before they become husband and wife (a little later, Gen. 4:1 speaks of it concretely), man and woman come forth from the mystery of creation first of all as brother and sister in the same humanity. The understanding of the spousal meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity reveals the innermost point of their freedom, which is the freedom of the gift. It is from here that the communion of persons begins in which both encounter each other and give themselves reciprocally in the fullness of their subjectivity.[vii]

Though his language is beautiful, his frequent referrals to man and woman as “gifts” remain very theoretical. John Paul II is reaching out to Christians everywhere and calling for a revival of a culture that glorifies one another as sons and daughters of God; as gifts. This is no small task and it is challenging to understand applications of his teachings to everyday life. In fact, Luke Timothy Johnson in his article, “A Disembodied ‘Theology of the Body’” criticizes John Paul II in his Theology of the Body for failing to connect to the common man. He argues that the Theology of the Body “represents a mode of theology that has little to say to ordinary people because it shows so little awareness to ordinary life” (Johnson, 12)[viii]. To be charitable to Johnson and his argument, admittedly, John Paul II appears to neglect more explicit conceptualization and application in the Theology of the Body.

However, in defense of the Pope, he has written extensively in different works on the beauty and dignity of the human person for multiple audiences. To really delve into a dialogue with John Paul II on the human person and the reality of the application to everyday life, one is not limited to Theology of the Body. One can, and to a certain degree must, turn to John Paul II’s other works pertaining to the person, such as his pre-papal Love and Responsibility or many of his papal documents, particularly his encyclicals (e.g. Redemptor Hominis, Mulieris Dignitatem, or Gratissimam Sane).


John Paull II’s ultimate intention for teaching the Theology of the Body and the idea of reciprocal gift is for the flock to grow closer to its Shepherd. He is encouraging the defense and protection of the immense beauty of the human person. He is calling all to see, to know, and to love Christ in one another by receiving them as a gift. Let us conclude with a reflection on the following, delightfully simple, excerpt from John Paul II’s “Meditation on Givenness:”

The very world in which we live, the human world … is the setting of an ongoing exchange of gifts—gifts given and received in many different ways. People live not only alongside one another, but also in manifold relationships. They live for each other; relating to one another, they are brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, friends, teachers, students … it may seem that there is nothing extraordinary in this; it is just the normal pattern of human life. In certain places this pattern intensifies, and it is there, at those points of “intensification,” that this gift of one person for another becomes the most real.[ix]

[i]   John Paul II, Theology of the Body (Pauline Books and Media, 2006), 13:2.

[ii]   John Paul II, Theology of the Body, 13:2.

[iii]  John Paul II, Theology of the Body, 13:2.

[iv]  Gen. 3:1-7 (NAB).

[v]   John Paul II, Theology of the Body, 13:4.

[vi]  John Paul II, Theology of the Body, 16:3.

[vii]  John Paul II, Theology of the Body, 18:4.

[viii] Luke Timothy Johnson, “A Disembodied ‘Theology of the Body’ John Paul II on love, sex and pleasure” In Course Reader, 12.

[ix]  John Paul II, Meditation on Givenness, 1.

One Response

  1. The encyclicals written for multiple audiences rather than a specifically Christian audience cannot be fully practiced outside of a Christian context. For example, we can only be true brothers and sisters when we are in Christ and His Spirit resides in us. This is not true for most of humanity which does not have faith in Christ (John 1:12; Galatians 3:26; Ephesians 1:5). This also applies to the Theology of the Body.
    We need to receive Christ as a gift before we can see one another as gifts to each other.

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