Before one even begins.

John Paul II starts TOB (theology of the body) with the argument where the Pharisees ask Jesus of Nazareth why Moses allowed divorce and when he apparently does not. Christ responds: because of the HARDNESS of your HEARTS Moses allowed this, but, in the BEGINNING, it was not so. Now John Paul II wants to underscore two things here: 1st: The hardness of heart. TOB is an invitation to think about very deep things that affect each one of us emotionally and in many other ways. Hence, basics for starting is to ask oneself: am I willing to think about this in a non-biased way? Or do I have all the answers ready before I even start? Am I willing to overcome my own hardness of heart? And in this sense, TOB is a call to trust the deepest yearnings of the heart. If the heart is sometimes hardened, then there is also a natural way for the heart to be. In other words, John Paul II says: dig out your heart from underneath all the dirt that is perhaps thrown on top of it, look at its deepest longings, because they are exactly right. 2nd: The “beginning”: This refers to the first book of the Jewish and Christian Bible, Genesis. Christ invites us to go back to the “Beginning” but not simply chronologically speaking, but beginning in the sense of “original” – that, which is in the depths of each and every one of us. Genesis is your story, and it´s mine. John Paul II speaks of Genesis being written in a “mythical language” – not in the sense that everything there is just a myth, but in the sense that sometimes a thousand words will not say as much as a picture, an image: fruit, garden, tree, nakedness, shame etc. etc. will start speaking volumes when we see them in this way. Ok, here we go with the 10 basic ideas:


1. The body.

The body has two fundamental meanings related to each other. The first meaning is translated into Christian vocabulary using a term that might seem strange, but the idea is really quite simple: The body is a “sacrament”. Sacrament means two things.

a. 1st, a sacrament is a visible sign that makes something invisible present: like when your friend gives you a flower, it’s not just a chemical reaction of the arm that smears someone a biological product under her nose. No. This bodily action has a meaning that you can’t see in and of itself but is transmitted through the body: I love you. You are important to me. Giving someone a black eye also transmits a message: I don’t like you. ONLY through the body can the invisible be shown. The body is a sacrament: a. Because it shows the invisible (especially in man-woman union shows call to love, image of the triune community of love called God). b. because of its relationship to love. That is, the 2nd meaning of “sacrament” is that the sign in question in some way has to be related to the God of love, which it signifies. In other words, the black eye example from above makes of the body not a sacrament but rather its opposite: an anti-sacrament, a kind of sacrilege, because instead of being a messenger of love, the body becomes a messenger of egotism.

b. 2nd The body is a gift. This flows from the first meaning, because making love real and present for someone else is nothing other than that: giving a gift to the other. Now, when someone gives you a bottle of wine, you don’t say: hey! Wrong type! Or “wrong year” or, “I don’t like the cork!” – you could say that of course, you can do what you want, as you are free: but you’ve just destroyed the gift. Now, the body of the other makes present the person. When you marry someone, you don’t say: well: I marry you as long as you have no wrinkles, as long as you drive a nice car, as long as… well, again, you can say all that: but don’t call it love, as you’ve just destroyed the gift. The gift has to be totally given and totally received, if not, one has left the “logic of the gift” aside and entered into the logic of egotism and selfishness.


2. Solitude.

Precisely through his free will and intelligence, man begins to realize he is alone in the garden. There are lots of other things. Porcupines, mosquitos and ice-bears and rocks. But, he feels alone. Why? Because he sees no one like himself. No one that is another “I”. He realizes that he is not an object like the other things. Not something, but somebody, this is what he is. Objects as opposed to persons can be used as a means for an ends: for example, this computer can be used to write an email, a glass, to drink water. With this comes the realization, that man himself is not an object (that is, can never be used as a means for an ends, as this would seek to diminish his freedom, would go against what he is as a person). Yet he also realizes his solitude in another way, as begins to understand, that he can only find himself, giving himself FREELY and receiving an other “I” freely as a gift.


3. Innocence:

it’s the image of the tree of good and evil. You can’t command rocks, nor cows. You can try, but how they react brings with it no responsibility for them, as they are not free. Freedom brings with it responsibility (!): (chew on that one for a while!: the whole world tells us, no, freedom is do what you want!). Our bulls on our ranch, when they broke out and made our cows pregnant so that we had calves by -50 F, well, that got us angry, but we did not take them to court…with people you do precisely that, because as soon as you have freedom, you have responsibility. But freedom has an awful lot to do with love. You cannot force someone to love, love can only be given and received freely, if it is to be love. Hence, there is a correlation between these three: freedom, love, responsibility. The more love you have for someone, the more you want to take on responsibility for that person and the greater your love, the greater your interior freedom will be. The egotist hates responsibility, as he is not interested in the other, but rather wants to get something out of the other: that for which he craves (for example: one night stands).


 4. Communion. 

“This is flesh of my flesh, bones of my bones”: amazing reaction of a young man who has just been presented one of the most beautiful women the world would ever see. There she stands, naked, offering herself to him as a gift, offering to give herself totally to him, in her bodiliness, and everything she is. That is to say. He sees her in her body. He sees her body, but his first reaction is not to underscore their bodily male-female difference; rather, what he emphasizes is their common humanity. In seeing her body, he sees in her body more than her body, he is able to see deeper, he sees her. And this is taking place in the garden (“my sister bride is an enclosed garden” – a quote from another book of the Bible, the Song of Songs): that is to say, another way to read “Garden” is to read, “sphere of intimacy between man and woman.” He does not stay on the surface, does not see so many body parts that could serve his pleasure, he sees her, in her dignity, in her personhood, and this experience overwhelms her. She discovers who she is precisely in this moment where she gives herself, because Adam receives and accepts her in this moment not for what THINGS he gives her, but for who she is, in her totality and in her limitations (she´s not God, so by that very fact has limitations). This overwhelms because it’s an experience of being loved: that is: I love you not because you give me pleasure or something else, but I love you for who you are. I love you not according to the motto: “I give you this if you give me something in return.” But rather pure and simply: I love you. This, then, causes in her the desire and wish to give herself even more to him. In this moment Adam realizes who he is as a person, because Eve loves him not because he gives her affirmation or intimacy or whatever, but just loves him, pure and simple…a communion of persons is created.


 5. Nakedness. 

They were naked, but had no shame before each other. Nakedness again takes place in the context of the “one flesh” on the one hand and of the “snake/tree” on the other: on the one hand a communion of mutual self-giving and on the other the temptation not to allow that the other gives oneself, but rather, the temptation to reach for and grab the “fruit of the tree” oneself. Nakedness means the end of masks. One can be what and who one is, with ones strengths and weakness, there is nothing to hide. I can be myself in the relationship. One touches the other in his/her entirety, and this touch happens through the body (!), nakedness points to the radicality of the gift. Through physical and spiritual nakedness we realize, that we are loved for our own sake.


6. Lust.

Lust no longer sees the gift giver (the other person and God), but only, WHAT the other person gives ME, this part that one lusts after: it can be affirmation, sexuality, a sense of security, emotional fulfillment, the body, the car… you can also take another book of the bible, the 1st letter of St. John: (1 Jn 2,16) and apply it: the “concupiscence of the eyes” (the apple was pleasurable to look at), the “concupiscence of the flesh” (the apple would taste good), the “pride of life” (it would give the power of intelligence) – the last point is also interesting, as lust clouds the intelligence, instead of freeing it from the slaveries of passion gone wild. Lust must be distinguished from desire and longing, both part of love, whereas lust is not. Eros and agape in this sense are not contrapositioned (in God they are even one and the same – cf. Benedikt XVI in Deus Caritas Est): Lust weakens eros. You need an ever new “kick” to get more excitement. CS Lewis in his Screwtape Letters puts it this way: an ever smaller pleasure for an ever greater price. On the contrary, where love is true, eros finds itself strengthened and ennobled.


7. Shame.

Shame has something to do with the desire, not to have something shown of ones sphere of intimacy, without permission. What one experiences as bad, is not the THING shown, but that it is shown, without my free YES. Shame points to the unfree exposition of interiority. Shame points to the interior (&not exterior!) law of the heart: a person may never be a “fruit” that I grab for, may never be used as a means for my own ends. Shame is overcome through love. Love demands no covering up. The stronger the love, the more the “leaves (Gen)” disappear out of a relationship. But not because there is no longer a comprehension of shame, but because of love, being accepted and trust, because the demands of shame have been fulfilled. Shame shows itself in the very moment, in which one feels pressured, hurt in one’s dignity.


8. Redemption of the heart

This means, that man has the capacity of self-mastery, with the help of God. This does not mean simply “controlling” oneself and one’s passions and hormones and instincts. This would be all too sad and a very “cheap” type of redemption. NO! Redemption of the heart goes SO much further. We are not talking about control, but about transformation of lust into love. This takes two steps. + 1st: discipline. This might seem negative. It’s not. If you are going 220kmh on a German Autobahn, in the wrong direction, you need to step on the breaks before you can drive in the other direction. With regard to the redemption of our sexual tendencies, something similar needs to happen. If you notice your sexual tendencies are dominated by lust, you need to step on the breaks before you can experience sexual longing that is compenetrated by love. (Of course, here the need for strengthening the will, watching the eyes, saying “no” right away to temptation, a healthy balance of activity, coming out of oneself through charity, spiritual coaching can help too, professional help if necessary etc.) + 2nd: Practice of virtue. Virtue is not formed through reading books about virtue, but by practice. And all of the above is not just the result of mere human effort, but human effort capacitated by God’s power. This is one of the reasons why Christians pray.


9. The inner gaze (glance/look).

The real understanding of the other person is only possible through an inner gaze, proceeding from one’s own heart. Without an attitude of the heart, a look or gaze of love, comprehension of the other is impossible. It’s true: you can only love what you know. But, to understand someone really and deeply, you need to love him. The “inner or interior look or gaze” gives the capacity of, in the midst of all that appears on the outside, discovering that what is deeper. This has practical consequences in sexuality. The interior gaze of the man discovers in the naked woman her vocation to communion. He discovers her. His interior gaze leads him further. The woman is much more to him then sexual arousal, her exteriority is the carrier of a deeper message. Vice versa, the inner gaze of the woman discovers in the naked man the same thing: his call to communion, his call to loving surrender of self. She discovers him. Her interior gaze helps her to see more than the fulfillment of her desire for affirmation, security, protection, to be valued or seen as beautiful. The interior glance helps us to understand how our partner was thought of from God, from the beginning.


10. Spousal meaning of the body.

The “spousal meaning” Appears 117 times in tob. Foundation in that the body in its 2fold form of man/woman as well as the sexual act is in and of itself, good. “Spousal” refers to the capacity of the human person to express love through his body (here one could speak of celibacy, as is another form of showing spousal love through the body) in that he becomes a gift through precisely his body. This spousal meaning points to the fact (cf. Waldstein explanation in index of terms in John Paul II. Theology of the Body English translation, “Man and Woman he Created them”) that the body is oriented towards the communion of persons, created for this communion and, in the end, finds his ultimate meaning and fulfillment in the communion with God and through him, with the “communion of the saints.” As love can only be freely given and never forced, it follows that this call to the spousal meaning remains a call, man is free to say no. The visibly specific aspects of man and woman points to the invisible reality of the “spousal meaning”, which shows itself in a threefold experience: solitude, communion and nakedness. This threefold experience, contemplated in a fourfold order – paradise, fallen world, redeemed world, heaven – is the back bone of the entire “theology of the body.”



Fr. George Elsbett LC is the superior of the Roman Catholic Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in Vienna and the Coordinator of the Regnum Christi Movement in Austria. The theology of the body has left on him a deep impression. 
»» He dedicates 17 short videos to the “Theology of the Body” on his YouTube channel:   (English subtitles)
»» The „Theology of the Body“ has become an important part of the “Zentrum Johannes Paul II.” (John Paul II. Center), founded in the Archdiocese of Vienna, Austria, in 2011. Talks, Workshops and Seminars dealing with the “Theology of the Body” are offered there.
Reading Suggestions
Christopher West. Fill Theses Hearts – God, Sex, and the Universal Longing, New York: Image, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2012
Christopher West. Theology of the Body Explained, Boston, 2003
For those with an inclination and interest in Philosophy, the following two book recommendations are a treasure:
John Paul II. Man and Woman He created them, a Theology of the Body, Boston: Pauline Books, 2006 (includes an insightful and extended introduction from Michael Waldstein)
Johannes Paul II. Love and Responsibility, Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2013