Theology of the Body vs. Body Mutilations

John Paul II’s TOB was anchored in an anthropology still recognizably rooted in Catholicism, whereas the latest trends in body mutilations seemingly treat the body as a platform,

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“My body, my choice” are the words often associated with pro-abortion. “My body, my rights” is Amnesty International’s campaign slogan for individuals to have the right to make their own choices about their health, body, and sexual life. And thus, we now have a society where abortion, transgenderism, surrogacy, and various forms of fertility manipulation have become or are becoming the “norm.” 

We may ask where all these killings and body exploitations will end. The answer is simple: It will end only when we go back to the foundation of the creation of human life and back to our Creator. Our bodies are first and foremost not ours but God’s: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV).

Pope John Paul II’s catechesis on humans and sexuality, now known as the Theology of the Body (TOB), was built on traditional teaching about the two sexes, while adding Papa Wojtyla’s writings about love, responsibility, complementarity, and marital love as self-giving. The bulk of this work emphasized that human beings are endowed with dignity and are blessed by having both a body and a soul. Some in the Church thought the Polish pope’s teachings were a little too frank; but while there are still critics of TOB, the teaching has gained widespread acceptance as healthy, realistic, and Catholic.

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Three recent developments suggest TOB needs to be revisited. For example, while the USCCB’s doctrinal note on Catholicism and the body seems to stand firm against the scourge of transgenderism, the Catholic Health Association’s response is equivocal. So-called surrogacy (renting a woman’s womb) and various forms of fertility manipulation are corroding notions about parenthood. And on a less-dire but still fraught issue, the Archdiocese of Vienna is promoting Catholic interest in tattoos, perhaps as a way of seeming hip or relevant. 

John Paul II’s TOB was anchored in an anthropology still recognizably rooted in Catholicism, whereas the latest developments seemingly treat the body as a platform. Just as the neo-Marxist, post-deconstructive Left has assaulted the accepted grammar of many languages by inventing or misusing pronouns, they are likewise assaulting received and manifest wisdom about the human body. As the USCCB notes, “Pope Benedict XVI explained that the natural world has an ‘inbuilt order,’ a ‘grammar’ that ‘sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation’” (1-2).  Just as the neo-Marxist, post-deconstructive Left has assaulted the accepted grammar of many languages by inventing or misusing pronouns, they are likewise assaulting received and manifest wisdom about the human body.Tweet This

Our bodies are our own and our own responsibility up to a point. The USCCB statement goes on to point out, “The body is not an object, a mere tool at the disposal of the soul, one that each person may dispose of according to his or her own will, but it is a constitutive part of the human subject, a gift to be received, respected, and cared for as something intrinsic to the person” (5). This document rests on magisterial teaching from Pius XII and others, outlining the limits of medical intervention in terms of a repair of a defect or sacrificing a part in order to save the whole. 

The USCCB draws the line at “alter[ing] the fundamental order of the body” (9) via genetic engineering or transhumanist replacement of the given body by cyber parts. But they especially focus on transgender manipulation: “These interventions involve the use of surgical or chemical techniques that aim to exchange the sex characteristics of a patient’s body for those of the opposite sex or for simulations thereof” (10). The statement stresses the incompatibility of such interventions with Catholic health care, which respects God’s gift of the body as immutable and not to be customized at our whim. While acknowledging there are many forms of suffering, including in those who “identify as transgender” (12, n.), this document asserts that just because we can do some things, it does not mean we should.

To that assertion, the Catholic Health Association (CHA) of the United States (whose motto is “A Passionate Voice for Compassionate Care”), in its brief “Statement on the Doctrinal Note on the Moral Limits to Technological Manipulation of the Human Body,” seems not as certain as the bishops of the USCCB. The rhetoric of this statement is non-committal, seeming to affirm Catholic principles; but on close reading, it is full of hints that providers could be free to do as they see fit in order to affirm human dignity. 

Sister Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA president and CEO, states:

As public-serving ministries, Catholic health care providers also follow applicable federal and state laws which recognize the freedom of Catholic institutions to follow the ERDs in ways that make our health care authentically Catholic. We remain committed to honoring the human dignity of everyone, including transgender patients and their families, and to providing them with the best possible medical and spiritual care. 

This is the Orwellian language of obfuscation, not the grammar of an inbuilt order.

So, too, is the chaos, heartache, and manipulation in the field of fertility today. What was once the straightforward story of the birds and the bees has grown into a nightmare. As children, we sang about a couple we saw kissing: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes “Joe” with the baby carriage. No more. There could be no worthwhile children’s song about in-vitro fertilization, egg-freezing, embryo implantation, or surrogacy. 

CBS News recently ran a multi-part series on “Facing Fertility,” which should, frankly, not be watched while eating. The series introduces us to women experiencing difficulties—biological or self-created—having children. What all this talk and technology boils down to seems not to “empower” women but, rather, turn them into mere vectors for harvest or implantation, especially those women who “rent” their womb in order for infertile couples or gay “couples” to have a biological child. 

Both transgender mutilation and this interference in God’s plan of new life are heavy going for the average Catholic. The third example provides some relief, since it is—pardon the pun—only skin deep. Anyone with eyes to see has noticed the no-longer-shocking proliferation of “body art,” aka tattoos. Having made it through a 1980s stint in the Navy ink-free, I can now in this century choose to express my Catholicism through tattoos. 

“As part of a FREE TATTOO WALK-IN,” the press release from the Archdiocese of Vienna declares, “interested parties can choose from a small repertoire of Christian motifs and have them inked by the renowned tattoo artist Silas Becks from Stuttgart.” To kick off the April 15 event, there will be “a tattoo service for colorful people in the Ruprechtskirche…which will be followed by a discussion at 7:00 p.m. about the controversial position of tattooing in Christianity.” I interpreted this as some sort of liturgy for the tattooed. Don’t worry. The artist is a “devout Catholic,” and the sponsor for the event is Quo Vadis?, an Institution of the Religious Orders of Austria.

Where does all this leave us? In the quicksand of our corrupted times, when Frankenstein is introductory reading in medical ethics and people have willingly become living billboards. As a quick antidote, I suggest reading Song of Songs. It’s a story lacking surgically manipulated bodies and with no ink in sight. In short: a theology of the body.


  • Greg Cook

    Greg Cook is a writer living with his wife in New York’s North Country. He earned two master’s degrees, including one in public administration from The Evergreen State College. He is the author of two poetry collections: Against the Alchemists, and A Verse Companion to Romano Guardini’s ‘Sacred Signs’.

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