Divine Commands and Theology of the Body I

This is not an interpretation of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. This post dismisses what is most likely a misinterpretation.

I have read all of John Paul II’s Angelus Addresses collectively titled “Theology of the Body.” I have read much, if not all, of Christopher West’s Theology of the Body Explained: A Commentary of John Paul II’s “Gospel of the Body”, Boston, 2003. In 2005, I bought West’s book at St. Therese’s Retreat House in Columbus, Ohio where I was making a weekend retreat with talks by Fr. Joseph Murphy from Josephinum Seminary on the theology of the body. Five years ago, I completed a six week On-line STEP course offered by the McGraft Institute at the University of Notre Dame titled “Theology of the Body.”

So far, however, I have not appreciated of the theology of the body. I keep trying to use its major themes to formulate compelling premises in arguments about sexuality. Because of my focus on finding compelling premises I did not use any theology of the body themes in my book making a case for traditional Catholic male sexual morality. A free copy of my book: Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism Tulsa 2014 is available by emailing kielkopf.1@osu.edu

I can outline formal arguments with premises and conclusion which are most likely caricatures of the moral reasoning implicit in the theology of the body. My understanding does not enable me to do more. Below is an example of such a caricature condemning artificial birth control addressed to married couples in general who engage in coitus with chemical or mechanical means in place to stop conception.

An argument against contraception by technical means is appropriate for illustrating use of themes from theology of the body. For, it seems to me, that most people who take an interest in theology of the body are concerned with how well, or poorly, it supports Paul V’s 1968 condemnation of birth control in his encyclical Humanae Vitae .

The theology of the body theme I use is that actions of our bodies make statements. These bodily statements can be attributed to both us and God. They can be attributed to us because we perform the actions. They can also be attributed to God because in creation of nature God created our bodies to make these statements with bodily actions. Characterization of bodily actions as statements of God makes this theology of the body.

It is not bizarre to interpret bodily actions as giving information. A zoologist from another planet studying the human species could properly interpret the actions of a couple courting and then copulating as giving the information that they are engaging in reproduction of the species. And it is not too far fetched to regard the information given as a statement having been made.

1. If you engage in coitus, what God by nature has your bodies say is ”We are promoting conception.”
2. If you intend to prevent conception in coitus, you have your bodies say “We are not promoting conception. “ (Bodily actions of putting birth control devices in place make statements in body language.)
So, (3) if you engage in coitus and intend to prevent conception, you have your bodies contradict what God says your bodies are doing.
4. You ought not contradict what God says by nature, your bodies are doing
So, (5) you ought not have your bodies say, “We are not promoting conception.”
Hence, finally,(6) you ought not engage in coitus and intend to prevent conception.

I dismiss this type of reasoning because premise (4) is too vague to be accepted as correct. I accept that God has, by the nature He has created, given human bodies the capacity to give messages. Indeed, my project is to make sense of God giving us moral commands by what happens in our bodies. Here, I want only to offer a reminder that frequently what we ought to do is have our bodies conflict with what our bodies say by nature.

For instance, suppose I am very tired and have a severe headache. When sitting by myself, my bodily action is looking miserable and holding my head. I hear someone coming to whom I should appear welcoming. I perk up to look normal. I have my body contradict what my body is now saying silently.

I could go on to remind us how much of the development of virtue requires making our bodies act in a way conflicting with what our bodies naturally say.

Also, there are many cases in which a physical description of what we do can be described as injuring a person. However, if this injuring, eg. surgery, can be described as not injuring the person.

I stop this critique of this caricature argument because it drifts into a critique of those caricatures of natural law moral reasoning. The caricatures of natural law moral reasoning are criticized by attributing to them a premise to the effect that we ought never inhibit natural processes.

There are two flaws in my caricature of theology of the body reasoning.

The first law is to interpret what the body says by nature, and hence by God, are only indicative claims about what is being done. I need to work on making sense of holding that what the body says by nature, and hence by God, are also imperatives; hence, divine commands.

The second and more serious flaw in the caricature argument is my presupposition that constructing formal premise and conclusion arguments is of fundamental importance in moral reasoning. This is the erroneous presupposition that the argument gives the imperative. Or more accurately: There is a presupposition that intelligent readers or hearers of the argument receive an imperative when they reach the conclusion. Presumably, God, reason, morality or whatever the moral authority might be uses arguments as the transmitters of moral commands.

I shall go on to outline a theology of the body for sexual morality. But John Paul II et al. cannot be blamed for it. Moral arguments will have the exhortative function of directing us to pay attention to features of our bodies to receive moral imperatives from these bodily features. The theological presupposition is that God’s commands are these bodily imperatives.