One true, good, beautiful world: Bridges between Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’

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Our faith proclaims the oneness of all things in Christ. Saint Paul encapsulates this beautifully when he writes:

He is the image of the unseen God, the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and earth: everything visible and everything invisible, thrones, ruling forces, sovereignties, powers – all things were created through him and for him. He exists before all things and in him all things hold together, and He is the head of the body, that is, the Church.

He is the Beginning, the first-born from the dead, so that he should be supreme in every way; because God wanted all fullness to be found in him and through him to reconcile all things to him, everything in heaven and everything on earth, by making peace through his death on the cross (Colossians 1: 15-20).

This oneness means there is a natural order at play in the world. The world was made to reveal Christ – his love for the world expressed through his life, death and resurrection. Again, ‘God wanted all fullness to be found in him and through him to reconcile all things to him.’ The Church talks of a ‘Culture of Life’ for this very reason – the ‘issues’ society likes to deal with individually just cannot be compartmentalised. Abortion, contraception, euthanasia, care of the most vulnerable – sick, elderly, unborn or disabled people – they’re all different sides to the same coin. Our attitude to one cannot contradict our attitude to the others.

John Paul II’s Theology of the Body gave us the tools to understand and communicate that life is gift, and humans have integral worth as persons at all stages of life. Pope Francis appears to make both a departure and a natural extension from this teaching. He has won admiration from within and without the church for not fixating on the controversial ethical issues that people have previously associated with Church teaching, but concentrating instead on injustice, poverty and care for creation. Nevertheless, Laudato Si’ demonstrates an entirely integrated worldview: ‘We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.’

Francis is able to move easily between social and ecological injustices because he believes they are both expressions of the same sickness – a commodification of all of creation which causes the powerful and the ignorant to use people and nature as means to ends, whether knowingly or unknowingly. He calls us to reassert the createdness of all living things, which protects their dignity and prevents their exploitation. He also wants us to experience deeply the connectedness of all living things, and so to be mindful of the impact our choices make on the rest of creation – animal, vegetable and mineral. This is the Gospel, flowing from the same source as the Theology of the Body. Francis’ call to respect creation and John Paul’s call to respect our sexuality both require a change of heart – a new set of eyes to see things as they are and not as we would have them to be.

This change of heart, if we allow it, has the power to transform the way we see everything. And although Francis does not linger on the matter, he devotes a paragraph to synthesising ideas relating to society, ecology and sexuality:

155. Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an “ecology of man”, based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will”. It is enough to recognise that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognise myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it”.

Here, Francis gives us an idea of what really lies at the heart of the transformation we need if we will ever be able to adequately care for each other and this world. Jesus’ first gift to us is our own lives – our very selves. We must first receive this gift in its fullness before we can be a gift to others or receive the rest of creation as a gift. If we take time to contemplate His presence within ourselves, He will enable us to see Him outside of ourselves and to come to know that there really should be no distinction between between our inner and outer lives, between us and them, between society and nature. This should fuel us to take up the challenge Francis has set to all believers – to examine the messages we transmit with our lifestyle choices and to choose a more integrated way of being in the world.

Nicola