If someone asked me for a short summary of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Catecheses on Human Love (Theology of the Body), I would probably say: It is the Holy Father’s unique analysis of the “redemption of the body” through which he “re-reads” the encyclical Humanae Vitae and reassures us that our call to a “mature purity” is possible and “do-able.”
Blessed Pope John Paul II himself says: “[E]very believer, and in particular every theologian, should reread and understand more deeply the moral teaching of the encyclical in this integral context. The reflections we have been carrying out for a long time constitute precisely an attempt at such a rereading.” (TOB 119:5)
So, what concrete task is Blessed Pope John Paul II pointing us to? He says elsewhere: “In mature purity, man enjoys the fruits of victory over concupiscence.” (TOB 58:7)
I think the core message of TOB is ultimately that, yes, we can live out a married life (and yes, a celibate life, too) “liberated” from the effects of sin that would otherwise keep us bound to evils like contraception, pornography, and adultery. The “redemption of the body” accomplished by Christ gives us access to the grace that is necessary and essential to seek—and attain—the “mature purity” that is victorious over concupiscence.
This lofty task emerges when one looks through the “lens” Blessed Pope John Paul II is using—a lens that uniquely combines Aquinas’ “Thomism” with the philosophical framework of “personalism.” But I would add that describing this innovative philosophical-theological framework as “Thomistic Personalism” is only two-thirds of the picture. A third element must be acknowledged: the “sanjuanist” element (“Sanjuanism” is a term used to describe the study of the work of that Mystic Doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross).
One must remember that Karol Wojtyla’s first doctoral dissertation was on “faith according to St. John of the Cross” (faith as the means of union between God and the human person), of whom Blessed Pope John Paul II would say: “To him I owe so much in my spiritual formation … I have found in him a friend and master who has shown me the light that shines in darkness for walking always toward God.” (Homily, November 4, 1982)
Thus I propose the term “Thomystic Personalism” for the TOB “lens” of Blessed Pope John Paul II. The innovative structure of TOB is “Thomistic-Mystic-Personalist,” not just “Thomistic-Personalist.”
If you don’t have background in Thomism, Personalism, or Mysticism, fear not (no quiz later). Let’s just get the words in front of us so we can at least acknowledge the “mystic” dimension of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s “Thomystic Personalism.” There is a deep connection between the Mystic Doctor St. John of the Cross’s teaching on the three “ways” of the spiritual life (the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive ways) and Blessed Pope John Paul II’s assertion that we can attain “victory over concupiscence” through the call to “mature purity.”
St. John of the Cross’ rich explanation of the “way of perfection” toward mystical union with God—in this life—includes the same basic concept from Blessed Pope John Paul II about the possibility of real “victory over concupiscence”—in this life. Such a victory is the very pathway toward the intimate union with God described vividly by St. John of the Cross. This “purgative way” is the process in which we wrestle actively and mightily with our attachment to sin and created things that fill up our sensual appetites and distract us from deeper union with God.
This is also the project of the “mature purity” mentioned by Blessed Pope John Paul II. We seek to immerse ourselves in God’s grace and be purified from our disordered attachments to things that are not God. “Mature purity” yields a purity of heart that enables us to see God’s creation “rightly” so we can begin to see God Himself rightly and more clearly.
But one may ask—can the “purgative way” bring us to an authentically “mature purity” in which concupiscence (the disordering of our passions and attachments) is consistently held at bay? Can concupiscence really be mastered this side of Heaven? In accord with the “mystic” part of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s “Thomystic Personalism,” I would answer “yes” to both questions, because if we were to answer “no” to either question, we would effectively be suggesting that grace really isn’t powerful enough to “fetter” concupiscence in this life, and that’s not what the Church teaches. The Church teaches that grace is the remedy for concupiscence, and if grace is not capable of real “victory” concupiscence, then the “redemption of the body” is indeed a hollow victory.
A quick comparison: Think of concupiscence as a powerful “enemy combatant” that simply can’t be killed. But what if we can capture it? What if we can make it a prisoner of war? Think of grace as the soul’s “POW Camp” for concupiscence. The capture of concupiscence is an initial “victory,” but the real victory is the day-to-day success of keeping concupiscence in the POW Camp. Such a victory doesn’t mean that the POW is not constantly trying to escape, but as long as the camp remains secure, there is real and genuine “victory” in this life, despite the undisputed power of the enemy who continually tries to break free to “dominate” us.
In fact, Blessed Pope John Paul II himself says that the “redemption of the body” not only points us to the hope of salvation in Heaven, but also secures for us the “hope of everyday”—the hope that we can, every day, experience real victory over both sin and concupiscence (TOB 86:6-7):
“Here it is not a question of the eschatological hope of the resurrection, but of the hope of victory over sin, which can be called the hope of everyday….In fact, ‘in hope we have been saved’: the hope of everyday shows its power in human works and even in the very movements of the human heart, clearing a path in some sense for the great eschatological hope tied to the redemption of the body.”
So, while concupiscence remains present as a wound to our human nature until death, and while it can darken our intellects and can cause disorder in all our appetites and passions, God’s grace gives us hope that we can keep it at bay, particularly in the area of purity and chastity, from day to day. Every day presents a new horizon of hope for us—regardless of what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow—today we can say “yes!” to God’s grace and to the call to a “mature purity.” Encouraged by Blessed Pope John Paul II’s “Thomystic Personalism,” may we all take seriously this call to virtue, to victory over concupiscence, and to the “hope of everyday.”