John Paul II’s “Triptych” of the Human Person

This article focuses on the first part of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body which broadens the vision of humanity from not just this life (historical man), but to what God intended for man before the Fall (original man), as well as what God has in store for those who love Him (eschatological man). 


Pope John Paul II; “Original Man” Adam being created; “Historical Man” in utero; and “Eschatological Man” entering eternity.

We have good news! The rich teaching of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB) is beginning to filter into seminaries, undergraduate theology courses, and into specialized seminars.  But despite this good news, many of today’s priests, deacons, and religious likely were educated before the insights from the TOB were integrated into various seminary and monastic programs.  Adding to this problem is that the TOB was originally delivered as a series of talks, with its style complicating and confounding what the late Pontiff was trying to communicate.  This problem is unfortunate (but not insurmountable) because his Theology of the Body is essentially a series of reflections on scripture passages, many of which appear in the regular Sunday reading cycles.  Given that most lay adults receive what precious little instruction they do through Sunday homilies, they may be missing out on some very profound insights that counteract utilitarian views of the person, and misunderstandings of marriage, that so pervade contemporary society.

John Paul II began his work for the Theology of the Body in the early 1970s as a book project when he was still Cardinal Karol Wojtyła. As an academic philosopher, Wojtyła concerned himself in particular with the philosophical question of what it means to be a human person.  In addition to a number of articles, Wojtyła published two books on this subject.  His earlier work, Love and Responsibility (1960), examines the nature of human love—and by implication, Divine Love—and concludes that love’s very essence includes both communion (gift of self to the other, such as occurs in the Trinity)—and creativity (an outpouring of something new from the communion, such as God’s outpouring of Love in creation). 1   In response to the dualistic vision of the person (separation of mind and body) spawned primarily by Rene Descartes, Wojtyła’s second book, The Acting Person (1969), argues that persons act as an integrated, unified being. 2

This article focuses on the first part of his Theology of the Body which, “takes a step back” as it were, and broadens the vision of humanity from not just this life (historical man), but to what God intended for man before the Fall (original man), as well as what God has in store for those who love Him (eschatological man).  The three reflections are likened to a “Triptych” or three-panel painting in which all three sections are required to see the whole picture.  This stands in contrast to the sciences that tend to analyze the person only in a single dimension (e.g., biology), and contemporary philosophies, that look at this life only (e.g., existentialism).  These approaches offer what John Paul II calls an “inadequate anthropology” of the human person.

Original Man
Reflections on “original man” in JP II’s theological study on the human being, begins by examining Mathew 19:3-8, when the Pharisees question Jesus about the permissibility of divorce. 3  Christ answers that divorce was not in God’s original plan for man and woman.  He then buttresses his answer in two very significant ways.  First, he quotes key passages from each of the two creation accounts in Genesis (the Creator “made them male and female” and “the two shall become one flesh”).   Second, Jesus starts and ends His response to the Pharisees by referring to “the beginning”.  This exchange asserts that there was a time (“the beginning”) in which humans did not need divorce, just as the Creator intended.  Here, John Paul II finds that by studying humanity in the original state intended by God, one can understand more deeply what it means to be human.

Original Solitude – Human Subjectivity
Even though the only “data” available are the two Genesis creation accounts, John Paul II extracts multiple insights.  The first insight is that humans are God’s special crown of visible creation.  This idea is not new, yet many do not understand deeply enough why and how the human person is extraordinarily special.  Only then can we understand why divorce, sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage, and even artificial contraception intrinsically assault the dignity due every human being.

The foremost, and best-known, feature that makes humans special, with respect to the rest of creation, is that God created us in his image and likeness (Gen 1:27).  This concept alone is sufficient to ground human dignity, but also strengthened by related insights.  John Paul II states that humanity’s unique position is delineated further by being set apart in the creation cycle: “man by contrast, is not created according to a natural succession, but the Creator seems to halt {in Gen. 1:27} before calling him to existence, as if he entered back into himself to make a decision….” 4

Immediately after creating man and woman, God blesses and commands them to be fertile, till the earth, and have dominion over all plants and animals.  These commands further distinguish humanity from the remainder of creation: “Already in the light of the Bible’s first sentences, man can neither be understood nor explained in his full depth with the categories taken from the ‘world’….” 5  The depth described here by John Paul II is the “subjectivity” (or personhood) of humans.  In other words, humans share materiality with the “world” in our composition and general physical structure, but humans are not mere objects for use (even responsible use) and, thus, have an inherent right to dignity and respect, or in other words, they must always be treated with love.

The second creation account (Gen 2:4b ff.) further affirms human subjectivity because only “man”: 1) directly receives the Lord’s “breath of life;” 2) is given charge of the Garden of Eden; and, 3) receives the moral command to avoid eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Death is the outcome for eating this fruit. John Paul II notes that the consequence of death is “a radical antithesis of all that man had been endowed with.” 6  In other words, before the Fall (“the beginning”), all of creation still is perfectly “good,” or “full of life,” as God intended.  There was no death, let alone the experience of death.  But man alone, because of his subjectivity, has a capacity for some understanding of this outcome.

Original Unity – The Communion of Persons
The second insight is that humans can and need to commune with others.  This is a defining feature of subjectivity that we equate here with “personhood.”  Thus, it is significant that the Lord himself speaks the words:  “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).  John Paul II calls the man’s state, before the creation of the woman, “original solitude,” which is a quality unique to subjects who can say: “I.”  As a first remedy to the man’s solitude, the Lord creates the various animals, telling the man to name them.  In so doing, the man again distinguishes himself from them as being a totally different creature.  Because the man literally occupies a whole different plane of existence from the animals, as Genesis 2:20 tells us: “none proved to be a suitable partner for the man.”

The Lord then puts the man into a “deep sleep” or “torpor.”  John Paul II takes Genesis 2:21 to mean more than mere sleep “but a specific return to non-being … in order that the solitary “man” may, by God’s creative initiative, reemerge from that moment in his double unity as male and female.” 7  Upon awakening, the man immediately recognizes that the woman is “a help like unto himself.”  He can relate to her in ways that are completely unique, unlike his relationship with any other creature.  John Paul II calls the man’s recognition of the possibility of communio with the woman “original unity.” (John Paul II also notes that the joy evident in the words: “This at last …” further demonstrates the subjectivity of the man (and by extension, the woman) given that joy is an emotion proper only to persons.) 8

Returning to the dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mathew 19, it is very significant that Jesus himself quotes the next verse from Genesis: “For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and unite with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.  So, it is that they are no longer two, but one flesh.” 9  It is not merely the physical complimentarily of man and woman that enables the two to become “one flesh,” animals can express this complimentarity just as well.  Rather, the physical complimentarily, combined with human subjectivity, makes marriage possible between man and woman. They then engage in not only a physical act, but a personal act, a communio personarum, or communion of persons.  For John Paul II, “‘Communio’ says more {than ‘community’} and with greater precision, because it indicates precisely the ‘help’ that derives in some way from the very fact of existing as a person ‘beside’ a person.” 10

This unity is even more deeply significant when we consider our relationship with God.  We know that humans are already the image of God by virtue of our individual subjectivity, but we recall that God has revealed himself as Triune; that is, God is his own communio personarum (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  Thus, “man became the image of God, not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons … He is, in fact, ‘from the beginning’ … essentially the image of an inscrutable divine communion of Persons … This … constitutes perhaps the deepest theological aspect of everything one can say about man.” 11 This idea has profound significance for married love.

St. John of the Cross (on whom Wojtyła wrote his theology dissertation) describes love as a cycle of self-gift between persons. 12  In 1 John 4:8, it tells us that God is Love and, therefore, we can consider the Trinity—the eternal and infinite self-giving of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to each other—as the paradigm for loving another.  We also realize that if humans are made in God’s image, then a man and woman in marriage can most closely approximate the love within the Trinity, as the married man and woman fulfill the Creator’s intention for the “two becoming one flesh” by becoming a total and complete self-gift to each other. 13

It also follows that this total and complete gift of body and soul is possible only in a monogamous heterosexual marriage.  Other “unions” (e.g., polygamy, polyandry, and same-sex couples) contravene the Creator’s intention.  Non-contracepted, conjugal acts are the fullest possible embodied expression of the communion personarum.  Only these acts permit the possibility of total self-gift and total receptivity, including the potential for becoming a parent through one’s spouse.

We can now see why, when a true covenantal marriage exists, divorce inherently opposes the Creator’s plan.  The gift of self in marriage certainly extends far beyond the conjugal act, and true love exists within a marriage covenant, where each promises the total self to the other “until death.”  Therefore, to divorce one’s spouse is to break this covenant, treating the spouse, and the covenant, as something disposable that served its use for a time.

Original Nakedness and Original Shame
The teaching against divorce can be very difficult to live in contemporary society.  Theologically, part of the reason for this difficulty is the existence of original sin, which separates humans from the “original” state to the present “historical” state. Genesis 2:25 (“The man and woman were naked, yet they felt no shame”) reveals another important reason why no divorce existed “in the beginning.”  John Paul II explains:

Genesis 2:25 certainly speaks about something extraordinary that lies outside the limits of shame known by human experience, and that is decisive for the particular fullness of interpersonal communication … In such a relationship, the words “they did not feel shame” can only signify … an original depth in affirming what is inherent in the person … To this fullness of “exterior” perception, expressed by physical nakedness, corresponds the “interior” fullness of the vision of man in God, according to the image of the Creator. 14

In other words, the Creator meant for us to see each other as he sees us; specifically, spouses are meant to “know” each other in the total personhood of body and spirit.  Before the Fall, no break existed between what can be known about the person via the senses, and his or her spirit “hidden” within.

After the Fall, the man and the woman suddenly realize that they are naked.  The words of Genesis 3:7 “reveal a certain constitutive fracture in the person’s interior, a breakup, as it were, of man’s original spiritual and somatic unity.” 15  John Paul II calls this experience “original shame,” which is a human attribute retained in our present historical state.  The Fall has made it difficult for humans to see the totality of other persons, and this difficulty is most acutely evident within the often broken relationships between men and women.

Historical Man – The Problem of Adultery
John Paul II begins his reflection on the second part of the triptych—historical man—by considering our reductive view of each other.  Here, the Pope again begins with Christ’s words: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you: Whoever looks at a woman to desire her {in a reductive way} has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt. 5:27-28). 16

Never one to miss an opportunity to reaffirm man’s subjectivity, John Paul II quickly notes that “looking to desire” (lusting) is clearly an interior act that only humans, and not animals, can do. 17  Even more important is the radical way in which Christ addresses his audience, which would have understood adultery as a mere right of property for a man over his wife, and, therefore, as merely sin of the body.  In contrast, “the effective necessity of monogamy as an essential and indispensable implication of the commandment ‘You shall not commit adultery’ never reached the consciousness and ethos of the later generations of the Chosen People.” 18

Christ’s words remind us that the root sin of adultery is not a property issue. Rather, adultery breaks the personal covenant between the man and the woman, and is the antithesis of conjugal faithfulness, a “good which can only be adequately realized in the exclusive relation between the two (that is, in the spousal relationship between one man and one woman).” 19  If the conjugal act between spouses is a “truthful sign” of covenantal love in what John Paul II calls “the spousal meaning of the body,” then in contrast, the sin of adultery (or extra-marital sex of any kind) is the absence of the possibility of communio.  Now instead of promising the unity of body, mind, and soul exclusively to each other in full personhood, the adulterous couple ruptures the unity that accompanies participation in the most deeply personal human activity: sexuality.  In the process, the couple essentially commits a lie with their bodies, because no marriage covenant is present to protect the full personhood of either party, and of any children who might be conceived between them. 20

Even “looking to desire” (as opposed to a completed act of adultery) detaches the spousal meaning from the body, and from the person as a whole.  Such an act conflicts with the person’s inherent dignity by removing “the reciprocal existence of man and woman from the personal perspectives ‘of communion’” and reduces the person “toward utilitarian dimensions, in whose sphere of influence one human being ‘makes use’ of another human being …” 21  Such a reduction is again “an inadequate  anthropology” because its incomplete foundation is a false understanding about the meaning of a human person, and in particular, an embodied human person who is male or female.

John Paul II sees Christ’s teaching about adultery not so much as accusing the “heart,” but rather as calling us to something higher in which we live the original unity described in Genesis, as much as possible, in our fallen state.  Jesus’ teaching often is criticized (for being a return to Manichaeism, which condemns the body as “evil.”  Instead, however, the teaching on adultery calls humans to consider each other as gifts in their entire personhood, both interior and exterior, as the unity of body, mind, and soul.  This is possible through Christ’s “redemption of the body,” which allows us to regain, among other things, “a clear sense of the spousal meaning of the body,” 22 that is, what it really means to “know” another within the realm of marital love.

In summary, historical man (that is, each of us on this earthly journey) is called to exercise “self-dominion” in which he “fulfills what is essentially personal in him.” 23 When we practice moral virtues, such as temperance and purity, we actually become more human, or perhaps better put, more in the image of God.  Through the grace of Jesus Christ, we become integrated persons, who more successfully fight the “battles” that want to split the spirit and the flesh.

Eschatological Man
Thus far, we have considered humans as God first intended (original man), and humans as we are (historical man).  To complete the picture of what it means to be human, John Paul II considers “heavenly” or eschatological man, the third panel of the Triptych.  Whereas the Pharisees’ question concerning divorce was the impetus for reflecting upon original man, reflections upon eschatological man originate from the Sadducees’ question concerning marriage in heaven.

In Mark 12:20-27, the Sadducees seek to trick Jesus with a question concerning levirate marriage. 24  In that time, if a Jewish woman was widowed and childless, then the brother of the deceased husband was bound to take her as a wife and try to provide an heir.  If hypothetically, this happens “seven” times, then the Sadducees, who did not believe in an afterlife, want to know whose wife this repeatedly widowed woman will be after the resurrection.  As he often did, Jesus rejects his questioners’ premises, re-directing the conversation to address more important topics. The last part of his answer reminds us that God is the God of the living, not the dead (verses 26-27).  The first part points out that those who rise from the dead “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but they are like angels in heaven” (verse 25).  John Paul II notes that Christ’s answer tells us that “Marriage and procreation do not constitute man’s eschatological future.  In the resurrection they essentially lose their raison d’être.” 25

Although resurrected bodies will retain their maleness or femaleness, there will be “a spiritualization that is different from that of earthly life (and even different from that of the very ‘beginning’).” 26  This new spiritualization will mark freedom from the “opposition” of mind and body, and a return to a perfecting harmony between the two.  It will be a realization “of God’s self-communication in his very divinity, not only to the soul, but to the whole of man’s psychosomatic subjectivity27, that is, to the whole person consisting of integrated body and soul.

But what of the “spousal meaning of the body” that predominates when considering man’s original and historical state?  Recall that for John Paul II, the body is “spousal” because it enables man and woman to give themselves completely to each other in the totality of their humanity (physical as well as spiritual).  In the resurrection, one will be in complete and total self-gift to God with “a love of such depth and power of concentration on God himself … that it completely absorbs the person’s whole psychosomatic subjectivity … a concentration that cannot be anything but full participation in God’s inner life, that is, in trinitarian (sic) Reality itself … ” 28

One often hears an emphasis on the “soul” only as being essential for the afterlife, with the body being an afterthought that will be “reattached” in the general resurrection.  In contrast, the above concept reaffirms the body’s enduring importance and integrality for defining a human person.  Instead of the body being, perhaps, a spiritualized appendage to the resurrected person, John Paul II asserts that we will know God’s love in the whole of our embodied personhood.

Celibacy for the Kingdom
Finally, the place of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom also plays an integral part in a proper understanding of human sexualityJohn Paul II returns to the question of divorce in Mathew 19, specifically the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ teaching on chaste married love, which appears so difficult that his disciples retort that “it is better not to marry.” Jesus notes that “not all can accept this word” (on marital fidelity) but continues by lauding those who “have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12). As with Jesus’ teaching on “adultery in the heart,” one must realize that the thought of “continence for the kingdom of heaven,” as John Paul II calls it, was a radical idea to the people of the Old Testament who, because of the words of Genesis 1:28, saw fertility as a blessing, and childlessness as a curse.

John Paul II states that those who remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom have a “particular sensibility of the human spirit that seems to anticipate, already in the condition of temporality, what man will share in the future resurrection.” 29  The grace of lifelong celibacy is an “invitation to solitude for God.” … which never ceases to be a personal dimension of everyone’s {male or female} nature, a new and even fuller form of intersubjective communion with others.” 30  Yet, this celibacy does not negate the communio personarum emphasized as essential for marriage. Instead, celibacy for the sake of the kingdom allows communio with others that is just as important and potentially just as (spiritually) fruitful.

This Triptych vision of “integral humanity” confirms in scripture what Karol Wojtyła sought to work out philosophically.  Explaining this integral humanity, which is the ultimate thesis of the Theology of the Body, is essential for understanding and opposing the immorality of artificial contraception and divorce. 31  Many theological arguments favoring contraceptives justify splitting the “spiritual” needs of spousal unity (i.e., a need for intercourse) from the “merely physical” problem of spacing births.  The use of a device or a biochemical approach to prevent fertilization is then reduced to a merely physical or “ontic” evil that must be “weighed” as part of the spouses’ total situation. 32 In the secular world, the primacy of rationality to the exclusion of embodiedness as integral to the definition of the human person has lead to the legalization of abortion, and the justification of embryo-destructive stem cell research.

So how do these three states of man (original, historical and eschatological) combine to provide a total picture of what it means to be a human person, and specifically, male and female persons in marriage?  First and foremost, all three states point to the subjectivity, and the psychosomatic unity, of the human person.  Original man needs his body to perform uniquely human activities (such as tilling the earth) and continually displays behavior (such as solitude or joy of unity) that other animals cannot display.  Historical man learns that adultery is not merely a physical act of property violation, but an interior act as well.  Even the commission of “adultery in the heart” assaults human dignity.  Christ’s teaching on the resurrection reiterates the body’s essentiality to the human person in the afterlife for eschatological man.

Each part of this Triptych also contributes essential components to reveal the full meaning of the human person.  Genesis’ description of man’s joy after God created woman reveals that humans must commune with each other.  When a man and woman marry, they enter a marital covenant that the Creator himself made possible by creating humanity as “male and female” so that the “two can become one flesh,” and can emulate, in a special way, the communio personarum of the Trinity.  This vision is vastly richer and deeper than a secular view that reduces marriage to a couple who ratifies a mere contract that can be nullified when it no longer fulfills the needs of one or both parties.

The historical perspective reminds us that our will and reason are darkened by passions that blind us to the other as God’s intended gift of being fully human.  Instead, we often see others as things to fulfill our own wants and needs.  One practical effect of this fallen nature is to confuse us into accepting evils, such as artificial contraception, as being“reasonable,” if not “good.”  With God’s grace, however, we can recognize evil when it exists, avoid calling it a “good,” and pursue true fulfillment.

The eschatological perspective reminds us that our ultimate purpose is to be united with the Beatific Vision.  In cultures that overemphasize sex as an ultimate good, Christ’s teaching, that there will be no marriage in heaven, reaffirms the value of chastity and, especially, the value of lifelong celibacy which anticipates the kingdom to come.

The Theology of the Body offers many additional reflections on many other passages of scripture.  As a whole, the Theology of the Body offers a powerful, beautiful, and positive answer to the many contemporary social problems with sexuality at their root.  John Paul II’s catechesis offers a depth that can fulfill individuals highly trained in theology and spirituality.  Yet, simultaneously, everyone can benefit from pondering the handful of scriptural reflections offered here.

  1. Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, trans. H.T. Willetts (London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1981; reprint, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 21.  Page references are to the reprint edition.  Originally published as Miłość I Odpowiedzialność: Studium etyczne (Lublin, KUL, 1960).
  2. Karol Wojtyła, The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki (Dordrecht, Holland: Reidel Publishing Company, 1979.), vol. X, Analecta Husserliana, by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.  Originally published as Osoba i Czyn (Craków, Poland: Polskie Towarzysto Teologiczne, 1969).
  3. See John Paul II, Pope, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Trans. Michael Waldstein, (Boston, MA: Pauline Books and Media, 2006), 134ff.
  4. Ibid., 135.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 155.  Emphasis in original.
  7. Ibid., 159.  Emphasis in original.
  8. See Ibid., 161.
  9. Gen. 2: 24. As cited in John Paul II, 132. Emphasis in original.  In fact, John Paul II states that these words of Genesis “the two will be one flesh” are the core theme for the entirety of the TOB.  See John Paul II, 660.
  10. John Paul II, 163. Emphasis in original.
  11. Ibid., 163-164.  Emphasis in original.
  12. See St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, passim.
  13. This idea often is referred to as the “Sanjuanist Triangle.”  See Michael Waldstein’s introduction in John Paul II, Pope, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 29-34.
  14. John Paul II, 176. Emphasis in original.
  15. Ibid., 243-244.  Emphasis in original.
  16. As cited in Ibid., 225.  Emphasis in original.
  17. See Ibid., 232.
  18. Ibid., 269. Emphasis in original.
  19. Ibid., 277.
  20. See Ibid., 278. Emphasis in original.
  21. Ibid., 292. Emphasis in original.
  22. Ibid., 307. Emphasis in original.
  23. Ibid., 325. Emphasis in original.
  24. The story of course also appears in Mathew 22: 24-30 and Luke 20:27-40.
  25. John Paul II, 387.  Emphasis in original.
  26. Ibid., 389.  Emphasis in original.
  27. Ibid., 389.  Emphasis in original.
  28. Ibid. Emphasis in original.
  29. Ibid., 412.  Emphasis in original.
  30. Ibid., 426-427.  Emphasis in original.
  31. See Ibid., 617-657.
  32. See, for example, Louis Janssens, “Considerations on Humanae Vitae,” trans. John L. Sullivan, Louvain Studies 2 (1968): 221-253.
Charles Dern About Charles Dern

Charles Dern teaches moral theology for St. Charles Seminary's Graduate School in Religious Studies and Immaculata University, both located in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He holds a PhD in moral theology from The Catholic University of America, and Master degrees in religious studies and philosophy. He has taught undergraduate courses and seminars on the Theology of the Body. His articles have appeared in Ethics and Medics, and on


  1. Avatar Steve Calovich says:

    “The distinguishing mark of the anti-Christ is the substitution of man in the place of God.” -Pope St Pius X, 1903

    “The religion of the God who became man has met the religion (for such it is) of man who makes himself God. And what happened? Was there a clash, a battle, a condemnation? There could have been, but there was none.” -Pope Paul VI, Closing Session Vatican II, December 7, 1965

    The New Mass, 1969-70

    Dramatic worldwide decline in Church attendance….

    Theology of the Body….

    Priest Pedophile Scandal….

    It’s a negative and destructive trend.

    The Church could learn a thing or two from computer software that establishes a “restore point” so that it can go back to a period before the trouble started and repair itself.


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