Theology of the Body: Insights for the Synod on the Family

Joseph Known to His Brethren, by Harold Copping (1863-1932).


The upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family, in October 2015, faces a huge challenge. The preparatory document for the synod reminded us that many families find themselves crushed and abandoned. 1 The document also acknowledged that a crisis of faith underlies this crisis in marriage and the family. The bishops and cardinals, and the Holy Father, see the many difficulties that arise when family life becomes separated from the faith of the Church. No one can just walk away from those who experience difficulties. Equally, though, the word of truth and hope that families need to hear is not necessarily easy to uncover. The earlier Synod on the Family (in October last year) found this challenging, by all accounts.

There is a great deal that the next synod could gain from looking to the theology of the body as it seeks to offer this word of truth and hope. After all, we have seen in recent years how the teaching of Pope St. John Paul on the theology of the body has brought great hope and life to the Church where it has been welcomed. The synod last year, though, did not look towards this theology for answers to the difficulties that we face in our marriages and families. Why might this have been the case? Fr José Granados argued earlier that there is a missing chapter in the theology of the body, the transition between the fallen and redeemed states of humanity. 2 The theology of the body does, of course, pay most attention to human nature before the Fall, to the Fall itself, and to the redeemed state. I believe that people sometimes see the theology of the body as pertaining to an unattainable ideal state. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; aren’t the images so often sentimental and wistful? It can be easy to think that life in the beginning has little to do with couples who are struggling today.

I would like to explore this missing chapter in the theology of the body, the transition between the fallen and redeemed states. I will principally use the method of the theology of the body, rather than expound its substantive content. While this remains somewhat uncharted territory, William Kurz has highlighted how the method, for instance, involves a close reading of Scriptures in light of these various states of human nature. 3 Reflection on human experience also forms an integral part of the approach, along with careful philosophical underpinnings. Writing on the theology of the body typically remains within the immediate lines on which John Paul laid out his ideas. In order to address the transition, though, I will follow Granados in stretching the boundaries. My focus won’t just be on sexuality as it pertains to couples, but on the wider life of the family. In this, we follow indications that John Paul gave, when he indicated that, in principle, the theology of the body applies to such areas as suffering, 4 work 5 and children. 6

The Family of Jacob: The People of Israel

This article focuses on a single family, on the family of  Jacob. This family faced the full impact of the Fall, but we see, in the Book of Genesis, how it was saved in its entirety. Indeed, the people of Israel is Jacob’s family. Focusing on this family represents a fundamental move, as the selection of scriptural texts is critical. John Paul included several texts within the theology of the body that did not focus directly on life in the beginning or on the redeemed state. For instance, he selected verses from the Song of Songs, given a perceived connection with Genesis 2: “A similar fascination—which is wonder and admiration—runs in fuller form through the verses of the Song of Songs.” 7 I employ a similar approach in my own selection of texts, picking out verses and accounts from later in the Book of Genesis that maintain an explicit connection with categories from the theology of the body. And it also remains the case that Christ himself connected Jacob with the reality of the redeemed state (Mt 22:32). John Paul drew attention to this connection in the theology of the body. 8 As our account of the family of Jacob progresses, we address a range of pastoral applications in light of the upcoming synod.

Judah: The Right Road Lost

Judah was Jacob’s fourth son. We now primarily think of him as the ancestor of Christ, glorious Judah. The Jewish people is now named after him, but relatively early in his life, he went astray. The opening words from Dante’s Inferno describe Judah’s situation well:

Midway on life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.

He betrayed his brother Joseph, and sold him as a slave into Egypt. He left his people and lived with Canaanites, with Hirah the Adullamite. The Adullamites were a rich agricultural people who were given over to a fertility cult in which sexuality was directed towards prosperity. Judah broke the law of his own people. He did not marry a member of his own wider family, as both Abraham and Isaac had instructed. He disobeyed his parents and his grandparents, and went astray. The horizon of death, which John Paul spoke of as extending over the whole perspective of life on earth, was keenly felt in Judah’s family. 9 Two of Judah’s three sons died early because they offended God, Er and Onan. The encounter between Judah and Tamar, in Genesis 38, represented a situation involving a relation between a man and a woman that is almost as far from life in the beginning as you could imagine. Judah consorted with a prostitute, who turned out to be his daughter-in-law. What hope is there for families today, if even the son of a Patriarch could not find the right road?

And yet, Jacob’s family is the first family to be portrayed in the Scriptures as redeemed in its entirety. One of Abraham’s two sons went astray, as did one of Isaac’s sons. How was it that Judah eventually remained faithful, and brought such life to the world with Christ as his issue?

God Takes the Initiative
The first indication that there might be any hope for Judah occurred when he realized that he himself was the one who had made his daughter-in-law pregnant with twins. An event in his life took Judah up short. “She is more righteous than I” (Gn 38:26), he said. A famine then occurred in the land, and we find that, shortly afterwards, Judah had returned to live with his father. It was clear in Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream that the famine came from God: “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is going to do” (Gn 41:28, 32). Pharaoh’s dream, indeed, occurred twice because God was shortly to bring about the famine. After his return home, Judah then went down to Egypt to buy grain for his family. He met his brother Joseph, who had become the ruler of Egypt. Joseph tested his brothers, proposing to enslave his brother Benjamin. In response to the threatened imprisonment, Judah acknowledged that God was the one who was responsible, saying, “God himself has uncovered your servant’s guilt” (Gn 44:16). God took the initiative in Judah’s life.

More directly in relation to the theology of the body, Pope St. John Paul pointed out that the phrase “in the beginning,” can refer to God’s creative initiative. 10 Adam went to sleep, and Eve was taken from his side. John Paul contrasted here the “sleep” (in Hebrew, tardemah) of Adam with the creative action of God that constitutes the beginning. The term “beginning” can refer, not just to theological prehistory, but also to this initial stage of redemption that unfolded in Jacob’s family.

The Hebrew word that is used in relation both to Tamar’s righteousness and to Judah’s guilt (Gn44:16), “righteous,” sadeq, is also of interest. This growth in consciousness of Judah’s own sinfulness occurred through events in his life. There is a clear connection here to the category of original solitude. John Paul argued that, in the beginning, man found himself alone before God. 11 He saw this experience of solitude as the first testimony of human conscience. John Paul referred to consciousness of sinfulness as a necessary starting point, if growth in holiness is to occur. 12 Unless you become aware of your own sinfulness, there is no transition, no path of conversion. This is no less true today than in Judah’s time.

God took the initiative in the family of Jacob in the midst of sin and difficulty, whether betrayal, abandonment of the faith, illicit sexual relations, or famine. It is not that God instantly eradicated the difficulties, but rather that he came to meet the members of this family in the first instance within the difficulties. In the poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” Gerard Manley Hopkins asks “…is the shipwreck then a harvest, does the tempest carry the grain for thee?” In itself, a shipwreck is an awful event, and in Hopkins’ poem, we see that souls perish. In commenting on this poem, von Balthasar said that what is portrayed is not a resurrection that lies beyond death, but a resurrection in death. 13 Even in the midst of difficulties, an experience of resurrection is possible. Pope Francis made a similar point recently, saying, “The privileged place of encounter is the caress of mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.” 14

I Could Not Bear to See the Misery
We subsequently see that Judah was willing to offer himself as a prisoner in place of his brother Benjamin. The reason that Judah gave for this offer is as follows: “I could not bear to see the misery that would overwhelm my father” (Gn 44:34).He had a connection with his father’s heart, which meant he was willing to embark on the life of a slave in Egypt, so that his father would not suffer. Judah’s offer moved his brother Joseph so deeply that all the Egyptians heard his weeping (Gn 45: 2). Joseph was unable to contain his feelings, and revealed his identity to his brothers.

John Paul taught that man is unique and unrepeatable, above all else, because of his heart, which decides his being from within. 15 The human heart is at the core of a person’s being. The Pope further indicated that original unity is present when one person stands beside another person in complete freedom. 16 In such a situation, each one manifestly acts on the basis of his or her deepest desires for the good of the other. Original unity broke down with the Fall such that Adam and Eve were no longer able to stand next to each other as persons. We now expect to see one person using another for his or her own ends, as Judah did with Tamar. However, in the scriptural account, Judah and Jacob, and Judah and Joseph, were all able to stand next to each other as persons beside persons. The depth of Judah’s love for his father meant he was able to reach out to his brother Benjamin. It was only in his encounter with Tamar as a person, rather than as a prostitute, that Judah’s conscience was provoked. Such relationships mark out the family of Jacob.

John Paul argued further that man becomes the image of God in communion with others. 17 One of the things that first led me to consider the life of Jacob in relation to the theology of the body was his attitude to work. John Paul indicated in his theology of the body that we experience ourselves as persons with bodies in the world, partly through our work. 18 Jacob had to work for Rachel for seven years; we are told that these years seemed to him like a few days (Gn 29:20). He did not experience work as oppressive, even though his uncle, Laban, had oppressed him all of those years, making him feel the heat of the day and frost at night. He did not experience his work as painful or unyielding (Gn 3:17-18). There is a way in which the effects of the Fall were undone in Jacob’s experience of work because of his communion with Rachel.

Original unity, however, was intended for families, and not just for couples. In Genesis 2:18, the Lord says, “It is not right that the man should be alone. I shall make him a helper.” The text then goes on to say:  “This is why a man leaves his father and mother, and becomes attached to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gn 2:24). This word “leave,” azab, is also used in relation to the death that would result if Benjamin were to leave Jacob (Gn 44:22). Judah further said that his father’s heart was bound up with Benjamin (Gn 44:30). The unity of a husband and wife thus extends, in a clear respect, to their family as a whole. Jacob’s relationship with his son Benjamin was lived out in the depths of his heart, as one person beside another person.

There is hope for families today if we are able to stand next to each other as persons next to persons, rather than as strangers next to strangers, or as (human) resources from which to obtain things. We have become increasingly used to self-focused, efficient, and bureaucratic relations, rather than personal relations. Encounters between persons were possible within Jacob’s family, establishing an original unity that offered hope in the face of sin, oppression, and frailty. And it is the presence of a people that makes it possible for one heart to speak to another heart. It was Jacob’s deep love for his son Benjamin that led to life for the whole family, as also the depth of Judah’s feeling for his father, and of Joseph’s love for his family.

These relations are not something that can be established simply by the directive of a synod. Charles Taylor used the phrase “social imaginary” to describe the background tapestry of ideas and expectations that accompany the practices we share in common. 19 We are unable to sustain certain practices, for instance, because we simply do not have the categories to imagine how they might unfold. Taylor pointed out that our modern Western world is characterized by an individualism that means we can hardly conceive what is entailed in a shared existence. We need a restored social imaginary within the Church that privileges community life and social practices in which we stand beside each other as persons. This will involve new forms of community life, as well as new approaches to schooling, health care, cultural life, and politics that are linked to our faith.

However, the importance of personal relations is in many ways still keenest in regard to marriage itself. The text on the indissolubility of marriage in the Gospel of Matthew (19:1-12) has often been cited in relation to whether or not it could ever be permissible to divorce and remarry within the Church. The disciples had responded to Christ’s words about the indissolubility of marriage by saying that if you do not allow divorce, then it would be better not to get married in the first place. Our Lord did not accept this response from his disciples, saying that his followers should act for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. In interpreting these words of Christ, John Paul indicated: “If anyone chooses marriage, he must choose it just as it was instituted by the Creator from the beginning.” 20 John Paul interpreted the exchange between Christ and his disciples to mean that one must choose marriage as God intended it from the beginning. Indeed, the preparatory document to the upcoming synod itself speaks of the way that Jesus restored marriage and the family to their original form. John Paul elsewhere said that marriage is expressed according to God’s original intentions when Christian spouses give way to each other out of reverence for Christ. 21 We need to realize a mutual giving within our marriages, in which spouses stand beside each other as persons.

A path of conversion is essential before a marriage starts, even more so than after a marriage has broken down. We need to find ways to propose a conversion prior to marriage. For instance, we may need revisions to the marriage rite, in order to make it more fully clear that marriage involves a mutual giving away. If a couple are not ready to give up their own wills for each other out of reverence for Christ, then marriage preparation has little to offer. The primary preparation that is required for marriage is a conversion to the Christian life.

Joseph: One Who Possessed the Spirit of God
Many difficulties in family life arise from our own sin, as we have seen with the life of Judah. Joseph, meanwhile, faced a different set of difficulties. He faced oppression from the sins of others. The curse in Genesis 3:16 “he will lord it over you” came as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin. John Paul pointed out in his interpretation of Ephesians 5 that domination occurs on a mutual basis. It is a fact of human experience that a similar domination occurs across human relations at large. Indeed, the Hebrew word used here, mashal, “lord,” is used in the Book of Isaiah to describe someone acting as a tyrant over others, typically in relation to a king who oppresses others.

Joseph, however, was not crushed by the oppression of others. Others recognized that Joseph was endowed with the Spirit of God, whether Potiphar, the chief jailer, or Pharaoh himself.  Pharaoh said, “Can we find anyone else endowed with the spirit of God, like him?”(Gn 41:38). Even in his difficulties, Joseph did not rebel against God, but said to his brothers, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gn 45:8). He was willing to accept the things that happened to him as coming from the hand of God. John Paul pointed out that original innocence involves the Spirit dominating one’s life. 22 Original innocence occurs where the Spirit is, in a mature way, able to determine the life of the person, and thus of the body. The action of the Spirit in dominating the body in its entirety is one of the characteristics of life in the beginning. The great Carmelite saints were clear that this state can also be experienced at the summit of the mystical life. St. John of the Cross indicates that after one has ascended Mount Carmel, the first movements of one’s heart are all in accord with God’s will. 23

We need to beg our Father in heaven to reach down to us. This is the only source for hope. If we are to see new families of Israel, we need saints who are aflame with the Spirit. The Collect after the Second Reading from the Pentecost Vigil highlights the path to take:

Let us pray: O God who, in fire and lightning, gave the ancient Law to Moses on Mount Sinai and, on this day, manifested the new covenant in the fire of the Spirit, grant, we pray, that we may always be aflame with that same Spirit whom you wondrously poured out on your apostles. And that the new Israel, gathered from every people, may receive with rejoicing the eternal commandment of your love.

It is easy to look down on Jacob because of the way that he cheated his brother Esau out of their father’s blessing, or the means he used to deceive Laban, but Jacob’s relationship with God was central to the life of this family. Jacob was willing to wrestle in prayer with the angel all night. A willingness to stay up all night was a feature of our Lord’s prayer as well. This is the place that we, too, need to go to if we are to find hope for our families. According to this view, for instance, Canon Law on marriage should serve to increase the depth of desire with which we beg God to act, and help us to stand next to each other as persons.

Rachel: Give Me Children or I Shall Die
We will look next at Jacob’s wife, Rachel. Many difficulties in family life stem from human frailty; in her case it was infertility. Rachel’s experience of infertility was heart-breaking, even as she keenly recognized the value of a human person. She said to her husband, “Give me children or I shall die” (Gn30:1). Jacob retorted to her, “Am I in the position of God, who has denied you motherhood?” (Gn 30:2). It is at this point in the scriptural account that we see Rachel seeking to exercise her own control of the situation, in giving her slave girl, Bilhah, to her husband that she might yet have children (Gn 29:3). We see a similar desire for control on the part of Judah’s son, Onan, who sought to minimize the possibility that his wife would conceive a child, rather than to accept the will of God as it was manifested to him through his duty as an Israelite. Rachel, though, must in time have begun to ask for a child from the Lord. The scriptural account goes on to say that God “heard her” (Gn 30:22). The Lord opened her womb and gave her a child. In response, Rachel acknowledged that it was God’s action that mattered above all. The name that she gave her child, “Joseph,” meant: “May the Lord add another son for me” (Gn 30:24). And she added also, “God has taken away my disgrace” (Gn 30:23). It was God’s action that was important for her.

Rachel’s experience might seem less relevant than Judah’s or Joseph’s experiences but, nonetheless, it remains relevant to the difficulties that families face today. The great need that Rachel felt was not met through rational, instrumental planning on her part. Charles Taylor has pointed out that, in the Western world, we have become accustomed to being in control of events, as we plan and organize, to the extent that we no longer perceive the action of God. 24 Our modern social imaginary around fertility is predicated on exercising as much control as medical science and legislation allow; even the term “natural family planning” foregrounds the exercise of control on our part. However, it is God’s initiative that should come first in determining how we found families, rather than acts of instrumental planning. The Vatican II constitution, Gaudium et Spes 25 speaks of the importance of docile reverence towards God in the way that we conduct responsible parenthood. We can note further that in Genesis 3:11, God “forbade” Adam to eat from the tree of life. The same word, tsavah, is used in relation to the command that Isaac gave to Jacob to choose a wife from amongst their wider family members, with a blessing of fruitfulness to follow. Isaac employed the same words that were used in Genesis1:28, where God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Humane Vitae, meanwhile, teaches that responsible parenthood presupposes “first and foremost” that the couple “fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life.” John Paul indicated that original innocence is “above all” linked to the Creator’s gift, and that an interior faithfulness to the gift is entailed. 26 We need to develop a social imaginary around fertility that is focused in the first instance on gift and blessing, rather than on control.

It is expected that the Synod in October will see the canonization of the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin. Louis and Zelie had nine children together, although only five daughters survived childhood. They were evidently ready to accept the gifts that God intended for them. What families need in their difficulties is to learn to value the gift of a human person, whether those already present within their families, or those that God would still want to grant to their family. This is an essential part of the word of hope and life that the Synod needs to offer the Church.

Laurence Paul Hemming, meanwhile, has argued in relation to the liturgy that a person’s being is properly internal to the divine life. 27 When we celebrate Holy Mass, it is the action of God that is paramount, rather than my action or my participation. Hemming contrasts this with the planned activity that one would expect of Cartesian subjects, in which one’s own thought and action are central. Descartes was the philosopher who justified existence on the basis of thought. We are individuals who seek to determine our own existence, whether in our marriages or in the Church. However, we have seen in Jacob’s family that it was the action of God that mattered, in the first instance, in restoring someone who had strayed from the faith. It is similarly the case that God is the one who unites a married couple (Mt. 19:6). John Paul called for the gift of piety (donum pietatis) in the mutual relations of men and women. 28 This involves reverence for God in the way that we relate to each other. We need this gift of piety before the Eucharist, as well as before Christ and his bride. God is present in the same way in the sacrifice of the Mass, just as he is present in joining the couple together in a sacramental marriage. I cannot see how offering Communion to those persisting in manifest, grave sin would respect these realities.

There is a painting by El Greco of a crucifix, with two donors in attendance. 29 The two donors are praying before the crucifix, but the figure present on the cross is alive. Christ is alive in the midst of death, and not just beyond death. Christ has his eyes raised upwards, we can presume toward his Father. I would like to encourage you to share in this gaze of Christ as he suffers. There is a poem by Hopkins, “Spring,” that offers us a similar perspective. When you look at a weed, what do you see? Do you see something to be uprooted or covered over with concrete? When Hopkins saw a weed, he saw something that came from Eden. He saw a “strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning in Eden garden.” We can think of the difficulties in our families as weeds. Difficulties are means through which we can, at least in part, still experience life as God intended it in the beginning. Indeed, the Collect for Thursday of the Fourth Week of Eastertide tells us that God now restores human nature to a greater dignity than it had at its beginnings.

If we turn to Pope St. John Paul’s theology of the body, and to marriage and family life as God still intends it, then there is hope for families. In Dante’s Inferno, the poet is saved at the initiative of our Lady. She sends Beatrice, the heroine of the poem, to beseech Virgil to rescue Dante. It is our Lady’s initiative that is behind Dante’s salvation, and we see something similar in this poem by Hopkins, where it is the maid’s child who is able to win for us a strain of earth’s sweet being in the beginning.

This article is based on the Annual Theology of the Body Lecture for the Archdiocese of Westminster, London, UK, given by the author on March 20th, 2015. I am grateful to Edmund Adamus, Director for Marriage and Family Life, Archdiocese of Westminster, for the invitation to give the lecture.


  1. Holy See, “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World” XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (Vatican City, 2014).
  2. José Granados, “Toward a Theology of the Suffering Body,” Communio 33, no. 4 (2006): 540–63.
  3. W. S. Kurz, “The Scriptural Foundations of The Theology of the Body,” in Pope John Paul II on the Body: Human, Eucharistic, Ecclesial, ed. J. McDermott and J. Gavin (Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2006), 27–46,
  4. Pope John Paul II, The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (London: Pauline Books & Media, 1997), 420, 11/28/1984.
  5. Ibid., 39, 10/24/1979.
  6. Ibid., 83–86, 04/02/1980.
  7. Ibid., 369, 05/23/1984.
  8. Ibid., 257, 02/10/1982.
  9. Ibid., 85, 03/26/1980.
  10. Ibid., 44, Footnote 14.
  11. Ibid., 37, 10/10/1979.
  12. Ibid., 177, 12/03/1980.
  13. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Studies in Theological Style: Lay Styles, Volume 3 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1986).
  14. Pope Francis, “Address to Members of Communion and Liberation, St. Peter’s Square” (Holy See, March 7, 2015).
  15. Pope John Paul II, The Theology of the Body, 177, 12/03/1980.
  16. Ibid., 46, 11/14/1979.
  17. Ibid., 46, 11/14/1979.
  18. Ibid., 39, 10/24/1979.
  19. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
  20. Pope John Paul II, The Theology of the Body, 280, 21/4/82.
  21. Ibid., 352, 15/12/1982.
  22. Ibid., 115, 05/28/1980; 172, 11/12/1980.
  23. St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle and Poems, ed. R. H. J. Steuart (London: A&C Black, 1999), sec. 27.
  24. Taylor, A Secular Age.
  25. Austin Flannery, ed., Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Liturgical Press, 2014), sec. 50.
  26. Pope John Paul II, The Theology of the Body, 68, 01/30/1980.
  27. Laurence Paul Hemming, Worship as a Revelation: The Past, Present and Future of Catholic Liturgy (London: Burns & Oates, 2008), 35.
  28. Pope John Paul II, The Theology of the Body, 213, 04/01/1981.
  29. El Greco,  Christ on the Cross Adored by Two Donors,  c 1590, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France,
Dr. Peter Kahn About Dr. Peter Kahn

Dr. Peter Kahn has written a range of publications for the Catholic Truth Society, London, including “Passing on Faith to Your Children” and “Facing Difficulties in Christian Family Life.” His latest publication is “Behold your mother: Learning to love Mary with the saints.” Peter lives in Warrington, UK, with his wife, Alison, and their seven sons.


  1. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    The idea of “standing together” seems to be another way of describe the responsibility of a married couple to actively assist and support each other in discerning and accomplishing God’s plan for them individually and as a couple. If sin has entered and distorted this relationship then “standing together” may return the relationship to a semblance of its innocent original and bring a degree of personal comity to the couple, but the sin still remains and must be expiated in the normal/prescribed way before the couple can assume a normal sacramental life and find individual/mutual peace. It seems to me that it is this inescapable reality that stands in the way of final resolution of sinful behavior that seeks any ‘pastoral’ approach to resolution.