In the course of a previous TOB thread, a reader asked why John Paul II chose to elaborate a theology of the body instead of a theology of the person?
Let me try to answer this question from a philosophical point of view—in light of the developments in modern thought that so engaged the attention of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II.
Karol Wojtyla, as both philosopher and priest, was keenly aware that the personalism so characteristic of the modern age, which contains many positive developments worth preserving and incorporating into the mind of the Church, is also seriously flawed because it is largely disembodied. Descartes, who can almost be said to have ushered in modernity by his famous turn to the subject (“I think, therefore I am”), perpetrated a so-called “dualistic” view of the relationship between body and soul. The self is a “thinking thing,” the body an “extended thing,” and the relation between them very extrinsic: the self is related to the body like a sailor to his ship, or a carpenter to his hammer. (This summary is not fully fair to Descartes, who explicitly denies these analogies. See footnote. But it is the view that perhaps follows most naturally from his premises, and the one, in any case, that followed historically.) Moreover, Descartes’ view of the body is excessively mechanistic. He thinks of it as an elaborate machine rather than as a living organism. Hence, Gilbert Ryle’s apt but unflattering description of Descartes’ position as the dogma of the “ghost in the machine.”
As a result, the deepening sense of the dignity of the person during the modern period has gone hand in hand with an increasing separation of the person from his body. The body is increasingly seen as a mere part of the biological order, devoid of any intrinsic meaning or morally relevant values. This is why many Catholic teachings, especially in areas such as bioethics and sexual morality, have become alien and incomprehensible to the modern world. That persons may never be used as mere means to an end is easily understood and granted. But what does that have to do with the body? Nothing, it seems, except that it must be put at the service of persons. As a Catholic feminist once put it, “God does not care what we do with each other’s bodies; He only cares whether we treat each other as persons.” If we can enhance the life of persons by manipulating the body in some way, this is not just okay, but morally good. Contraception, surrogate motherhood, in vitro fertilization, you name it: all of these things can be understood as a proper use of the body in the service the person.
What was needed to combat all this, KW/JP II judged, is a new way of showing that the body fully participates in the nature and dignity of the person. It is not just a machine or a tool, nor merely a biological organism, but an integral part of the human person, such that one cannot use the body as a mere means, without simultaneously using the person as a mere means. This, then, is why a theology specifically of the body is called for: to deepen and enrich the personalism already accepted by many, by showing how the body fits in.
—————- Footnote: Here is one instance, from his 6th meditation, in which Descartes explicitly repudiates the dualism so often ascribed to him: “Nature also teaches me, by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst and so on, that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit. If this were not so, I, who am nothing but a thinking thing, would not feel pain when the body was hurt, but would perceive the damage purely by the intellect, just as a sailor perceives by sight if anything in his ship is broken. Similarly, when the body needed food or drink, I should have an explicit understanding of the fact, instead of having confused sensations of hunger and thirst. For these sensations of hunger, thirst, pain and so on are nothing but confused modes of thinking which arise from the union and, as it were, intermingling of the mind with the body.”