Other Husband & Wife Articles

Theology of the Body in Marriage
By Andrew Haines

In 1988, in the apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II laid out his ideas on fatherhood:

“The man […] in many ways […] has to learn his own ‘fatherhood’ from the mother.

[…] motherhood in its personal-ethical sense expresses a very important creativity on the part of the woman, upon whom the very humanity of the new human being mainly depends. In this sense too the woman’s motherhood presents a special call and a special challenge to the man and to his fatherhood(18-19).

Of course, John Paul’s reflection on physical motherhood and fatherhood imaged his own experience as spiritual father of the Church. For him, to be a father meant precisely to stand in relation to the mother – the Bride – who bears the fruit of Trinitarian “generation.”

Being a good father isn’t about overbearing discipline or authoritarian control. Rather, it’s entirely bound up in loving one’s bride. As St. Paul exhorted, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her” (Eph 5:25).

Of course, for John Paul, the real image of motherhood was not simply the Church universal – but also Mary, Mother of God.

The Holy Father’s intense devotion to the Blessed Mother is, perhaps, his most enduring legacy. Viewing his filial affection for Mary, his motto of “Totus Tuus Maria,” and the unadorned “M” at the base of the cross in his coat of arms, it is clear what John Paul saw in Mary: the perfect instance of “mother” as bearer, caregiver, sufferer, and consoler. In a word, for John Paul, Mary is the mystical Church.

No doubt, all of this might sound strange to us. Mary was a holy woman, sure. But mother of the whole Church?

To understand John Paul’s theology of Mary – his theology of the dignity of women, and motherhood – requires a full-scale recalibration of our thinking. For him, it came naturally: he was trained in the school of Mary from the death of his own mother, and he began to learn his own vocation to fatherhood at that young age. But for many of us, we’re forced to somehow penetrate the mystery from outside.

Theologically – and practically – the importance of mothers is clear: in a sense, they constitute the fullness of God’s design for marriage. John Paul wrote:

Motherhood is the fruit of the marriage union of a man and woman, of that biblical “knowledge” which corresponds to the “union of the two in one flesh” (cf. Gen 2:24). This brings about – on the woman’s part – a special “gift of self,” as an expression of that spousal love whereby the two are united to each other so closely that they become “one flesh.”

For us fathers, this means that our paternal dignity – the dignity we share with God the Father – is entirely constituted by our relationships with our wives. In short, a mother not only bears the fruit of marriage (as Mary bore the “fruit of her womb”); a mother is the fruit of marriage (just as Mary is the fullness of the mystical Church, the immaculate Bride of Christ).

After his devotion to the Blessed Mother, John Paul’s other major legacy is, of course, his ability to be relevant. And what he taught about motherhood over 20 years ago remains especially relevant today.

As “traditional marriage” suffers blow after blow from judicial activists seeking to redefine the meaning of spousal union, we can’t forget that Christian marriage has been under heavy assault for decades – even from within the Church. Divorce rates in the United States are staggeringly high; contraceptives are a household staple (including for most Catholics); and pornography continues its unchallenged onslaught against sexual values.

In a word, as a culture, we have lost our grip on both “fatherhood” and “motherhood” precisely because we’ve lost our perspective on “self-gift” and “intimacy.”

Still, in this bleak social landscape, I don’t doubt that John Paul’s ultimate influence is yet to be seen. Like any giant of the faith, he focused more on winning the war than victory in skirmishes. His ideas continue to germinate in the minds of many, forcing either a reorientation of values, or their final surrender. And in this new age of spiritual combat, it is the Christian father who must bear the standard.


Andrew Haines is a graduate student in philosophy, and president of the Center for Morality in Public Life (https://ethikapolitika.org/author/andrew-haines/). He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their unborn baby, whose due date is in December.