St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body

A new book by Dominican priest and theologian Fr. Thomas Petri focuses on the Thomistic background and roots of the late Polish pontiff’s challenging catechesis on sexuality, marriage, and personhood.

Fr Thomas Petri OP entered the Order of Preachers in 2004 and was ordained to the priesthood in 2009. His academic resume is stellar; he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception and a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from The Catholic University of America, and since 2013 he has been Vice President and Academic Dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.

He is also the author of a new and intriguing book Aquinas and the Theology of the Body: The Thomistic Foundations of John Paul II’s Anthropology, recently published by Catholic University of America.

There are many books about the Theology of Body, so what makes this one so different?

When you read the Theology of the Body,” says Fr. Petri, “you see that it’s not easy reading, it’s very dense, and does need to be popularized for a wider audience. While relatively new, the Theology of the Body has been made popular by commentators who are well-intentioned, but they don’t have the Thomistic background that John Paul II had.”

We also see that some commentators are educated up to master’s level rather than doctorate level, so they don’t have any training in theology beyond that,” he notes. “If you miss John Paul II’s Thomistic background and roots, the Theology of the Body can become over-romanticized and hyper-sexualized, which is not what he intended.”

In the book’s conclusion Fr. Petri states, “Without an ontological foundation supporting the anthropology John Paul presents, it is easy to miss the fact that he is not simply speaking metaphorically or lyrically. He is not romanticizing the body or marriage.”

For Fr. Petri, it’s about going back to Aquinas, and back to serious scholarship, building an authentic understanding of the Theology of the Body that can then be popularised, based on a solid foundation.

While recognising the work of Dr. David L. Schindler and Carl Anderson, Petri says his book is unique in its detailed focus on the Thomistic roots of John Paul II’s thinking. “It’s exclusively rooted in the theology of Aquinas. There are books which talk about the Thomistic formation of John Paul II, but no other book gives such a scholarly and Thomistic interpretation of Theology of the Body itself.”

Readers are taken through a detailed presentation of Aquinas’ anthropology, philosophy, metaphysics, understanding of virtues and vices, spousal love and charity, and marriage and the conjugal act with constant reference to the theology of the Body catechesis.

Fr. Petri was born in 1978 (the year of three popes) in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up in Madisonville, Kentucky. He initially trained for the diocesan priesthood, before deciding to join the followers of Saint Dominic in 2004, and being ordained five years later.

Fr. Petri says that John Paul was a ‘larger than life’ shepherd and model for his own priesthood, while Aquinas was ever-present at home, thanks to his mother’s devotion to the saint “for reasons,” he notes, “I still do not quite know. … This book grew out of a genuine affection for these two great saints and a real conviction that their thought is more connected than is often suggested.”

Although a Dominican like Aquinas, and expert on Theology of the Body, he is by no means a mere cheerleader. His book demonstrates his willingness to critically engage Aquinas and John Paul II with contemporary scholarship.

He argues that Aquinas does not offer a view of the experience of human consciousness or a full explanation of human personhood, and thinks that John Paul II’s personalist and biblical Theology of the Body can correct these deficiencies.

He also writes that the Theology of the Body could have been strengthened by further exploring how the spousal meaning of the body differs for men and women. “Since John Paul does not spend time explaining the differences between men and women adequately in Theology of the Body, he does not spend time addressing the structure of the family. … Although he discusses procreation and parenthood as manifestations of the spousal meaning of the body, he never discusses children, their role in the family, and the parents’ obligations to them.”

This seems an important omission, as a key reason for the Theology of the Body was to explain and defend Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.

My guess is that John Paul II was more interested in helping people understand the significance of the sexual act. In Humanae Vitae (par 12) Paul VI talks about the two meaning of sex – unitive and procreative. So, three quarters of theology of the body is taken up with trying to articulate why that’s the case.”

Fr. Petri also notes some unexpected and generally not well know ideas presented by Aquinas. For instance, throughout the book there’s regular reference to the thought of Aquinas and John Paul II regarding the role of emotions in love. “Our rational love must be rightly ordered and it must include passion. It is the whole person who loves. Jordan Aumann once wrote that ‘purely spiritual or volitional love without any resonance in the emotion of love is not a truly human love.’”

He also draws out the thinking of Aquinas when it comes to balancing the headship of the husband in the family with what he calls ‘domestic justice’ and the management the wife has over the interior life of the family, which extends to financial stewardship.

It was one of the great joys researching for the doctorate and the book,” he says, “finding these less well known things in the writings of Aquinas, about how husbands and wives related to each other in domestic life.”

Fr. Petri is also a realist when it comes to the modern challenges posed by gender theory. “The whole premise of the Theology of the Body is that there is real physical difference between men and women, and that difference is not incidental, cultural, or by choice – it’s part and parcel of who a person is.

Those who advocate the ideas of gender fluidity don’t want to recognize the authority of physicality, of the physicality of sex. So, Theology of the Body can help, but we also need to turn to natural law arguments as well.”

Archbishop Fulton Sheen said we see the truth of the Church’s sexual morality in the wounds of those who do not practice it. As the sexual revolution marches on and more are left wounded in its wake, remember there’s still beauty, truth, and goodness. Sometimes it is presented in popular forms, and sometimes in more academic and dense forms, but we need both.

In these times when the authentic beauty of conjugal love is threatened in so many ways,” said Saint John Paul II, “have courage, have courage , you are apostles of the dignity of paternity and maternity, you are apostles of beautiful love … do not be afraid of life.”

Fr. Petri’s Aquinas and the Theology of the Body: The Thomistic Foundations of John Paul II’s Anthropology is available from CUA Press.

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About Daniel Blackman 6 Articles
Daniel Blackman is a journalist who has written for New Blackfriars, Catholic Herald, Catholic Times, Pro-Life Times, SPUC blog, Humanum, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Human Life Review, MercatorNet, Christendom Awake, The Remnant, Regina, Catholic Voice, Thomas More Institute, LifeSiteNews, Aleteia, and Israel Affairs.