The Dispatch: More from CWR...

How John Paul II’s theology of the body unpacks and explains “Humanae Vitae”

“Doctrine develops in response to crises,” says Andrew Cannon, “and Catholic doctrine concerning sex has been in crisis since Humanae Vitae ... John Paul’s proposal addresses the problem directly, persuasively, and in an evangelically appealing manner.”


Andrew Cannon, Ph.D., is the author of Mere Marriage: Sexual Difference and Catholic Doctrine. The book has been described by Rev. Dennis J. Billy, CSsR, the Robert F. Leavitt Distinguished Chair in Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University (Baltimore), as a work that “makes an important contribution to moral theology by demonstrating that John Paul II’s understanding of the conjugal act is a development of the Church’s teaching in Humanae Vitae.” It has also been praised by Mary Ellen Bork and Christopher West, among others.

Dr. Cannon recently spoke with CWR about the book, St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, St. Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, and the nature of marriage.

CWR: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Andrew Cannon: First, thank you for asking me to sit for an interview. … I’m happily married for 52 years. We have five adult children and ten grandchildren. Life is good. My education has been in Catholic schools, from elementary to graduate school but not in the usual way. I went to college at night while working full time, majored in philosophy, graduated in 1968, and married in 1969.

CWR: How did you get interested in this topic?

Andrew Cannon: Well, I witnessed the tremendous upheavals anticipating Humanae Vitae and the dissent following Humanae Vitae‘s promulgation that divided the Church. The thought of contracepting never entered our minds. I never thought Humanae Vitae was wrong. At the time, I thought the dissent would be short-lived. My schooling helped me understand the arguments being made on both sides. But the arguments left me cold. I thought there was more to Christian married couples contracepting than all the heated arguments were talking about.

CWR: Please explain.

Andrew Cannon: Well, for example, one side argued circumstances could make it okay for Catholic married couples to use contraception. The other side argued that even good ends cannot justify evil means. In other words, an extremely personal, visceral matter was debated in abstract language about a process or formula to determine the morality of contraceptive conjugal acts. That didn’t quite reach the question of what makes contraceptive conjugal acts wrong. The answer to that question would turn on the ultimate spiritual and mystical meaning of conjugal acts.

Now, fast forward thirty years or so. I read St. John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” one talk per day, for three or four months. Again, my training in philosophy helped me understand what I read. Finally, I realized, the theology of the body answered the big question. In a highly original teaching, the theology of the body made Humanae Vitae‘s doctrine compelling. However, it was a radical proposal. I wanted to make sure I got it right. To do that, I went back to school and earned two masters degrees and a doctorate in theology.

CWR: St. John Paul spent nearly five years expounding his “theology of the body.” Can you summarize it in a few paragraphs? Why do you think he took that approach?

Andrew Cannon: I’ll take the second question first. After Humanae Vitae, Catholic institutions fractured. Catholics, religious and lay, in Church institutions were pressured to take sides. A stalemate resulted, and the division continued to grow into what we now call the culture war.

This put the Church in the midst of a behemoth struggle to uphold the dignity of the human person. John Paul learned from his friend Cardinal Henri de Lubac that massive assaults on the foundations of the Christian Faith, like the body and sex, can’t be overcome with polemics. To meet a massive assault on the dignity of the human person, you have to get down to the root of the problem. De Lubac urged that the whole matter be studied from a new point of view. Then you may be able to see straight, and the remedy will be clear.

The root of the problem, then, is the Christian understanding of marriage. And so, the question to address was: What is the ultimate spiritual and mystical meaning of marriage and the conjugal act? John Paul’s investigation reached conclusions by using methods that would disrupt how theology had been taught for centuries. This is the kind of development that calls for an unhurried pedagogy; a deep, cool, calm, and peaceful analysis. That is why I think John Paul took five years to unfold the theology of the body, and it was not until the tail end of the talks that he disclosed that the whole catechesis was a commentary on the doctrine contained in Humanae Vitae.

The theology of the body appealed to the authority of Scripture, interpreted according to a method that was suited to the personal character of marriage and of conjugal acts. John Paul observed and communicated the experience of the characters in the drama of creation in the Book of Genesis.

Now, to answer your first question, instead of a summary, I’ll cut to the chase. The theology of the body teaches that man, whose dignity comes from being created in the image of God, and is in the image of God because of his intellect and free will, is also in the image of God by virtue of sexual difference, by being created as male persons and female persons. Moreover, the communion of persons formed by the one-flesh union of man and wife, the conjugal act and/or marriage, is a primordial sacrament of the Blessed Trinity. For that reason, it is a sacrament of all Christian mysteries and the foundation of all sacraments and grace.

CWR: You connect the theology of the body with Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. I don’t see them as opposed to each other, but I haven’t seen anyone attempt to “harmonize” them, either.

Andrew Cannon: The theology of the body itself harmonizes them. It says that all those papal reflections are an extended commentary on the doctrine contained in Paul VI’s encyclical. It reinforces this by saying that Humanae Vitae and the theology of the body are united organically and homogeneously. These statements make it clear that both teachings concern the conjugal act and/or marriage.

CWR:  Some commentators have noted that St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas were not in favor of using “familial” language as an image of the Blessed Trinity. How do you respond to that?

Andrew Cannon: Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) identified an error in Augustine’s Trinitarian theology that kept him from seeing the family as an image of the Blessed Trinity. He also pointed out that Aquinas’ Trinitarian theology remedied Augustine’s error. However, Aquinas’ anthropology, his theology of man, had a defect that kept him from seeing the family as an image of the Blessed Trinity.

Augustine’s psychological analogy to the Trinity identified the mind and its operations of knowledge and of love to explain how three distinct things could be one. Ratzinger called this an error and reductive of the Trinity because it confines the Trinity to a sub-part of a human individual and recognizes neither the full personhood of each member of the Trinity nor their existential relationship to one other. These limitations disadvantaged any consideration of a family analogy to the Trinity.

By contrast, Aquinas’ robust Trinitarian theology incorporated both the personal and the existential dynamics of the Trinity, i.e., the un-generate Father’s eternal generation of the Son, and their reciprocal self-gift in love spirating the Holy Spirit. Thomas’ Trinitarian theology lends itself to a family analogy. Nevertheless, Thomas neglected to develop the same dimensions of man in his theological anthropology. His truncated anthropology considered man as a rational animal without developing the personal and existential dimensions of man that would have made the family analogy to the Trinity easier to see. Instead, he joined in Augustine’s rejection of the analogy and said he saw no need for it.

John Paul’s Theology of the Body avoids both of these pitfalls.

CWR: Where does the conjugal act itself fit into the whole picture?

Andrew Cannon: The conjugal act is what Humanae Vitae‘s moral doctrine spoke about sexual intercourse between husband and wife. Since the theology of the body is a commentary on the doctrine of Humanae Vitae, both teachings are about the conjugal act. Marriage and the conjugal act can also be used synonymously: We can think of single acts of one-flesh union or we can think of the indissoluble marital union itself. They are inextricable.

CWR: Some have argued that the theology of the body is a novelty and, on that very score, should be disregarded. In your judgment, is it a novelty or a genuine development of doctrine?

Andrew Cannon: Doctrinal development is an historical process, so time will tell. We are in an early phase when most of the faithful may not have heard of the theology of the body. Others who are aware of it have not all agreed on its importance or a uniform interpretation of its meaning. Based on my research, however, my private judgment is that history will increasingly recognize the sacramentality of the conjugal act as developed in John Paul’s theology of the body.

CWR: Any further observations?

Andrew Cannon: Doctrine develops in response to crises, and Catholic doctrine concerning sex has been in crisis since Humanae Vitae (and actually, long before that document). John Paul’s proposal addresses the problem directly, persuasively, and in an evangelically appealing manner. History’s verdict will tell. My opinion is that the theology of the body is a genuine doctrinal development in the making. Caution, I’m not a professor, a priest or a bishop. I’m a married man for more than half a century who believes that what John Paul II taught in the theology of the body is true.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 261 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. Indeed, Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II’s greatest contribution to the event and continuation of Vatican II was his thoughts on Christian anthropology in Gaudium et Spes and in his extended writings on love and sexuality which he synthesized in his papal addresses on the Theology of the Body and which continued to preoccupy his papal thoughts through the years. Future church historians especially papal historians will most likely also point out that this focus and exaltation of love and sexuality together with his high theology of the ministerial priesthood in his magisterium led him to be blind and non-decisive about the emerging homosexual predation sex abuse scandal among priests and bishops worldwide. Even with the growing evidence of a criminal underground – the gay mafia in the hierarchy, think of the disgraced homosexual cardinals: McCarrick, O’Brien, Groer, Coccopalmerio, JPII did not deal with the crisis – and in fact promoted McCarrick Bishop of Metuchen, Archbishop of Metuchen, Archbishop of Washington, DC, and Cardinal. While his Theology of the Body can be highlighted as a singular great legacy, this also can be pointed out as an other side, a shadow side, a stain on his papacy.

    • Oh My Steven, do not opine on matters one cannot judge, Saint John Paul was not so led to be blind and non-decisive and history and Heaven will intimate this to one and all – hopefully all will already know the truth and be found with John Paul in glory….

    • Bravo, Steven M, for speaking the truth and refusing to truckle to the maudlin “Santo subito” whitewash of “St. John Paul II the Great”. Woytla’s refusal to deal with the massive homosexual infiltration throughout the Church that was not merely public but in fact notorious from the mid-1980’s by reason of the world-wide sexual abuse crisis that it caused is more than a stain on his papacy. No bookshelves of theological tomes on love and sexuality and perpetual rock-star appearances at Woodstock-like jamborees all over the world can compensate for his utter failure to act to protect courageously and forthrightly his Catholic flock from what it is now clear are legions of wolves in the garments of priests, bishops, and cardinals.

  2. In relation to the teachings of St. Pope Paul VI, we Catholics in the U.S. have been impoverished by being singularly fixated on Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, remembering his post Vatican II teaching as mainly about sexual and reproductive ethics and sadly neglecting or ignoring his equally important teaching about social ethics – especially about social justice – in his encyclical, Populorum Progressio, and apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi.

    • The less said about Paul VI’s “social justice” teachings the better. In fact, many of the social (i.e. political) ramblings of Popes of the last sixty-five years are fit only for the shredder. Calls for direct government-to-government foreign aid, unlimited immigration, unilateral disarmament, socialistic economics, abolition of capital punishment, environmentalism, and world government (endorsed by Benedict XVI no less!) have diminished the legacies of some very holy and wise men. To be fair, it did not seem that John Paul II and Benedict considered disagreement with them on these issues to be heretical. Francis, of course, has taken things to new level with his crude Marxism, but he is, to a certain extent, following in the footsteps of his immediate predecessors.

        • Your crude attempt to cancel and silence Tony W for expressing a common critique of Paul VI is reprehensible and has no place in any public forum, least of all one that identifies itself as Catholic.

        • As my post was an off-topic reply to an off-topic comment, I’ll refrain from trying the patience of the gracious editors of this site by turning this into a running battle. Perhaps the opportunity will present itself at some point in the future.

        • Paul and Tony W both of you fail at off-topic and gracious. And both of you fail what “Catholicism” you want to replace in Paul VI whom you impugn without proper explanation.

          Paul, you add there is a “common critique” of Paul VI. Is that so now?

          Tony W, you proffer an “admission” that your comment was off-topic! when it was just wrong and bad; and pass yourself off with being gracious.

          Paul and Tony W, neither of you upbraided Leon, who wants to use this Catholic public forum to transfix certain Catholics, under a heading “we”, for being “impoverished” by a “fixation” with Humanae Vitae, on the allegation that they -“we”- ignored other teachings.

          Maybe you’re using too much flour with the water and not using enough yeast?

  3. The community of monks at Downside Abbey in Somerset intend to move to Buckfast Abbey in Devon during March this year. It’s not entirely clear if the decision is because of a financial problem; or if there is some kind of genuine resort to contemplation.

    In the meantime Downside Abbey will be in care and maintenance with some services provided for Downside School, formerly run buy the monks. In this mode there is the possibility that the grant for the monastic freedom there and ancillary accommodations, physical and other, would all revert.

    There is no apparent reason why Downside Abbey should be shuttered. If it a question of individual monks, there are other Abbeys that have many more monks and some could be asked to join the Downside community.

    The Benedictine monks returned to England from France with the mission and purpose to revive English monasticism. It could be that, if the problem began as a financial one, Downside has gotten the brunt of “reallocation of resources” to works that are of a different nature/order.

    The monks have a lot to offer and their independence is sorely needed in the Church and in the world. Will you take an interest in this?

    I ask to be allowed to make an appeal for funding. With enough stable funding for a period of years, the monks could orient their position and re-chart their mission and impetus. Such funding would entail only the ordinary requirements for their basic upkeep for the time being.

    If you are moved by what I am suggesting, I would recommend that you engage the whole Benedictine English congregations, not just the particular monks. The rest could be left to Providence and an intercession of the BVM.

  4. In the 1948 Lambeth Conference, the defeated minority who had fought the Anglican compromise to the end, told it like it is:

    “It is, to say the least, suspicious that the age in which contraception has won its way is not one which has been conspicuously successful in managing its sexual life. Is it possible that, by claiming the right to manipulate his physical processes in this manner, man may, without knowing it, be stepping over the boundary between the world of Christian marriage and what one might call the world of Aphrodite, the world of sterile eroticism?” (Cited in Wright, “Reflections on the Third Anniversary of a Controverted Encyclical,” St. Louis: Central Bureau Press, 1971).

    Connect the dots: contraception, the Sexual Revolution, the abortion culture, the broadened culture of death, the Church’s sexual abuse crisis, society’s gender theory, the German “synodal way,” and now the novelties coming from the Synod on Synodality’s Cardinal Hollerich regarding the homosexual lifestyle.

  5. Interesting article, and I am sure an interesting book. The book, however, will probably only be read by those already convinced. Studies have shown that over 90% of adult catholics get their only continuing adult catholic education from the Sunday homily. They read no catholic books, no catholic papers or magazines and watch or listen to no catholic TV or radio shows. Surveys have also shown that over 90% of catholic couples of child bearing age practice some form of artificial contraception. So, it seems rather obvious where instruction would have to come from in order to accomplish anything. But for 50 years, since Humanae Vitae, priests have not preached on the evils of artificial contraception. A once a year item in the church bulletin announcing a natural family planning talk somewhere in the diocese does not constitute teaching. A once a year article in the diocesan newspaper does not constitute teaching. The Church has an official position on artificial contraception, but it cannot be said that it is taught.
    Also, for the past 50 years those who tried to obey the moral law with regard to artificial contraception received no moral support from the pulpit. It is difficult not to believe that many priests do not believe in the teaching themselves. Unless parish priests start teaching this, I don’t think we will accomplish much on this.
    To be fair, I will acknowledge that I did not do enough to teach my children the truths about artificial contraception.

  6. Crusader, can you provide the source for your percentages so that I may use them and share them with others to do likewise?? Very good, thank you.

    It really isn’t that the Church – or God – has an official position, but that the Living God has given us the Reality, the Church has received this Reality who is Triune, and passes on what She has Received…not a position, but He who is the Reality – this is why the Beloved is the Triune Bridegroom with and to man, male and female…this Eternal Communio the Beloved has always wished us to be and be in, now and hereafter. Blessings!!!

  7. Pater – Janet Smith, a well known catholic professor, was, I believe, the source for the number of catholics using artificial birth control. It was quite a few years ago so I am not 100% sure of the source.
    Don’t recall where I read the percent of catholics who get their only adult education from the homily. For whatever it is worth, my admittedly limited personal experience bears out both percentages.

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