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Language of the Body   


As persons, we are never simply objects to be used; we possess an inherent dignity which requires that our personhood always be respected. Just as our words carry certain meanings, so the “language of the body” carries inherent meaning.

Janet Smith

...Let me again note that the pope constantly stresses the fundamental dignity of man: we are never simply objects to be used; we are persons with an inherent dignity that requires that our personhood always be respected. Ultimately, the only way to respect another fully is to love him or her and to work for what is best for the person; it is never to use another for one's own selfish desires. That is the background against which the pope places all his other teachings.

Another foundational observation is that all of us sense ourselves as being fundamentally alone and in need of another to complete us; the pope's skillful and sensitive reading of Genesis as a story which captures this poignant human need is in itself a remarkable achievement. The pope tells of Adam's delight at seeing another who is “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.” He describes well how we respond to the attraction to one of the opposite sex, and especially to the shared attraction as a gift, a precious gift which helps us complete our own personhood. Thus, our desire for complete and full union with the other is extremely powerful.

The pope teaches us clearly the difference between this desire as found in man before original sin and this desire after original sin. He observes that, before the Fall, this desire was completely in the control of our progenitors. But now we easily recognize that our desires are disordered, that we are inclined not to use our sexuality to express our love for another person, but that often this desire is simply lust for the body of the other person. This lust tends to see the other person as an object, not as a spiritual being which should never be used as an object, not as a person which deserves to be loved.

So we have here at least four concepts which we should keep in mind: (1) The dignity inherent in the human person means that he or she is never to be treated as an object, therefore, if we respect the dignity of the other, we shall love him or her, not use him or her; (2) there is a fundamental human need for union with another; (3) this union is experienced as the mutual exchange of the gift of selves; and (4) the desires which draw us to this union are, as the result of original sin, disordered. A fifth important concept is this, that, through the grace made available by Christ's redemptive act, we are able to regain the control of our desires.

In his Reflections on Humanae Vitae, John Paul II draws upon these and a few other basic concepts as he attempts to justify the teachings of that document. He does not seek to comment upon the whole document but continues his interest in how using contraception affects the human person; again he does not reject or ignore the arguments from natural law, but incorporates the natural law perspective into his concern for the needs of the human person.

Throughout his writing on love and sexuality, John Paul II distinguishes the subjective emotions allied with love and the need to ground these emotions in an objective appraisal of the beloved and in an objective recognition of universal values. That is, he teaches forcefully that we so much love to be in love that we often deceive ourselves about the true qualities of the beloved; he counsels that lovers must be very careful not to love only the exterior attractiveness of the beloved, but also to love the interior qualities of the beloved. It is only if we truly know who the beloved is that we can truly love. And those who truly love each other, desire to make a complete gift of themselves to the other. This is one of the key arguments for the pope's defense of Humanae Vitae, he makes the rather startling claim that the use of contraception, in fact, makes quite impossible that full and complete union which we seek to have with our beloved. This claim derives in great part from the central Catholic doctrine which he reiterates: that man and woman are not just souls within bodies, but that the human person is the union of the soul and the body.

The pope uses an unusual phrase to describe the relation of the soul to the body: He says that the body is the “expression of the human person,” that is, we express who we are through our bodies. The argument in his Reflections on Humanae Vitae is that we must use the expressions of the body honestly and that there must be a correspondence between what our bodies do and what we, as true lovers, intend. It is in this context that John Paul II uses the phrase “language of the body;” he wants to teach us what the truth is we should be expressing with our bodies in our sexual relationships.

The following passage gives some of the “flavor” of the pope's approach to this matter:

As ministers of a sacrament which is constituted by consent and perfected by conjugal union, man and woman are called to express that mysterious ”language” of their bodies in all the truth which is proper to it. By means of gestures and reactions, by means of the whole dynamism, reciprocally conditioned, of tension and enjoyment whose direct source is the body in its masculinity and its femininity, the body in its action and interaction — by means of all this man, the person, “speaks” (my emphases).

The pope is claiming that certain of our bodily actions have an inherent meaning which we must respect; for example, that there is an objective truth to the meaning of sex to which we must conform our behavior. This is where the pope has recourse to natural law; he reiterates the claim of Humanae Vitae that there is an inseparable connection, established by God, between “the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.” John Paul II argues that these two significances of the marriage act are truly inseparable; they are the truth about sex. The pope maintains that the “language” of the body must express the truth of the marriage act.

The pope denies that this respect for natural law is a recourse to legalism. Again, he roots all his explanation in an argument about what is good for the human person. Thus, he attempts to show us that it is not against man's desires, that is, against the dynamics of a love which desires complete union with another, to conform to the meaning which sex has of both procreation and union. To deny our procreative powers, to withhold deliberately this power from sexual union is to make the union less than what it ought to be; it is to offer only a part of ourselves, not the whole of ourselves to the beloved. And this reduced offering is particularly serious in that it robs the sex act of what makes it ultimately most unitive; it robs it of the ability for two to become one flesh through the new life they could create. That is, he is saying that the sex act which is not open to procreation is not truly unitive, and since union is what we seek through the sex act, we are working against our own desires when we use contraception.

The pope explains the evil of contraception in this way:

It can be said that in the case of an artificial separation of these two aspects, there is carried out in the conjugal act a real bodily union, but it does not correspond to the interior truth and to the dignity of personal communion: communion of persons. This communion demands in fact that the “language of the body” be expressed reciprocally in the integral truth of its meaning. If this truth be lacking, one cannot speak either of the truth of self-mastery, or of the truth of the reciprocal gift and of the reciprocal acceptance of self on the part of the person. Such a violation of the interior order of conjugal union, which is rooted in the very order of the person, constitutes the essential evil of the contraceptive act [my emphases].

The evil of contraception, then, is that it belies the truth which the “language of our bodies” should be expressing: the truth that we are seeking complete union with the beloved.

Let me show the richness of this phrase, “language of the body”, a bit further. We have heard the phrase “body language” and that phrase, I think, is not so very different from what the pope means by “language of the body.” Our bodies do convey very clear messages in the way that we position them and move them. As I have stated, John Paul II is claiming that certain acts of the body have inherent meaning which should not be violated. What does it mean to say that some acts of the body have inherent meaning?

An example from verbal language should help to clarify this claim. Certain words have fairly unambiguous meanings and carry with them certain obligations. Most everyone has felt betrayed by someone who has said “I love you.” Most of us take this to mean “I will care for you”, “I will treat you kindly”, “I will not hurt you.” Many have learned that some use these words to seduce us into serving them in different ways, perhaps into giving them gifts and even perhaps into having sex with them. When we later learn that these words did not carry the meaning we believed them to have, we feel betrayed; we feel used; we feel lied to.

Is it right to say that certain actions, like certain words, carry inherent meaning? The best example of this, I think, can be found in scripture, when Judas kisses Christ. Is not a kiss a sign of affection, of friendly feeling? But Judas uses a kiss to do an unfriendly thing — to betray Christ. With his kiss he has lied to Christ — he is not expressing affection with this kiss.

John Paul II is saying that the sex act carries with it an inherent meaning: it says among other things “I find you attractive” “I marvel and rejoice in your existence”; “I am grateful for the gift of yourself and wish to make a gift of myself to you.” He also maintains that the act says “I wish to become wholly one with you and to accept the possibility of enjoying the good of procreation with you.” In other words, one must accept and mean what sex itself means, that is, one must accept both the unitive and procreative aspects of sex. The pope says that this is what the body expresses when it engages in sex, and that if the person engaging in sex does not intend this meaning, then he is not telling the truth with his body. Thus, contraceptive sex involves the body in a lie. The persons engaging in this type of sex are not communicating openly and honestly with their bodies. They wish to deny one of the inherent meanings of sex: the possibility of procreation. Having sex includes the meaning that we wish to become one with another; denying the power of procreation means that one does not wish for complete union.

I explain this teaching to my students in this way: While we may desire to have sex with many people, it is when we are willing to have children with another that we know we are in the realm of love, not lust. Having a child with another is the most profound sort of union which one can have with another (to whom one is not already bonded by means of blood-ties). One's very genetic structure becomes mingled with another's genetic structure to create a new human being, for which the parents share a lifetime of responsibility. Raising that child together creates more and more bonds between the two. Thus, the most profound union is possible only for those who wish to unite by having children. (Of course, if a couple for some physiological reason is not able to have children, this does not detract from the fact that their love is the kind that seeks to achieve that depth of union.) To use sex to express only physical desire and not the desire for total union with the other is to belie the nature of sex. To have sex without being open to procreation diminishes the union one is having with one's beloved; the individual treats his partner like one with whom he does not wish to have union — like one with whom he does not wish to have children. An individual demeans his love, he demeans his beloved, by not expressing desire for union of this depth.

In short, the pope is saying that the sex act itself says: “I love you so much, I wish to experience the ultimate union with you, the possibility of having a child.” He is saying that if one does not mean this when one has sex, one is telling a lie with one's body.

The pope expands the seriousness of the falsehood told through contraceptive sex when he refers to the teaching of Humanae Vitae that God is a silent partner in sex. God is the one who created male and female and made sexuality the most profound way in which their bodies communicate. He wrote into the sex act its meaning of union and procreation. Those practicing contraceptive sex, then, are not only lying with their bodies to one another, they are, in a sense, betraying and misusing a good which God has given to them. And, again, one of the goods they are denying is the good of parenthood, and the good of the union which comes through parenthood. Children are a gift from God not a punishment as today's world so often thinks. Children are a gift which brings to true fruition to the loving union of a couple. Indeed, a child is a shared creation by God and the lovers; God has chosen to bring new life into this world through the union of lovers and to deny Him the opportunity to work in this fashion is to abuse the meaning which He has written into sex.

Sex without contraception, then, carries with it the opportunity for the most profound expression of one's gift of oneself to another: one is not holding back one's own fertility — which is an integral part of oneself — nor is one refusing to accept the fertility of one's beloved partner. The couple does not tell God that they are dissatisfied with the way He arranged matters, but work in cooperation with the arrangement God has established.

Clearly, although this doctrine may “sound good,” it is not easy to live by. Married couples often find it to be a responsible and loving decision to limit their family size. They do not wish to have the language of their bodies tell a lie, but they, perhaps for reasons of health or finances, may decide that it would not be good to have more children at a certain time. The Church does not teach that couples must have as many children as biologically possible. The Church sees as one of the chief purposes of marriage the formation of children to be citizens of the Kingdom of God. Any parent will tell you that supplying such formation requires an enormous amount of learning, time, and energy and there are limits to how many children one can do this for, given the other obligations one has in life. The Church recognizes that responsible parents often will wish to limit their family size; it teaches that there is a way to do this which maintains respect for human dignity and for the nature of sex, natural family planning.


Smith, Janet. “The Language of the Body.” In Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader, edited by Janet Smith, 237-244. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher.


Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary of Detroit. She is the author of Beginning Apologetics 5: How to Answer Tough Moral Questions--Abortion, Contraception, Euthanasia, Test-Tube Babies, Cloning, & Sexual Ethics, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and the editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right. Ms. Smith was the recipient of the Haggard Award for Excellence in Teaching (1994) and Pro-Life Person of the Year (1995). Visit Janet Smith's web page here. Janet Smith is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 1993 Ignatius Press



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