Chemistry, for the ancient Greeks, dealt not with 92 natural elements, but with
a mere four: earth, air, fire, and water. Yet there was an added mystery to
They believed that the stars were composed of an imperishable element. Beyond
their quartet of perishable elements, then, was a fifth, or a quinta essentia,
which soared majestically above the world representing a higher kind of being
and a visible image of immortality. This fifth essence, therefore, was the
quintessence, or the purest manifestation of anything that existed.
Shakespeare's Hamlet spoke masterfully and metaphorically when he said of the
human being: "What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in
faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an
angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of
animals!" And then, at the climax of his panegyric, framed him in a most
exquisite paradox as the "quintessence of dust."1
"Quintessence of dust" embraces the most disparate poles of that creature whom
Medieval philosophers called "homo duplex" and Genesis described as both
made in the image of God and compounded of dust. Man is a mixture of starlight
and earthdust. His being is a synthesis of the uncreated and the created. He is
eternal like the stars and as ephemeral as dust. He bears within himself a
tension that establishes both his drama and his destiny.
"Truth consists of paradoxes," wrote the American poet Carl Sandburg, "and a
paradox is two facts that stand on opposite hilltops and across the intervening
valley call each other liars." Throughout history, man has oscillated between
polarities that seemingly contradict each other. He aspires to angelic status,
but all too often descends to the realm of the bestial. His soul takes flight;
his body remains below. He is an enigma, claiming to be both the special
creation of God and the accidental product of chance. His ancestry is either
sovereignty or slime. It is small wonder that human sexuality, that demands the
integration of both the creative and the corporeal, has so long been a source of
confusion and one-sidedness. Indeed, of exasperation and shame!
The "sexual revolution" of the sixties was more an enslavement to the flesh than
a liberation from moral constraints. Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae Vitae,
not surprisingly, was greeted, by and large, with indifference, incomprehension,
and hostility. Paul VI's statement that birth regulation must be understood in
the light of the "total vision of man" (n.7) meant little, if anything, to most
people. A world that embraced specialization, convenience, and simplistic
solutions was hardly disposed to grasping the paradoxes inherent in this "total
John Paul, understanding both the fundamental importance of this "total vision"
and the rift in the Church that followed Humanae Vitae, was determined to
set things right. From September 5, 1979 to November 28, 1984, Pope John Paul II
delivered to Wednesday audiences in Rome a series of 130 allocutions that
presented this total vision of man, applying it to the nature of the human
person, sexuality, masculinity and femininity, and marriage. Altogether, the
totality of these talks constitutes the Pope's "Theology of the Body," "Theology
of Masculinity and Femininity," or "Theology of Marriage."
George Weigel has stated that "If it is taken with the seriousness it deserves,
John Paul's Theology of the Body may prove to be the decisive moment in
exorcising the Manichaean demon and its deprecation of human sexuality from
Catholic moral theology."2 There is nothing "conservative" or
"moralistic" in the notion of human sexuality that the Pope elaborates. Men and
women are embodied persons. The human body is an integral feature of their
concrete personhood. The body is not a container or an inferior apparatus for
the "soul" of the person, as some contemporary separatists claim. It is that
through which men and women express who they are and enact their existence. The
human being is a psycho-somatic entity, an integrated, self-possessed person.
John Paul, who has a great love for languages, emphasizes the meaning of the
Hebrew words in Genesis that describe humanity, the man and the woman. In
the Priestly text in Genesis, which is the first account of the creation
of the human being, the word 'adam is used: "God created man ('adam)
in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male (zakar
-masculine) and female (uneqebah - feminine) He created them" (Gn 1:27).
Here the Hebrew term 'adam expresses the collective concept of the human
species, "corporate personality," or humanity.
In the term 'adam and 'dama (soil, ground) there is an evident
play on words, a practice the Bible shares with other ancient literature. In no
way is this an instance of punning. To the Hebrew mind names were not merely
identification labels, but symbols, magic keys, as it were, that opened to the
essence of the beings they signified. The humble origin suggested by the notion
of being molded from the earth, from dust ('apar), conveyed a seal of
humility that man would ignore at his own peril. Human beings are, indeed,
According to the second or Yahwist account of the creation of the first human
beings, God creates Adam initially and then the woman. "It is also significant,"
states the Holy Father, "that the first man ('adam, created from 'dust
from the ground') is defined as 'male' ('ish) only after the creation of
the first woman" ('ishshah).3 In Genesis 2:23, we find
for the first time the distinction between 'ish (man) and 'ishshah
(woman). "We can conclude," John Paul writes, "that the man ('adam) falls
into that 'sleep' in order to wake up 'male' and 'female'."4
Human creation is not complete, then, until man and woman stand in loving
partnership with each other. The image of God is reflected in the mutual
self-giving that man and woman express to each other. The nuptial or marital
significance of the body is an icon of the Law of Gift built into the core of
human personhood that reflects the inner dynamism of God's own life. Through
love and gift, dust attains its quintessence.
There is never the remotest hint of prudery in the Pope's discussion of the
body. "The human body," he state, "oriented interiorly by the sincere gift of
the person, reveals not only its masculinity or femininity on the physical
plane, but reveals also such a value and such a beauty as to go beyond the
purely physical dimension of sexuality."5
Nor does he ever associate human sexuality with rules. He wisely repositions the
discussion of sexual morality within the context of the human person as set
forth in Genesis and then reaffirmed and broadened in the New Testament.
The question is not so much, "what must I avoid doing?" but "how do I express my
sexuality in a way that is consistent with my dignity as a person and as an
image of a loving God?"
George Weigel believes that the Pope's 130 catechetical addresses "constitute a
kind of theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences,
sometime in the third millennium of the Church."6 The "Theology of
the Body" is, indeed, faithful to the "total vision of Man" that inspired it. It
integrates and harmonizes the Yahwist and Priestly accounts in Genesis, the Old
and New Testaments, subjective experience with objective reality, theology with
philosophy, faith with reason, the masculine with the feminine, and anthropology
with ethics. It makes plausible the paradox that dust and diamond, dirt and
divinity, characterize the essence of the same being.
"Earthlings though we are," writes Ralph McInerny, "unimaginable without feet
and arms and ears, all of which will one day turn to dust, we are diamonds whose
facets give off light and darkness."7 Or, as Gerard Manley Hopkins
expresses it in his own inimitable way:
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.8
Act II, Scene 2.
Witness to Hope (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1999), p. 342.
John Paul II,
The Theology of the Body (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 1997), p.
cit., p. 343.
"Persons and Things," Crisis, Jan/Feb 1997.
Hopkins, "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the
DeMarco, Donald. "Quintessence of Dust." The Catholic Faith
Reprinted with permission of The Catholic Faith.
Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and
Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in
Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and
popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including
The Heart of Virtue,
The Many Faces of Virtue,
Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and
Architects Of The Culture Of Death.
Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource