Social Justice and the Theology of the Body

Catherine Rose

It is necessary for any social program to have a theological basis. Man, as a transcendent being, can only find ultimate fulfillment in God; social reform is limited if it addresses only the physical needs of those it serves. This is true of communism and socialism, and even of social ministry when temporal justice is the only goal. The Church’s social doctrine, while assuming a theological basis for social ministry, does not often speak explicitly about the transcendent. What is needed, therefore, is an explicit articulation of the theological roots of social justice and injustice, as well as a reflection upon the deepest causes of war and hunger and slavery, in order to highlight the fullest answer to such injustice. The following reflections upon Catholic social doctrine in light of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, as well as Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est, will illumine more clearly the theological assumptions which comprise the foundation of Catholic social doctrine.

One cannot grasp one’s poverty unless one glimpses the riches lost. What is first necessary, therefore, is to delve into the theological understanding of humanity’s original perfection, in order to appreciate the full import of the original sin that served as the root of all subsequent social sin. We look to Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body for such an insight. In his series of Wednesday sermons, later compiled into the Theology of the Body, he draws upon the second Genesis creation account for his reflections concerning preternatural human communion, that which he terms communio personarum, the “communion of persons.”

John Paul II identifies various facets of this “communion of persons.” One essential factor is the authentic gift of self, defined as an interior and exterior donation of oneself to another. The Holy Father notes the importance of the physical manifestation of a self-offering conceived in the heart: “in manifesting him, [the body] acts as an intermediary, that is, it enables man and woman, right from the beginning, to communicate with each other according to the communio personarum willed by the Creator precisely for them.” 1

In the Theology of the Body, the late pontiff refers to this bodily mediation as “help.” The woman is described by the Creator as the man’s helper in the second Genesis creation account; however, John Paul II does not restrict the role of helper to woman but makes it the duty of male and female, thereby distancing himself from those who would use the Genesis creation account as a basis for subjugation of women. He asserts, “Communio … indicates precisely that ‘help’ which is derived, in a sense, from the very fact of existing as a person ‘beside’ a person.” 2 In a relationship of mutual self gift, the gifts of the man and woman interpenetrate, as they spend themselves in service to each other.

The act of “helping” is unique to man and woman: Only those who are equal and of like dignity can serve as helpers. John Paul II refers here to what he terms “original solitude,” which is best described as both the solitude of the man and woman among all other created beings and their own particular solitude before God. Man is ultimately alone, both as a species among all of creation and individually before God. This solitude, according to John Paul II, serves as the basis for a special interpenetration between the two. He writes, “The concept of ‘help’ also expresses this reciprocity in existence, which no other living being could have ensured. All that constituted the foundation of the solitude of each of them was indispensable for this reciprocity.” 3 Man and woman alone, singular among all of creation, can freely participate in mutual self-donation. Only human beings can “help” each other. Only they can enjoy the communion of persons.

Though it is expressed as active help between two persons, the communio personarum is ultimately transcendent. Through authentic gift to each other, man images God who is fundamentally expressed as a relationship of love. John Paul affirms this quality of the communio personarum and asserts, “We can then deduce that man became the ‘image and likeness’ of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning… Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion.” 4 The communion of persons not only draws one to fully image God within one’s self but serves as a model for the life of the Trinity shared between two persons. And just as a communion of two persons serves as an icon of the divine life, so too any large-scale human communion, such as human society, was originally intended to image God.

Yet such is not the present reality. Rather, it often seems that disintegration, degradation, and objectification, flourish. If social good flows from mutual self-gift which mirrors the Trinity, then we can infer that social evil is caused by the distortion of God’s image in the human heart. Pope John Paul II refers to the rupture in human relationships in his theology of the body and connects it with the Genesis account of original sin. Without delving too deeply into the Pope’s explanation of original sin and its consequence of concupiscence, it is important to note the relevance of original sin to social injustice. The first sin of the man and the woman is directly responsible for modern injustice, both social and interpersonal. Where man and woman were created by God with a unity of body and spirit, such that the body expressed the person, original sin caused a body-spirit rupture within them; their bodies no longer expressed their persons fully but became reminders of all that they had lost. He writes,

A certain constitutive break within the human person is revealed, which is almost a rupture of man’s original spiritual and somatic unity. He realizes for the first time that his body has ceased drawing upon the power of the spirit, which raised him to the level of the image of God. His original shame bears within it the signs of a specific humiliation mediated by the body. 5

The body no longer fully expresses the person and can be viewed as merely an object of pleasure. It is this dehumanization of the other, this lust, which is the root of social injustice. The other can now become a tool for personal gain. A woman sells the pornographic image of her body for profit. Aborted fetal tissue is used for medical research. The action that constituted the first sin results in the suffering and death that now scar every human life.

It is to these jagged scars in the fabric of human communion that the Church speaks in Her social doctrine, drawing upon the philosophy of human communion in the Trinitarian image. The documents, recognizing the global effects of the original sin that ruptured man’s original communio personarum, illuminate every manner of human interaction to elevate the principles of dignity and sanctification. For example, the first of the social documents, Rerum Novarum, written in 1890 by Pope Leo XIII, addresses, among other things, private property as a basic human right; “our first and fundamental principle, therefore, when we undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses must be the inviolability of private property.” 6 A later encyclical, Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, offers a Christian view of self-government as a response to growing socialism in 1931, promoting such ideas as a just wage and worker’s guilds. By 1961 when John XXIII writes Mater et Magistra, the notions of social good are becoming increasingly particular; the Pope reflects upon the role of national government in caring for public property, the rights and considerations due farmers, and the imbalance between population and means of subsistence. He states regarding the rights of those in agriculture, “We are of the opinion that in rural affairs, the principal agents and protagonists of economic improvement, of cultural betterment, or of social advance, should be the men personally involved, namely the farmers themselves.” 7 The increased particularity of each document seems to imply a growing awareness within the Church of engagement with the modern world. It appears from the documents that every sector of human society needs justice and liberation.

Ultimately, however, if the root of social injustice is sin, then the root of social justice must be sanctification. The most necessary facet of social justice is a process of conversion which enables one to truly see the other as an equal “I,” rather than as a dehumanized object. This work must occur within the mystery of the human heart. Pope John Paul II writes, “The heart has become a battlefield between love and lust.” 8 Man is not bound to live in depravity and dehumanization. The sanctification of man is beyond the scope of this essay, but to state it briefly, through the Incarnation man is invited to reclaim the original Trinitarian communion shared with God and the other. The fundamental mission of the Church, therefore, even as She works to alleviate the temporal sufferings of Her children, is their conversion. Any social agenda that seeks to rectify injustice and liberate persons from social bondage without first converting lustful hearts is incomplete. Social action alone does not address the root of injustice. True liberation must flow from a conversion of the heart which is then expressed in temporal justice.

The Church’s documents affirm this essential process of conversion, alluding to it in various texts. In Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI confirms the notion that spiritual liberation is the most important work of the Church. He states,

And if society is to be healed now . . . Christianity alone can apply an efficacious remedy for the excessive solicitude for transitory things . . . When men are fascinated and completely absorbed in the things of the world, it alone can draw away their attention and raise it to heaven. 9

Transcendent reality must be the basis for temporal action. All effort to liberate the social order must stem from a conviction of the personhood of each human, each a mirror of the image of God.

This analysis of social action in light of the real effects of original sin was most recently illumined in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. From his youth, the Pope witnessed the effects of “social justice” grounded in atheistic humanism—Marxism, socialism, and their descendants. In Deus Caritas Est, he exhorts the lay faithful engaged in charitable work to remain rooted in Christ’s healing love. “This love,” he writes, “does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support.” 10 Pope John Paul II, in his Theology of the Body, defines “help” as the bodily mediation of self-gift. Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, broadens this definition to include “care for their souls.” Perhaps Pope Benedict XVI recognizes a philosophical materialism among modern charitable workers and, thus, pointedly addresses the need for both temporal and transcendent care.

He highlights the need for charitable workers to give a reason for their hope:

In addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a ‘formation of the heart’: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love…Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving [proselytism]. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God. 11

Indeed, one might say that the deepest cause of suffering is always, in some sense, the absence of God. While original sin destroyed man’s perfect communion with self and others, it equally destroyed man’s perfect union with God. We no longer walk naked with God in the cool of the day. Post-lapsarian, we are separated from God and one another, “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”

Thus, Christ came to be “God with us,” instituting the Church to continue His saving ministry in time. The Church, as the Sacrament of Salvation, is given the capacity to heal the root of every social injustice, every degradation, and to offer the healing who is Christ. The Church must, by virtue of Her nature, proclaim social doctrines.

Secular governing bodies have their particular roles in the temporal sphere. But, they cannot substitute the work of the Church, who addresses the needs of the whole person, including the ultimate transcendent need. It is an impoverishment for Catholic charitable organizations to discount or deny their spiritual ministry. In the end, it is the most fervent of the Church’s missionaries, those who are Her greatest saints, who recognize that “often the deepest cause of suffering is the absence of God.” They spend their lives in authentic self-gift, as they reclaim the communio personarum that is man’s heritage.

Catherine Rose has a BA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and works in public policy in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her husband and happily awaits the birth of her first child.


1. [Pope John Paul II, The Theology of the Body (Boston, MA: Pauline Books and Media, 1997), 56]

2. [Ibid, 46]

3. [Ibid, 46]

4. [Ibid, 46]

5. [Ibid, 115]

6. [Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, Catholic Social Thought: A Documentary Heritage, ed. David O’Brien (Maryknoll, NY : Orbis Books, 1992), I.12]

7. [Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, Ibid, III.144]

8. [John Paul II, Theology, 126]

9. [Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, Catholic,, III.129]

10. [Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, (2005, (a href="http://www.vatican.va">www.vatican.va), II.28b]