The Spousal Meaning of the Body and Vocation

This post on the importance of the spousal meaning of the body for vocational discernment is a guest article written by Robert McNamara, a graduate of the International Theological Institute (formerly in Gaming, and now in Trumau, Austria). He will be entering the seminary in Ireland at the end of August. Please say a prayer for him.


Pope John Paul II in his Wednesday audiences of the early 80’s, now widely known as the theology of the body, spoke about the meaning of the human body. Meditating upon the reality of the creation of man, male and female, as written about in Genesis, he deduces that the body has a spousal meaning. He says that this spousal attribute of the human body is “the power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and—through this gift—fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence” (Theology of the Body 15:1). The spousal meaning of the body is therefore obviously significant for the question of vocation. But how significant? And in what way?

To discover the spousal meaning we look to the mystery of man’s creation. In creation man and woman are given life by the Creator and are in their turn capable of making a gift of their own lives. Created in the image and likeness of God man is called to exist “for” others (Cf. Mulieris Dignitatem 7:7). This, the Pope says, is a “fundamental characteristic of personal existence” (Theology of the Body 14:4). Writing as Bishop in his book Love and Responsibility Karol Wojtyla states, “The fullest, the most uncompromising form of love consists precisely in selfgiving, in making one's inalienable and non-transferable `I' someone else's property” (pp. 97). This potential for self-gift is rooted in man’s freedom, in his consciousness and self-determination, in what the Pope calls the “freedom of the gift,” but it is realized above all in the body. Thus the body has a spousal meaning the essence of which is to concretely realize man’s freedom for self-gift, to be “for” others in a radical way, one that is definitive and total. It is in its fullness a gift of the person but one which is made in and through the body and more specifically through sex, that is, masculinity and femininity, as a fundamental attribute of the body. And so, we discover the human body as a path of love.

Spousal self-giving as the name implies is obviously the basis of the vocation of marriage, but it is likewise the basis of the vocation of continence for the kingdom. The Pope explains:

“[T]he nature of the one as well as the other love [marriage and perfect continence] is “spousal,” that is, expressed through the complete gift of self. The one as well as the other love tends to express that spousal meaning of the body, which has been inscribed “from the beginning” in the personal structure of man and woman.” (Theology of the Body 78:4)

This statement is an important matter for consideration by those either discerning or living consecrated celibacy. Those who choose marriage choose to live their bodily existence “for” their spouse and children. Those who choose celibacy choose to live their bodily existence “for” the sake of the kingdom of God. Celibates do not actualize their gift of self to God abstracted from their body and sex. The hearing of the call and the expression of the individual’s consecration depends on and is given definitive form by the sex of the person. The call to continence, says the Pope, is “formed on the basis of the consciousness of the spousal meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity, and further, as a fruit of such consciousness” (Theology of the Body 81:5).

[Aside: The spousal nature of continence should not be surprising when we recognize God’s relationship with humanity in its spousal dimension, “The history of God's relationship to humanity is a history of spousal love, prepared for in the Old Testament and celebrated in the fullness of time” (Verbi Sponsa 4:1). By means of baptism we are “definitively placed within the new and eternal covenant, in the spousal covenant of Christ with the Church” (Familiaris Consortio 13:6). Marriage or consecrated celibacy then gives definitive form within the body of Christ to an individual person’s mode of witness to Christ’s spousal love for the Church.]

Consciousness is a decisive factor. When we consider the ‘meaning’ of something we have in mind not only the reality itself but our consciousness of that reality. Consequently it is not only significant for the question of vocation that the human body objectively has a spousal meaning, but also a mature consciousness of that meaning within the individual subject is crucial. Such a consciousness of the body adequately grounds and motivates the celibate life. It furnishes discernment of vocation with all of the realism that the challenge of celibacy actually poses to man’s natural strivings, while at the same time creating a foundation upon which the earthly “for” can be transformed into a heavenly “for.” Perhaps we can say that awareness of being “for” others as a bodily being, either male or female, creates the space in which the personal call of Christ can find a satisfactory echo and ongoing resonance.

The question then begs: how can we grow in a mature awareness of the spousal meaning of the body in such a way that we can hear the call of Christ with readiness and answer it with force? It appears from the Pope’s writings that the answer is through the gift and virtue of purity. Using the helpful image of a watchman the Pope explains how one grows in purity of heart. Man, he says, must become master of his own “innermost impulses” by watching over the “hidden spring” of his heart learning to draw only those impulses which are “fitting for purity of the heart.” In this way he can build “with conscience and consistency the personal sense of the spousal meaning of the body, which opens the interior space of the freedom of the gift” (Theology of the Body 48:3). Perfecting this effort we have the gifts of the Holy Spirit especially piety which disposes the inspired person to grow conscious of the meaning of the human body, his own and others.

With a vivid consciousness of the meaning of his body in purity of heart, man experiences himself as originating in love and destined for love (Cf. Theology of the Body 15:5 ff). He experiences himself as rooted in love, and finds in this happy experience a greater ability to respond with love. Purity of heart has enabled him to encounter and know himself in his bodily existence as a “subject of holiness” (Theology of the Body 19:5). It is this experience of man as a subject of truth and love, with the organically connected interior space of the freedom of the gift formed on the basis of the spousal meaning of the body which enables man to hear the call to continually surrender himself in all the truth of his existence and in an unreserved manner to Christ, and for the sake of His kingdom.

2 thoughts on “The Spousal Meaning of the Body and Vocation”

  1. Just this Sunday our priest gave an All Saints Day homily and briefly noted the names and lives of some saints. None were married. After Mass I asked him to include some married Saints in next years homily. He seemed so baffled and bemused I told him he had a whole year to come up with some and he didn't have to answer right away. I walked away saddened that he could not come up with the name of even one in that short encounter. I wonder why we never speak of the Virgin Mary as a married saint? I don't think angels picked up Joseph's socks and put the toilet paper actually back on the roller instead of leaving it on the counter. (The first century equivalents of course.) Certainly she must have wondered where she got this guy from once in awhile.

    1. You can tell your priest about Gianna Beretta Molla, about Louis and Zelia Martin, about the couple Quattrocchi and finally about St. Rita of Cassia who was married before entering the convent, and from what I know, the way she lived her married life was a true testimony of how a saint would live through a difficult marriage.
      God bless
      Maria José

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