Aquinas and the Theology of the Body: The Thomistic Foundations of John Paul II's Anthropology

By Paternostro, David C. | New Oxford Review, March 2018 | Go to article overview

Aquinas and the Theology of the Body: The Thomistic Foundations of John Paul II's Anthropology


Paternostro, David C., New Oxford Review


Aquinas and the Theology of the Body: The Thomistic Foundations of John Paul II's Anthropology. By Thomas Petri, O.P. Catholic University of America Press. 368 pages. $65.

According to Aristotle, when we find ourselves at an impasse at one level of debate, we ought to go deeper in order to make some progress in understanding. In Aquinas and the Theology of the Body, this is precisely what Thomas Petri, O.P., proposes to do. It is hardly controversial to say that there are sharp disagree- ments over sexual ethics, both inside and outside the Church. Pope St. John Paul II's series of talks on the "theology of the body" clarified and gave new life to the Church's teachings, but there is still much work to be done in accepting and integrating them into Church life. Fr. Petri seeks to dig beneath the points of disagreement and instead focus on their foundations. He examines the metaphysics and anthropology that underlie so much of John Paul's exploration of the meaning of the body, as well as the theology of love and the virtue of charity that informed the sainted Pope's reflections on spousal love and friendship.

Fr. Petri's work begins with an impressive and concise historical overview of moral theology from St. Thomas to Vatican II, and he observes that in moral theology in general, the theoretical frameworks upon which particular moral principles were constructed have been neglected. This was especially true in the manualist tradition, where, in theology curricula, "those areas of theology that were deemed too speculative were dropped" in favor of those topics that would aid in the hearing of confessions. The result was that in moral-theology manuals, the "primary concern was exterior human action in relation to obligations imposed by law." This had a twofold effect on sexual ethics: first, an overreliance on simple biology in determining moral questions; second (and somewhat related), moral questions were no longer about what would promote human flourishing but whether there was an outward obedience to the established rules.

In such a setting, it is hardly surprising that the sexual revolution of the 1960s would see Catholics - from the rank-andfile to theologians and confessors - pushing back against Church teachings on sexuality. Without any relationship to grace, beatitude, or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the moral law can seem like nothing more than an arbitrary set of rules rather than a guide for growth in holiness. Many of these rules, surrounding moral debates on married life and, above all, on Humanae Vitae, were disdained and discarded on grounds of their arbitrariness and irrelevance to modern life. …

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