The Spousal Nature of Feminine Beauty in John Paul II

Mary Shivanandan


Feminine bodily beauty! Is this not a topic more suitable to a fashion magazine than a serious journal? What does it have to do with theology?  But John Paul II takes feminine beauty very seriously. Towards the end of the first cycle of his Catechesis on Human Love, he writes:

“The whole exterior of woman’s body, its particular look, the qualities that stand with the power of perennial attraction, at the beginning of the ‘knowledge’ about which Genesis 4:1-2 speaks (‘Adam united himself with Eve’) are in strict accordance with motherhood.”[1] 

There follows immediately a reference to the Blessed Virgin:

“With the simplicity characteristic of it, the Bible (and the liturgy following it) honors and praises throughout the centuries ‘the womb that bore you and the breasts from which you sucked milk’ (Lk 11:27). These words are a eulogy of motherhood, of femininity, of the feminine body in its typical expression of creative love.”

Right away we have a perspective on the feminine body that is not characteristic of our culture, which either favors the thin straight silhouette of the fashion model or the dress open and showing curves to the navel. Woman is presented either without sexual attributes or as a sex object. How is it even possible to address a culture that treats the feminine body in this way? John Paul II does not hesitate to rise to the challenge, elevating feminine beauty to the level of truth and goodness.  

The first mention of beauty in connection with the body occurs earlier in the Catechesis. “The human body oriented from within by the ‘sincere gift of the person’[Gaudium et Spes, 24:3], reveals not only its masculinity and femininity on the physical level, but reveals such a value and such a beauty that it goes beyond the simply physical level of ‘sexuality’” (TOB15:4) This is key. It is the interior dimension of the gift of self that somehow determines the exterior beauty of the body.

John  Paul II confirms in a later homily that as a result of the loss of self-mastery brought about by the Fall, “the beauty… the human body possesses in its male and female appearance, as an expression of the spirit, is obscured” (TOB 32:6).  In other words, true beauty encompasses both body and soul and is oriented to communion but as a result of original sin it is flawed. The pope finds the search for what he calls “integral beauty” or “purity free from stain” in the bridegroom’s search in the Song of Songs. It is a search for perfection that contains, he says, “the synthesis of human beauty, beauty of body and soul” (TOB 112:3). He notes that the Song of Songs refers to the bride as “a garden closed,” a “fountain sealed,” because, in the pope’s words, she is “the master of her own mystery.” The authentic gift of the woman, which is essential to her personal dignity, is revealed in the gift of self as spouse and mother (TOB 110:5).

This way of approaching feminine beauty is almost entirely foreign to our culture, which isolates feminine bodily beauty as a thing in itself, using it to sell products or titillate the senses. Sexual attraction is often a commodity used to engage in a physical relationship which may or may not end in marriage. Children may or may not be intrinsic to this relationship.  To come to a greater understanding of what the pope is saying, it is necessary to delve more deeply into his philosophical and theological analysis of sexual attraction.


A Philosophical Account

In his book, Love and Responsibility, the pope writing as the philosopher Karol Wojtyla is at pains to show above all the personal dimension of the attraction between men and women. What is the source of this attraction, he wonders? Clearly it is bound up with the sex urge. He seeks to show, (1) the transcendent source of the sex urge, (2) its relation to the person, and (3) its supra-personal nature in procreation.     

He states that “the sex urge is something even more basic than the psychological and physiological attributes of man and woman in themselves, though it does not manifest itself or function without them”.[2]  So what is the source of the sex urge? Wojtyla notes that every human being (even the homosexual) is born as either a man or a woman. And as man or woman, neither is complete in himself. Each needs the attributes of the other -. From this need for completion through the other arises the sex urge, Marriage and procreation are only one manifestation of the transcendence of the person and exist in this life alone. Friendship is another.

What is more important, the sex urge is not completely defined by an orientation to the physical attributes of masculinity and femininity. It normally never arises except in relation to a specific person. If it is directed to the sexual attributes alone it devalues the person and is, itself, devalued. It is this orientation of the sex urge to a specific person that enables it to be a vehicle for love. In fact the sex urge is naturally oriented to develop into love. Yet it cannot be equated with love, for love is not biological. Love depends on the will. The sex urge therefore in the final analysis depends on the person, who directs it.

Wojtyla finds another way in which the sex urge transcends the merely biological. Its proper end, procreation, is suprapersonal because it deals with the existence of the human species. The mutual attraction of the spouses is ordered to something beyond themselves.[3] Thus already in the writings of the future Pope there is a hint of the intrinsic link in the sex urge between the unitive and procreative dimensions, on both the biological and personal levels.

Wojtyla claims that what he calls the sensual response of a man to a woman “is only incidentally connected with awareness of the beauty of a body, with aesthetic appreciation.”[4]  This is a pivotal statement. The sensual response, which is good in itself, nevertheless has what Wojtyla calls a “consumer orientation.”  It is directed mainly towards a “body” and only indirectly towards the person. As such it has only an accidental connection with bodily beauty, for the latter is first and foremost an object of “contemplative cognition” or aesthetic enjoyment (St Augustine speaks of frui), to which exploitation is foreign. Sensuality, because it introduces a “consumer orientation”, interferes with the apprehension of the beautiful, even bodily and therefore in a way sensual beauty itself.

Wojtyla is at pains to point out that the sensual response is “simply a natural orientation in which an objective requirement of existence finds expression.”[5] It is a spontaneous reflex of the body and not something evil. He also distinguishes between sensuality and the sexual vitality of the body. Deliberately to exploit natural responses in order to arouse a sensual response to the human body apart from the concrete person and the context of spousal love is the aim and the evil of the pornographer. It differs from the aim of depicting the human body and human spousal love in art. Far from denigrating such artistic work, Wojtyla argues that

Art has a right and a duty, for the sake of realism, to reproduce the human body, and the love of a man and woman, as they are in reality, to speak the whole truth about them.  The human body is an authentic part of the truth about man, just as its sensual and sexual aspects are an authentic part of the truth about human love.[6]

The distinction only becomes blurred when partial aspects are accented at the expense of the whole. 

Attraction, says Wojtyla, goes with an awareness of values. Several values can be experienced in the meeting of man and woman: physical, psychological, spiritual. The person must always be valued first and foremost as a good in herself and not for any specific attribute. No single value can define a human person. Only if the attraction encompasses the person as a whole will it truly correspond to love.  

Something attracts because it is pleasing; it is experienced as a good. “The object of attraction, says Wojtya “which is seen by the subject as a good, is also seen as a thing of beauty.”[7] Thus the appreciation of values and beauty go together. Beauty is what Wojtyla calls a “supplementary” aesthetic value. It always accompanies the good.

“Fascination,” “charm,” “glamour”—these and other similar words serve to describe this important aspect of love between persons. A human being is beautiful and may be revealed as beautiful to another human being. Woman is beautiful in a way of her own, and may attract the attention of a man by her beauty…. Beauty finds its proper place in the context of attraction.[8]

Wojtyla is affirming the goodness and beauty of sexual attraction. But he knows that it is not enough to be attracted to the exterior beauty alone, for the human being as a person is determined by inwardness rather than outward appearance. It is necessary to discover the inner beauty. In the love between a man and a woman it is critical that attraction goes beyond the physical attributes themselves to a “full and deep appreciation of the person.”[9]


Beauty and Marriage in Aquinas

Wojtyla is clearly drawing on the thought of Thomas Aquinas concerning the relationship between beauty and the good (or what he terms value). Why is it that spousal love is beautiful, while adulterous love, although it may contain the “glamour of evil,” is by its very nature deformed and, therefore ugly?  In the Summa Theologiae (I 39, 8) Aquinas attributes three characteristics to beauty: “integrity or perfection, since those things which are impaired are by that very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony; and lastly brightness or clarity, whence things are called beautiful which have a bright colour.” Thus within the Trinity, the Son is beautiful because he shares the perfect nature of the Father, is his accurate image, and is in himself the light and splendour of the intellect.

Beauty and goodness in a thing are identical fundamentally, for they are based upon the same thing, namely form; and this is why goodness is praised as beauty. But they differ logically, for goodness properly relates to appetite (goodness being what all things desire), and therefore it has the aspect of an end (appetite being a kind of movement towards a thing.) On the other hand, beauty belongs to a cognitive power, for those things are said to be beautiful which please when seen. Hence beauty consists in due proportion, for the senses delight in things duly proportioned, as in what is like them—because the sense too is a sort of reason, as is every cognitive power. Now since knowledge is by assimilation, and likeness relates to form, beauty properly belongs to the nature of a formal cause.[10]

Everything is good and therefore beautiful in so far as it is perfect, and something is perfect if it “lacks nothing according to its mode of perfection.” In order to be perfect and good it must have a form together with all that precedes and follows upon the form.[11]

Therefore goodness and beauty are inseparable, and both are related to the perfection of form.[12] 


A Contemporary Theological Account

This notion of the form of spousal love and marriage is something Hans Urs von Balthasar, John Paul II and Angelo Scola have developed further. For Balthasar, the perfect archetype of the couple is Christ and the Church. This is the fullest meaning of the human couple both in a final (eschatological) and in a primordial sense. Christ generates his bride in the total self-gift of the cross, and continues his relationship with her through the sacraments. Thus only through the mystery of Christ and the Church is the mysterious dual unity of man and woman attained. We can speak this way, says Scola in his book The Nuptial Mystery, because of the logic of the Incarnation. The dual unity of Christ and the Church arises from the unity of the two natures in Christ, while the incarnation gives us a glimpse of the ultimate dual unity of the Trinity,

The components of the nuptial mystery – love, sexual difference and procreation – have, in this perspective, says Scola, a much wider and deeper meaning, which helps to illuminate the family as the “domestic church.” The family is not just a cell in the body of Christ. “What is at issue here is the possibility of living every day more deeply and thus participating in the sacramental sign of marriage, which is the total and joyous gift of oneself to the other, whose goodness and beauty redound back to and thus fulfill the ‘I’.”[13] The dual unity of husband and wife comes to completion ideally in the birth of the child, creating according to Balthasar “an authentic imago Trinitatis.[14]

Within this understanding of the form of marriage John Paul II gives a theological account of the perennial attraction of masculinity and femininity through the spousal meaning of the body in his Wednesday Catechesis. Again he wants to emphasize the primacy of the person in the love between the man and woman. Adam is created first and alone (existentially not chronologically), in what John Paul II calls “original solitude,” that is, possessing the uniqueness of a human person, different from the other animals. It is his body that reveals to him his superiority and uniqueness. When Eve is created equal in her humanity but different in gender he discovers who he is as a masculine person. Adam’s exclamation, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23) expresses his fascination and wonder at the sight of Eve (108, 5). The man and woman see each other with God’s vision, and accept each other in full integrity as another “I.” That is the meaning of the phrase, “original nakedness.” It is this encounter that brings about Adam’s fulfillment precisely as a person. He discovers that only through a “sincere gift of self” can he find happiness. The one-flesh union he is called to share with Eve establishes an indissoluble and fruitful bond.

The pope reserves some of his most profound reflections on marriage and the beauty of spousal love for his exegesis of Ephesians 5: 21-33. He makes reference especially to the Church “as a bride all beautiful in her body”, for this witnesses to the importance of the body in the analogy of spousal love (TOB 92, 2). It is Christ’s love, his giving himself up, that makes the Church his body. The love that binds the bridegroom to the bride commits him not only to seek the good of his wife but to desire her beauty, to be conscious of it and to care for it. The pope emphatically states that what is at issue includes visible physical beauty. That is part of the good that his love must find in her. That good is a measure and a test of his love, which however must never go beyond the limits of being a disinterested self gift (TOB 92, 4).

In reflecting on Matthew 5: 27-28, the pope has already considered the way in which, as a result of original sin, the perennial attraction of man and woman has been disordered, compromising the disinterested gift of self. As a result of that first sin, the perennial attraction is no longer experienced in the heart calling them to communion. Instead it is reduced to a biological attraction towards procreation. The body has “almost lost the power of expressing love.” Concupiscence attacks the freedom of the gift and the relations of man and woman are determined more and more by the body only. The dignity of the person is obscured, as each becomes a mere object for the other (TOB 32, 4, 5). This desire is a deception of the heart, diminishing the very attraction between the eternal “feminine” and eternal “masculine.” But even in the historical state of sin the human heart seeks to free itself from this concupiscence, which so demeans the dignity of the person (TOB 40:2).

“Desire” is a legitimate part of the attraction between the sexes. It would be contrary to the authentic tradition of Christianity and closer to the Manichaean heresy to question the goodness of the sexual urge, which was created by God to build up the communion of man and woman, and ordered to procreation (TOB 41, 4). When it intentionally focuses on the sexual values alone, to the exclusion of the other values of the person, it ceases to contribute to their communion (TOB 41, 3, 4). But redemption in Christ brings about a transformation of the human heart so that the rich values of the eternal attraction of masculinity and femininity may again be expressed in all their many layers – physical, psychological and spiritual (TOB 45: 3).


The Song of Primordial Love

In the “beginning” all these values were able to be expressed effortlessly and harmoniously by Adam and Eve in the grace of original innocence. John Paul II finds an expression of that consummate love in the Song of Songs. He does not interpret this within the spousal analogy of God’s love for Israel and Christ’s love for the Church, which are conditioned by man’s historical state of sin. Nor does he treat it simply as a mystical analogy. Rather he treats it as an echo of the “primordial sacrament”; as a “testimony of the beginning.” It describes the reality of that beginning (TOB 108, 1-3) when the spousal form of the “union of the two” was still pure and without defect.

The lovers in the Song of Songs engage in a duet in which the language of the body predominates. The source of their mutual wonder is the bride’s femininity and the bridegroom’s masculinity as visibly expressed in the body. “Love unleashes a special experience of the beautiful, which focuses on what is visible, although at the same time it involves the entire person. The experience of beauty gives rise to pleasure, which is reciprocal” (TOB 108, 6). The words “beauty” and “beautiful” appear frequently in the song.

Your cheeks are beautiful between pendants
Your neck between strings of pearls (1:10).
How beautiful you are, my beloved, how beautiful you are
Your eyes are doves (1:15).

Equally noticeable in the text is the summation of their relationship in the word “friend.”  So the bridegroom:

Your two breasts are like fawns,
Twins of a gazelle,
That feed among lilies.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . ,
You are altogether beautiful my friend
There is no flaw in you (4:1-4a, 5, 7).

And the bride:

Sweetness is his palate
And he is all delights,
This is my beloved, this is my friend,
O daughters of Jerusalem (5:15-16).

This language of spousal love, so full of metaphors of the beauty of the beloved, which is echoed in all the great literature of the world, John Paul II says, contains a “primordial and essential sign of holiness” (TOB 109, 2). Their love is a spousal union of eros and agape which alone can be called truly beautiful. (Benedict XVI picked up this theme in Deus Caritas Est.)  Chastity, marital chastity, is an essential dimension of the perennial attraction of the sexes. “Through self mastery,” the pope says, “man rediscovers the spiritual beauty of the sign constituted by the human body in its masculinity and femininity,” in a mature spontaneity that does not suffocate but liberates the heart’s noble desires and aspirations (TOB 48, 5).

Right at the end of the Catechesis, in his treatment of conjugal chastity in the context of Humanae Vitae, John Paul II links the virtue of continence to the gift of reverence, donum pietas. Through reverence for God’s design in joining the unitive and procreative dimension of the conjugal act, the spouses come to understand the difference between emotional and sensual reactions to the other sex. While the body arouses sensual reactions, masculinity and femininity draw forth emotional reactions relating to the whole person which issue in “manifestations of affection.” Continence enables the person to maintain an equilibrium between these two reactions, and frees it from constraint. Such reverence for the work of God, he says, goes along with the capacity for deep pleasure in both the visible and invisible beauty of the other as gift (TOB, 129-130).

The grace of Redemption enables self-mastery for self-gift, so that it is possible, says John Paul II, “ to rediscover “the meaning of the whole of existence, of the meaning of life,” which includes also the meaning of the body as spousal (TOB 46, 6). This is the antithesis of Freudian libido. The body lived in this way becomes through a “communion of persons” the “deepest substratum of human ethics and culture” (TOB 45, 3).


A Civilization of Love

In his “Letter to Families,” John Paul II states that man has received the task of shaping life in the image and likeness of its Creator, God. The fulfillment of this task gives rise to civilization, which, in the final analysis, he says, is the “humanization of the world.” At the end of the Letter, he goes further. “The history of mankind, the history of salvation, passes by way of the family.”  A broken family can, for its part, consolidate a specific form of “anti-civilization,” destroying love in its various expressions, with inevitable consequences for the whole of life in society.[15]  Beauty, feminine beauty, which, as John Paul II says, is in strict accordance with motherhood, is both a source and fruit of spousal love lived sacramentally in the family. From it radiates the beauty of the civilization of love.

It is to protect this “civilization of love” that Scripture issues such harsh warnings on the danger of feminine beauty, yet praises it in the faithful wife, as in Proverbs 31:30. Beauty, above all, is oriented to the home (and our ultimate homeland in God).[16]

Sirach praises the beauty of a good wife (26:16-18), yet warns (9:8), “Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman, and do not look intently at beauty belonging to another; many have been misled by a woman’s beauty, and by it passion is kindled like a fire.” There are many other such warnings about the beauty of woman tempting both to vanity and adultery. The prophet Isaiah speaks against the daughters of Zion for parading their beauty. Instead of beauty the Lord will give them shame (Is 3:24). John Paul II comments on these Old Testament passages, noting that while they seek to protect the moral order, they do not yet “transform ethos in a fundamental way.” That has to wait for Christ’s redemptive power (TOB 38:4-6).

The values of a civilization are revealed especially in its literature and art. These are the   specific spheres in which feminine beauty is most often portrayed, as John Paul II notes. So extensive is the literature in praise of feminine beauty in relation to spousal love in Western art, steeped in the underlying values of Christianity, that one of the most famous examples will suffice, from Dante’s Divine Comedy.  In Book Two, Purgatorio, Canto XXXI, Beatrice confronts Dante on his betrayal of her chaste beauty in favor of numerous passing feminine allurements.  She upbraids him:


. . . . .  “In the desire for me
That was directing you to love the Good
Beyond which there’s no thing to draw our longing,
What chains were strung, what ditches dug across
Your path that, once you’d come upon them, caused
Your loss of hope of moving forward?
What benefits and what allurements were
so evident upon the brow of others that you had need to promenade before them?
. . . . . .
Weeping I answered: “Mere appearances turned me aside with their false loveliness, as soon as I had lost your countenance.” [17]

In the Uffizi Museum in Florence two paintings stand side by side, both by Sandro Botticelli: a portrait of the birth of Venus arising from the sea, and “The Madonna of the Magnificat”, which is in continuity with a rich portrayal of Mary holding the Christ-child since early Christian times (the earliest icon of Mary discovered in Western Christian art, dating from the early third century, is a fresco on the walls of the catacombs of St Priscilla in Rome). Venus represents feminine attraction on the natural level, good in itself but not directed to a personal love. There is another famous depiction of Venus in Botticelli’s panel, also in the Uffizi, called “Spring.” Above the head of Venus the boy Cupid (from which the Latin word cupiditas “possessive desire” comes) shoots his arrows. He is blindfolded, indicating that there is no rhyme or reason to the target of blind desire. Both were painted in the latter half of the fifteenth century, when the humanist values of the Renaissance were revolutionizing art and culture. A new interest in human eros was beginning to eclipse the depiction of maternal love, the conventional theme in Christian art.

When John Paul II links the visible bodily aspect of a woman with its power of perennial attraction “in strict accordance with motherhood,” he may seem to be limiting the often wondrous visible beauty of woman to one dimension. In reality he is opening up what Gaudium et Spes calls “vistas closed to human reason” (24). For “the mystery of femininity manifests and reveals itself in its full depth through motherhood” (TOB, 21, 2).  This mystery, as he explains in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, involves “a special openness to the new person” on the part of woman through which she discovers her own identity precisely as woman (no. 18). It is the great challenge of our time to recover this sense of feminine beauty as intrinsically spousal. In the consecrated virgin the spousal form is also present but expressed in a different way, as signifying the priority of personhood over bodily sexual attraction. Espoused to the Lord, she points to the eschaton where there is no giving in human marriage. Thus the woman has to be affirmed in her role as person, oriented to self-gift, spouse and mother in a correct order. If we do not honour earthly relationships in all their bodiliness we shall never know how to live them in the spiritual dimension.

Feminine beauty is a great gift, and like all great gifts comes with a corresponding responsibility. That responsibility is best expressed in the homily that sums up John Paul II’s theology of the body:

The body, in fact, only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and divine…. Through his bodiliness, his masculinity and femininity, man becomes a visible sign of the economy of Truth and Love, which has its source in God himself and was revealed already in the mystery of creation.  Against this vast background, we fully understand the words in Genesis 2:24 that are constitutive of the sacrament of Marriage: “For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and unite with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.” (TOB, 19, 5)


Mary Shivanandan is Professor of Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at the Catholic University of America and is the author of Crossing the Threshold of Love (CUAP). This article was published in Second Spring, Issue 12 (2010).



[1] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body trans. Michael Waldstein, (Pauline, 2006) no. 21, 5. Hereafter in the text this will be cited as TOB with the number of the homily and section. Dr Waldstein has provided an invaluable aid to research with his comprehensive index. 

[2] Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility (Ignatius Press, 1981) 49.

[3] Ibid., 51.

[4] Ibid., 105.

[5] Ibid., 106-107.

[6] Ibid., 192.

[7] Ibid., 79.

[8] Ibid., 79-80.


[9] Ibid., 80.


[10] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I 5, 4, ad 1.


[11] Ibid., I 5, 6.


[12] Aquinas applies these ideas on perfection to the marriage of Mary and Joseph as follows. A marriage is said to be true by reason of its attaining a twofold perfection. “The first perfection of a thing consists in its very form, from which it receives its species; while the second perfection of a thing consists in its operation, by which a thing attains its end” (ibid., III 29, 2). The form of matrimony consists in a “certain inseparable union of souls,” and the end is the bearing of children, for which conjugal intercourse is normally necessary, and the rearing of them, which requires a common life together. The first perfection (union of souls) belongs to the marriage of Mary and Joseph. With regard to the second perfection, while obviously carnal intercourse did not pertain, the mutual rearing of the child was present. Thus their marriage had the indissolubility of a sacrament. The form of marriage is to be an indissoluble union of man and woman ordered to procreation.


[13] Angelo Scola, The Nuptial Mystery, trans. Michelle K. Borras (Eerdmans, 2005), 99.


[14] Ibid., 103.


[15] John Paul II, “Letter to Families” (1994), nos. 23, 13. This is not to say that God, in his goodness, cannot bring good out of any situation. Human failure can point to deficiencies in understanding and living the form of marriage and family life, and so bring about the necessary changes, especially through the redemptive suffering of the faithful spouse. Christ came to heal sinners. He showed mercy to the woman caught in adultery summoning her to sin no more.


[16] The Lord delights to adorn Zion and his temple with beauty. “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Ps. 50:2). The temple is a special place of God’s beauty. “One thing I ask of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27: 4).

[17] Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (Bantam, 1982), 287-9.