You see, a lot of people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, seem to think that the Church hates the body. They probably get this idea from reading isolated statements made by certain Christian ascetics, who seem to portray the Christian life as a struggle against the body. They may even have made some negative remarks about the body in the course of their writings.
These statements must be understood in the context of these people's lives. Many of them were penitents, who had abused and overindulged their bodies for years, developing some very bad habits in the process. After grace touched them, they found themselves struggling with a body which continued to expect to receive the excessive pleasure to which it had grown accustomed over the years. Thus penance became for them a constant struggle against their own bodies. Their hostility, therefore, is rather understandable.
Yes, some of them may have even felt contempt or hatred for their bodies. But that does not mean that Christianity in general holds the body in contempt. Ephesians 5:29 says "no one hates his own body, but nourishes and cherishes it". That is the Christian view; we are to love, nourish and cherish our bodies, for they are part of ourselves! If some ascetics did not love their bodies, we should remember that they were fallible humans like ourselves, who struggled a lot with living the Gospel, and sometimes fell short in a few areas. But we must not make the mistake of identifying their personal weaknesses with the official teaching of the Church.
In the Beginning
Catholic doctrine and practice actually reveal a high esteem for our physical nature. As we saw in the last article (God and Creation), Mother Church has always rejected the Gnostic notion that the body and the rest of the material realm is the creation of an evil deity. She faithfully upholds the scriptural revelation that the human body was created by God (Genesis 2:7; 22). Since everything God makes is good (Genesis 1:31) therefore the human body cannot possibly be bad, impure or sinful.
In the state of original innocence, the first man and woman were "naked but not ashamed" (Genesis 2:25). Only after the Fall did they experience a feeling of shame toward their bodies (Genesis 3:7, 10) and try to clothe themselves with fig leaves.
Now there was nothing truly shameful about the bodies God had given them, either before or after the Fall. But after sinning they experienced brokenness and alienation: from God, from one another, and from their own selves, their own bodies. It was this brokenness and sense of alienation from their bodies which produced shame. So shame regarding the human body is the result of the first sin, not part of God's original plan!
To replace the feeble fig leaf garments of their own making, God provides garments of animal skin (vs. 21). These served multiple purposes:
Though clothing has been an almost universal norm for humanity since Eden, that does not mean the human body is "evil" or sinful. Nakedness is still the "original state" of humanity, for God created our first parents in that state and all babies are born in that same state to this day! There is nothing at all sinful about the way God made us originally, nor is the fact that we are born naked somehow bad or evil. Nudity can even be portrayed in art in an acceptable, non-pornographic manner (consider the famous nudes which Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel!).
No the body is not evil; it is good and beautiful. This is why it should not be exploited and demeaned by pornography.
No Total Corruption
The Church also tells us that the Fall did not totally corrupt our nature. While the first (original) sin did wound the body, subjecting it to sickness and death, it also wounded the soul, severing her from God, bereaving her of grace and weakening her will. So we are not good souls trapped in sinful bodies; we are fallen souls and fallen bodies, both in need of healing and Redemption.
Why then does the Book of Wisdom say that "the corruptible body is a load upon the soul, and the earthly habitation presseth down the mind" (9:15)? Because the first sin has subjected the body to disease, aging and death, and these weaknesses of the body can seem to "weigh down" the soul. But the soul is not "trapped" in the body, for the body is its proper home. At the general resurrection the body will be freed from the effects of the Fall, as we shall see.
The Word Became Flesh
Ecclesia also tells us that God assumed an actual human body (John 1:14), the same substance as our own (Hebrews 2:14), and united it directly to His Divine Nature. When Jesus died on the Cross, His human Soul separated from his Body (which is the definition of physical death), but His Deity remained united to both of them! So one could have knelt in worship before His dead Body and not have committed idolatry, for the Eternal Word remained united to that Body even though the soul had left!
Three days later, Jesus, the Eternal Word, revived His body and reunited it with His human soul. Thus He raised Himself-His Body-from the dead (John 10:18).He is now in heaven - both in Soul and Body - as He will remain forever, never laying aside the Sacred Flesh which he drew from the Virgin Mary.
The Incarnation is central to the Catholic understanding of the body. Were the human body essentially evil, the all-holy God could never have assumed it, even as Jesus never assumed original sin. Thus the Incarnation is the ultimate proof of the essential goodness of the body.
The Body and the Sacraments
Jesus assumed a human body percisely so that he could redeem our bodies. Salvation is not merely a spiritual reality, but a physical one as well. Jesus redeemed us in a physical manner-by death on the Cross-and He applies that redemption to us by physical means, namely the Sacraments.
Scripture states that Baptism saves us (I Peter 3:21). Of course, the Sacrament is not "another" savior other than Christ; it is the means by which Jesus Christ applies His saving merits to each person. Baptism is at once a physical act - the immersion of the body in water or pouring of water over the head - and a spiritual one, by which the Holy Spirit rebirths us into eternal life. The body's involvement in this Sacrament points to the physical aspect of the Redemption.
The other Sacraments involve the body as well. In Confirmation the bishop anoints ones forehead with chrism; at ordination bishops lay hands on the head of the candidate and anoint his hands with oil. In the Anointing of the Sick, both head and hands are anointed; during Matrimony the couple exchanges wedding rings. Confession involves words of absolution and gesture of pardon and blessing (the Sign of the Cross). All are physical signs, which get the body involved in the reception of sacramental grace.
In the Eucharist we receive Jesus' risen, glorified Body and Blood (along with His human Soul and Deity). His Body enters our bodies, making them part of the Body of Christ, which is the Church.
The Church as the Body of Christ
Isn't it interesting that the Church is called a "body"? Saint Paul does not say that the Church is the "Spirit of Christ", but the Body of Christ! The means of salvation in the world is a Body, a physical entity (as well as a spiritual one). This further reveals the physicality of salvation, which co-exists with the spiritual side of our salvation.
Saint Paul also calls our bodies temples of God the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16; 6:19). Not only is the human body essentially a good creature of God, but the body of a baptized person is a sacred dwelling of God Almighty! Thus Mother Church earnestly decries all abuse or exploitation of the body, such as excessive eating, drunkenness, drug abuse, prostitution, pornography, promiscuity, etc. Our bodies belong to God, are members of Christ (I Co 6:17) and temples of the Spirit, so we must glorify God in our bodies (vs 20).
Liturgy and the Body
The ancient Christian practice of signing ones body with a cross is a very physical, kinetic profession of faith in the Trinity and Redemption. It is a prayer of the body; if done in silence it proclaims belief louder than words. It is also a reminder that our bodies are sacred, consecrated to God as living temples. Think about that next time you make the Sign of the Cross!
Have you ever been to a Mass/Divine Liturgy where they used incense? At such liturgies, the priest begins by incensing the altar, gifts, tabernacle, icons, etc. Then, either he or the deacon turns to the congregation and incenses the people. Why? In the Catholic liturgy, incensing is a way to pay honor to someone/thing sacred. So after the holy objects on the altar are incensed, the People of God are honored as the Body of Christ, or rather, the Presence of Christ in His Body-in our bodies-is honored.
In the Roman Catholic funeral Mass, the priest even incenses the deceased person by walking around the casket while swinging the censer. Why does he do this? Because that now lifeless body was the temple of the Spirit and the tabernacle of our Eucharistic Lord. Thus it deserves honor!
Catholic Reverence Toward the Mortal Remains of Saints
Yes, Catholicism even honors the body after the soul is gone. This is why burying the dead is one of the "Corporal Acts of Mercy", alongside feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, etc. This also explains the Catholic reverence toward first class relics, which are the bodies (or parts thereof) of the saints. Our modern, highly-sanitized culture may find strange the idea of keeping a person's heart or arm in a reliquary for public veneration. But this centuries-old practice developed in a culture steeped in the Catholic reverence for the bodies of holy men and women. Relics are not superstition or animism; they are an affirmation of the goodness of matter and the holiness of the members of Christ's Mystical Body, a holiness which may linger in the body long after death.
The phenomenon of incorruptible saints relates to this as well. The members of the Mystical Body, who partake in the glorious Flesh and Blood of the Savior, have His very life within their bodies. This life is like a seed of immortality within them, which will grow and blossom into eternal life when He calls them from their graves on the last day. In the meantime, however, this seed of immortality may actually preserve their bodies from physical decay. Thus the bodies of many saints are either partially or totally incorrupt centuries after the departure of their souls!
The Church's respect for the human body after death explains her past negative feelings toward cremation. As we saw in the last article, the pagans who persecuted and killed the early Christians cared nothing for the body. They burned their own corpses like so much refuse and would sometimes even gather and burn the remains of Christian martyrs to show their scorn for belief in the Resurrection. Such disregard for an aspect of humanity, made in God's image, horrified the early Christians, who came to regard cremation as an act of supreme disrespect for the body. This is why Mother Church forbade her children to be cremated for so long.
(Today the Catholic Church permits it, but still insists on the reverent burial or storage of the ashes, since they are the remains of a human body. Strewing them around is considered undignified treatment of part of a human being.).
Resurrection: The Redemption of our Bodies
Yes, the corpse is still part of a human being, for someday God will raise it and reunite it with the soul. The glorified, resurrected body will no longer be subject to disease, aging and death. So it will no longer seem to weigh down the soul, but will be the perfect vehicle of the soul, capable of passing through matter, of levitation and other "soul-like" feats (thus Saint Paul calls it a "spiritual body" - I Corinthians 15:44).
Despite the ancient mockery of Greek philosophers and the modern mockery of sceptics, the Church continues to proclaim the resurrection of the body. Our bodies, which are an important part of ourselves, will not be completely destroyed in the end. As they participated with our souls in Baptism, the Sacraments and a Christian life on this earth, so they will enjoy with our souls eternal life in the new heavens and new earth.
Saint Paul called the resurrection "the redemption of the body" (Romans 8:23). It is but the completion of what Baptism began, the perfection of our entire selves, soul and body.
This view is at variance with belief in reincarnation, which is gaining wide acceptance in the West. Reincarnation teaches that the body is a mere vehicle of the soul, one of many such vehicles which the soul uses one after another. One day, according to this theory, the soul will discard its present body like all the past ones, and assume another one, and then another,over and over again until the soul gains enlightenment and no longer needs to undergo the endless, tedious cycle of death and rebirth.
In contrast, Mother Church teaches that God created a new soul specially for each body at its conception. A human being is not just a soul temporarily indwelling a body, but a soul and a body in dynamic unity. The physical aspect of our nature is just as essential to us as the spiritual.
The union between soul and body is like a marriage, literally made in heaven! There may be occasional tension and conflict between them because of the Fall, but soul and body are "made for each other" (literally); they are perfectly mated by God and dependent upon one another. Death is an unnatural state, which reduces a human being to a ghost and a corpse-neither one is a whole human being! The disembodied soul actually misses the body and longs for reunion with it. God consoles the soul in heaven until the End, when He will mysteriously reconstitute the body and joyfully reunite its glorified flesh with its waiting spirit, so that we may all stand as whole persons before the glory of our Creator forever and ever.
If reincarnation asserts that the body is dispensable, and the resurrection reveals that it is indispensable, then the two doctrines are clearly irreconcilable. If the soul passes through many bodies over millions of years, which of those will it regain at the resurrection? The first one? the last one? perhaps a favorite one? What then of all the others, which equally housed the soul at one point or another?
The reason why Christianity does not profess reincarnation is because we believe that the body really matters, just as much as the soul. We believe that that is the true dignity of being human.
So let's return to that question posed in the title: is the body evil, or, more precisely, does the Catholic Church teach that the body is evil? Well, as we have seen, Catholicism teaches that: