For over 15 years I’ve wrestled with one line from St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” It’s this: “The link of purity with love, and the link of the same purity in love with piety as gift of the Holy Spirit, is a little-known guiding thread of the theology of the body, but nevertheless deserves particularly deep study” (TOB Audience 57:3).

In all of the “Theology of the Body,” St. JPII mentions piety 20 times. When compared to person, which is mentioned 382 times; or spousal, which is mentioned 259 times; or even theology of the body, which is mentioned 100 times, 20 times hardly seems adequate to constitute a “particularly deep study” of this “little-known guiding thread.”

To make matters worse, St. John Paul II waits until Audience 131 (out of 133) to finally offer a formal definition: Piety, he says, is “the gift of reverence for what comes from God.” And then, as if making up for lost time, he offers three additional variations, inviting us deeper into his own understanding:

  • “the gift of reverence for God’s creation”
  • “the gift of reverence for what is sacred”
  • “reverence for the work of God”

Like spinning the wheel on a slot machine and having all four of the same images line up, we finally hit the “piety jackpot”! But these four descriptions only finally emerge in relationship to John Paul II’s reflections on conjugal chastity and marital spirituality.

Let’s take a deeper dive into this final section of the Theology of the Body to glimpse how piety, conjugal love, and conjugal spirituality work together to safeguard “the dignity proper to the conjugal act inasmuch as it expresses interpersonal union” (A128:6).

To begin, St. JPII reminds us that “the fundamental element of conjugal spirituality is the love poured out in the hearts of the spouses as a gift of the Holy Spirit (see Romans 5:5)” (A131:1). In other words, the context for living marriage is not simply emotional companionship or good sex or willing the good of the other, but Life in the Spirit. Through baptism, each spouse has been initiated into Christian discipleship and into the narrow path that leads to abundant life, a path requiring the power of the Holy Spirit to carry out.

I find that in most talks on marriage, whether to engaged couples or singles, a key element is frequently missing: marriage as a further specification of our baptismal vocation. Marriage isn’t a human invention or a social contract that is open to revision. It is a specific, narrow path where each spouse works out his or her salvation with “fear and trembling.” Or, as St. JPII describes it, marriage is where spouses work out the redemption of the body.

About mid-way through the Theology of the Body (A49:4), St. JPII identifies the redemption of the body as “the perspective of the whole gospel, of the whole teaching, even more, of the whole mission of Christ.” As you may know by now, I am passionate about this embodied view of salvation because it emphasizes not only the soul (our spiritual reality) but the body (our physical dimension) as essential to our personhood. By connecting spousal love with the Holy Spirit, St. John Paul II reminds us that marriage is not a carte blanche, permitting spouses to do whatever they want in marriage. Rather, marriage is a remedy for concupiscence.

If you were to go to the doctor’s with a pain in your side, I imagine you would want the doctor to get to the root of the problem, to find a remedy that resolves the problem rather than merely giving you an open-ended prescription for pain killers. St. JPII is after the same kind of remedy, one that resolves our woundedness arising from original sin and personal sin. Happily, marriage is Candidate #1 for this remedy.


Because marriage puts two wounded people together and unites them for life! For some people, that might be a recipe for disaster, but in Sacramental marriage, it is a recipe for redemption. In Audience 127:1, St. JPII distinguishes the powers of concupiscence from the power of (Sacramental) love by saying: “While the powers of concupiscence tend to detach the ‘language of the body’ from the truth, that is, try to falsify it, the power of love, by contrast, strengthens it ever anew in that truth, so that the mystery of the redemption of the body can bear fruit in it.” (See Blog 19 on “Rereading the Language of the Body.”)

Because of sin, we relate to the world and other people (including our spouse) with a wounded orientation in which we view things and people from a non-sacramental viewpoint. As a result, we split the spiritual from the material, the visible from the invisible, the body from the person, and sexuality from Christian discipleship.

In God’s marvelous design, marriage provides a remedy for our wounded humanity because it provides built-in opportunities for healing aimed at emotional and moral freedom.* This shared, daily life of sacrificial love requires opening oneself to the deeper and more mature sacramental values present in one’s spouse and in the conjugal act. And because marriage is indissoluble and exclusive, it constrains freedom and places healthy boundaries on our choices so as to liberate a true freedom of the gift, thus creating a safe space for revealing one’s wounded heart and for receiving the wounded heart of one’s spouse. (*See Spousal Prayer by Deacon James Keating, p. 10.)

Sadly, many young people now dismiss descriptions of marriage like this as pie-in-the sky, as shackling one’s individual freedom (like my salsa friend, Mr. Peru) and impeding spontaneous happiness. What’s missing-in-action in our secular culture is the sacramental dignity of marriage and the presence of the Holy Spirit “who purifies, enlivens, strengthens, and perfects the powers of the human spirit” (A131:3) so that a true communion of persons is built up day-by-day. (See Blog 24 on “Soul vs. Spirit” and our spirit as the capacity for personal communion.)

In Humanae Vitae, no. 25, St. Pope Paul VI beautifully expresses the sacramental dignity of marriage and the strengthening power of the Sacrament of Matrimony. He writes: “By it [the sacrament of Marriage] husband and wife are strengthened and, as it were, consecrated for the faithful accomplishment of their proper duties, for the carrying out of their proper vocation even to perfection…”

Even to perfection? Ouch! That sounds as if it could hurt, as it if would be tempting to bail on this project, as if it would be easier to separate sexuality from spirituality so that the demands of Christian discipleship would be, well, less demanding.

Yes, it would be less demanding, but it would also lead to the broad path of compromise and harming conjugal love rather than opening marital love to the deeper and more mature values of the sacramentality of the body and the link of purity with love. And so, St. JPII forges ahead on this little-known path by linking piety with continence.

The simplest synonym for continence is self-mastery. Man cannot live without self-mastery. We all know this to be true, even if we don’t want to admit it. Every normal person practices self-mastery a dozen times a day: when we drive the speed limit, when we drink two beers instead of six, when we tear ourselves away from a good book or Netflix to go to bed at a responsible time.

When we apply self-mastery/continence to the sexual sphere, we arrive at the virtue of chastity. Chastity is not only the ability to abstain from sexual relations, but also the ability to balance and integrate the various sexual impulses, desires, and emotions coursing through us. In TOB Audiences 129-130, St. JPII makes a fascinating distinction between “arousal” and “emotion.” Arousal, he says, is a bodily response. It simply “happens within us” as a reaction to the sexual value of the other.

Emotion, on the other hand, is a response caused by the “whole” person. It is a deep, emotional stirring rather than a spontaneous erotic reaction. To use the Levels of Happiness from Blog 25, we could describe “arousal” as a Level 1 Happiness response while “emotion” is a Level 3 Happiness response – emotion is a response of transcendence, it is an openness to the full value of the other so as to be drawn out of ourselves.

If we think of a teeter-totter with “arousal” on one side and “emotion” on the other, then self-mastery (continence) is the ability to balance the teeter-trotter by giving expression to both aspects without harming or damaging the other. This balancing act can be difficult, extremely difficult. But the process of struggling through and reaching this equilibrium is where perfecting one’s marital vocation occurs. This process toward equilibrium is twofold: 1) Learning how to purify, integrate, and chastely express our erotic impulses rather than repressing them; and 2) Not closing in on ourselves as a couple, but enlarging our circle of love (and life!) in a transcendent manner, both naturally and supernaturally, even in the one-flesh union.

We don’t usually think of making love as a Level 4 Happiness act, but that’s exactly what St. JPII invites us to consider. By locating the conjugal act within the context of conjugal spirituality and the redemption of the body, St. JPII reminds married couples that to encounter their spouse in the conjugal act is also to encounter the Transcendent God. In other words, the marital vocation is to “make love” within the context of the “One Who Made You Out of Love,” and this leads to a reverent eros.

This kind of holy eros reverences what is sacred (the marital act). It also reverences God’s creation (the whole person of your spouse including his or her fertility), and it reverences the work of God (the God who is Creator and the Source of Life). Living in and from reverent eros hits the piety jackpot every time!

St. John Paul II has a particularly striking paragraph in A131:4 in which he weaves together reverent eros and the married vocation. He writes, “The gift of the Holy Spirit, and in particular the gift of reverence for what is sacred [i.e., piety]…sustains and develops in the spouses a singular sensibility for all that in their vocation and shared life carries the sign of the mystery of creation and redemption: for all that is a created reflection of God’s wisdom and love.”

Did you see Level 5 Sacramental Happiness tucked into this quote? Level 5 Happiness is what we are ultimately created for – a Sacramental Happiness in which we come to know God’s wisdom and love through the created order and the redemption of the body. Piety, as reverence for God’s creation and for God’s work, is indispensable for our Sacramental Happiness, especially in the marital embrace. As I wrote in Blog 25, “…marital love and the conjugal embrace are opportunities to encounter the Living God here and now, and to mature in our sacramental embodiment…”

If this language of arousal, emotion, reverent eros, and piety is a bit foreign to you, then you are right on target. The language we more commonly encounter is drawn from Humanae Vitae, no. 11: “That teaching, often set forth by the magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act; the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.”

Does that language sound a bit more familiar? I hope it does, and at the same time, St. John Paul II invites us to “reread” the marital language of the body in a more personalistic and discipleship-oriented manner – as an expression of conjugal spirituality, our baptismal vocation, Life in the Spirit, and a true communion of persons.

St. JPII describes the relationship between the two meanings as an “inseparable unity” toward which we must express reverence and even veneration. The indispensable gift of piety he says, “seems to initiate man and woman particularly deeply into reverence for the two meanings of the conjugal act” (A131:4). The virtue of conjugal chastity, he says, “and even more so the gift of reverence for that which comes from God, shapes the spirituality of the spouses for the sake of protecting the particular dignity of this [conjugal] act…in which the truth of the ‘language of the body’ can be expressed only by safeguarding the procreative potential” (A132:2).

Falsifying the language of the body by intentionally isolating pleasure from procreation through contraception or by isolating procreation from the unitive communion of the spouses through IVF harms conjugal love. One of the most difficult concepts for people to grasp is that harming (or eliminating) one aspect of conjugal love automatically harms the other.

I think a simple example makes this clear: If I kidnap your child and harm him or her, does that harm you as a parent? Without a doubt. If I kidnap and harm you as a parent does that harm your child? Without a doubt. Why? Because there is an inseparable unity between you and your child. So, too, there is an inseparable unity between the personal communion of the spouses in the one-flesh union and the procreative potential of new life that naturally overflows from their one-flesh union. And it is the gift of piety that venerates and safeguards the unity of these two meanings.

I hope now, after this blog, piety will be a better-known guiding thread of the Theology of the Body. 😊

Phew…that was quite a workout! However, when it comes to explaining the inseparable unity between the unitive and procreative meanings of the marital embrace, we can’t just “Google it.” We are touching one of the deepest mysteries of our humanity – “the power given to the human person to participate in the [pro-creative] love of God” (A127:1) and the honorable regulation of fertility in which “the conjugal union of the body finds its humanly mature form thanks to life ‘according to the Spirit’” (A131:6).

This week I invite you to write the four descriptions of piety on a 3×5 card or type them into your phone, and then implement them daily into your routine – at work, school, and home; in your entertainment, while at Mass, and in the marital embrace (if you’re married, of course). And remember…you are a reverent gift!

© Katrina J. Zeno, MTS