Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Ugolino and His Sons, 1865–67 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Readers familiar with Paul J. Griffiths’s work know they must be prepared to encounter provocation in his new book, Christian Flesh, for Griffiths is a provocateur in the best sense, someone who intends to leave the reader uncomfortable and thereby provoke conversation. Griffiths enjoys a good scrap of the clarifying kind, and in this book I think he has invited readers of various stripes to a variety of good scraps.

The fundamental category of Griffiths’s ethical analysis is, as the title suggests, “flesh.” “Body” is reserved for inanimate material (including corpses); “flesh is living body” and “haptic,” constituted as flesh by its ability to touch other flesh and to be touched in return. Two basic categories of touch are identified: the “caress” and the “blow” (or “wound”), but “the gift of flesh is given and received, among humans, principally by caress.” “Caress” includes gestures we normally associate with the word—e.g. the “copulative caress” and other “more intimate” caresses such as lovers “kissing open-mouthed, staring into the darkness of one another’s pupils”—but also gestures called “caresses” by a kind of extension, such as the caress “given by mother to child in the womb,” the “intimate oral caress” young children offer almost everything, and even “strangling—a caress that is also a wound.”

In the “devastation” of the Fall, flesh is fragile, mortal, its very capacity to caress inextricably tied to wounding: “the concupiscent caress…wounds what it touches.” The flesh of Jesus is the great exception. As “the flesh of a divine-human person,” it is not subject to the vulnerabilities of devastated flesh except insofar as Jesus willed. Jesus’ resurrected flesh, in a transitional state, is not available for touch until it has ascended, when it is again available to “lingual and manual caress,” in the Eucharist. Jesus’ flesh is thus flesh “transfigured.” It opens the possibility for our flesh—and the caresses it gives—to be transfigured in and as his own. In baptism our flesh is “cleaved” to Jesus’ flesh.

This creates a new category of flesh, “Christian flesh.” As Griffiths explains, “Those who are Christian…are by definition so in a fleshly sense; there’s no other way they could be Christian. ‘Christian flesh,’ therefore…labels just and only those who are Christian.” Christian flesh has an intimacy with Jesus’ flesh that non-Christian flesh does not. From 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, we learn that Christian “bodies are Christ’s limbs” and Christ’s limbs should not make themselves one flesh with prostitutes. Christians are told to “abandon fornication” and “glorify God in your own body.” Thus, Griffiths writes, “Christians are glued to Jesus’ flesh, stuck on it, brought into it, made participant in it…. Their flesh’s limbs are, now, analogically and participatorily, Jesus’…. What they do with them is what he does with his.” “When Christian flesh glorifies the Lord, it acts in accord with what it is; when it does not,” as in fornication, “it speaks against what it is by what it does.” Since Christian flesh participates in the freedom of Christ’s flesh, “all things are permitted” to Christian flesh, even if not everything is “expedient” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Thus the key question is what is consistent with “Jesus-cleaved” flesh.

Baptism is the paradigm of fleshly gift, and because of that it asks nothing of those who receive it, except that they do receive it, and as fully as possible. The extent to which they receive it is the extent to which they reciprocate it, returning it with appropriate passion; and the extent to which they reciprocate it is the extent to which they do not perform fleshly actions that speak against it.

Since all things are permitted—because baptism asks nothing of those who receive it except that they do receive it—no act is malum in se, evil in itself, at least for Christian flesh: “There are no bans and no precepts and no commandments.” Scripture may seem to have bans, but these are all translatable from the imperative to the indicative: “Don’t have sex with temple prostitutes and don’t eat food offered to idols can be rendered, when thinking theologically about what they must mean, as having sex with temple prostitutes / eating food offered to idols isn’t what Christian flesh does.” Thus, “there are no universal norms binding Christian flesh…with respect to matters of the flesh.” The “preacher, the catechist, or the canon lawyer” may need more, Griffiths concedes, but moral theology should be content with realizing that “there are uses of the flesh that, for Christians, typically involve idolatrous fornication.” But that does not make any of them malum in se, including “sex between adults and children.” I hasten to add that it is clearly not Griffiths’s intention to promote or countenance such behavior. But it does leave this and other acts Griffiths mentions—such as the eating of living human flesh, buying and selling sex as a commodity, and violent pornography—in a kind of uneasy limbo, not to mention cases which go unmentioned, such as the direct killing of innocent human life and rape. Even if one does not regard these as malum in se for Christians, wouldn’t one at least want to say that such acts are never consistent with “Jesus-cleaved flesh”?


In Griffiths’s account, the “flesh” of Christ appears oddly disconnected from the very personal act of love by which the divine Word redeemed us.

After systematically applying his principle to various matters regarding dress, eating, and sex, Griffiths notes that his ultimate disagreement with “magisterial teaching” on sexual ethics is “not a contradiction” of it “but rather a dubium,” a “doubt about whether in its usual acceptation that teaching is right.” Actually, a dubium is just a technical term for a request for clarification in cases where a law or statement seems unclear. In that sense, I would like to pose some dubia to Griffiths.

First, what is the relationship between the moral theology he sketches in this book and natural law? Negative precepts of the natural law—e.g., the prohibition against direct killing of innocent human beings—are universally binding, for Christians and non-Christians alike. One benefit of natural-law theory is that it assumes a certain solidarity among humans as humans. It binds us together as aspiring moral agents, both in what we should avoid, and even more in what we can admire and encourage, across cultures and religions. Does Griffiths not believe there is a natural law? Or does he simply believe it does not apply to Christian flesh? Not to believe in natural law at all would seem a much more radical departure from Catholic moral teaching than to disagree about particular teachings. To believe in natural law while also believing it does not apply to “Christian flesh” would seem to set Christians apart from other people in a way that decreases the possibilities of solidarity. It appears to divide Christians from other human beings precisely with respect to that feature of our humanity that one might expect to be the basis of universal solidarity: our common flesh and blood.

Second, is the insistence on “flesh” as the fundamental term of moral analysis related to an underlying ambiguity in sacramental theology? Griffiths makes a point of not using “body” as his fundamental term, yet Catholic sacramental theology hinges on the “body” much more than on “flesh.” Individual Christians are not the “flesh” of Christ but members of the Body of Christ. Griffiths does not mention the one place in Scripture where “flesh” is used in this connection (Ephesians 5:31–32), perhaps because there the “one flesh” union is between Christ and the whole church, not between Christ and individual Christians. This makes a great deal of difference. In relation to the rest of the world, the church is characterized not as one kind of “flesh” among others, but as a body. Nor are the members of this body bound together by having a different kind of flesh, or by cleaving individually to Christ’s flesh; rather, they are bound together by the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, accomplished “for love of the world” (John 3:16). The church—as a body, the Body of Christ—is thus ordered toward the world in the very same love. It is, in this way, “like a sacrament—a sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all humans” (Lumen gentium, 1). Baptism does not give us a special kind of flesh but rather incorporates us into the Body of Christ and, in so doing, orders us toward love of the world in Christ.

Furthermore, the Eucharist is “body, blood, soul and divinity”; it is not ordinarily described as the “flesh” of Christ (despite John 6:51–55) because such a description would risk literalizing the sacrament. Griffiths, I think, is insufficiently attentive to this risk. It is not enough to say, as he does, that the “flesh” we are “lingually caressing” in the Eucharist is the “ascended flesh” of Christ. He does say that we encounter this ascended flesh “under the veil of bread and wine,” but that veil seems particularly thin when one can “lingually caress” what he also calls the “breadflesh and wineblood,” both highly ambiguous expressions. Griffiths does claim that John 6 is speaking of Jesus’ “ascended flesh” and not his “natal flesh” when it says that this flesh is edible, but this distinction turns out to be less firm than it seems, for Griffiths later claims that Dante’s Ugolino is damned not for eating his children’s dead bodies, but for not eating their living flesh when it was offered: “For Ugolino to weep, to call his children by name, and to eat their living flesh freely offered, would have been to enter into a eucharistic economy, an economy participant in that constituted by the natal flesh of Jesus, freely offered.” But Jesus did not saw his natal fingers off and offer them as food to his disciples. The Eucharist is not a sacramental version of cannibalism. Here one can see the connection between Griffiths’s unwillingness to say there is anything malum in se (such as eating living human flesh) and his alarming tendency to literalize sacramental language.

A third and final dubium: Is the ambiguity in Griffiths’s sacramental theology related to an underlying ambiguity in Christology? Although he writes that Jesus is a “single person with more than one nature,” and the incarnation is “of the Word, the second Person of the Trinity,” he also describes Jesus as “a double-natured person, a divine-human person.” This is, at the very least, an unnecessarily confusing formulation, as is the claim that Jesus’ flesh is “the human flesh of a divine-human person.” Why not just say it’s the human flesh belonging to a divine person? That would be clearer, more precise, and much more in keeping with the canonical formulation: “He who was crucified in the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, is true God, Lord of glory, and one of the Holy Trinity” (Constantinople II, CCC 468). Or again, when Griffiths writes that Jesus’ flesh “is human flesh proper to a person who is both human and the LORD, both Jesus of Nazareth, born to Mary, and the Christ, the Messiah who is the son of the living [G]od,” he needlessly suggests two sons—one Mary’s, the other God’s. These ambiguities obscure the mystery that Christ, for our sakes, lowered himself to become sin, persisting in that solidarity through a death he made his own, even though death properly belongs only to the sinful.

In Griffiths’s account, the “flesh” of Christ appears oddly disconnected from the very personal act of love by which the divine Word redeemed us. The Incarnation seems to lose its sacramental character of mediating the self-emptying act of the Word to all flesh through the flesh that is unambiguously his. Is all flesh really beloved by God? Or is Christianity just another sect, with a new elite kind of flesh that belongs, unambiguously, to no one except the sectaries, who enjoy a kind of liberty that no one else can claim? Is human flesh as human flesh thereby degraded? Is there not a tinge of Gnosticism to this theology? These are the questions raised for me by Christian Flesh. This book has prompted me to ponder the issues it raises more deeply, for which I have its provocative author to thank.

John Cavadini is professor of theology and director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

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Published in the June 1, 2019 issue: View Contents
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