Ethical and Anthropological Content of the Commandment: You Shall Not Commit Adultery

Author: Pope John Paul II

The Ethical and Anthropological Content of the Commandment: "You Shall Not Commit Adultery"

Pope John Paul II


At the General Audience in St. Peter's Square on 23 April, Pope John Paul II gave the following address.

1. Let us recall the words of the Sermon on the Mount, to which we are referring in this cycle of our Wednesday reflections. "You have heard — the Lord says — that it was said: 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5:27-28).

The man to whom Jesus refers here is precisely "historical" man, the one whose "beginning" and "theological prehistory" we traced in the preceding series of analyses. Directly, it is the one who hears with his own ears the Sermon on the Mount. But together with him, there is also every other man, set before that moment of history, both in the immense space of the past, and in the equally vast one of the future. To this "future," confronted with the Sermon on the Mount, our present, our contemporary age also belongs.

This man is, in a way, "every" man, each of us. Both the man of the past and also the man of the future can be the one who knows the positive commandment, "You shall not commit adultery" as "contained in the Law" (cf. Rom 2:22-23). But he can equally be the one who, according to the Letter to the Romans, has this commandment only "written on his heart" (cf. Rom 2:15).(1) In the light of the previous reflections, he is the man who from his beginning has acquired a precise sense of the meaning of the body. He has acquired it even before crossing the threshold of his historical experiences, in the mystery of creation, since he emerged from it as "male and female" (cf. Gn 1:27). He is the historical man, who, at the beginning of his earthly vicissitudes, found himself "inside" the knowledge of good and evil, breaking the covenant with his Creator. He is the man who knew (the woman), his wife, and knew her several times. She "conceived and bore" (cf. Gn 4:1-2) according to the Creator's plan, which went back to the state of original innocence (cf. Gn 1:28; 2:24).

Entering into his full image

2. In his Sermon on the Mount, especially in the words of Matthew 5:27-28, Christ addresses precisely that man. He addresses the man of a given moment of history and, at the same time, all men belonging to the same human history. As we have already seen, he addresses the "interior" man. Christ's words have an explicit anthropological content. They concern those perennial meanings through which an "adequate" anthropology is constituted.

By means of their ethical content, these words simultaneously constitute such an anthropology. They demand that man should enter into his full image. The man who is "flesh," as a male remains in relationship with woman through his body and sex. (The expression "You shall not commit adultery" indicates this.) In the light of these words of Christ, this man must find himself again interiorly, in his heart.(2) The heart is this dimension of humanity with which the sense of the meaning of the human body, and the order of this sense, is directly linked. Here it is a question both of the meaning which, in the preceding analyses, we called nuptial, and of that which we called generative. What order are we treating of?

Meaning of adultery

3. This part of our considerations must give an answer precisely to this question—an answer that reaches not only the ethical reasons, but also the anthropological; they remain, in fact, in a mutual relationship. For the time being, as a preliminary it is necessary to establish the meaning of Matthew 5:27-28, the meaning of the expressions used in it and their mutual relationship.

Adultery, to which the aforesaid commandment refers, means a breach of the unity by means of which man and woman, only as husband and wife, can unite so closely as to be "one flesh" (Gn 2:24). Man commits adultery if he unites in this way with a woman who is not his wife. The woman likewise commits adultery if she unites in this way with a man who is not her husband. It must be deduced from this that the "adultery in the heart," committed by the man when he "looks at a woman lustfully," means a quite definite interior act. It concerns a desire directed, in this case, by the man toward a woman who is not his wife, in order to unite with her as if she were, that is — using once more the words of Genesis 2:24 — in such a way that "they become one flesh." This desire, as an interior act, is expressed by means of the sense of sight, that is, with looks. This was the case of David and Bathsheba, to use an example taken from the Bible (cf. 2 Sm 11:2).(3) The connection of lust with the sense of sight has been highlighted especially in Christ's words.

Man's interior act

4. These words do not say clearly whether the woman—the object of lust—is the wife of another or whether simply she is not the wife of the man who looks at her in this way. She may be the wife of another, or even not bound by marriage. Rather, it is necessary to intuit it, especially on the basis of the expression which precisely defines as adultery what man has committed in his heart with his look. It must be correctly deduced that this lustful look, if addressed to his own wife, is not adultery "in his heart." This is precisely because the man's interior act refers to the woman who is his wife, with regard to whom adultery cannot take place. The conjugal act as an exterior act, in which "they become one flesh," is lawful in the relationship of the man in question with the woman who is his wife. In like manner, the interior act in the same relationship is in conformity with morality.

Clarifying the text

5. Nevertheless, that desire, indicated by the expression "everyone who looks at a woman lustfully," has a biblical and theological dimension of its own, which we must clarify here. Even if this dimension is not manifested directly in this one concrete expression of Matthew 5:27-28, it is deeply rooted in the global context, which refers to the revelation of the body. We must go back to this context, so that Christ's appeal to the heart, to the interior man, may ring out in all the fullness of its truth.

This statement of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:27-28) fundamentally has an indicative character. The fact that Christ directly addresses man as the one "who looks at a woman lustfully," does not mean that his words, in their ethical meaning, do not refer also to woman. Christ expresses himself in this way to illustrate with a concrete example how the fulfillment of the law must be understood, according to the meaning that God the legislator gave to it. Furthermore, it is to show how that "superabounding of justice" in the man who observes the sixth commandment of the Decalogue must be understood.

Speaking in this way, Christ wants us not to dwell on the example in itself, but to penetrate the full ethical and anthropological meaning of the statement. If it has an indicative character, this means that, following its traces, we can arrive at understanding the general truth about historical man. This is valid also for the theology of the body. The further stages of our reflections will have the purpose of bringing us closer to understanding this truth.


1) In this way, the content of our reflections shifts, in a way, to the field of natural law. The words quoted from the Letter to the Romans (2:15) have always been considered, in revelation, as a source of confirmation for the existence of natural law. Thus the concept of natural law also acquires a theological meaning.
Cf. among others, D. Composta, Teologia del diritto naturale, status quaestionis (Brescia: Ed. Civilta, 1972), pp. 7-22, 41-53; J. Fuchs, S.J., Lex naturae. Zur Theologie des Naturrechts (Dusseldorf: 1955), pp. 22-30; E. Hamel, S.J., Loi naturelle et loi du Christ (Bruges-Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1964), p. 18; A. Sacchi, "La legge naturale nella Bibbia," La legge naturale. Le relazioni del Convegno dei teologi moralisti dell'Italia settentrionale, September 11-13, 1969 (Bologna: Ed. Dehoniane, 1970), p. 53; F. Böckle, "La legge naturale e la legge cristiana," ibid., pp. 214-215; A. Feuillet, "Le fondement de la morale ancienne et chrétienne d'apres l'Epitre aux Romains," Revue Thomiste 78 (1970), pp. 357-386; Th. Herr, Naturrecht aus der kritischen Sicht des Neuen Testaments (München: Schönig, 1976), pp. 155-164.

2) "The typically Hebraic usage reflected in the New Testament implies an understanding of man as unity of thought, will and feeling.... It depicts man as a whole, viewed from his intentionality; the heart as the center of man is thought of as source of will, emotion, thoughts and affections.
This traditional Judaic conception was related by Paul to Hellenistic categories, such as "mind", "attitude", "thoughts" and "desires". Such a coordination between the Judaic and Hellenistic categories is found in Phil 1:7, 4:7; Rom 1:21-24, where "heart" is thought of as the center from which these things flow (R. Jewett, Paul's Anthropological Terms, A Study of Their Use in Conflict Settings [Leiden: Brill, 1971], p. 448).
"Das die verborgene, inwendige Mitte und Wurzel des Menschen und damit seiner Welt...der unergründliche Grund und die lebendige Kraft aller Daseinserfahrung und—entscheidung" (H. Schlier, "Das Menschenherz nach dem Apostel Paulus," Lebendiges Zeugnis, 1965, p. 123).
Cf. also F. Baumgärtel and J. Behm, "Kardia," Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, II [Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1933], pp. 609-616.

3) This is perhaps the best-known one, but other similar examples can be found in the Bible (cf. Gn 34:2; Jgs 14:1, 16:1).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
date, page

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069