Gospel Values and Duties of the Human Heart

Author: Pope John Paul II

Gospel Values and Duties of the Human Heart

Pope John Paul II


On Wednesday, 15 October, the Holy Father delivered the following message to the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square for the weekly audience.

1. During our Wednesday meetings, we have analyzed in detail the words of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Christ referred to the human heart. As we now know, his words are exacting. Christ said: "You have heard 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). This reference to the heart throws light on the dimension of human interiority, the dimension of the inner man, characteristic of ethics, and even more of the theology of the body. Desire rises in the sphere of the lust of the flesh. It is at the same time an interior and theological reality, which is experienced, in a way, by every "historical" man. And it is precisely this man—even if he does not know the words of Christ—who continually asks himself the question about his own heart. Christ's words make this question especially explicit: is the heart accused, or is it called to good? Toward the end of our reflections and analyses we now intend to consider this question, connected with the sentence of the Gospel, so concise and yet categorical at the same time, so pregnant with theological, anthropological, and ethical content.

A second question goes hand in hand with it, a more practical one: how can and must he act, the man who accepts Christ's words in the Sermon on the Mount, the man who accepts the ethos of the Gospel, and, in particular, accepts it in this field?

Ethos of human practice

2. This man finds in the considerations made up to now the answer, at least an indirect one, to two questions. How can he act, that is, on what can he rely in his inner self, at the source of his interior or exterior acts? Furthermore, how should he act, that is, in what way do the values known according to the scale revealed in the Sermon on the Mount constitute a duty of his will and his heart, of his desires and his choices? In what way are they binding on him in action and behavior, if, accepted by means of knowledge, they already commit him in thinking and, in a certain way, in feeling? These questions are significant for human praxis, and indicate an organic connection of praxis itself with those. Lived morality is always the ethos of human practice.

Moral sensitivity

3. It is possible to answer the aforesaid questions in various ways. In fact, various answers are given, both in the past and today. This is confirmed by an ample literature. In addition to the answers we find in it, it is necessary to consider the infinite number of answers that concrete man gives to these questions by himself, the ones that his conscience, his awareness and moral sensitivity give repeatedly, in the life of everyone. In this sphere an interpenetration of ethos and praxis is carried out. Here the individual principles live their own life (not exclusively "theoretical"). This not only concerns the norms of morality with their motivations which are worked out and made known by moralists. It also concerns the ones worked out—certainly not without a link with the work of moralists and scientists—by individual men, as authors and direct subjects of real morality, as co-authors of its history. On this the level of morality itself also depends, its progress or its decadence. All this reconfirms, everywhere and always, that historical man to whom Christ once spoke. He proclaimed the good news of the Gospel with the Sermon on the Mount, where he said among other things: "You have heard 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).

Need for further analyses

4. Matthew's enunciation is stupendously concise in comparison with everything that has been written on this subject in secular literature. Perhaps its power in the history of ethos consists precisely in this. At the same time it must be realized that the history of ethos flows in a multiform bed, in which the individual currents draw nearer to, or move further away from, one another in turn. Historical man always evaluates his own heart in his own way, just as he also judges his own body. So he passes from the pole of pessimism to the pole of optimism, from puritan severity to modern permissiveness. It is necessary to realize this, in order that the ethos of the Sermon on the Mount may always have due transparency with regard to human actions and behavior. For this purpose it is necessary to make some more analyses.

Words misunderstood

5. Our reflections on the meaning of the words of Christ according to Matthew 5:27-28 would not be complete if they did not dwell—at least briefly—on what can be called the echo of these words in the history of human thought and of the evaluation of ethos.The echo is always a transformation of the voice and of the words that the voice expresses. We know from experience that this transformation is sometimes full of mysterious fascination. In the case in question, the opposite happened. Christ's words have been stripped of their simplicity and depth. A meaning has been conferred far removed from the one expressed in them, a meaning that even contradicts them. We have in mind here all that happened outside Christianity under the name of Manichaeism,(1) and that also tried to enter the ground of Christianity as regards theology itself and the ethosof the body. Manichaeism arose in the East outside the biblical environment and sprang from Mazdeistic dualism. It is well known that, in its original form, Manichaeism saw the source of evil in matter, in the body, and therefore condemned everything that is corporeal in man. Since corporeity is manifested in man mainly through sex, the condemnation was extended to marriage and to conjugal life, as well as to other spheres of being and acting in which corporeity is expressed.

Affirmation of the body

6. To an unaccustomed ear, the evident severity of that system might seem in harmony with the severe words of Matthew 5:29-30, in which Christ spoke of "plucking out one's eye" or "cutting off one's hand," if these members were the cause of scandal. Through the purely material interpretation of these expressions, it was also possible to obtain a Manichaean view of Christ's enunciation, in which he spoke of a man who has "committed adultery in his heart...by looking at a woman lustfully." In this case, too, the Manichaean interpretation aims at condemning the body, as the real source of evil, since the ontological principle of evil, according to Manichaeism, is concealed and at the same time manifested in it. The attempt was made, therefore, to see this condemnation in the Gospel, and sometimes it was perceived, where actually only a particular requirement addressed to the human spirit had been expressed.

Note that the condemnation might—and may always be—a loophole to avoid the requirements set in the Gospel by him who "knew what was in man" (Jn 2:25). History has no lack of proofs. We have already partially had the opportunity (and we will certainly have it again) to show to what extent such a requirement may arise solely from an affirmation—and not from a denial or a condemnation—if it has to lead to an affirmation that is even more mature and deep, objectively and subjectively. The words of Christ according to Matthew 5:27-28 must lead to such an affirmation of the femininity and masculinity of the human being, as the personal dimension of "being a body." This is the right ethical meaning of these words. They impress on the pages of the Gospel a peculiar dimension of ethos in order to impress it subsequently on human life.

We will try to take up this subject again in our further reflections.


1) Manichaeism contains and brings to maturation the characteristic elements of all gnosis, that is, the dualism of two coeternal and radically opposed principles and the concept of a salvation which is realized only through knowledge (gnosis) or self-understanding. In the whole Manichaean myth there is only one hero and only one situation which is always repeated: the fallen soul is imprisoned in matter and is liberated by knowledge.
The present historical situation is negative for man, because it is a provisional and abnormal mixture of spirit and matter, good and evil, which presupposes a prior, original state, in which the two substances were separate and independent. There are, therefore, three "Times": initium, or the original separation; the medium, that is, the present mixture; and the finis, which consists in return to the original division, in salvation, implying a complete break between Spirit and Matter.
Matter is, fundamentally, concupiscence, an evil instinct for pleasure, the instinct of death, comparable, if not identical, with sexual desire, libido. It is a force that tries to attack Light; it is disorderly movement, bestial, brutal and semiconscious desire.
Adam and Eve were begotten by two demons; our species was born from a series of repelling acts of cannibalism and sexuality and keeps signs of this diabolical origin, which are the body, which is the animal form of the "Archons of hell" and libido, which drives man to copulate and reproduce himself, that is, to keep his luminous soul always in prison.
If he wants to be saved, man must try to liberate his "living self" (nous) from the flesh and from the body. Since Matter has its supreme expression in concupiscence, the capital sin lies in sexual union (fornication), which is brutality and bestiality, and makes men instruments and accomplices of Evil for procreation.
The elect constitute the group of the perfect, whose virtue has an ascetic characteristic, practicing the abstinence commanded by the three "seals": the "seal of the mouth" forbids all blasphemy and also commands fasting, and abstention from meat, blood, wine and all alcoholic drinks; the "seal of the hands" commands respect of the life (the "Light") enclosed in bodies, in seeds, in trees, and forbids the gathering of fruit, the tearing up of plants, the taking of the life of men and of animals; the "seal of the womb" prescribes total continence. Cf. H. Ch. Puech: Le Manicheisme; son fondateur—sa doctrine (Paris: Musée Guimet, LVI, 1949), pp. 73-88; H. Ch. Puech, Le Manichéisme, "Histoire des Religions," Encyclopédie de la Pleiade II (Gallimard: 1972), pp. 522-645; J. Ties, "Manichéisme," Catholicisme hier, aujourd'hui, demain, Vol. 34 (Lille: Letouzey-Ané, 1977), pp. 314-320).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 October 1980, page 7

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