The Language of the Body in the Structure of Marriage

Author: Pope John Paul II

The Language of the Body in the Structure of Marriage

Pope John Paul II


At the general audience of Wednesday, 12 January, in the Paul VI Hall, the Holy Father delivered the following address.

1. We now analyze the sacramentality of marriage under the aspect of sign.

When we say that the language of the body also enters essentially into the structure of marriage as a sacramental sign, we refer to a long biblical tradition. This has its origin in Genesis (especially 2:23-25) and it finds its definitive culmination in the Letter to the Ephesians (cf. Eph 5:21-33). The prophets of the Old Testament had an essential role in forming this tradition. Analyzing the texts of Hosea, Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah, and of the other prophets, we find ourselves face to face with the great analogy whose final expression is the proclamation of the new covenant under the form of a marriage between Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5:21-33). On the basis of this long tradition it is possible to speak of a specific "prophetism of the body," both because of the fact that we find this analogy especially in the prophets, and also in regard to its content. Here, the "prophetism of the body" signifies precisely the language of the body.

2. The analogy seems to have two levels. On the first and fundamental level the prophets present the covenant between God and Israel as a marriage. This also permits us to understand marriage itself as a covenant between husband and wife.1 In this case the covenant derives from the initiative of God, the Lord of Israel. The fact that he, as Creator and Lord, makes a covenant first of all with Abraham and then with Moses, already bears witness to a special choice. Therefore the prophets, presupposing the entire juridical-moral content of the covenant, go much deeper and reveal a dimension incomparably more profound than that of a mere "pact." In choosing Israel, God is united with his people through love and grace. He is bound with a special bond, profoundly personal. Therefore Israel, even though a people, is presented in this prophetic vision of the covenant as a spouse or wife, and therefore, in a certain sense, as a person:

"For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of Hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called....
But my steadfast love shall not depart from you
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord" (Is 54:5, 10).

3. Yahweh is the Lord of Israel, but he also becomes her Spouse. The books of the Old Testament bear witness to the absolute original character of the dominion of Yahweh over his people. To the other aspects of the dominion of Yahweh, Lord of the covenant and Father of Israel, a new aspect revealed by the prophets is added, that is to say, the stupendous dimension of this dominion, which is the spousal dimension. In this way, the absolute of dominion is the absolute of love. In regard to this absolute, the breach of the covenant signifies not only an infraction of the "pact" linked with the authority of the supreme Legislator, but also infidelity and betrayal. It is a blow which even pierces his heart as Father, as Spouse and as Lord.

4. If, in the analogy employed by the prophets, one can speak of levels, this is in a certain sense the first and fundamental level. Given that the covenant of Yahweh with Israel has the character of a spousal bond like to the conjugal pact, that first level of the analogy reveals a second which is precisely the language of the body. Here we have in mind, in the first place, the language in an objective sense. The prophets compare the covenant to marriage. They refer to the primordial sacrament spoken of in Genesis 2:24, in which the man and the woman, by free choice, become "one flesh." However, it is characteristic of the prophets' manner of expressing themselves that, presupposing the language of the body in the objective sense, they pass at the same time to its subjective meaning. That is to say, after a manner of speaking, they allow the body itself to speak. In the prophetic texts of the covenant, on the basis of the analogy of the spousal union of the married couple, the body itself "speaks." It speaks by means of its masculinity and femininity. It speaks in the mysterious language of the personal gift. It speaks ultimately—and this happens more frequently—both in the language of fidelity, that is, of love, and also in the language of conjugal infidelity, that is, of adultery.

5. It is well known that the different sins of the Chosen People—and especially their frequent infidelities in regard to the worship of the one God, that is, various forms of idolatry—offered the prophets the occasion to denounce the aforesaid sins. In a special way, Hosea was the prophet of the "adultery" of Israel. He condemned it not only in words, but also, in a certain sense, in actions of a symbolic significance: "Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry, for the land commits great harlotry by forsaking the Lord" (Hos 1:2). Hosea sets out in relief all the splendor of the covenant—of that marriage in which Yahweh manifests himself as a sensitive, affectionate Spouse disposed to forgiveness, and at the same time, exigent and severe. The adultery and the harlotry of Israel evidently contrast with the marriage bond, on which the covenant is based, as likewise, analogically, the marriage of man and woman.

6. In a similar way, Ezekiel condemned idolatry. He used the symbol of the adultery of Jerusalem (cf. Ez 16) and, in another passage, of Jerusalem and of Samaria (cf. Ez 23). "When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love.... I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine" (Ez 16:8). "But you trusted in your beauty and played the harlot because of your renown, and lavished your harlotry on any passerby" (Ez 16:15).

7. In the texts of the prophets the human body speaks a "language" which it is not the author of. Its author is man as male or female, as husband or wife—man with his everlasting vocation to the communion of persons. However, man cannot, in a certain sense, express this singular language of his personal existence and of his vocation without the body. He has already been constituted in such a way from the beginning, in such wise that the most profound words of the spirit—words of love, of giving, of fidelity—demand an adequate language of the body. Without that they cannot be fully expressed. We know from the Gospel that this refers both to marriage and also to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom.

8. The prophets, as the inspired mouthpiece of the covenant of Yahweh with Israel, seek precisely through this language of the body to express both the spousal profundity of the aforesaid covenant and all that is opposed to it. They praise fidelity and they condemn infidelity as adultery—they speak therefore according to ethical categories, setting moral good and evil in mutual opposition. The opposition between good and evil is essential for morality. The texts of the prophets have an essential significance in this sphere, as we have shown in our previous reflections. However, it seems that the language of the body according to the prophets is not merely a language of morality, a praise of fidelity and of purity, and a condemnation of adultery and of harlotry. In fact, for every language as an expression of knowledge, the categories of truth and of non-truth (that is, of falsity) are essential. In the writings of the prophets, who catch a fleeting glimpse of the analogy of the covenant of Yahweh with Israel in marriage, the body speaks the truth through fidelity and conjugal love. When it commits adultery it speaks lies; it is guilty of falsity.

9. It is not a case of substituting ethical with logical differentiations. If the texts of the prophets indicate conjugal fidelity and chastity as "truth," and adultery or harlotry, on the other hand, as "non-truth," as a falsity of the language of the body, this happens because in the first case the subject (that is, Israel as a spouse) is in accord with the spousal significance which corresponds to the human body (because of its masculinity or femininity) in the integral structure of the person. In the second case, however, the same subject contradicts and opposes this significance.

We can then say that the essential element for marriage as a sacrament is the language of the body in its aspects of truth. Precisely by means of that, the sacramental sign is constituted.


1. Cf. Prv 2:17; Mal 2:14

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 January 1983, page 3

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