Lust Limits Nuptial Meaning of the Body

Author: Pope John Paul II

Lust Limits Nuptial Meaning of the Body

Pope John Paul II


At the General Audience in St. Peter's Square, on Wednesday evening, 25 June, the Holy Father delivered the following address.

1. The analysis we made during the preceding reflection was centered on the words which God-Yahweh addressed to the first woman after original sin: "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Gn 3:16). We concluded that these words contain an adequate clarification and a deep interpretation of original shame (cf. Gn 3:7), which became part of man and of woman together with lust. The explanation of this shame is not to be sought in the body itself, in the somatic sexuality of both. It goes back to the deeper changes undergone by the human spirit. This spirit is especially aware of how insatiable it is with regard to the mutual unity between man and woman.

This awareness blames the body, so to speak, and deprives it of the simplicity and purity of the meaning connected with the original innocence of the human being. In relation to this awareness, shame is a secondary experience. If it reveals the moment of lust, at the same time it can protect from the consequences of the three forms of lust. It can even be said that man and woman, through shame, almost remain in the state of original innocence. They continually become aware of the nuptial meaning of the body and aim at preserving it from lust. Similarly, they try to maintain the value of communion, that is, of the union of persons in the unity of the body.

Better understanding

2. Genesis 2:24 speaks with discretion but also with clarity of the union of bodies in the sense of the authentic union of persons: "A man...cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh." From the context it is seen that this union comes from a choice, since the man leaves his father and mother to unite with his wife. Such a union of persons entails that they should become one flesh. Starting from this "sacramental" expression, which corresponds to the communion of persons—of the man and the woman—in their original call to conjugal union, we can understand better the specific message of Genesis 3:16: that is, we can establish and, as it were, reconstruct what the imbalance, in fact the peculiar distortion of the original interpersonal relationship of communion, to which the "sacramental" words of Genesis 2:24 refer, consists of.

Impulse to dominate

3. It can therefore be said—studying Genesis 3:16—that while on the one hand the "body," constituted in the unity of the personal subject, does not cease to stimulate the desires of personal union, precisely because of masculinity and femininity ("your desire shall be for your husband"), on the other hand and at the same time, lust directs these desires in its own way. That is confirmed by the expression, "he shall rule over you".

The lust of the flesh directs these desires, however, to satisfaction of the body, often at the cost of a real and full communion of persons. In this sense, attention should be paid to the way in which semantic accentuations are distributed in the verses of Genesis 3. Although there are few of them, they reveal interior consistency. The man seems to feel ashamed of his own body with particular intensity: "I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself" (Gn 3:10). These words emphasize the metaphysical character of shame. At the same time, for the man, shame united with lust will become an impulse to "dominate" the woman. ("he shall rule over you.")

Subsequently, the experience of this domination is manifested more directly in the woman as the insatiable desire for a different union. From the moment when the man "dominates" her, the communion of persons—made of the full spiritual union of the two subjects giving themselves to each other—is followed by a different mutual relationship. This is the relationship of possession of the other as the object of one's own desire. If this impulse prevails on the part of the man, the instincts that the woman directs to him, according to the expression of Genesis 3:16, can—and do—assume a similar character. Sometimes, perhaps, they precede the man's "desire," or even aim at arousing it and giving it impetus.

And interior dimension

4. The text of Genesis 3:16 seems to indicate the man especially as the one who "desires." This is similar to the text of Matthew 5:27-28, the starting point of these meditations. Nevertheless, both the man and the woman have become a human being subject to lust. Therefore the lot of both is shame. With its deep resonance, it touches the innermost recesses both of the male and of the female personality, even though in a different way. What we learn from Genesis 3 enables us barely to outline this duality, but even the mere references are very significant. Since it is a question of such an archaic text, it is surprisingly eloquent and acute.

Similar experiences

5. An adequate analysis of Genesis 3 leads to the conclusion that the three forms of lust, including that of the body, bring with them a limitation of the nuptial meaning of the body itself, in which man and woman participated in the state of original innocence. When we speak of the meaning of the body, we refer first to the full awareness of the human being. But we also include all actual experience of the body in its masculinity and femininity, and, in any case, the constant predisposition to this experience.

The meaning of the body is not just something conceptual. We have already drawn attention to this sufficiently in the preceding analyses. The meaning of the body is at the same time what determines the attitude—it is the way of living the body. It is a measure which the interior man, that is, that heart which Christ referred to in the Sermon on the Mount, applies to the human body with regard to his masculinity/femininity (therefore with regard to his sexuality).

That meaning does not change the reality in itself, what the human body is and does not cease to be in the sexuality that is characteristic of it, independently of the states of our conscience and our experiences. However, this purely objective significance of the body and of sex, outside the system of real and concrete interpersonal relations between man and woman, is, in a certain sense, "ahistorical." In the present analysis, on the contrary—in conformity with the biblical sources—we always take man's historicity into account (also because we start from his theological prehistory). Obviously it is a question here of an interior dimension, which eludes the external criteria of historicity, but which, however, can be considered historical. It is precisely at the basis of all the facts which constitute the history of man—also the history of sin and of salvation—and thus reveal the depth and very root of his historicity.

Linked with Sermon on the Mount

6. When, in this vast context, we speak of lust as a limitation, infraction or even distortion of the nuptial meaning of the body, we are referring above all to the preceding analyses regarding the state of original innocence, that is, the theological prehistory of man. At the same time, we have in mind the measure that historical man, with his "heart," applies to his own body in relation to male/female sexuality. This measure is not something exclusively conceptual. It determines the attitudes and decides in general the way of living the body.

Certainly, Christ refers to that in his Sermon on the Mount. We are trying here to link the words taken from Matthew 5:27-28 to the threshold of man's theological history, considering them in the context of Genesis 3. Lust as a limitation, infraction or even distortion of the nuptial meaning of the body can be ascertained in an especially clear way in our first progenitors, Adam and Eve (despite the concise nature of the biblical narrative). Thanks to them we have been able to find the nuptial meaning of the body and rediscover what it consists of as a measure of the human heart, such as to mold the original form of the communion of persons. In their personal experience (which the biblical text enables us to follow) that original form has undergone imbalance and distortion—as we have sought to prove through the analysis of shame—also the nuptial meaning of the body, which in the situation of original innocence constituted the measure of the heart of both the man and the woman, must have undergone a distortion. If we succeed in reconstructing what this distortion consists of, we shall also have the answer to our question. That is, what does lust of the flesh consist of, and what constitutes its theological and at the same time anthropological specific character? It seems that an answer theologically and anthropologically adequate—important as regards the meaning of Christ's words in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5:27-28)—can already be obtained from the context of Genesis 3 and from the whole Yahwist narrative, which previously enabled us to clarify the nuptial meaning of the human body.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 June 1980, page 1

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