Opposition in the Human Heart between the Spirit and the Body

Author: Pope John Paul II

Opposition in the Human Heart between the Spirit and the Body

Pope John Paul II


During the General Audience in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday evening, 30 July, the Holy Father delivered the following message.

1. The reflections we are developing in the present cycle refer to the words which Christ uttered in the Sermon on the Mount on man's lust for woman. In the attempt to proceed with a thorough examination of what characterizes the man of lust, we went back again to Genesis. Here, the situation that came into being in the mutual relationship of man and woman is portrayed with great delicacy. The single sentences of Genesis 3 are very eloquent. In Genesis 3:16 God-Yahweh addressed the woman: "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." Upon a careful analysis, these words seem to reveal in what way the relationship of mutual giving, which existed between them in the state of original innocence, changed after original sin to a relationship of mutual appropriation.

If man in his relationship with woman considers her only as an object to gain possession of and not as a gift, he condemns himself thereby to become also for her only an object of appropriation, and not a gift. It seems that the words of Genesis 3:16 deal with this bilateral relationship, although the only thing they say directly is: "He shall rule over you." Furthermore, in unilateral appropriation (which indirectly is bilateral) the structure of communion between persons disappears. Both human beings become almost incapable of attaining the interior measure of the heart, directed to the freedom of the giving of oneself and the nuptial meaning of the body, which is intrinsic to it. Genesis 3:16 seems to suggest that it is often at the expense of the woman that this happens, and that in any case she feels it more than man.

2. It is worth turning our attention now to this detail at least. It is possible to perceive a certain parallelism between the words of God-Yahweh according to Genesis 3:16, "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you," and those of Christ according to Matthew 5:27-28, "Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully...." Perhaps it is not a question here of the fact that the woman especially becomes the object of man's lust, but rather that—as we have already stressed previously—"from the beginning" man was to have been the guardian of the reciprocity of donation and its true balance.

The analysis of that "beginning" (cf. Gn 2:23-25) shows precisely man's responsibility in accepting femininity as a gift and in borrowing it in a mutual, bilateral exchange. To take from woman her own gift by means of concupiscence is in open contrast with that. The maintenance of the balance of the gift seems to have been entrusted to both. But a special responsibility rests with man above all, as if it depended more on him whether the balance is maintained or broken or even—if already broken—re-established.

Certainly, the diversity of roles according to these statements, to which we are referring here as to key-texts, was also dictated by the social emargination of woman in the conditions of that time. (The Sacred Scripture of the Old and the New Testament gives us sufficient proofs of this.) Nevertheless, it contains a truth, which has its weight independently of specific conditionings due to the customs of that given historical situation.

3. As a consequence of lust, the body becomes almost a "ground" of appropriation of the other person. As is easy to understand, that entails the loss of the nuptial meaning of the body. Together with that, the mutual belonging of persons—who, uniting so as to "become one flesh" (Gn 2:24), are called at the same time to belong to each other—acquires another meaning. The particular dimension of the personal union of man and woman through love is expressed in the word "my." This pronoun, which has always belonged to the language of human love, often recurs in the verses of the Song of Songs and in other biblical texts.(1) In its "material" meaning, this pronoun denotes a relationship of possession. But in our case it indicates the personal analogy of this relationship.

The mutual belonging of man and woman, especially when they belong to each other as spouses "in the unity of the body," is formed according to this personal analogy. As is well known, an analogy indicates at the same time a similarity and also the lack of identity (namely, a substantial dissimilarity). We can speak of persons belonging to each other only if we consider such an analogy. In its original and specific meaning, belonging presupposes the relationship of the subject to the object, a relationship of possession and ownership. This relationship is not only objective, but above all "material"—the belonging of something, and therefore of an object to someone.

4. In the eternal language of human love, the term "my" certainly does not have this meaning. It indicates the reciprocity of the donation. It expresses the equal balance of the gift—perhaps precisely this, in the first place—namely, that in which the mutual communio personarum is established. If this is established by the mutual gift of masculinity and femininity, the nuptial meaning of the body is also preserved in it.

In the language of love, the word "my" seems a radical negation of belonging in the sense in which an object-thing belongs to the subject-person. The analogy preserves its functions until it falls into the meaning set forth above. Triple lust, and in particular the lust of the flesh, takes away from the mutual belonging of man and woman the specific dimension of the personal analogy, in which the term "my" preserves its essential meaning. This essential meaning lies outside the "law of ownership," outside the meaning of "object of possession." On the contrary, concupiscence is directed toward the latter meaning.

From possessing, a further step goes toward "enjoyment." The object I possess acquires a certain meaning for me since it is at my disposal and I avail myself of it, I use it. It is evident that the personal analogy of belonging is decidedly opposed to this meaning. This opposition is a sign that what "comes from the Father" in the mutual relationship of man and woman, still persists and continues in confrontation with what comes "from the world." However, concupiscence in itself drives man toward possession of the other as an object. It drives him to enjoyment, which brings with it the negation of the nuptial meaning of the body. In its essence, disinterested giving is excluded from selfish enjoyment. Do not the words of God-Yahweh addressed to woman in Genesis 3:16 already speak of this?

5. According to the first letter of John (2:16), lust bears witness in the first place to the state of the human spirit. It will be opportune to devote a further analysis to this problem. We can apply Johannine theology to the field of the experiences described in Genesis 3, as well as to the words Christ spoke in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:27-28). We find a concrete dimension of that opposition which—together with sin—was born in the human heart between the spirit and the body.

Its consequences are felt in the mutual relationship of persons, whose unity in humanity is determined right from the beginning by the fact that they are man and woman. "Another law at war with the law of my mind" (Rom 7:23) has been installed in man. So almost a constant danger exists of this way of seeing, evaluating, and loving, so that "the desire of the body" is more powerful than "the desire of the mind." We must always keep in mind this truth about man, this anthropological element, if we wish to understand completely the appeal Christ made to the human heart in the Sermon on the Mount.


1) Cf., for example, Song of Songs, 1:9, 13, 14, 15, 16; 2:2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 16, 17; 3:2, 4, 5; 4:1, 10; 5:1, 2, 4; 6:2, 3, 4, 9; 7:11; 8:12, 14.
Cf. also, for example, Ez 16:8; Hos 2:18; Tb 8:7.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 August 1980, page 1

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