Realization of the Value of the Body According to the Plan of the Creator

Author: Pope John Paul II

Realization of the Value of the Body According to the Plan of the Creator

Pope John Paul II


On Wednesday, 22 October, Pope John Paul delivered the following message to the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square for the weekly audience.

1. At the center of our reflections, at the Wednesday meetings, there has been for a long time now the following enunciation of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: "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 (towards her) in his heart" (Mt 5:27-28). These words have an essential meaning for the whole theology of the body contained in Christ's teaching. Therefore, we rightly attribute great importance to their correct understanding and interpretation. In our preceding reflection we noted that the Manichean doctrine, both in its primitive and in its later expressions, contradicts these words.

It is not possible, in fact, to see in the sentence of the Sermon on the Mount, analyzed here, a "condemnation" or an accusation of the body. If anything, one could catch a glimpse of a condemnation of the human heart. However, the reflections we have made so far show that, if the words of Matthew 5:27-28 contain an accusation, it is directed above all at the man of lust. With those words the heart is not so much accused as subjected to a judgment. Or better, it is called to a critical, in fact a self-critical, examination: whether or not it succumbs to the lust of the flesh. Penetrating into the deep meaning of Matthew 5:27-28, we must note, however, that the judgment it contains about desire, as an act of lust of the flesh, brings with it not the negation, but rather the affirmation, of the body as an element which, together with the spirit, determines man's ontological subjectivity and shares in his dignity as a person. In this way, the judgment on the lust of the flesh has a meaning essentially different from the one which the Manichaean ontology presupposes and which necessarily springs from it.

Body manifests the spirit

2. In its masculinity and femininity, the body is called "from the beginning" to become the manifestation of the spirit. It does so also by means of the conjugal union of man and woman, when they unite in such a way as to form one flesh. Elsewhere (cf. Mt 19:5-6) Christ defended the inviolable rights of this unity, by means of which the body, in its masculinity and femininity, assumes the value of a sign—in a way, a sacramental sign. Furthermore, by warning against the lust of the flesh, he expressed the same truth about the ontological dimension of the body and confirmed its ethical meaning, consistent with his teaching as a whole. This ethical meaning has nothing in common with the Manichaean condemnation. On the contrary, it is deeply penetrated by the mystery of the redemption of the body, which St. Paul will write of in Romans (cf. Rom 8:23). The redemption of the body does not indicate, however, ontological evil as a constituent attribute of the human body. It only points out man's sinfulness, as a result of which he has, among other things, lost the clear sense of the nuptial meaning of the body, in which interior mastery and the freedom of the spirit is expressed. As we have already pointed out, it is a question here of a partial, potential loss, where the sense of the nuptial meaning of the body is confused, in a way, with lust, and easily lets itself be absorbed by it.

Transformation of conscience and attitudes

3. The appropriate interpretation of Christ's words according to Matthew 5:27-28, as well as the praxis in which the authentic ethos of the Sermon on the Mount will be subsequently expressed, must be absolutely free of Manichaean elements in thought and in attitude. A Manichaean attitude would lead to an "annihilation" of the body—if not real, at least intentional—to negation of the value of human sex, of the masculinity and femininity of the human person, or at least to their mere toleration in the limits of the need delimited by the necessity of procreation. On the basis of Christ's words in the Sermon on the Mount, Christian ethos is characterized by a transformation of the conscience and attitudes of the human person, both man and woman. This is such as to express and realize the value of the body and of sex, according to the Creator's original plan, placed as they are in the service of the communion of persons, which is the deepest substratum of human ethics and culture. For the Manichaean mentality, the body and sexuality constitute an "anti-value." For Christianity, on the contrary, they always remain a value not sufficiently appreciated, as I will explain better further on. The second attitude indicates the form of ethos in which the mystery of the redemption of the body takes root in the historical soil of human sinfulness. That is expressed by the theological formula, which defines the state of historical man as status naturae lapsae simul ac redemptae (the state of fallen, but at the same time redeemed, nature).

Question of detachment

4. Christ's words in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5:27-28) must be interpreted in the light of this complex truth about man. If they contain a certain "accusation" leveled at the human heart, all the more so they appeal to it. The accusation of the moral evil which desire, born of intemperate lust of the flesh, conceals within itself, is at the same time a call to overcome this evil. If victory over evil consists in detachment from it (hence the severe words in the context of Matthew 5:27-28), it is only a question of detaching oneself from the evil of the act (in the case in question, the interior act of lust), and never of transferring the negative character of this act to its object. Such a transfer would mean a certain acceptance—perhaps not fully conscious—of the Manichaean "anti-value." It would not constitute a real and deep victory over the evil of the act, which is evil by its moral essence, and so evil of a spiritual nature. On the contrary, it would conceal the great danger of justifying the act to the detriment of the object (the essential error of Manichaean ethos consists in this). It is clear that in Matthew 5:27-28, Christ demanded detachment from the evil of lust (or of the look of disorderly desire). But his enunciation does not let it be supposed in any way that the object of that desire, that is, the woman who is looked at lustfully, is an evil. (This clarification seems to be lacking sometimes in some Wisdom texts.)

Knowing the difference

5. We must, therefore, specify the difference between the accusation and the appeal. The accusation leveled at the evil of lust is at the same time an appeal to overcome it. Consequently, this victory must be united with an effort to discover the true values of the object, in order that the Manichaean "anti-value" may not take root in man, in his conscience, and in his will. As a result of the evil of lust, that is, of the act of which Christ spoke in Matthew 5:27-28, the object to which it is addressed constitutes for the human subject a value not sufficiently appreciated. In the words of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:27-28) which have been analyzed, the human heart is accused of lust (or is warned against that lust). At the same time, by means of the words themselves, it is called to discover the full sense of what, in the act of lust, constitutes for him a value that is not sufficiently appreciated. As we know, Christ said: "Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Adultery committed in the heart can and must be understood as "devaluation," or as the impoverishment of an authentic value. It is an intentional deprivation of that dignity to which the complete value of her femininity corresponds in the person in question. Matthew 5:27-28 contains a call to discover this value and this dignity, and to reassert them. It seems that only when the semantic significance of Matthew's words is respected they are understood in this way.

To conclude these concise considerations, it is necessary to note once more that the Manichaean way of understanding and evaluating man's body and sexuality is essentially alien to the Gospel. It is not in conformity with the exact meaning of the words Christ spoke in the Sermon on the Mount. The appeal to master the lust of the flesh springs precisely from the affirmation of the personal dignity of the body and of sex, and serves only this dignity. Anyone who wants to see in these words a Manichaean perspective would be committing an essential error.

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

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