Sacredness of the Human Body and Marriage

Author: Pope John Paul II

Sacredness of Human Body and Marriage

Pope John Paul II


The general audience of 1 September was held as usual in St Peter's Square despite the inclement weather. The following is the text of the Holy Father's address.

1. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians, proclaiming the analogy between the spousal bond which unites Christ and the Church, and that which unites the husband and wife in marriage, writes as follows: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph 5:25-27).

2. It is significant that the image of the Church in splendor is presented in the text quoted as a bride all beautiful in her body. Certainly this is a metaphor. But it is very eloquent, and it shows how deeply important the body is in the analogy of spousal love. The Church in splendor is "without spot or wrinkle." "Spot" can be understood as a sign of ugliness, and "wrinkle" as a sign of old age or senility. In the metaphorical sense, both terms indicate moral defects, sin. It may be added that in St. Paul the "old man" signifies sinful man (cf. Rom 6:6). Therefore Christ with his redemptive and spousal love ensures that the Church not only becomes sinless, but remains "eternally young."

3. The scope of the metaphor is, as may be seen, quite vast. The expressions which refer directly and immediately to the human body, characterizing it in the reciprocal relationships between husband and wife, indicate at the same time attributes and qualities of the moral, spiritual and supernatural order. This is essential for such an analogy. Therefore the author of the letter can define the state of the Church in splendor in relation to the state of the body of the bride, free from signs of ugliness or old age ("or any such thing"), simply as holiness and absence of sin. Such is the Church "holy and without blemish." It is obvious then what kind of beauty of the bride is in question, in what sense the Church is the Body of Christ, and in what sense that Body-Bride welcomes the gift of the Bridegroom who "has loved the Church and has given himself for her." Nevertheless it is significant that St. Paul explains all this reality, which is essentially spiritual and supernatural, by means of the resemblance of the body and of the love whereby husband and wife become "one flesh."

4. In the entire passage of the text cited, the principle of bi-subjectivity is clearly preserved: Christ-Church, Bridegroom-Bride (husband-wife). The author presents the love of Christ for the Church—that love which makes the Church the Body of Christ of which he is the head—as the model of the love of the spouses and as the model of the marriage of the bridegroom and the bride. Love obliges the bridegroom-husband to be solicitous for the welfare of the bride-wife. It commits him to desire her beauty and at the same time to appreciate this beauty and to care for it. Here it is a case of visible beauty, of physical beauty. The bridegroom examines his bride with attention as though in a creative, loving anxiety to find everything that is good and beautiful in her and which he desires for her. That good which he who loves creates, through his love, in the one that is loved, is like a test of that same love and its measure. Giving himself in the most disinterested way, he who loves does so only within the limits of this measure and of this control.

5. When the author of the Letter to the Ephesians—in the succeeding verses of the text (5:28-29)—turns his mind exclusively to the spouses themselves, the analogy of the relationship of Christ to the Church is still more profound and impels him to express himself thus: "Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies" (Eph 5:28). Here the motive of "one flesh" returns again. In the above-mentioned phrase and in the subsequent phrases it is not only taken up again, but also clarified. If husbands should love their wives as their own bodies, this means that uni-subjectivity is based on bi-subjectivity and does not have a real character but only an intentional one. The wife's body is not the husband's own body, but it must be loved like his own body. It is therefore a question of unity, not in the ontological sense, but in the moral sense: unity through love.

6. "He who loves his wife loves himself" (Eph 5:28). This phrase confirms that character of unity still more. In a certain sense, love makes the "I" of the other person his own "I": the "I" of the wife, I would say, becomes through love the "I" of the husband. The body is the expression of that "I" and the foundation of its identity. The union of husband and wife in love is expressed also by means of the body.

It is expressed in the reciprocal relationship, even though the author of the letter indicates it especially from the part of the husband. This results from the structure of the total image. The spouses should be "subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (this was already made evident in the first verses of the text quoted: Eph 5:21-23). However, later on, the husband is above all, he who loves and the wife, on the other hand, is she who is loved. One could even hazard the idea that the wife's submission to her husband, understood in the context of the entire passage of the Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33), signifies above all the "experiencing of love." This is all the more so since this submission is related to the image of the submission of the Church to Christ, which certainly consists in experiencing his love. The Church, as bride, being the object of the redemptive love of Christ-Bridegroom, becomes his Body. Being the object of the spousal love of the husband, the wife becomes "one flesh" with him, in a certain sense, his own flesh. The author will repeat this idea once again in the last phrase of the passage analyzed here: "However, let each one of you love his wife as himself" (Eph 5:33).

7. This is a moral unity, conditioned and constituted by love. Love not only unites the two subjects, but allows them to be mutually interpenetrated, spiritually belonging to one another to such a degree that the author of the letter can affirm: "He who loves his wife loves himself" (Eph 5:28). The "I" becomes in a certain sense the "you" and the "you" the "I" (in a moral sense, that is). Therefore the continuation of the text analyzed by us reads as follows: "For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body" (Eph 5:29-30). The phrase, which initially still referred to the relationships of the married couple, returns successively in an explicit manner to the relationship Christ-Church. So, in the light of that relationship, it leads us to define the sense of the entire phrase. After explaining the character of the relationship of the husband to his own wife by forming "one flesh," the author wishes to reinforce still more his previous statement ("He who loves his wife loves himself"). In a certain sense, he wishes to maintain it by the negation and exclusion of the opposite possibility ("No man ever hates his own flesh"—Eph 5:29). In the union through love the body of the other becomes one's own in the sense that one cares for the welfare of the other's body as he does for his own. It may be said that the above-mentioned words, characterizing the "carnal" love which should unite the spouses, express the most general and at the same time, the most essential content. They seem to speak of this love above all in the language of agape.

8. The expression according to which man "nourishes and cherishes his own flesh"—that is, that the husband "nourishes and cherishes" the flesh of his wife as his own—seems rather to indicate the solicitude of the parents, the protective relationship, instead of the conjugal tenderness. The motivation of this character should be sought in the fact that the author here passes distinctly from the relationship which unites the spouses to the relationship between Christ and the Church. The expressions which refer to the care of the body, and in the first place to its nourishment, to its sustenance, suggest to many Scripture scholars a reference to the Eucharist with which Christ in his spousal love nourishes the Church. These expressions, even though in a minor key, indicate the specific character of conjugal love, especially of that love whereby the spouses become "one flesh." At the same time they help us to understand, at least in a general way, the dignity of the body and the moral imperative to care for its good, for that good which corresponds to its dignity. The comparison with the Church as the Body of Christ, the Body of his redemptive and at the same time spousal love, should leave in the minds of those to whom the Letter to the Ephesians was destined a profound sense of the "sacredness" of the human body in general, and especially in marriage, as the "situation" in which this sense of the sacred determines in an especially profound way, the reciprocal relationships of the persons and, above all, those of the man with the woman, inasmuch as she is wife and mother of their children.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 September 1982, page 3

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