St. Paul's Description of the Body and Teaching on Purity

Author: Pope John Paul II

St. Paul's Description of the Body and Teaching on Purity

Pope John Paul II


During the course of the 4 February weekly audience, held as usual in the Paul VI Hall, the Pope continued his catechesis on the theology of the human body, delivering the following address.

1. In our last considerations last Wednesday on purity according to the teaching of St. Paul, we called attention to the text of the First Letter to the Corinthians. In it the Apostle presents the Church as the Body of Christ. That offers him the opportunity to reason as follows about the human body: "...God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose.... On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honourable we invest with the greater honour, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another" (1 Cor 12:18, 22-25).

Man "is" that body

2. The Pauline description of the human body corresponds to the reality which constitutes it, so it is a realistic description. At the same time, a very fine thread of evaluation is intermingled with the realism of this description, conferring on it a deeply evangelical, Christian value. Certainly, it is possible to describe the human body, to express its truth with the objectivity characteristic of the natural sciences. But such a description—with all its precision—cannot be adequate (that is, commensurable with its object). It is not just a question of the body (intended as an organism, in the somatic sense) but of man, who expresses himself through that body and in this sense is, I would say, that body. So that thread of evaluation, seeing that it is a question of man as a person, is indispensable in describing the human body. Furthermore, it is necessary to say how right this evaluation is. This is one of the tasks and one of the perennial themes of the whole of culture: of literature, sculpture, painting, and also of dancing, of theatrical works, and finally of the culture of everyday life, private or social. This is a subject that would be worth dealing with separately.

Not "scientific"

3. The Pauline description in First Corinthians 12:18-25 certainly does not have a scientific meaning. It does not present a biological study on the human organism or on human somatics. From this point of view it is a simple pre-scientific description, a concise one made up of barely a few sentences. It has all the characteristics of common realism and is unquestionably sufficiently realistic. However, what determines its specific character, what especially justifies its presence in Holy Scripture, is precisely that evaluation intermingled with the description expressed in its narrative-realistic tissue. It can be said with certainty that this description would not be possible without the whole truth of creation and also without the whole truth of the redemption of the body, which Paul professes and proclaims. It can also be affirmed that the Pauline description of the body corresponds precisely to the spiritual attitude of respect for the human body, due because of the holiness (cf. 1 Th 4:3-5, 7-8) which springs from the mysteries of creation and redemption. The Pauline description is equally far from Manichaean contempt for the body and from the various manifestations of a naturalistic cult of the body.

Echo of innocence

4. The author of the First Letter to the Corinthians 12:18-25 has before his eyes the human body in all its truth, and so the body permeated in the first place (if it can be expressed in this way) by the whole reality of the person and of his dignity. At the same time, it is the body of historical man, male and female, that is, of that man who, after sin, was conceived, so to speak, within and by the reality of the man who had had the experience of original innocence. In Paul's expressions about the unpresentable parts of the human body, as also about the ones which seem to be weaker or the ones which we think less honourable, we seem to find again the testimony of the same shame that the first human beings, male and female, had experienced after original sin. This shame was imprinted on them and on all the generations of historical man as the fruit of the three forms of lust (with particular reference to the lust of the flesh). And at the same time there is imprinted on this shame—as has already been highlighted in the preceding analyses—a certain "echo" of man's original innocence itself: a "negative," as it were, of the image whose "positive" had been precisely original innocence.

Respect springs from shame

5. The Pauline description of the human body seems to confirm perfectly our previous analyses. There are, in the human body, "unpresentable parts," not because of their somatic nature (since a scientific and physiological description deals with all the parts and organs of the human body in a neutral way, with the same objectivity), but only and exclusively because there exists in man himself that shame which perceives some parts of the body as unpresentable and causes them to be considered such. At the same time, that shame seems to be at the basis of what the Apostle writes in the First Letter to the Corinthians: "Those parts of the body which we think less honourable we invest with the greater honour, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty" (1 Cor 12:23). Hence it can be said that from shame springs respect for one's own body, respect which Paul, in First Thessalonians (4:4), urges us to keep. This control of the body in holiness and honour is considered essential for the virtue of purity.

Interior harmony

6. Returning again to the Pauline description of the body in First Corinthians 12:18-25, we wish to draw attention to the following fact. According to Paul, that particular effort which aims at respecting the human body, and especially its weaker or unpresentable parts, corresponds to the Creator's original plan, that is, to that vision which Genesis speaks of, "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gn 1:31). Paul writes: "God has so composed the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior parts, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another" (1 Cor 12:24-25). As a result of discord in the body, some parts are considered weaker, less honourable, and so unpresentable. This discord is a further expression of the vision of man's interior state after original sin, that is, of historical man. The man of original innocence, male and female, did not even feel that discord in the body. In Genesis 2:25 we read that they "were naked, and were not ashamed." The Creator endowed the body with an objective harmony, which Paul specifies as mutual care of the members for one another (cf. 1 Cor 12:25). This harmony corresponded to a similar harmony within man, the harmony of the heart. This harmony, that is precisely purity of heart, enabled man and woman in the state of original innocence to experience simply (and in a way that originally made them both happy) the uniting power of their bodies, which was, so to speak, the unsuspected substratum of their personal union or communio personarum.

In holiness and honour

7. As can be seen in the First Letter to the Corinthians 12:18-25, the Apostle links his description of the human body with the state of historical man. At the threshold of this man's history there is the experience of shame connected with "discord in the body," with the sense of modesty regarding that body (especially those parts of it that somatically determine masculinity and femininity). However, in the same description, Paul also indicates the way which (precisely on the basis of the sense of shame) leads to the transformation of this state to the point of gradual victory over that discord in the body. This victory can and must take place in man's heart. This is the way to purity, that is, "to control one's own body in holiness and honour." Paul connects First Corinthians 12:18-25 with the honour which First Thessalonians 4:3-5 deals with. He uses some equivalent expressions when he speaks of honour, that is, esteem for the less honourable, weaker parts of the body, and when he recommends greater modesty with regard to what is considered unpresentable in man. These expressions more precisely characterize that honour, especially in the sphere of human relations and behavior with regard to the body. This is important both as regards one's own body, and of course also in mutual relations (especially between man and woman, although not limited to them).

We have no doubt that the description of the human body in First Corinthians has a fundamental meaning for the Pauline doctrine on purity as a whole.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 February 1981, page 7

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