St. Paul's Teaching on the Sanctity and Respect of the Human Body

Author: Pope John Paul II

St. Paul's Teaching on the Sanctity and Respect of the Human Body

Pope John Paul II


After dedicating the previous week's audience to the theme of Christian unity, the Pope resumed his catechesis on the Christian concept of man at the General Audience of 28 January in the Paul VI Hall.

1. St. Paul writes in the First Letter to the Thessalonians: "...this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity, that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honour , not in the passion of lust like heathens who do not know God" (1 Th 4:3-5). After some verses, he continues: "God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you" (ibid. 4:7-8). We referred to these sentences of the Apostle during our last meeting. We take them up again today because they are especially important for the subject of our meditations.

Purity a capacity

2. The purity which Paul speaks of in First Thessalonians (4:3-5, 7-8) is manifested in the fact that man "knows how to control his own body in holiness and honour , not in the passion of lust." In this formulation every word has a particular meaning and therefore deserves an adequate comment.

In the first place, purity is a "capacity," that is, in the traditional language of anthropology and ethics, an aptitude. In this sense it is a virtue. If this ability, that is, virtue, leads to abstaining from unchastity, that happens because the man who possesses it "knows how to control his own body in holiness and honour , not in the passion of lust." It is a question here of a practical capacity which makes man capable of acting in a given way, and at the same time of not acting in the opposite way. For purity to be such a capacity or aptitude, it must obviously be rooted in the will, in the foundation of man's willing and conscious acting. In his teaching on virtues, Thomas Aquinas sees in an even more direct way the object of purity in the faculty of sensitive desire, which he calls appetitusconcupiscibilis. Precisely this faculty must be particularly mastered, subordinated and made capable of acting in a way that is in conformity with virtue, in order that purity may be attributed to man. According to this concept, purity consists in the first place in containing the impulse of sensitive desire, which has as its object what is corporeal and sexual in man. Purity is a different form of the virtue of temperance.

Requires mastering

3. The text of the First Letter to the Thessalonians (4:3-5) shows that in Paul's concept, the virtue of purity consists also in the mastery and overcoming of the passion of lust. That means that the capacity for controlling the impulses of sensitive desire, that is, the virtue of temperance, belongs necessarily to its nature. At the same time, however, this Pauline text turns our attention to another role of the virtue of purity. It could be said that this other dimension is more positive than negative. That is, the task of purity, which the author of the letter seems to stress above all, is not only (and not so much) abstention from unchastity and from what leads to it, and so abstention from the passion of lust, but, at the same time, the control of one's own body and, indirectly, also that of others, in holiness and honour , .

These two functions, abstention and control, are closely connected and dependent on each other. It is not possible to "control one's body in holiness and honour " if that abstention from unchastity and from what leads to it is lacking. Consequently it can be admitted that control of one's body (and indirectly that of others) in holiness and honour  confers adequate meaning and value on that abstention. This in itself calls for overcoming something that is in man and that arises spontaneously in him as an inclination, an attraction, and also as a value. This acts above all in the sphere of the senses, but often not without repercussions on the other dimensions of human subjectivity, and particularly on the affective-emotional dimension.

4. Considering all this, its seems that the Pauline image of the virtue of purity—an image that emerges from the very eloquent comparison of the function of abstention (that is, of temperance) with that of "control of one's body in holiness and honour "—is deeply right, complete and adequate. Perhaps we owe this completeness to nothing else than the fact that Paul considers purity not only as a capacity (that is, an aptitude) of man's subjective faculties, but at the same time, as a concrete manifestation of life according to the Spirit. In this life, human capacity is interiorly made fruitful and enriched by what Paul calls in Galatians 5:22 the "fruit of the Spirit." The honour  that arises in man for everything that is corporeal and sexual, both in himself and in any other person, male and female, is seen to be the most essential power to control the body in holiness. To understand the Pauline teaching on purity, it is necessary to penetrate fully the meaning of the term "honour ," which is obviously understood here as a power of the spiritual order. Precisely this interior power confers its full dimension on purity as a virtue, that is, as the capacity of acting in that whole field in which man discovers within himself the multiple impulses of the passion of lust and for various reasons, sometimes surrenders to them.

About the human body

5. To grasp better the thought of the author of First Thessalonians, it will be a good thing to keep in mind also another text, which we find in First Corinthians. Paul sets forth in it his great ecclesiological doctrine, according to which the Church is the Body of Christ. Paul takes the opportunity to formulate the following argumentation about the human body: "...God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose" (1 Cor 12:18). Further on he said: "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 honour able 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" (ibid. 12:22-25).

Worthy of honour

6. The specific subject of the text in question is the theology of the Church as the Body of Christ. However, in connection with this passage it can be said that Paul, by means of his great ecclesiological analogy (which recurs in other letters, and which we will take up again in due time), contributes, at the same time, to deepening the theology of the body. While in First Thessalonians he writes about control of the body in holiness and honour , in the passage now quoted from First Corinthians he wishes to show this human body as worthy of honour . It could also be said that he wishes to teach the receivers of his letter the correct concept of the human body.

Therefore, this Pauline description of the human body in First Corinthians seems to be closely connected with the recommendations of the First Letter to the Thessalonians: "...that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honour " (1 Th 4:4). This is an important thread, perhaps the essential one, of the Pauline doctrine on purity.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 February 1981, page 19

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