This is the eighth article in a series outlining St. John Paul II’s thought on human embodiment and sexuality. You can read the seventh installment here.
In his consideration of the redemption of the body St. John Paul again takes the words of Christ from the Gospel of Matthew as his point of departure: ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you: Whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Mt. 5:27). Though the words of Christ here reported are serious and severe, and might even appear as an accusatory rebuke, as well as a negative evaluation of the body and sexuality, St. John Paul II rather reads in them a resounding call to rise above sexual sinfulness and realise the proper greatness of sexual love. While the words initially represent simply a confirmation of the commandment, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ they also forcefully represent a clear appeal to the human person to fulfil the commandment against adultery not only superficially but also in the innermost depth of the heart. Christ points us into the interior depth because it is ultimately in the heart that human behaviour is determined and from the heart—as the source of desires both good and ill—that all human actions flow. (See Theology of the Body, 38:1-3) Ultimately, it is in the heart that is found ‘the redemption of the body’ (Rom. 8:23).
In this way, Christ shifts the problem from the exterior of the person, and the mere exterior ‘keeping’ of the law, into the interior of the person and to the proper fulfilment of the law. Christ wants us to lead us beyond the mediocrity of superficial goodness to seek a full and mature purity of heart—to ‘be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt. 5:48). The human person wounded by sin often hears this call to perfection with great difficulty, and is tempted to hear in the words of Christ only a reproach. Perhaps, in our spiritual apathy, we would like to think a full and mature interior purity is something impossible. It is after all, a high bar to reach. Yet, Christ would certainly not command the impossible; and nor would he leave us powerless before the realisation of that which He commands. Therefore, the appeal of Christ for interior purity is not only eminently possible but also entirely realistic. And, furthermore, it is an appeal that is both beneficial and generous: beneficial, since it is a call to the human person to realise the whole truth of his being; and generous, since the power to accomplish such purity of heart is given by Christ himself. Christ can call us to purity with seriousness because He has made possible the impossible.
But how do we access this power of Christ? and thereby realise the redemption of the body?
First, the problem must be properly diagnosed: ‘To look so as to desire’ is an expression of concupiscence. The look is at ‘the threshold of the interior’ of the human person and expresses what is in the interior. (See ToB, 39:3-5) In a lustful look the meaning of the body ceases to be personal and ceases to be spousal. The body is either ‘detached’ from the person, so that the gaze is partial, attending only to the body, or, the person is reduced to the body and sexuality, and thereby disproportionately identified with the body. In both of these ways, the focus of the look becomes the body and sexuality, whereas the personal beauty and dignity of the one beheld in the look is left obscured. St. John Paul calls this limited looking an ‘intentional reduction.’ (See ToB, 40:1-41-1. With an ‘Intentional reduction’ also comes an ‘axiological reduction’ — a devaluation of the other — and an ‘existential reduction’ — a living out of the intentional and axiological reductions) It is a narrowing of the horizon of the gaze, whereby the one who looks sees less than what the other truly and objectively is. It is a look that places a disproportionate emphasis on the body and sexuality at the cost of the person. In this way, concupiscence enters the inner structure of the look and the meaning and goodness of the body and sexuality is obscured and deformed for the one who looks. To the degree the concupiscent look takes root in the mind and in the will of the looker, concupiscence comes to dominate the heart as the innermost centre of human life and action. Practically speaking, a concrete person thereby becomes, in and through the sexual value of the body, an object of satisfaction for a concrete person’s disordered desiring. The human person is flattened, so to speak, from a three-dimensional personal subject to a two-dimensional sexual object.
Therefore, the exhortation of Christ to flee adultery not only in action but also in intention is one possessing great weight. Christ first confirms the profound unity of body and soul in the structure of the human person, and with it the deep meaningfulness of the body and sexuality. He further commands us to see all that stands before us, and not enter upon a path of reducing the other to their body and sexuality. As such, Christ forthrightly addresses the problem of disordered sexual desire, and with adequate seriousness—hence, the apparently ‘severe’ words. Yet, in doing so Christ does not cast a shadow of suspicion over sexuality and sexual desire. The look of desire that Christ identifies should not be equated with the ‘perennial attraction’ of the sexes. (See ToB, 41:5, 46:5, 48:2) Indeed, a suspicious attitude with regard to sexual desire whereby it is negatively assessed and evaluated will not lead to a conformity of sexual desire with the true good but rather to its further isolation and deformity. Rather, while clearly identifying the lustful look arising from disordered desire, Christ simultaneously affirms the possibility of the realisation of a loving look founded upon the perennial attraction of the sexes. Lustful desire is a constricted and obscured form of sexual attraction, whereas true passion is an expanded and clarified form of sexual attraction. It is a passion that is set at the service of personal love, one that has the whole person of the beloved as its object and that contains an affirmation of the person of the beloved. It is a personal passion wherein the affirmation of all that is sexual becomes part of an affirmation of all that is personal.
Yet, for this expansion and clarification of desire to become a reality in human experience, a new ethos of the body is needed whereby the spousal meaning of the body again becomes an integral part of human experience. As a rational and free creature the human person has a capacity for truth and goodness, and, conversely, for its negation in falsity and evil; yet, the false and evil does not truly please. The human person is not satisfied with the illusion of love, but seeks to touch the true reality of love, revealing that the human person is through and through an ethical creature. Therefore, the human person must take up the ethical task of rediscovering the true goodness of the body according to its spousal meaning. Yet, since the full meaning of the body is experienced most vividly in the sphere of the erotic, the ethical task assigned to the human person must be realised most fully in this sphere. That which is erotic in human experience must be pervaded by that which is ethical so that sexual desire takes its proper shape in the encounter with the person of the other. Put otherwise, the erotic impulse for the beauty of the sexually differentiated body must be permeated through and through with the ethical impulse for the truly good, so that the ethical becomes ‘the constitutive form’ of the erotic. (ToB, 48:1) Importantly, St. John Paul says, ‘if one does not assume this task… one does not experience the fullness of “eros,”’ which fullness is found in what he calls ‘erotic spontaneity… a full and mature spontaneity in relationships that are born from the perennial attraction of masculinity and femininity.’ (ToB, 48:1-2)
Such ‘erotic spontaneity’ is won only with time, and only as ‘the gradual fruit of discernment of the impulses of one’s own heart.’ (ToB, 48:2) It demands of the human person an interior awareness of the desires of the heart so that they can be clearly identified and evaluated for their coherence with what is truly good. Employing a helpful image, St. John Paul says we must be like a watchman who watches over the hidden spring of the heart and gradually come to a mature identification and evaluation of the desires that flow forth. Having thus identified and evaluated the heart’s desires in the light of what is truly good, the human person can then draw only from those interior wellsprings that are oriented toward the realisation of the truly good. Importantly, this discernment isn’t a cold and clinical calculation of desire that stands aloof from the experience of the body and sexuality, but rather is related to a deep-rooted spontaneity in rediscovering the true spiritual beauty of all that is bodily and sexual. Christ’s call on the Mount of Beatitudes is a call that traces its path directly towards such erotic spontaneity, and is realised only in the redemption of the body. Concupiscence—deprived of choice and ruled only by the compulsion of disordered desire—knows nothing of such a rich erotic spontaneity.
Therefore, in the end, Christ’s ‘severe’ words are not at all negative and harsh, but rather are designed to liberate the human person from the constraint of his wounded nature towards the honourable and noble desires and aspirations of the heart, and toward the deep personal joy in all that is bodily and sexual. He calls the human person to progressively build ‘with consciousness and consistency the personal sense of the spousal meaning of the body’—of his own body, and, importantly, of the body of his beloved. (ToB, 48:3) This maturity in awareness of the meaning of the body comes only through the interior transparency of purity of heart. Purity is that quality of the human heart that enables the individual person to readily, and with constancy and joy, respond to and uphold the dignity of the embodied person. In and through such purity the human person keeps the body and sexuality ‘with holiness and reverence.’ (ToB, 53:4) Purity is both a virtue and a gift: as a virtue it is a habit of self-mastery acquired with patience and perseverance, and not without difficulty and many upsets; as a gift it is ‘an expression and fruit of life “according to the Spirit”‘ (Rom. 8:5). (ToB, 56:1) In the sexual sphere, purity is seen most fully in the practice of the virtue of chastity, defined by St. John Paul as ‘living in the order of the heart,’ and with it comes the bounty of divine wisdom. (ToB, 131:1. See also ToB, 57:4-6) By thus living life according to the Spirit, the redemption of the body is won for the human individual and the human couple. It is to this form of life that Christ calls us with all the seriousness of the loving God.
In the next number of articles, we will focus upon the way St. John Paul applies the now developed theology of the body to the question of the sacramentality of marriage and consecrated celibacy.