Fullness of Interpersonal Communication

During the General Audience in the Paul VI Hall on 19 December, the Holy Father gave the following address.

1. What is shame and how can we explain its absence in the state of original innocence, in the very depth of the mystery of the creation of man as male and female? From contemporary analyses of shame—and in particular sexual modesty—we can deduce the complexity of this fundamental experience, in which man expresses himself as a person according to his own specific structure. In the experience of shame, the human being experiences fear with regard to his "second self" (as, for example, woman before man), and this is substantially fear for his own "self". With shame, the human being manifests almost "instinctively" the need of affirmation and acceptance of this "self", according to its rightful value. He experiences it at the same time both within himself, and externally, before the "other". It can therefore be said that shame is a complex experience also in the sense that, almost keeping one human being away from the other (woman from man), it seeks at the same time to draw them closer personally, creating a suitable basis and level in order to do so.

For the same reason, it has a fundamental significance as regards the formation of ethos in human society, and in particular in the man-woman relationship. The analysis of shame clearly indicates how deeply it is rooted precisely in mutual relations, how exactly it expresses the essential rules for the "communion of persons", and likewise how deeply it touches the dimension of man's original "solitude". The appearance of "shame" in the subsequent biblical narration of Chapter 3 of Genesis has a pluri-dimensional significance, and it will be opportune to resume the analysis of it in due time.

What does its original absence mean, on the other hand, in Genesis 2:25: "They were both naked and were not ashamed''?

Misleading analogies

2. It is necessary to establish, in the first place, that it is a question of a real non-presence of shame, and not a lack of underdevelopment of it. We cannot in any way sustain here a "primitivization" of its meaning. Therefore the text of Genesis 2:25 does not only exclude decisively the possibility of thinking of a "lack of shame" or immodesty, but even more excludes the possibility of explaining it by means of analogy with some positive human experiences, such as for example those of childhood or of the life of so?called primitive peoples. These analogies are not only insufficient, but they can even be misleading. The words of Genesis 2:25 "they were not ashamed", do not express a lack, but, on the contrary, serve to indicate a particular fullness of consciousness and experience, above all fullness of understanding of the meaning of the body, bound up with the fact that "they were naked".

That this is how the text quoted is to be understood and interpreted, is testified by the continuation of the Yahwist narrative, in which the appearance of shame, and in particular of sexual modesty, is connected with the loss of that original fullness. Taking, therefore, the experience of shame as a "borderline" experience, we must ask ourselves to what fullness of consciousness and experience, and in particular to what fullness of understanding of the meaning of the body, the meaning of original nakedness, of which Genesis 2:25 speaks, corresponds.

Fullness of consciousness

3. To answer this question, it is necessary to keep in mind the analytical process carried out so far, which has its basis in the Yahwist passage as a whole. In this contest, man's original solitude is manifested as "non-identification" of his own humanity with the world of living beings (animalia) that surround him.

This "non-identification", following upon the creation of man as male and female, makes way for the happy discovery of one's own humanity "with the help" of the other human being; thus the man recognizes and finds again his own humanity "with the help" of the woman (Gen 2:25). At the same time, this act of theirs realizes a perception of the world, which is carried out directly through the body ("flesh of my flesh"). It is the direct and visible source of the experience that arrives at establishing their unity in humanity. It is not  difficult to understand, therefore, that nakedness corresponds to that fullness of consciousness of the meaning of the body, deriving from the typical perception of the senses.

One can think of this fullness in categories of truth of being or of reality, and it can be said that man and woman were originally given to each other precisely according to this truth, since "they were naked". In the analysis of the meaning of original nakedness, this dimension absolutely cannot be disregarded. This participating in perception of the world—in its "exterior" aspect—is a direct and almost spontaneous fact, prior to any "critical" complication of knowledge and of human experience and is seen as closely connected with the experience of the meaning of the human body. The original innocence of "knowledge" could already be perceived in this way.

Meaning of communication

4. However, it is not possible to determine the meaning of original nakedness considering only man's participation in exterior perception of the world; it is not possible to establish it without going down into the depths of man. Genesis 2:25 introduces us specifically to this level and wants us to seek there the original innocence of knowing. In fact, it is with the dimension of human interiority that it is necessary to explain and measure that particular fullness of interpersonal communication, thanks to which man and woman "were naked and were not ashamed".

The concept of "communication", in our conventional language, has been practically alienated from its deepest, original semantic matrix. It is connected mainly with the sphere of the media, that is, for the most part, products that serve for understanding, exchange, and bringing closer together. It can be supposed, on the other hand, that, in its original and deeper meaning, "communication" was and is directly connected with subjects, who "communicate" precisely on the basis of "common union" that exists between them, both to reach and to express a reality that is peculiar and pertinent only to the sphere of person- subjects.

In this way, the human body acquires a completely new meaning, which cannot be placed on the plane of the remaining "external" perception of the world. It expresses, in fact, the person in his ontological and existential concreteness, which is something more than the "individual", and therefore expresses the personal human "self", which derives its "exterior" perception from within.

Man's vision of God

5. The whole biblical narrative, and in particular the Yahwist text, shows that the body through its own visibility manifests man and, manifesting him, acts as intermediary, that is, enables man and woman, right from the beginning, "to communicate" with each other according to that communio personarum willed by the Creator precisely for them. Only this dimension, it seems, enables us to understand in the right way the meaning of original nakedness. In this connection, any "naturalistic" criterion is bound to fail, while, on the contrary, the "personalistic" criterion can be of great help. Genesis 2:25 certainly speaks of something extraordinary, which is outside the limits of the shame known through human experience and which at the same time decides the particular fullness of interpersonal communication, rooted at the very heart of that communio, which is thus revealed and developed. In this connection, the words "they were not ashamed" can mean (in sensu obliquo) only an original depth in affirming what is inherent in the person, what is "visibly" female and male, through which the "personal intimacy" of mutual communication in all its radical simplicity and purity is constituted. To this fullness of "exterior" perception, expressed by means of physical nakedness, there corresponds the "interior" fullness of man's vision in God, that is, according to the measure of the "image of God" (cf. Gen 1:17). According to this measure, man "is" really naked ("they were naked": Gen 2:25) (l), even before realizing it (cf. Gen 3:7-10).

We shall still have to complete the analysis of this important text during the meditations that follow.


1) God, according to the words of Holy Scripture, penetrates the creature, who is completely "naked" before him: "And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open (p«nta gymn«) and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do" (Heb 4:13). This characteristic belongs in particular to Divine Wisdom: "Wisdom... because of her pureness pervades and penetrates all things. (Wis 7:24).

L'Osservatore Romano December 24, 1979
Reprinted with permission