Ethical and anthropological content of the commandment: 
"Do not commit adultery!"

At the General Audience  in St Peter's Square on 23 April, Pope John Paul II gave the following address.

1. Let us recall the words of the Sermon on the Mount, to which we are referring in this cycle of our Wednesday reflections: "You have heard—the Lord says—that it was said: 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5:27-28).

The man, to whom Jesus refers here, is precisely "historical" man, the one whose "beginning" and "theological prehistory" we traced in the preceding series of analyses. Directly, it is the one who hears with his own ears the Sermon on the Mount. But together with him, there is also every other man, set before that moment of history, both in the immense space of the past, and in the equally vast one of the future. To this "future", confronted with the Sermon on the Mount, there belongs also our present, our contemporary age.

This man is, in a way, "every" man, "each" of us. Both the man of the past and also the man of the future can be the one who knows the positive commandment "you shall not commit adultery" as contained in the Law" (cf. Rom 2:22-23), but he can equally be the one who, according to the letter to the Romans, has this commandment only "written on his heart" (cf. Rom 2:15). (1)  In the light of the previous reflections, he is the man who from his "beginning" has acquired a precise sense of the meaning of the body, already before crossing "the threshold" of his historical experiences, in the very mystery of creation, since he emerged from it as "male and female" (Gen 1:27). He is the historical man, who, at the "beginning" of his earthly vicissitudes, found himself "inside" the knowledge of good and evil, breaking the Covenant with his Creator. He is the male-man, who  "knew" (the woman) his wife" and "knew" her several times, and "she conceived and bore" (c. Gen 4:1-2) according to the Creator's plan, which went back to the state of original innocence (cf. Gen 1:28; 2:24).

Entering into his full image

2. In his Sermon on the Mount, particularly in the words of Mt 5:27-28, Christ addresses precisely that man. He addresses the man of a given moment of history and, at the same time, all men, belonging to the same human history. He addresses, as we have already seen, the "interior" man. Christ's words have an explicit anthropological content; they concern those perennial meanings, through which an "adequate" anthropology is constituted.

These words, by means of their ethical content, simultaneously constitute such an anthropology, and demand, so to speak, that man should enter into his full image. The man who is "flesh", and who as a male remains in relationship, through his body and sex, with woman (also the expression "you shall not commit adultery" indicates this, in fact), must, in the light of these words of Christ, find himself again interiorly, in his "heart". (2) The "heart" is this dimension of humanity with which the sense of the meaning of the human body, and the order of this sense, is directly linked. It is a question, here, both of the meaning which, in preceding analyses, we called "nuptial", and of that which we denominated "generative". And of what order are we treating?

Meaning of adultery

3. This part of our considerations must give an answer precisely to this question—an answer that reaches not only the ethical reasons, but also the anthropological; they remain, in fact, in a mutual relationship. For the time being, preliminarily, it is necessary to establish the meaning of the text of Mt 5:27-28, the meaning of the expressions used in it and their mutual relationship.

Adultery, to which the aforesaid commandment refers, means a breach of the unity, by means of which man and woman only as husband and wife, can unite so closely as to be "one flesh" (Gen 2:24). Man commits adultery if he unites in this way with a woman who is not his wife. The woman likewise commits adultery if she unites in this way with a man who is not her husband. It must be deduced from this that the "adultery in the heart", committed by the man when he "looks at a woman lustfully", means a quite definite interior act. It is a question of a desire directed, in this case, by the man towards a woman who is not his wife, in order to unite with her as if she were, that is—using once more the words of Gen 2:4—in such a way that "they become one flesh". This desire, as an interior act, is expressed by means of the sense of sight, that is, with looks, as in the case of David and Bathsheba, to use an example taken from the Bible (cf. 2 Sam 11:2). (3) The connection of lust with the sense of sight has been highlighted particularly in Christ's words.

Man's interior act

4. These words do not say clearly whether the woman—the object of lust—is the wife of another or whether simply she is not the wife of the man who looks at her in this way. She may be the wife of another, or even not bound by marriage. It is necessary rather to intuit it, on the basis particularly of the expression which, precisely, defines as adultery what man has committed "in his heart" with his look. It must be correctly deduced that this lustful look, if addressed to his own wife, is not adultery "in his heart", precisely because the man's interior act refers to the woman who is his wife, with regard to whom adultery cannot take place. If the conjugal act as an exterior act, in which "they become one flesh", is lawful in the relationship of the man in question with the woman who is his wife, in like manner also the interior act in the same relationship is in conformity with morality.

Clarifying the text

5. Nevertheless, that desire, indicated by the expression "every one who looks at a woman lustfully", has a biblical and theological dimension of its own, which we cannot but clarify here.  Even if this dimension is not manifested directly in this one concrete expression of Mt 5:27-28, it is, however, deeply rooted in the global context, which refers to the revelation of the body. We must go back to this context, in order that Christ's appeal "to the heart", to the interior man, may ring out in all the fullness of its truth.

The statement of the Sermon on the Mount quoted (Mt 5:27-28) has fundamentally an indicative character. The fact that Christ directly addresses man as the one "who looks at a woman lustfully", does not mean that his words, in their ethical meaning, do not refer also to woman. Christ expresses himself in this way to illustrate with a concrete example how "the fulfilment of the Law" must be understood, according to the meaning that God the Legislator gave to it, and furthermore how that "superabounding of justice" in the man who observes the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, must be understood.

Speaking in this way, Christ wants us, not to dwell on the example in itself, but also to penetrate the full ethical and anthropological meaning of the statement. If it has an indicative character, this means that, following its traces, we can arrive at understanding the general truth about "historical" man, which is valid also for the theology of the body. The further stages of our reflections will have the purpose of bringing us closer to understanding this truth.

NOTES

1) In this way, the content of our reflections shifts, in a way, to the field of  "natural law". The words quoted from the Letter to the Romans (2:15) have always been considered, in revelation, as a source of confirmation for the existence of natural law. Thus the concept of natural law also acquires a theological meaning.

Cf. among others, D. Composta, Teologia del diritto naturale, status quaestionis, Brescia 1972 (Ed. Civilt«), pp. 7-22, 41-53; J. Fuchs S.J., Lex naturae. Zur Theologie des Naturrechts, Dòsseldorf 1955, pp. 22-30; E. Hamel S. J., Loi naturelle et loi du Christ, Bruges-Paris 1964 (Descl¾e de Brouwer) p. 18; A. Sacchi, "La legge naturale nella Bibbia" in: La legge naturale. Le relazioni del Convegno dei teologi moralisti dell'Italia settentrionale (11-13 September 1969), Bologna 1970 (Ed. Dehoniane), p. 53; F. BØckle, "La legge naturale e la legge cristiana", ibid., pp. 214-215; A. Feuillet, "Le fondement de la morale ancienne et chr¾tienne d'aprÀs l'EpÐtre aux Romains", Revue Thomiste 78 (1970) 357-386; Th. Herr, Naturrecht aus der kritischen Sicht des Neuen Testaments, Mònchen 1976 (SchØning) pp. 155-164.

2) "The typically Hebraic usage reflected in the New Testament implies an understanding of man as unity of thought, will and feeling. (...) It depicts man as a whole, viewed from his intentionality; the heart as the center of man is thought of as source of will, emotion, thoughts and affections.

This traditional Judaic conception was related by Paul to Hellenistic categories, such as "mind", "attitude", "thoughts" and "desires". Such a co-ordination between the Judaic and Hellenistic categories is found in Ph 1:7; 4:7; Rom 1:21-24, where "heart" is thought of as the center from which these things flow (R. Jewett, Paul's Anthropological Terms. A Study of their Use in Conflict Settings. Leiden 1971 [Brill], p. 448).

"Das Herz... ist die verborgene, inwendige Mitte und Wurzel des Menschen und damit seiner Welt..., der unergròndliche Grund und die lebendige Kraft aller Daseinserfahrung
und—entscheidung" (H. Schlier, Das Menschenherz nach dem Apostel Paulus, in: Lebendiges Zeugnis, 1965, p. 123).

Cf. also F. Baumgrtel—J. Behm, "Kardia", in: Theologisches WØrterbuch zum Neuen Testament, II, Stuttgart 1933, (Kohlhammer), pp. 609-616.

3) This is perhaps the best-known one; but other similar examples can be found in the Bible (cf. Gen 34:2; Judg 14:1; 16:1).

L'Osservatore Romano April 28, 1980
Reprinted with permission