Meaning of adultery transferred from the body to the heart

Continuing his catechetical series devoted to the theme of adultery, the Holy  Father delivered the following address at the weekly audience in St Peter's Square.

1. In the Sermon on the Mount Christ limited himself to recalling the commandment: "You shall not commit adultery", without evaluating the relative behaviour of his listeners. What we previously said concerning this theme comes from other sources, especially from Christ's discussion with the Pharisees, in which he hearkened back to the "beginning" (cf. Mt 19:8; Mk 10:6). In the Sermon on the Mount Christ omitted such evaluation, or rather, he implied it. What he will say in the second part of the statement, which begins with the words: "But I say to you...", will be something more than the dispute with the "doctors of the Law" or with the moralists of the Torah. And it will also be something more with respect to the evaluation of the Old Testament ethos. It will be a direct transition to the new ethos. Christ seems to leave aside the whole dispute about the ethical significance of adultery on the plane of legislation and casuistry—in which the essential interpersonal relationship between husband and wife was considerably darkened by the objective relationship of property—and it acquires another dimension. Christ says: "But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5:28; when reading this passage there always comes to mind the ancient translation: "he has already made her an adulteress in his heart", a version that perhaps better than the present text expresses the fact that here it deals with a purely interior and unilateral act). Thus, therefore, "adultery committed in the heart" is in a certain sense counterposed with "adultery committed in the body". We should question ourselves on the reason why the point of gravity of sin is shifted, and further ask ourselves what is the authentic significance of the analogy. If in fact "adultery", according to its fundamental meaning, can be only a "sin committed in the body", in what sense does what man commits in his heart deserve to be also called adultery? The words with which Christ poses the foundation of the new ethos demand for their part a thorough grounding in anthropology. Before satisfying these queries, let us pause for a while on the expression that, according to Matthew 5:27-28, in a certain way effects the transfer or rather the shifting of the significance of adultery of the "body" to the "heart". These are words which concern desire.

Requires special analysis

2. Christ speaks of concupiscence: "Whoever looks lustfully". This expression requires a special analysis in order to understand the statement in its entirety. It is necessary here to go back to the preceding analysis that aims, I would say, at reconstructing the image of "the lustful man" dating back to the beginning of history (cf. Gen 3). The man Christ is speaking about in the Sermon on the Mount—the man who "looks lustfully"—is without doubt the concupiscent man. For this very reason, because it is part of bodily concupiscence, he "desires"  and "looks lustfully". The figure of the concupiscent man, reconstructed in the preceding aspect, will aid us now in interpreting "desire" about which Christ speaks according to Matthew 5:27-28. This concerns here not only a psychological interpretation, but at the same time a theological interpretation. Christ speaks in the context of human experience and simultaneously in the context of the work of salvation. These two contexts in a certain way are superimposed upon and pervade one another: and that has an essential and elemental significance for the entire ethos of the Gospel, and in particular for the content of the word "lust" or "looking lustfully".

Relevant in every time and place

3. Using such expressions, the Master first refers to the experience of those who are his direct listeners, then he also refers to the experience and conscience of the man of every time and place. In fact, although evangelical language may have a universal communicativeness, yet for a direct listener, whose conscience was formed on the Bible, "lust" must be linked with numerous precepts and warnings, present in the first place in the Wisdom Books, which contain repeated admonitions about concupiscence of the body and also advice as to how to preserve oneself from it.

4. As we know, Wisdom tradition had an especial interest for the ethics and morality of the Israelite society. What strikes us immediately in these admonitions and advice, appearing for example in the Book of Proverbs (1) and Sirach (2) or even Ecclesiastes (3), is a certain onesidedness they have in that the admonitions are above all directed to men. This can mean that for them they are particularly necessary. As far as woman is concerned, it is true that in these warnings and advices she appears most frequently as an occasion of sin or as a downright seducer of whom to beware. Yet one must recognise that both the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Sirach, besides the warning to beware of woman and the seduction of her charm which lead man to sin (cf. Prov 5:1-6; 6:24-29; Sir 26:9-12), also praise woman who is the "perfect life companion of her own husband (cf. Prov 31-10 ff.), and likewise praise the beauty and graciousness of a good wife who is able to make her husband happy.

"A modest wife adds charm to charm, / and no balance can weigh the value of a chaste soul. / Like the sun rising in the heights of the Lord, / so is the beauty of a good wife in her well-ordered home. / Like the shining lamp on the holy lampstand, / so is a beautiful face on a stately figure. / Like pillars of gold on a base of silver, / so are beautiful feet with a steadfast heart... / A wife's charm delights her husband, / and her skill puts fat on his bones". (Sir 26:15-18; 13).

Warning against temptation

5. In Wisdom tradition a frequent admonition is in contrast with the above praise of the woman-wife: it is the one that refers to the beauty and graciousness of the woman who is not one's own wife and is the cause of temptation and occasion for adultery: "Do not desire her beauty in your heart..." (Prov 6:25). In Sirach (cf. 9:8-9) the same warning is expressed in a more peremptory manner: "Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman, / and do not look intently at beauty belonging to another; / Many have been misled by a woman's beauty, / and by it passion is kindled like a fire" (Sir 9:8-9).

The sense of the Wisdom texts has a prevalent pedagogical significance. They teach virtue and seek to protect the moral order, going back to God's law and to widely understood experience. Moreover, they are distinguished for their special knowledge of the human "heart". We can say that they develop a specific moral psychology, yet without falling into psychologism. In a certain sense, they are close to that call of Christ's to the "heart" that Matthew has handed down to us (cf. 5:27-28), even though it cannot be affirmed that they reveal any tendency to change ethos in a fundamental way. The authors of these Books use the conscience of human inner life to teach morals somewhat in the sphere of ethos historically in action, and substantially confirmed by them. Sometimes one of them, as for example Ecclesiastes, synthesizes this confirmation with its own "philosophy" of human existence, which however, if it has an influence on the method with which warnings and advices are formulated, does not change the fundamental structure of ethical evaluation.

"Wisdom" a tradition of preparation

6. For such transformation it is necessary to wait until the Sermon on the Mount. Nonetheless, this very sagacious knowledge of human psychology present in "wisdom" tradition was certainly not without significance for the circle of personal and immediate hearers of this sermon. If by virtue of the prophetic tradition these listeners were in a certain sense prepared for understanding in an adequate way the concept of "adultery", likewise by virtue of "wisdom" tradition they were prepared to understand the words that referred to the "lustful look" or alternatively to "adultery committed in the heart".

It will be well for us to come back again to analysis of concupiscence in the Sermon on the Mount.


1) Cf., e.g., Prov 5:3-6, 15-20; 6:24-7: 27; 21:9, 19; 22:14; 30:20.

2) Cf. e.g., Sir 7:19, 24-26; 9:1-9; 23:22-27; 25:13-26, 18; 36:21-25; 42:6,

3)  Cf. e.g., Eccles 7:26-28; 9:9.

L'Osservatore Romano September 8, 1980
Reprinted with permission