Concupiscence as a separation from matrimonial significance of the body

The following is the Holy Father's address to about thirty thousand faithful assembled for the weekly audience in St Peter's Square.

1. Let us reflect on the following words of Jesus, taken from the Sermon on the Mount: "Every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" ("has already made her an adulteress in his heart") (Mt 5:28). Christ said this sentence before listeners who, on the basis of the books of the Old Testament, were in a certain sense prepared to understand the significance of the look that comes from concupiscence. Last Wednesday we made reference to the texts taken from the so-called Wisdom Books.

Here is, for example, another passage in which the biblical author analyzes the state of the soul of the man dominated by concupiscence of the flesh: "...the soul heated like a burning fire / will not be quenched until it is consumed; / a man who commits fornication... / will never cease until the fire burns him up; / to a fornicator all bread tastes sweet, / he will never cease until he dies. / A man who breaks his marriage vows / says to himself: 'Who sees me? / Darkness surrounds me, and the walls hide me; / no one sees me. Why should I fear? / The Most High will not take notice of my sins.' / His fear is confined to the eyes of men; / he does not realize that the eyes of the Lord / are ten thousand times brighter than the sun; / they look upon all the ways of men, / and perceive even the hidden places. / So it is with a woman who leaves her husband, / and provides an heir by a stranger". (Sir 23:17-22).

2. Analogous descriptions are not lacking in world literature (1). Certainly, many of them are distinguished by a more penetrating discernment of psychological analysis and a more intense significance and expressive force. Yet, the biblical description from Sirach (23:17-22) includes some elements maintained to be "classic" in the analysis of carnal concupiscence. One element of this kind, for example, is comparison between concupiscence of the flesh and fire: this, flaring up in man, invades his senses, excites his body, involves his feelings and in a certain sense takes possession of his "heart". Such passion, originating in carnal concupiscence, suffocates in his "heart" the most profound voice of conscience, the sense of responsibility before God; and in fact that is particularly placed in evidence in the biblical text just now quoted. On the other hand, external modesty with respect to men does persist... or rather an appearance of decency, which shows itself as fear of the consequences rather than of the evil in itself. In suffocating the voice of conscience, passion carries with itself a restlessness of the body and the senses: it is the restlessness of the "external man". When the internal man has been reduced to silence, then passion, once it has been given freedom of action, so to speak, exhibits itself as an insistent tendency to satisfy the senses and the body.

This gratification, according to the criterion of the man dominated by passion, should put out the fire; but on the contrary, it does not reach the source of internal peace and only touches the outermost level of the human individual. And here the biblical author rightly observes that man, whose will is committed to satisfying the senses, finds neither peace nor himself, but, on the contrary, "is consumed''. Passion aims at satisfaction; therefore it blunts reflective activity and pays no attention to the voice of conscience; thus, without itself having any principle of indestructibility, it "wears out". The dynamism of usage is natural for its continuity, but it tends to exhaust itself. It is true that where passion enters into the whole of the most profound energies of the spirit, it can also become a creative force, in which case, however, it must undergo a radical transformation. If instead it suppresses the deepest forces of the heart and conscience (as occurs in the text of Sirach 23:17-22), it "wears out" and indirectly, man, who is its prey, is consumed.

3. When Christ in the Sermon on the Mount speaks of the man who "lusts", who "looks lustfully", it can be presumed that he had before his eyes also the images known to his listeners from the "wisdom" tradition. Yet, at the same time he refers to every man who on the basis of his own internal experience knows the meaning of "lust", "looking at lustfully". The Master does not analyze this experience nor does he describe it, as had for example Sirach (23:17-22); he seems to presuppose, I would say, an adequate knowledge of that interior fact, to which he calls the attention of his listeners, present and potential. Is it possible that some of them do not know what it is all about? If they really know nothing about it, the content of Christ's words would not apply to him, nor would any analysis or description be capable of explaining it to him. If instead he knows—this in fact in such case deals with a knowledge completely internal, intrinsic to the heart and the conscience—he will immediately understand when the quoted words refer to him.

4. Christ, therefore, does not describe or analyze what constitutes the experience of "lust", the experience of concupiscence of the flesh. One has even the impression that he does not penetrate this experience in all the breadth of its interior dynamism, as occurs, for example, in the text quoted from Sirach, but rather he pauses on its threshold. "Lust" has not yet been changed into an exterior action, it has still not become the "act of the body"; it is till now the interior act of the heart: it expresses itself in a look, in the way of "looking at the woman". Nevertheless, it already lets itself be understood, it reveals its content and its essential quality. It is now necessary for us to make this analysis. A look expresses what is in the heart. A look expresses, I would say, the man within. If in general it is maintained that man "acts according to his lights" (operari sequitur esse), Christ in this case wants to bring out that the man "looks" in conformity with what he is: intueri sequitur esse. In a certain sense, man by his look reveals himself to the outside and to others; above all he reveals what he perceives on the "inside" (2).

5. Christ, then, teaches us to consider a look almost like the threshold of inner truth. In a look, "in the way in which one looks", it is already possible to single out completely what is concupiscence. Let us try to explain it. "Lust", "looking at lustfully", indicates an experience of value to the body, in which its "nuptial" significance ceases to be that, just because of concupiscence. Its procreative meaning likewise ceases (we spoke about this in our previous considerations); and when it concerns the conjugal union of man and woman, it is rooted in the nuptial meaning of the body and almost organically emerges from it. Now, then, man, "lusting", "looking at lustfully" (as we read in Mt 5:27-28) attempts in a more or less explicit way the separation of that meaning of the body, that (as we have already observed in our reflections) is at the basis of the communion of persons: whether outside of marriage, or—in a special way—when man and woman are called to build their union "in the body" (as the "gospel of the beginning" proclaims in the classic text of Genesis 2:24). The experience of the nuptial meaning of the body is subordinate in a special way to the sacramental call, but is not limited to this. Such meaning qualifies the liberty of the gift that—as we shall see more precisely in further analyses—can be fulfilled not only in marriage but also in a different way.

Christ says: "Every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" ("has made her an adulteress in his heart") (Mt 5:28). Did he not perhaps mean by this that concupiscence itself—like adultery—is an interior separation from the nuptial meaning of the body? Did he not want to refer his listeners to their internal experiences of such detachment? Is it not perhaps for this reason that he defines it "adultery committed in the heart"?


1) Cf. Confessions of St Augustine: VI, 12, 21, 22; VII, 17; VIII, 11. Dante, The Divine Comedy, "Inferno" V, 37-43. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves. New York 1960, Harcourt, Brace, p. 28.

2) A philological analysis confirms the significance of the expression ho bl¾pon ("one who looks": Mt 5:28).

"If bl¾po of Mt 5:28 has the value of internal perception, equivalent to 'I think, I pay attention to, I look'—a more precise and more sublime evangelical teaching may result regarding the interpersonal relationship among the disciples of Christ.

" According to Jesus not just a lustful glance makes a person adulterous, but a thought in the heart suffices" (M. Adinolfi, "The desire of a woman in Matthew 5:28" in Fondamenti biblici della teologia morale. Proceedings of 22nd Italian Biblical Week, Brescia 1973, Paideia, p. 279).

L'Osservatore Romano September 15, 1980
Reprinted with permission