Depersonalizing effect of concupiscence

On Wednesday, 24 September, tens of thousands gathered in St Peter's Square to hear the Pope continue his catechetical development of the theme of adultery

1. In the Sermon on the Mount Christ says: "You have heard 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). We have been trying for some time to penetrate the meaning of this statement, analyzing the single elements in order better to understand the text as a whole.

When Christ speaks of a man who "looks lustfully", he indicates not only the dimension of intentionality in "looking", and so lustful knowledge, the psychological dimension, but also the dimension of the intentionality of man's very existence. In the situation described by Christ, that dimension passes unilaterally from the man, who is the subject, to the woman, who has become the object (this does not mean, however, that such a dimension is only unilateral). For the present we will not reverse the situation analyzed, or extend it to both parties, to both subjects. Let us dwell on the situation outlined by Christ, stressing that it is a question of a "purely interior" act, hidden in the heart and stopping on the threshold of the look.

It is enough to note that in this case the woman — who, owing to her personal subjectivity exists perennially "for man", waiting for him too, for the same reason, to exist "for her"—is deprived of the meaning of her attraction as a person, who, though being characteristic of the "eternal feminine", becomes at the same time only an object for the man: she begins, that is, to exist intentionally as an object for the potential satisfaction of the sexual need inherent in his masculinity. Although the act is completely interior, hidden in the "heart" and expressed only by the "look", there already occurs in him a change (subjectively unilateral) of the very intentionality of existence. If it were not so, if it were not a question of such a deep change, the following words of the same sentence: "has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5:28), would have no meaning.

2. That change of the intentionality of existence, by means of which a certain woman begins to exist for a certain man not as a subject of call and personal attraction or as a subject "of communion", but exclusively as an object for the potential satisfaction of the sexual need, is carried out in the "heart" since it is carried out in the will. Cognitive intentionality itself does not yet mean enslavement of the "heart". Only when the intentional reduction, illustrated previously, sweeps the will along into its narrow horizon, when it brings forth the decision of a relationship with another human being (in our case: with the woman) according to the specific scale of values of "lust", only then can it be said that "desire" has also gained possession of the "heart". Only when "lust" has gained possession of the will is it possible to say that it is dominant over the subjectivity of the person and that it is at the basis of the will, and the possibility of choosing and deciding, through which—by virtue of self-decision or self-determination—the very way of existing with regard to another person is established. The intentionality of this existence then acquires a full subjective dimension.

3. Only then—that is from that subjective moment and on its subjective prolongation—is it possible to confirm what we read, for example, in Sirach (23:17-22) about the man dominated by lust, and what we read in even more eloquent descriptions in world literature. Then we can also speak of that more or less complete "compulsion", which is called elsewhere "compulsion of the body" and which brings with it loss of the "freedom of the gift", congenital in deep awareness of the matrimonial meaning of the body, of which we have also spoken in preceding analyses.

4. When we speak of "desire" as the transformation of the intentionality of a concrete existence, of the man, for example, for whom (according to Mt 5:27-28) a certain woman becomes merely the object of the potential satisfaction of the "sexual need" inherent in his masculinity, it is not at all a matter of questioning that need, as an objective dimension of human nature with the procreative finality that is characteristic of it. Christ's words in the Sermon on the Mount (in its whole broad context) are far from Manichaeism, as the true Christian tradition also is. In this case, there cannot arise, therefore, objections of the kind. It is a question, on the contrary, of the man's and the woman's way of existing as persons, that is, of that existing in a mutual "for", which—also on the basis of what, according to the objective dimension of human nature, can be defined as the "sexual need"—can and must serve the building up of unity "of communion" in their mutual relations. Such, in fact, is the fundamental meaning characteristic of the perennial and reciprocal attraction of masculinity and femininity, contained in the very reality of the constitution of man as a person, body and sex together.

5. The possible circumstance that one of the two persons exists only as the subject of the satisfaction of the sexual need, and the other becomes exclusively the object of this satisfaction, does not correspond to the union or personal "communion", to which man and woman were mutually called "from the beginning"— on the contrary it is in conflict with it. Moreover, the case in which both the man and the woman exist reciprocally as the object of satisfaction of the sexual need, and each on his or her part is only the subject of that satisfaction, does not correspond to this unity of "communion "—but on the contrary clashes with it. This "reduction" of such a rich content of the reciprocal and perennial attraction of human persons, in their masculinity or femininity, does not at all correspond to the "nature" of the attraction in question. This "reduction", in fact, extinguishes the personal meaning, "of communion", characteristic of man and woman, through which, according to Genesis 2:24, "a man... cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh". "Lust" turns away the intentional dimension of the man's and woman's mutual existence from the personal perspectives, "of communion", characteristic of their perennial and mutual attraction, reducing it, and, so to speak, pushing it towards utilitarian dimensions, within which the human being "uses" the other human being, for the sake merely of satisfying his own "needs".

6. It seems possible to find this content again, charged with human interior experience characteristic of different ages and environments, in Christ's concise affirmation in the Sermon on the Mount. At the same time, we cannot in any case lose sight of the meaning that this affirmation attributes to man's "interiority", to the integral dimension of the "heart" as the dimension of the inner man. Here lies the very core of the transformation of ethos aimed at by Christ's words according to Matthew 5:27-28, expressed with powerful forcefulness and at the same time with admirable simplicity.

L'Osservatore Romano September 29, 1980
Reprinted with permission