Positive function of purity of heart

On Wednesday, 1 April, the weekly audience again was given in two parts, the first to the young people gathered in St Peter's Basilica, the second to the thousands of pilgrims in the Paul VI Hall. The following is the text of the Holy Father's address in the Hall.

1. Before concluding the series of considerations concerning the words uttered by Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, it is necessary to recall these words once more and briefly retrace the thread of ideas whose basis they constitute. Here is the tenor of Jesus's words: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5:27-28). They are concise words, which call for deep reflection, in the same way as the words in which Christ referred to the "beginning". To the Pharisees who—referring to the law of Moses which admitted the so-called act of repudiation—had asked him: "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?", he replied: "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female?... For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh... What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder" (Mt 19:3-6). These words, too, called for a deep reflection, to derive all the riches contained in them. A reflection of this kind enabled us to outline the true theology of the body.

Truth rooted in man's original innocence

2. Following the reference made by Christ to the "beginning", we dedicated a series of reflections to the relative texts in the Book of Genesis, which deal precisely with that "beginning". There emerged from the analysis made not only an image of the situation of man—male and female—in the state of original innocence, but also the theological basis of the truth about man and about his particular vocation which springs from the eternal mystery of the person: the image of God, incarnate in the visible and corporeal fact of the masculinity or femininity of the human person. This truth is at the basis of the answer given by Christ with regard to the nature of marriage, and in particular its indissolubility. It is truth about man, truth rooted in the state of original innocence, truth which must therefore be understood in the context of that situation prior to sin, as we tried to do in the preceding series of our reflections.

3. At the same time, however, it is necessary to consider, understand and interpret the same fundamental truth about man, his being male and female, in the prism of another situation: that is, of the one that was formed through the breaking of the first covenant with the Creator, that is, through original sin. Such truth about man—male and female— should be seen in the context of his hereditary sinfulness. And it is precisely here that we find Christ's enunciation in the Sermon on the Mount. It is obvious that in the Scriptures of the Old and the New Covenant there are many narratives, phrases and words which confirm the same truth, that is, that "historical" man bears within him the inheritance of original sin; nevertheless, Christ's words spoken in the Sermon on the Mount seem to have —with all their concise enunciation —a particularly rich eloquence. This is shown also by the analyses made previously, which gradually revealed what those words contain. To clarify the statements concerning lust, it is necessary to grasp the biblical meaning of lust itself—of the three forms of lust—and principally that of the flesh. Then, little by little, we arrive at understanding why Jesus defines that lust (precisely: "looking at lustfully") as "adultery committed in the heart". Making the relative analyses, we tried, at the same time, to understand what meaning Christ's words had for his immediate listeners, brought up in the tradition of the Old Testament, that is, in the tradition of the legislative texts, as well as the prophetic and "sapiential" ones; and furthermore, what meaning Christ's words can have for the man of every other era, and in particular for modern man, considering his various cultural conditionings. We are convinced in fact, that these words, in their essential content, refer to the man of every time and every place. Their comprehensive value consists also in this: they proclaim to each one the truth that is valid and substantial for him.

An ethical truth

4. What is this truth? Unquestionably, it is a truth of an ethical nature and therefore, in a word, a truth of a normative nature, just as the truth contained in the commandment: "You shall not commit adultery", is normative. The interpretation of this commandment, made by Christ, indicates the evil that must be avoided and overcome —precisely the evil of lust of the flesh—and at the same time points out the good for which the way is opened by the overcoming of desire. This good is "purity of heart", of which Christ speaks in the same context of the Sermon on the Mount. From the biblical point of view, "purity of heart" means freedom from every kind of sin or guilt, and not just from sins that concern the "lust of the flesh". However, we are dealing here particularly with one of the aspects of that "purity", which constitutes the opposite of adultery "committed in the heart". If that "purity of heart", about which we are concerned, is understood according to St Paul's thought as "life according to the Spirit", then the Pauline context offers us a complete image of the content present in the words spoken by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. They contain a truth of an ethical nature; they warn us against evil and indicate the moral good of human conduct. In fact, they direct listeners to avoid the evil of lust and acquire purity of heart. These words therefore have a meaning that is both normative and indicative. Directing towards the good of "purity of heart", they indicate, at the same time, the values towards which the human heart can and must aspire.

Christ's words realistic

5. Hence the question: what truth, valid for every man, is contained in Christ's words? We must answer that not only an ethical truth, but also the essential truth, the anthropological truth, about man is contained in them. It is precisely for this reason that we go back to these words in formulating here the theology of the body, closely related to and, so to speak, in the perspective of the preceding words in which Christ had referred to "the beginning". It can be affirmed that, with their expressive evangelical eloquence, the man of original innocence is, in a way, recalled to the consciousness of the man of lust.

But Christ's words are realistic. They do not try to make the human heart return to the state of original innocence, which man left behind him at the moment when he committed original sin; on the contrary, they indicate to him the way to a purity of heart which is possible and accessible to him even in the state of hereditary sinfulness. This is the purity of the "man of lust", who is inspired, however, by the word of the Gospel and open to "life according to the Spirit" (in conformity with St Paul's words), that is, the purity of the man of lust who is entirely enveloped by the "redemption of the body" carried out by Christ. Precisely for this reason we find in the words of the Sermon on the Mount the reference to the "heart", that is, to interior man. Interior man must open himself to life according to the Spirit, in order to participate in evangelical purity of heart: in order to rediscover and realize the value of the body, freed through redemption from the bonds of lust.

The normative meaning of Christ's words is deeply rooted in their anthropological meaning, in the dimension of human interiority.

Felt with the heart

6. According to the evangelical doctrine, developed in such a stupendous way in Paul's Letters, purity is not just abstention from unchastity (cf. 1 Thess 4:3), or temperance, but it also, at the same time, opens the way to a more and more perfect discovery of the dignity of the human body, that body which is organically connected with the freedom of the gift of the person in the complete authenticity of his personal subjectivity, male or female. In this way purity, in the sense of temperance, matures in the heart of the man who cultivates it and tends to reveal and strengthen the nuptial meaning of the body in its integral truth. Precisely this truth must be known interiorly; it must, in a way, be "felt with the heart", in order that the mutual relations of man and of woman —even mere looks—may reacquire that authentically nuptial content of their meanings. And it is precisely this content which is indicated by "purity of heart" in the Gospel.

Enjoying the victory

7. If in the interior experience of man (that is, the man of lust), "temperance" take shape, so to speak, as a negative function, the analysis of Christ's works spoken in the Sermon on the Mount and connected with the texts of St Paul enables us to shift this meaning towards the positive function of purity of heart. In mature purity man enjoys the fruits of the victory won over lust, a victory of which St Paul writes, exhorting man to "control his own body in holiness and honour" (1 Thess 4:4). Precisely in such mature purity, in fact, the efficacy of the gift of the Holy Spirit, whose "temple" the human body is (cf. 1 Cor 6:19), is partly manifested. This gift is above all that of piety (donum pietatis), which restores to the experience of the body —especially when it is a question of the sphere of the mutual relations of man and woman—all its simplicity, its explicitness and also its interior joy. This is, as can be seen, a spiritual climate which is very different from the "passion of lust" of which Paul writes (and which we know, moreover, from the preceding analyses; just remember Sirach 26:13, 15-18). The satisfaction of the passions is, in fact, one thing, and the joy that man finds in mastering himself more fully is another thing, since in this way he can also become more fully a real gift for another person.

The words spoken by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount direct the human heart precisely towards this joy. We must entrust ourselves, our thoughts and our actions, to them, in order to find joy and give it to others.

L'Osservatore Romano April 6, 1981
Reprinted with permission