St Paul’s description of the body and teaching on purity

During the course of the 4 February weekly audience, held as usual in the Paul VI Hall, the Pope continued his catechesis on the theology of the human body, delivering the following address.

1. In our considerations last Wednesday on purity according to the teaching of St Paul, we called attention to the text of the First Letter to the Corinthians. In it the Apostle presents the Church as the Body of Christ, and that offers him the opportunity to make the following reasoning about the human body: “...God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose... On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honourable we invest with the greater honour, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor 12:18, 22-25).

Man "is" that body

2. The Pauline "description" of the human body corresponds to the reality which constitutes it: so it is a "realistic" description. At the same time, a very fine thread of evaluation is intermingled with the realism of this description, conferring on it a deeply evangelical, Christian value. Certainly, it is possible to "describe" the human body, to express its truth with the objectivity characteristic of the natural sciences; but such a description—with all its precision—cannot be adequate (that is, commensurable with its object), since it is not just a question of the body (intended as an organism, in the "somatic" sense) but of man, who expresses himself through that body and in this sense "is", I would say, that body. And so that thread of evaluation, seeing that it is a question of man as a person, is indispensable in describing the human body. Furthermore it is necessary to say how right this evaluation is. This is one of the tasks and one of the perennial themes of the whole of culture: of literature, sculpture, painting, and also of dancing, of theatrical works, and finally of the culture of everyday life, private or social. A subject that would be worth dealing with separately.

Not "scientific"

3. The Pauline description in the First Letter to the Corinthians 12:18-25 certainly does not have a “scientific" meaning: it does not present a biological study on the human organism or on human "somatics"; from this point of view it is a simple "pre-scientific" description, moreover a concise one, made up of barely a few sentences. It has all the characteristics of common realism and is, unquestionably, sufficiently “realistic". However, what determines its specific character, what particularly justifies its presence in Holy Scripture, is precisely that evaluation intermingled with the description and expressed in its "narrative-realistic" tissue. It can be said with certainty that this description would not be possible without the whole truth of creation and also without the whole truth of the "redemption of the body", which Paul professes and proclaims. It can also be affirmed that the Pauline description of the body corresponds precisely to the spiritual attitude of "respect" for the human body, due because of the "holiness" (cf. 1 Thess 4:3-5, 7-8) which springs from the mysteries of creation and redemption. The Pauline description is equally far from Manichaean contempt for the body and from the various manifestations of a naturalistic “cult of the body".

Echo of innocence

4. The author of the First Letter to the Corinthians 12:18-25 has before his eyes the human body in all its truth; and so the body permeated in the first place (if it can be expressed in this way) by the whole reality of the person and of his dignity. It is, at the same time, the body of "historical” man, male and female, that is, of that man who, after sin, was conceived, so to speak, within and by the reality of the man who had had the experience of original innocence. In Paul's expressions about the "unpresentable parts" of the human body, as also about the ones "which seem to be weaker" or the ones "which we think less honourable", we seem to find again the testimony of the same shame that the first human beings, male and female, had experienced after original sin. This shame was imprinted on them and on all the generations of "historical” man as the fruit of the three forms of lust (with particular reference to the lust of the flesh). And at the same time there is imprinted on this shame —as has already been highlighted in the preceding analyses—a certain "echo" of man's original innocence itself: a "negative" as it were of the image, whose "positive" had been precisely original innocence.

Respect springs from shame

5. The Pauline "description" of the human body seems to confirm perfectly our previous analyses. There are, in the human body, "unpresentable parts", not because of their "somatic" nature (since a scientific and physiological description deals with all the parts and organs of the human body in a "neutral" way, with the same objectivity), but only and exclusively because there exists in man himself that shame which perceives some parts of the body as "unpresentable" and causes them to be considered such. The same shame seems, at the same time, to be at the basis of what the Apostle writes in the First Letter to the Corinthians: "Those parts of the body which we think less honourable we invest with the greater honour, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty" (1 Cor 12:23). Hence it can be said, therefore, that from shame there springs precisely "respect" for one's own body: respect which Paul, in the First Letter to the Thessalonians (4:4), urges us to keep. Precisely this control of the body "in holiness and honour" is considered essential for the virtue of purity.

Interior harmony

6. Returning again to the Pauline "description" of the body, in the First Letter to the Corinthians 12:18-25, we wish to draw attention to the fact that, according to the author of the Letter, that particular effort which aims at respecting the human body and especially its "weaker" or "unpresentable" parts, corresponds to the Creator's original plan, that is, to that vision of which the Book of Genesis speaks: "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen 1:31). Paul writes: "God has so composed the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior parts, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another" (1 Cor 12:24-25). "Discord in the body", the result of which is that some parts are considered "weaker", "less honourable", and so "unpresentable", is a further expression of the vision of man's interior state after original sin, that is, of "historical" man. The man of original innocence, male and female, of whom we read in Genesis 2:25, that they "were naked, and were not ashamed", did not even feel that "discord in the body". To the objective harmony, with which the Creator endowed the body and which Paul specifies as mutual care of the members for one another (cf. 1 Cor 12:25), there corresponded a similar harmony within man: the harmony of the "heart". This harmony, that is precisely "purity of heart", enabled man and woman in the state of original innocence to experience simply (and in a way that originally made them both happy) the uniting power of their bodies, which was, so to speak, the "unsuspected" substratum of their personal union or communio personarum.

In holiness and honour

7. As can be seen, in the First Letter to the Corinthians (12:18-25), the Apostle links his description of the human body with the state of "historical" man. At the threshold of this man's history there is the experience of shame connected with "discord in the body", with the sense of modesty regarding that body (and particularly those parts of it that somatically determine masculinity and femininity). However, in the same "description", Paul indicates also the way which (precisely on the basis of the sense of shame) leads to the transformation of this state to the point of gradual victory over that "discord in the body", a victory which can and must take place in man's heart. This is precisely the way to purity, that is, “to control one's own body in holiness and honour". Paul connects the First Letter to the Corinthians (12:18-25) with the "honour" with which the First Letter to the Thessalonians (4:3-5) deals, using some equivalent expressions, when he speaks of "honour", that is esteem, for the "less honourable", "weaker" parts of the body, and when he recommends greater "modesty" with regard to what is considered "unpresentable" in man. These expressions characterize more precisely that "honour", especially in the sphere of human relations and behaviour with regard to the body; which is important both as regards one's "own" body, and of course also in mutual relations (especially between man and woman, although not limited to them).

We have no doubt that the "description" of the human body in the First Letter to the Corinthians has a fundamental meaning for the Pauline doctrine on purity as a whole.

L'Osservatore Romano February 9, 1981
Reprinted with permission