John Paul II - Theology of the Body

Spontaneity: The Mature Result of Conscience
General Audience, November 12, 1980

1. Today we resume our analysis on the relationship between what is ethical and what is erotic. Our reflections follow the pattern of the words Christ spoke in the Sermon on the Mount, with which he referred to the commandment "You shall not commit adultery." At the same time he defined lust (looking lustfully) as "adultery committed in the heart." We see from these reflections that ethos is connected with the discovery of a new order of values. It is necessary to rediscover continually in what is erotic the nuptial meaning of the body and the true dignity of the gift. This is the role of the human spirit, a role of an ethical nature. If it does not assume this role, the attraction of the senses and the passion of the body may stop at mere lust devoid of ethical value. Then man, male and female, does not experience that fullness of eros, which means the aspiration of the human spirit toward what is true, good and beautiful, so that what is erotic also becomes true, good and beautiful. Therefore it is indispensable that ethos should become the constituent form of eros.

Fruit of discernment

2. The above-mentioned reflections are closely connected with the problem of spontaneity. It is often thought that ethos itself takes away spontaneity from what is erotic in man's life and behavior. For this reason detachment from ethos is demanded "for the benefit" of eros. Also the words of the Sermon on the Mount would seem to hinder this "good." But this opinion is erroneous and, in any case, superficial. Obstinately accepting it and upholding it, we will never reach the full dimensions of eros. That inevitably has repercussions in the sphere of praxis, that is, in our behavior and also in the concrete experience of values. Whoever accepts the ethos of Matthew 5:27-28 must know that he is also called to full and mature spontaneity of the relations that spring from the perennial attraction of masculinity and femininity. This spontaneity is the gradual fruit of the discernment of the impulses of one's own heart.

Need to be aware

3. Christ's words are severe. They demand from man that, in the sphere in which relations with persons of the other sex are formed, he should have full and deep consciousness of his own acts, and above all of interior acts. They demand that he should be aware of the internal impulses of his heart, so as to be able to distinguish them and qualify them maturely. Christ's words demand that in this sphere, which seems to belong exclusively to the body and to the senses, that is, to exterior man, he should succeed in being an interior man. He should be able to obey correct conscience, and to be the true master of his own deep impulses, like a guardian who watches over a hidden spring. Finally he should draw from all those impulses what is fitting for purity of heart, building with conscience and consistency that personal sense of the nuptial meaning of the body, which opens the interior space of the freedom of the gift.

Well, if man wishes to respond to the call expressed by Matthew 5:27-28, he must learn, with perseverance and consistency, what the meaning of the body is, the meaning of femininity and masculinity. He must learn this not only through an objectivizing abstraction (although this, too, is necessary), but above all in the sphere of the interior reactions of his own heart. This is a "science," which cannot be learned only from books, because it is a question here in the first place of deep knowledge of human interiority. In the sphere of this knowledge, man learns to distinguish between what composes the multiform riches of masculinity and femininity in the signs that come from their perennial call and creative attraction, and what bears only the sign of lust. These variants and nuances of the internal movements of the heart can, within a certain limit, be confused with one another. However, it must be said that interior man has been called by Christ to acquire a mature and complete evaluation, leading him to discern and judge the various movements of his heart. It should be added that this task can be carried out and is worthy of man.

In fact, the discernment which we are speaking of has an essential relationship with spontaneity. The subjective structure of man shows, in this area, a specific richness and a clear distinction. Consequently, a noble gratification, for example, is one thing, while sexual desire is another. When sexual desire is linked with a noble gratification, it differs from desire pure and simple. Similarly, as regards the sphere of the immediate reactions of the heart, sexual excitement is very different from the deep emotion with which not only interior sensitivity, but sexuality itself reacts to the total expression of femininity and masculinity. It is not possible here to develop this subject further. But it is certain that, if we affirm that Christ's words according to Matthew 5:27-28 are severe, they are also severe in the sense that they contain within them the deep requirements concerning human spontaneity.

At the price of self-control

5. There cannot be such spontaneity in all the movements and impulses that arise from mere carnal lust, devoid as it is of a choice and of an adequate hierarchy. It is precisely at the price of self-control that man reaches that deeper and more mature spontaneity with which his heart, mastering his instincts, rediscovers the spiritual beauty of the sign constituted by the human body in its masculinity and femininity. Since this discovery is enhanced in the conscience as conviction, and in the will as guidance both of possible choices and of mere desires, the human heart becomes a participant in another spontaneity, of which "carnal man" knows nothing or very little. There is no doubt that through Christ's words according to Matthew 5:27-28, we are called precisely to such spontaneity. Perhaps the most important sphere of praxis —concerning the more interior acts—is precisely that which gradually prepares the way toward such spontaneity.

This is a vast subject which will be opportune for us to take up another time in the future, when we will dedicate ourselves to showing what the real nature of the evangelical purity of heart is. We conclude for the present, saying that the words of the Sermon on the Mount, with which Christ called the attention of his listeners—at that time and today—to lust (looking lustfully), indirectly indicate the way toward a mature spontaneity of the human heart. This does not suffocate its noble desires and aspirations, but on the contrary frees them and, in a way, facilitates them.

Let what we said about the mutual relationship between what is ethical and what is erotic, according to the ethos of the Sermon on the Mount, suffice for the present.

Taken from: L'Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English 17 November 1980, page 9

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