“Adultery in the heart is committed not only because a man looks in a certain way at a woman who is not his wife but precisely because he is looking at a woman that way. Even if he were to look that way at the woman who is his wife, he would be committing the same adultery in the heart.”
No, I didn’t say that; it is a direct quotation from Pope John Paul’s weekly audience, St. Peter’s Square, Oct. 8, 1980. It caused a great fuss at the time. The critics argued that he was trying to push the Church back to an Augustinian view which regarded sexual desire as a regrettable and, accidentally, sinful, necessity required for reproduction. Whether it was unhelpful to use such an emotional concept for a public announcement is a matter of opinion.
But the Pope drew his language from Christ, as related by St Matthew: “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. But he has extended the concept to marriage itself. It is useful to explore this further.
I have first to brush off my defensiveness. In a long life I have known many attractive women, and I cannot claim that the occasional thought never floated into my mind. Whether it ever floated into theirs unfortunately they did not say. But I could not equate such an instant reaction with adultery any more than sexual desire between spouses constitutes adultery in the heart. Were we to take it to be so, breeding would cease.
Indeed a close reading of the Pope’s context, extended in his Theology of the Body, tells us that his target is not sexual desire in marriage as such but a desire which focuses on the other person as a sexual object for one’s own gratification rather than for their dignity as a spouse. And of course it goes both ways. A wife may well commit adultery in the same sense with her husband – a concept not readily available in the culture of the New Testament. The idea that a husband and a wife might reciprocally be drawn to each other, on occasion, solely for shared carnal reasons is one I will not try to disentangle. But it brings me conveniently to the question of lust.
I once attended a superb theatrical production of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The obscenity was not the couple’s nudity but the covering of their nudity. They had recognised a sacredness with which, in their fallen state, they could not cope. It was only in their later expression of two in one flesh that their loving commitment found its place. Were they at first momentarily aware in their recognition of the lightning flash of lust? I use a strong metaphor because lust is a powerful driver. It has lain behind murder, cruelty and the fall of nations. It has the dire ability to blanket out any other thought or feeling, and to promote behaviour which, without it, would be unthinkable. We may abhor, for instance, the corruption of children but if someone’s lust is sufficiently directing this way almost any rationalisation will serve. We should not be surprised that the Church takes a dim view of it.
But not necessarily a nuanced view. There appears to have been no proper discrimination between lust and sexual desire. It is unfortunate but unavoidable that those who decide the rules constitute a group for which sexual desire can never be lawfully entertained since any form, even momentarily welcomed, constitutes lust by definition. Some of the detailed theological arguments about lawful and unlawful sexual practices in marriage, which I cannot fittingly describe here, could only be taken seriously by those without experience.
While there is good research which tells us about married sexual practices, I know of none which is focused in any detail on Catholic marriage. So I have to rely on my former experience of marriage counselling and preparing couples for marriage. From this I conclude that the distinction between lawful desire and lust is not best found by analysing different practices. I believe that it lies in attitude. Married couples are quite capable of distinguishing between what behaviours, perhaps judged over a period of time, tend to bring them closer to each other and what tend to put them apart. That seems to me the best way to distinguish between loving sexual desire and selfish lust.
There can be no final rules because everyone has their own sexual personalities, formed from their psychology and experience. And, within a couple, these may change and develop over the years. I recall a lady in her late eighties explaining to me her physical difficulties in sexual activity. She finished by saying “I know what I’m missing.” That’s the spirit!