“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!

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Lust

  1. galerimo says:

    Thanks Quentin. In response to your invite to explore further JPII’s quote regarding lust and married women, I can’t see how Jesus’ words (Matt 5:28) could ever be read in a way that excluded those women who are married. He was talking about women after all. The Pope was stating the obvious.

    My reading of Paul’s “better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor 7:9) contradicts what Jesus says, when Paul acknowledges the reality of human desire (lust) and its appropriate place, even it if is a remedial one, within marriage. Jesus’ view seems very idealistic around human nature while Paul cuts us some more slack.

    Perhaps the problem is the fast rate at which Jesus’ words get transmogrified into moral codes before they get a chance to breathe just for themselves. Could be Jesus is guiding us to satisfying and fulfilling human sexual love.

    I agree that it is a question of attitude when it comes to discernment around lust and love; better still ‘intention’ would be the driver of meaning for me. It empowers the person to be and act in the loving relationship more consciously.

    The danger with a discussion on desire is isolating it all from the broader context of living. The holistic view is the way to go.

  2. Barrie Machin says:

    As ever Quentin argues his point extremely well and we males can identify with his point of the occasional roving eye in the workplace.
    Unfortunately as always out of Pandora’s box other situations emerge Q has not touched on perhaps because they were considered to be outside the basic question.
    Reference to the position of His Holiness and the Bible and the Catholic Church serves to remind me of the activities of certain responsible people (mercifully few) who should have observed the Pontifs comments about our topic more carefully to avoid the pitfalls with young members of their flock.

  3. Nektarios says:

    When God created man and woman they were in perfect harmony with God and everything else.
    Man’s desire comes from his/her nature. When they disobeyed God and fell from their first estate,
    Mankind’s desire was corrupted.

    The Fall turned the whole human race in their nature into sinners. In the realm of our desires, morality, legalism, punishment, fear tactics, even death have not worked. Things may be modified but not changed, man is a sinner through and through, a rebel against God and in a hopeless state left to him or herself. I accept that Lust has come to mean mostly sexual desire, but the word Lust is a plural word simply meaning all our desires.
    Some folk are not bothered by sexual lust as such, but are bothered, or not, by other desires such as pride, power, prestige, arrogance, money, position and so on.

    The issue is not lust or desires, God created them, what is wrong in man they have become corrupted, and usually destructive. How has man become servile to his desires?

    Here we must understand not the symptom but the cause.
    We must understand of ourselves we are helpless to deal with the cause of it all.

    When man Fell, his relationship to God was broken and he also fell into darkness, having his mind darkened and alienated from God and Light.

    At the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, to do what? To save us, to redeem us, to be the sacrifice for all our sin, deliver us out of darkness and the kingdom of the devil with their principalities and powers into the Kingdom of His dear Son and return us to God.

    I’ll stop their for now.

  4. Brendan says:

    I too ….” believe it lies in attitude.” The best disposition in the mind of those who prepare for the conjugality of ‘ love-making ‘ in order to reach its virtuous climax ; is one of respect for and tender sensitivities in ‘ giving to the other’…lost in their reciprocal embrace .
    There seems no place for ‘ lustfullness ‘ here.

  5. Nektarios says:

    The devil, since mankind fell into his kingdom, have become subject to their passions be they what they may and he exercises power over mankind.
    Lust in the sexual sense is but one, but a common means the devil gains power over men and women.

    We cannot deliver ourselves, we are caught by his wiles. The only way out of the devil’ s snakes is God’s way. The devils power is only next to that of God, just in case we get the idea we can do it by ourselves.

    Psychology can provide some understanding but no power to deliver one caught up in sexual lust or any other desire.

    So what does?
    When man fell, and so easily it seems, he fell into the devils kingdom of darkness, fear and guilt. Held captive hand and foot. Nothing man can do about it.
    Along comes Jesus into ones life: to deliver one out of the Kingdom and the power of the devil, receive pardon, deliverance, forgiveness and faith in God and His son Jesus Christ. One also receives Faith as a gift from God and gives access to the power of God to defeat the devil with all his dominions and powers and rulers of darkness.

    How does he do that? God judicially forgives one in Christ of all sin. Christ died for our sin. Gives faith in Christ. Gives everything necessary concerning ones Salvation. Delivers one out of Darkness to His Kingdom of Light.

    will stop there for now.

  6. Peter Foster says:

    Ronald Knox’s translation gives:
    “But I tell you that he who casts his eyes on a woman “so as to lust after her” has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This is a nuanced reading which might pass muster, that is allow us to appreciate the beauty of women, depending on the original meaning of “lust”.

    In an incident in Matthew ch.15: v.15-28, Jesus refers to a Canaanite woman as a dog which would be the view of a Jew at that time.

    How to deal with actual accounts or later additions with a cultural context?

  7. Brendan says:

    Following on from Quentin’s proposition that the ‘ rightness ‘ of sexual behaviour is best found in ” attitude of mind ” rather than in its practicalities ; Karol Wojtyla ( Pope Saint John Paul ii ) in his book ” Love and Responsibility ” has this to say ;-
    ” Love is not, however, merely a biological or even a psycho-physiological crystallization of the sexual urge, [ animal sexual instinct ? ] but is something fundamentally different from it. For although love grows out of the sexual urge and develops on that basis and in the conditions which the sexual urge creates in the psycho-physiological lives of concrete people , it is none the less given its shape by ‘ acts of will at the level of the person. ‘ ” ibidem. it follows ;-
    ” Love is a phenomenon peculiar to the world of human beings . In the animal world only the sexual instinct is at work. ”
    Because we are body and soul, and God-given more that the animal world and human in this ” concrete ” sense of ” will ” ; in the ” natural ” sense ….” the sexual urge is directed towards another human being [ the whole person ] .. and not the sexual attributes of a person . If it is directed towards the sexual attributes as such this must be recognised as an impoverishment or even a perversion of the urge. ”
    So in this ‘unnatural ‘ sense to have lusted after another is to already have sinned ( committed adultery in the heart )….given the appropriate circumstance , who among us is without sin in this area ?

  8. Martin says:

    Our human sexuality is a precious gift from God. It is surely intended both to ensure the continuation of the human race and to be the means for reaffirming the love and commitment between a couple in a monogamous context. The setting of our human sexual drive is to be “more persistent but less insistent” than that of other mammals, within which our sense of morality has been formed. Perhaps we should regard our sexuality as the fundamental challenge by God. If we are successful, we both perpetuate the human race, and also form the basis of a society that can live in a way that is in accordance with God’s will.
    For us fallible humans, there is a tension between these two fundamentals. The old Adam is always ready to rear his head! But this is the challenge which God has set us, individually and collectively. Over to us.

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