Though the phrases “Theology of the Body” or “Catechesis on Human Love” do not appear in Scripture, we should always remember that the Wednesday audiences are, at its core, an attempt to apply Biblical principles about the human person to our creation as male and female. This principle was stated succinctly by St. Irenaeus of Lyon: The Glory of God is a living man,
and the life of man consists in beholding God. (Against Heresies, Book IV Chapter XX)
Throughout his Wednesday audiences, Blessed John Paul II slowly unpacks this teaching. He analyzes how our fallen nature conflicts with this calling, and how Christians are called to overcome our fallen tendencies. Contrary to the thinking of the world and other heretical Christian sects, the Pontiff emphasized that this overcoming occurred primarily within the heart, or to use a more classical term, the interior life. The key to that interior life is the topic we will discuss today, that of purity.
Purity is one of the most difficult subjects to discuss, and I am not speaking rashly when I say most of what you hear about it, even in Catholic circles, is vapid, disingenuous, jargony, and just plain wrong. Purity is something presented as solely having to do with the sexual. To hear these modern commentators, as long as you are abstaining from immoral sex (whether it be self-abuse, fornication, adultery, sex that is contra naturam), then you are pure. They will use a bunch of quotation marks around words (a sure sign you are getting a bunch of pointless jargon) that tell you they are about to redefine something away from its biblical meaning and instead a man made fabrication is presented. Since they are presenting such an stunted and immature definition of purity, it is little surprise the culture and Church at large have mostly ignored them.
For Blessed John Paul, purity impacts far more than the bedroom behavior of men and women. He calls us to what he terms mature purity, which he defines in the following manner:
If in the interior experience of man (that is, the man of lust), temperance takes shape as a negative function, the analysis of Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount and connected with the texts of St. Paul enables us to shift this meaning toward the positive function of purity of heart. In mature purity man enjoys the fruits of the victory won over lust, a victory which St. Paul writes of, exhorting man to “control his own body in holiness and honor” (1 Th 4:4). The efficacy of the gift of the Holy Spirit, whose temple the human body is (cf. 1 Cor 6:19), is partly manifested precisely in such mature purity… The satisfaction of the passions is one thing, and the joy that man finds in mastering himself more fully is another thing. In this way he can also become more fully a real gift for another person. (General Audience 4/1/81)
If we are to practice a purity which is mature, it is a purity which must transform every aspect of our lives. This kind of purity is not just in what we avoid, but in what we seek out. While this message is given new clarity by Christ, it must be emphasized this is not a new teaching. We see echoes of this teaching in God’s rebuke of Cain to overcome his jealousy. (Genesis 4:7) We also see this understanding in the Prophet Isaiah. When he announces his message of God’s coming judgment upon Israel, he does so in the following terms:
When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Is 1:15-17)
This is what holiness and honor is all about. When a man sees a woman, it is an honorable thing to not lust. Yet we are called beyond simply avoiding lust to not even considering her as an object, but rather as a person with her own dignity, rights, expectations, dreams, desires, etc. Many men can say they do the former. How many do the latter? Yet the latter is what we are called to do.
We also notice in this passage that Isaiah connects this holiness with action. He does this because one can easily lie to themselves about what they are doing. One can utter the platitude that of course they seek justice and correct oppression. Yet are they defending the fatherless and helping widows? Likewise, we say we control our bodies with holiness and honor. Yet are we really doing so? What is the evidence of us doing so? Instead of occasions of sin, have we replaced them with occasions to seek God instead? We aren’t looking at pornography, that’s a good thing. Yet are we treating our spouses/friends of the opposite sex with the dignity and respect they deserve? We don’t swear or defend swearing, these are honorable things. Yet are we always truthful? Do we defend lying? Do we use our words for edification?
Christ brings this line of thought to bear in a particularly eloquent way during the Sermon on the Mount. When He begins His “You have heard it was said, but I say unto you…” discourse, he is showing his audience that more often than not, we are just talk. It is an honorable thing we are not committing adultery with our body. Yet what good is that honor if we are committing it in the heart by looking upon someone with lust? We do the honorable thing when we do not hate our brother. Yet how can we possibly call our petty quarrels with him holy? If we aren’t mastering our passions, then we are a slave to them, and will inevitably return to them.
This call to practice both honor and holiness is a tough call. From a human perspective, it is not just tough, it is impossible. Yet as the Angel said to Mary: With God nothing is impossible. (Luke 1:37)