GENERAL AUDIENCE OF 20 AUGUST
To the thousands of the faithful present at the 20
August  General Audience in St. Peter's Square, the Holy Father delivered
the following address.
1. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ said: "You have heard that it was
said: 'You shall not commit adultery'" (Mt 5:27). He referred to what each
person present knew perfectly well, and by which everyone felt himself
bound by virtue of the commandment of God-Yahweh. However, the history of
the Old Testament shows us that both the life of the people bound to
God-Yahweh by a special covenant, and the life of each person, often
wanders away from this commandment. A brief look at the legislation which
the Old Testament comprehensively documents also shows this.
The precepts of the law of the Old Testament were very severe. They
were also very detailed and entered into the smallest details of the daily
life of the people.(1) One can presume that the more the legalizing of
actual polygamy became evident in this law, the necessity to uphold its
juridical dimension and protect its legal limits increased even more.
Hence, we find the great number of precepts, and also the severity of the
punishments the legislator provided for the violation of such norms. On
the basis of the analysis which we have previously carried out regarding
Christ's reference to the "beginning," in his discourse on the
indissolubility of marriage and on the act of repudiation, the following
is evident. He clearly saw the basic contradiction that the matrimonial
law of the Old Testament had hidden within itself by accepting actual
polygamy, namely the institution of the concubine, together with legal
wives, or else the right of cohabitation with the slave.(2) Such a right,
while it combated sin, at the same time contained within itself, or rather
protected, the social dimension of sin, which it actually legalized. In
these circumstances it became necessary for the fundamental ethical sense
of the commandment, "You shall not commit adultery," to also undergo a
basic reassessment. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ revealed that sense
again, namely by going beyond its traditional and legal restrictions.
Old Testament's matrimonial law
2. It is worth adding that in the interpretation of the Old Testament,
to the extent that the prohibition of adultery is balanced—you
the compromise with bodily concupiscence, the more the position regarding
sexual deviations is clearly determined. This is confirmed by the relevant
precepts which provide the death penalty for homosexuality and bestiality.
Onanism had already been condemned in the tradition of the patriarchs (cf.
Gn 38:8-10). The behavior of Onan, son of Judah (from where we have the
origin of the word "onanism") "...was displeasing in the sight of the
Lord, and he slew him also" (Gn 38:10).
The matrimonial law of the Old Testament, in its widest and fullest
meaning, puts in the foreground the procreative end of marriage. In
certain cases it tries to be juridically equitable in the treatment of the
woman and the man—for
example, it says explicitly, regarding the punishment for adultery: "If a
man commits adultery with his neighbor's wife, both the adulterer and the
adulteress shall be put to death" (Lv 20:10). But on the whole, it judges
the woman with greater severity.
Judgment marked by an objectivism
3. Perhaps the terminology of this legislation should be emphasized. As
always in such cases, the terminology tends to make objective the
sexuality of that time. This terminology is important for the completeness
of reflections on the theology of the body. We find the specific
confirmation of the characteristic of shame which surrounds what pertains
to sex in man. More than that, what is sexual is in a certain way
considered as impure, especially when it regards physiological
manifestations of human sexuality. The discovery of nudity (cf. Lv 20:11;
17:21) is branded as being the equivalent of an illicit and completed
sexual act. The expression itself seems eloquent enough here. There is no
doubt that the legislator has tried to use the terminology relating to the
conscience and customs of contemporary society. Therefore, the terminology
of the legislation of the Old Testament confirms our conviction that, not
only are the physiology of sex and the bodily manifestations of sexual
life known to the legislator, but also that these things are evaluated in
a specific way. It is difficult to avoid the impression that such an
evaluation was of a negative character. Certainly this in no way nullifies
the truths which we know from Genesis. Nor does it lay the blame on the
among others, on the books of laws—as
forerunners of a type of Manichaeism. The judgment expressed therein
regarding the body and sex is not so much "negative" or severe, but rather
marked by an objectivism, motivated by a desire to put this area of human
life in order. This is not concerned directly with putting some order in
the heart of man, but with putting order in the entire social life, at the
base of which stands, as always, marriage and the family.
4. If we consider the sexual problem as a whole, perhaps we should
briefly turn our attention again to another aspect. That is the existing
bond among morality, law and medicine, emphasized in their respective
books of the Old Testament. These contain many practical precepts
regarding hygiene, or medicine, drawn rather from experience than from
science, according to the level reached at that time.(3) Besides, the link
between experience and science is distinctly still valid today. In this
vast sphere of problems, medicine is always closely accompanied by ethics.
As theology does, ethics seeks ways of collaborating with it.
Prophets present analogy
5. When Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard that it
was said: 'You shall not commit adultery," he immediately added: "But I
say to you...." It is clear that he wanted to restore in the conscience of
his audience the ethical significance of this commandment. He was
disassociating himself from the interpretation of the "doctors of the
law," official experts in it. But other than the interpretation derived
from tradition, the Old Testament offers us still another tradition to
understand the commandment, "Do not commit adultery." This is the
tradition of the prophets. In reference to adultery, they wanted to remind
Israel and Judah that their greatest sin was in abandoning the one true
God in favor of the cult of various idols. In contact with other peoples,
the chosen people had easily and thoughtlessly adopted such cults.
Therefore, a precise characteristic of the language of the prophets is the
analogy with adultery, rather than adultery itself. Such an analogy also
helps to understand the commandment, "Do not commit adultery," and the
relevant interpretation, the absence of which is noted in the legislative
documents. In the pronouncements of the prophets, especially Isaiah, Hosea
and Ezekiel, the God of the covenant—Yahweh—is
often represented as a spouse. The love which united him to Israel can and
must be identified with the nuptial love of a married couple. Because of
its idolatry and abandonment of God-the-Spouse, in regard to him Israel
commits a betrayal which can be compared to that of a woman in regard to
her husband. Israel commits "adultery."
6. The prophets, using eloquent words, and often by means of images and
extraordinarily flexible metaphors, show both the love of Yahweh-Spouse
and the betrayal of Israel-spouse who gives itself over to adultery. This
theme must be taken up again in our meditations when we will analyze the
question of the "Sacrament." However, we must already touch on the
subject, inasmuch as it is necessary to understand the words of Christ in
Matthew 5:27-28, to appreciate that renewal of the ethos, implied in these
words: "But I say unto you...." On the one hand, Isaiah(4) in his texts
emphasizes, above all, the love of Yahweh-Spouse who always takes the
first step toward his spouse, passing over all her infidelities. On the
other hand, Hosea and Ezekiel abound in comparisons which clarify
primarily the ugliness and moral evil of the adultery by Israel-spouse.
In the next meditation we will try to penetrate still more profoundly
the texts of the prophets, to further clarify the content which, in the
conscience of those present during the Sermon on the Mount, corresponded
to the commandment: "You shall not commit adultery."
1) Cf., for example, Dt 21:10-13; Nm 30:7-16; Dt 24:1-4; Dt 22:13-21;
Lv 20:10-21 and others.
2) Although Genesis may present the monogamous marriages of Adam, Seth
and Noah as models to be imitated, and seems to condemn bigamy, which only
appeared among Cain's descendants, (cf. Gn 4:19), the lives of the
patriarchs provide other examples to the contrary. Abraham observed the
precepts of the law of Hammurabi, which allowed the taking of a second
wife in marriage if the first wife was sterile, and Jacob had two wives
and two concubines (cf. Gn 30:1-19).
Deuteronomy admits the legal existence of bigamy (cf. Dt 21:15-17) and
even of polygamy, warning the king not to have too many wives (cf. Dt
17:17); it also confirms the institution of concubines—prisoners
of war (cf. Dt 21:10-14) or even slaves (cf. Est 21:7-11). Cf. R. De Vaux,
Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions (London: Darton, Longman, Todd,
1976), pp. 24-25, 83. In the Old Testament there is no explicit mention of
the obligation of monogamy, although the picture given in the following
books shows that it prevailed in the social practice (cf., for example,
the Wisdom books, except Sirach 37:11; Tobit).
3) Cf., for example, Lev 12:1-6; 15:1-28; Dt 21:12-13.
4) Cf., for example, Is 54; 62:1-5.