GENERAL AUDIENCE OF 10 DECEMBER
During the General Audience on 10 December in the Paul VI Hall, the
Holy Father gave the following address:
1. The analysis of purity is an indispensable completion of the words
Christ spoke in the Sermon on the Mount, which our present reflections are
centered on. When explaining the correct meaning of the commandment, "You
shall not commit adultery," Christ appealed to the interior man. At the
same time he specified the fundamental dimension of purity that marks the
relations between man and woman both in marriage and outside it. The
words, "But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has
already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5:27-28), express
what is opposed to purity. At the same time, these words demand the purity
which, in the Sermon on the Mount, is included in the list of the
beatitudes: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Mt
5:8). In this way Christ appealed to the human heart. He called upon it
and did not accuse it, as we have already clarified.
2. Christ sees in the heart, in man's inner self, the source of purity—but
also of moral impurity—in
the fundamental and most generic sense of the word. That is confirmed, for
example, by the answer he gave to the Pharisees, who were scandalized by
the fact that his disciples "transgress the tradition of the elders. For
they do not wash their hands when they eat" (Mt 15:2). Jesus then said to
those present: "Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes
out of the mouth defiles a man" (Mt 15:11). Answering Peter's question, he
explained these words to his disciples as follows: "What comes out of the
mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the
heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false
witness, slander. These are what defile a man, but to eat with unwashed
hands does not defile a man" (cf. Mt 15:18-20; also Mk 7:20-23).
When we say "purity" or "pure," in the first meaning of these words, we
indicate what contrasts with what is dirty. "To dirty" means "to make
filthy," "to pollute." That referred to the various spheres of the
physical world. For example, we talk of a dirty road or a dirty room; we
also talk of polluted air. In the same way man can be filthy, when his
body is not clean. The body must be washed to remove dirt.
The Old Testament tradition attributed great importance to ritual
ablutions, for example, to wash one's hands before eating, which the
above-mentioned text spoke of. Many detailed prescriptions concerned the
ablutions of the body in relation to sexual impurity, understood in the
exclusively physiological sense, to which we have referred previously (cf.
Lv 15). According to the medical science of the time, the various
ablutions may have corresponded to hygienic prescriptions. Since they were
imposed in God's name and contained in the sacred books of the Old
Testament legislation, their observance indirectly acquired a religious
meaning. They were ritual ablutions and, in the life of the people of the
old covenant, they served ritual "purity."
Purity in the moral sense
3. In relation to the aforesaid juridico-religious tradition of the old
covenant, an erroneous way of understanding moral purity developed.(1) It
was often taken in the exclusively exterior and material sense. In any
case, an explicit tendency to this interpretation spread. Christ opposed
it radically. Nothing from outside makes one filthy, no "material" dirt
makes one impure in the moral, that is, interior sense. No ablution, not
even of a ritual nature, is capable in itself of producing moral purity.
This has its exclusive source within man. It comes from the heart.
Probably the respective prescriptions in the Old Testament (for
example, those found in Leviticus 15:16-24; 18:lff., or 12:1-5) served, in
addition to hygienic purposes, to attribute a certain dimension of
interiority to what is corporeal and sexual in the human person. In any
case, Christ took good care not to connect purity in the moral (ethical)
sense with physiology and its organic processes. In the light of the words
of Matthew 15:18-20, quoted above, none of the aspects of sexual
"dirtiness," in the strictly bodily, biophysiological sense, falls by
itself into the definition of purity or impurity in the moral (ethical)
A general concept
4. The aforesaid assertion (Mt 15:18-20) is important above all for
semantic reasons. Speaking of purity in the moral sense, that is, of the
virtue of purity, we use an analogy, according to which moral evil is
compared precisely to uncleanness. Certainly this analogy has been a part
of the sphere of ethical concepts from the most remote times. Christ took
it up again and confirmed it in all its extension: "What comes out of the
mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man." Here Christ spoke
of all moral evil, of all sin, that is, of transgressions of the various
commandments. He enumerates "evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication,
theft, false witness, slander," without confining himself to a specific
kind of sin. It follows that the concept of purity and impurity in the
moral sense is in the first place a general concept, not a specific one.
All moral good is a manifestation of purity, and all moral evil is a
manifestation of impurity.
Matthew 15:18-20 does not limit purity to one area of morality, namely,
to the one connected with the commandment, "You shall not commit adultery"
and "Do not covet your neighbor's wife," that is, to the one that concerns
the relations between man and woman, linked to the body and to the
relative concupiscence. Similarly we can understand the beatitude of the
Sermon on the Mount, addressed to "the pure in heart," both in the general
and in the more specific sense. Only the actual context will make it
possible to delimit and clarify this meaning.
The flesh and the spirit
5. The wider and more general meaning of purity is present also in St.
Paul's letters. In them we shall gradually pick out the contexts which
explicitly limit the meaning of purity to the bodily and sexual sphere,
that is, to that meaning which we can grasp from Christ's words in the
Sermon on the Mount on lust. This is already expressed in "looking at a
woman," and is regarded as equivalent to "committing adultery in one's
heart" (cf. Mt 5:27-28).
St. Paul is not the author of the words about the three forms of lust.
As we know, they occur in the First Letter of John. John spoke of the
opposition within man between God and the world, between what comes "from
the Father" and what comes "from the world" (cf. 1 Jn 2:16-17). This
opposition is born in the heart and penetrates into man's actions as "the
lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life."
Similarly, St. Paul points out another contradiction in the Christian. It
is the opposition and at the same time the tension between the "flesh" and
the "Spirit" (written with a capital letter, that is, the Holy Spirit).
"But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the
flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the
desires of the Spirit are against the flesh. For these are opposed to each
other, to prevent you from doing what you would" (Gal 5:16-17). It follows
that life "according to the flesh" is in opposition to life "according to
the Spirit." "For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on
the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set
their minds on the things of the Spirit" (Rom 8:5).
In subsequent analyses we shall seek to show that purity—the
purity of heart which Christ spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount—is
realized precisely in life according to the Spirit.
1) Alongside a complex system of prescriptions concerning ritual
purity, on which legal casuistry was based, the concept of moral purity
also existed in the Old Testament. It was handed down by means of two
The Prophets demanded behavior in conformity with God's will, which
presupposes conversion of heart, interior obedience and complete
uprightness before him (cf. for example, Is 1:10-20; Jer 4:14; 24:7; Ez
36:25ff.). A similar attitude is required also by the Psalmist:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord... / He who has clean hands and a
pure heart... / will receive blessing from the Lord (Ps 24:3-5).
According to the priestly tradition, man is aware of his deep
sinfulness and, not being able to purify himself by his own power, he
beseeches God to bring about this change of heart, which can only be the
work of a creative act of his:
Create in me a clean heart, O God... / wash me, and I shall be whiter than
snow... / a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Ps
51:10, 7, 17).
Both Old Testament channels meet in the beatitude of the "pure in heart"
(Mt 5:8), even if its verbal formulation seems to be closer to Psalm 24
(cf. J. Dupont, Les Béatitudes,
vol. III; Les Evangélistes
[Paris: Gabalda, 1973], pp. 603-604).