‘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 II’s general audience address in St Peter’s Square on October 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, a necessity required for reproduction.

Whether it was unhelpful to use such an emotional concept for a public announcement is a matter of opinion. The pope drew his language from Christ, as related by St Matthew (5:28): “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” But he 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” series, 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?

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection