FOR NEARLY A YEAR, according to wire service reports, Pope John Paul II has been holding regular Wednesday audiences in St. Peter's Square at which he has delivered sermons on the virtues of marriage and family life. He has discussed fidelity and "fruitful love," and on these and other occasions he has reaffirmed the church's ban on artificial birth control and its belief in the permanence of marriage. Some of his statements were viewed as a trifle conservative by some American Catholics, but there was nothing particularly shocking about them. But this past Wednesday, he broke new ground.
This time he came out against lust.
All lust. According to the United Press International dispatch from Vatican City, the pope said that "a man is guilty of committing 'adultery in the heart' if he looks at his own wife in a lustful manner."
This, according to the pope, is how it works. "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."
Now the last thing I want my husband to be doing is committing adultery, much less adultery in the heart. So after I read the UPI story I went to another source, to make sure I was understanding this correctly. The Associated Press said the pope said the same thing, and then went on:
"Concupiscence (it means lust; I looked it up) . . . diminishes the richness of the perennial attraction of persons for interpersonal communion. Through such a reduction, the other person becomes the mere object for satisfying a sexual need.
"The moral evaluation of a lustful desire . . . depends above all on the very dignity of the human person, both man and woman, hence it is applicable to the unmarried and to husbands and wives."
So there you have it. No more lust in your heart for your spouse. Now I have to, in good conscience, pause here and confess to having lapsed some years ago from Catholicism, so that I don't feel too bound by the pope's teachings on these matters. At least for the time being. But I can tell him right now, this one is going to cause problems in America. European men may be able to get around this problem by looking at women with only romance in their heart, but American men don't stand too much on ceremony. With them, you can scratch the thin veneer of romance, and you're guaranteed to find lust.
Now it's clear from the context of his remarks that the pope is motivated only by the best of intentions. He wants to preserve the sanctity of marriage and of the family. But the pope is not an American and he has been a priest for many of his 60 years, so understandably he may not be familiar with the role lust plays in the American family. He probably has the typical idea that foreigners have about what motivates Americans, about how we are all driven to hard work by material desires for fast cars and big houses.But that, of course, is not what it's all about. From the time Americans reach adolescence, lust is the life force. They don't want fast cars for the sake of fast cars. They want fast cars in order to satisfy their you-know-what.
Things may have changed in the current generation, but I know in my day, as they say, one of the first things you learned at your mother's knee was that boys had only one thing on their minds -- which was you-know-what -- and that the road to the altar was paved with firm denials.
I know for a fact that in my generation lust led to hundreds of thousands of American marriages. Of course, not that many people attributed their happiness to lust back then. We didn't call it lust. We called it having things in common, being from similar backgrounds, and on occasion we'd describe it as "both of us have always loved children," but everyone knew what was meant by that.
Not that any of us wanted to be merely sex objects. Pope John Paul II has that squarely in focus. By the time people in my generation were into their late 20s and 30s, we were heavily into "interpersonal communion." We talked with our encounter groups, as well as our spouses, and a recurring theme for women was that we wanted to be women, not sex objects. For awhile, sex -- to have or not to have, or at least claim not to have -- was something of a political statement.
But that episode seems to be over. Jimmy Carter, rogue that his is, made lust respectable in the famous Playboy interview. In fact, Jimmy Carter and his wife, by all accounts, have just the kind of marriage that the pope seems to have in mind for his flock. The pope might want to call them up and discuss this business before he gets too insistent on giving lust a bad name.
Jimmy Carter, at least, certainly seems to have had lust in focus. He understood something about marriage that the pope might want to bear in mind: If a man has lust in his heart for his wife, chances are he won't have adultery on his mind for somebody else.