I recently celebrated Mass on the feast of St. Maria Goretti, and decided to use the readings for the feast instead of the normal weekday. The first reading was from 1 Corinthians 6. There Paul speaks of sexual immorality. Although I understood most of it quite well, there was one point I did not fully comprehend. By choosing this reading, and giving a homily on it, I wanted to force myself to ponder it more deeply and so gain greater clarity.
Paul says that the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body, and so “whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” Therefore, “avoid immorality.” This I understood. We are joined to Christ, and so any sexually immoral act is a sin against the relationship we have with him through the Spirit that dwells within us. It is Paul’s next thought that has always caused me to pause.
“Every other sin a person commits is outside of the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body.” Is not every sin a bodily action? Even our evil thoughts are bodily actions. We employ our brain, our imagination, our emotions. What, then, does Paul mean when he states that all sins, except sexual sins, are outside the body? Moreover, why are immoral sex acts, which are human bodily sins, any different from any other human bodily sinful acts? I was befuddled.
How this next thought came to me, I do not know, but I thought of actors in movies. They pretend to be all kinds of persons. An actor pretends to be a murderer, but we know he did not really commit murder – it’s just a movie. Another actor pretends to be a bank robber, but again, we know he really didn’t rob a bank. All the sins that they “commit” are pretended sins.
Likewise, a man and woman in a movie can pretend to be husband and wife. They may be portrayed as having children. We know this is a fictional marriage and family. If in the course of the movie, however, the pretended husband and wife begin to perform intimate sexual acts with one another, these are no longer pretended sexual acts (I am not referring specifically to pornography, but “ordinary” movies). They are the real thing.
The actors are now enacting sexual acts that are reserved only for those who are properly married, and that are forbidden to those who are not married or even pretending to be married. Unlike the pretended murderer and the pretended bank robber, who performed fictional sins, the pretended married couple are committing real sinful acts. They are sinning against their own bodies for they are employing their own bodies to commit these human bodily sexual sins.
Similarly, one cannot pretend to be immodestly dressed. One is either immodestly dressed or isn’t. Nor can one pretend to be nude or pretend to perform seductive acts, since the nude portrayal is for the purpose of being seductive. Such immodest dressing and seductive nudity are immoral sexual acts committed against one’s own body. One is never pretending when one is behaving in a sexually immoral manner.
That one can pretend to commit other sins, but not pretend to commit a sexual sin illustrates, I think, the distinct singular difference of sexual sin. Thus, it helps us grasp Paul’s teaching that every sin, except sexual sin, is committed outside the body.
The real murderer or bank robber is using his body not to sin against his own body, but to achieve another purpose outside his body. Whereas in a sexual sin, one is using one’s body to enact a sin against one’s own body, against oneself; and in most cases, one is enacting a sin against another person’s body as well.
Our bodies are not “something” we inhabit and use. We are not “spirits” dwelling in our bodies. Rather, as human beings, our bodies constitute, along with our souls, who we are, our very mode of being. This is why one can pretend to be a bank robber, but one can never in reality, or even in pretending, perform immoral sexual acts without sinning against oneself. Thus, illicit sexual acts are, by their very nature, an inhumane exploitation, an abusive demeaning of ourselves as sexual human beings.
Although such is the case for every person who commits sexual immoral acts, it is especially grievous for those who are Christians. Paul forcefully reminds his Corinthian readers: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own.”
For a Christian to sexually sin against his or her own body is to violate the Spirit-filled temple that he or she is. Moreover, we are not our own, for we belong to God in Christ Jesus. Thus, we can no longer think that we can use our bodies in any manner that we wish. “For we have been purchased at a price,” and that price is Jesus’ salvific death whereby we are freed from immorality so as to live holy lives in the Spirit. “Therefore, glorify God in your body.”
As sexual immoral acts are never pretended but always real, so glorifying God by our bodily actions are never pretended but are always real, virtuous bodily acts. These holy acts are to our sanctification and to our own bodily glory, for these acts are done bodily.
What we find then in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is not simply the singular evil of immoral sexual acts, but also an illustration of how those same acts achieve a singular beauty when enacted within the bond of a loving marriage.
In marriage, sexual acts are love-giving and life-giving, and so married couples, together, give glory to God.
*Image: The Wedding Night of Tobias and Sarah by Jan Steen, 1660 [Museum Bredius, The Hague, Netherlands]