The body is not meant for fornication, but for the Lord.
From now until the first Sunday in Lent, we have a small series of second readings taken from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. We begin with Chapter 6, and the subject of fornication. I wonder how many preachers will speak about this passage today? The trouble is: anything to do with sex embarrasses us. Also: we suspect that our message will be resented, and even vigorously rejected: so it’s easier to remain silent, pass the subject over, and hope that nobody notices.
And yet: a Christian preacher has no right to remain silent on this matter. These few verses from St. Paul offer us far more than moralistic prohibition. Typically, they’re dense with profound theology, and an exalted vision of our dignity, and destiny, and consecration in Christ. St. Paul certainly gives us here salutary warning, and he speaks the truth in plain words: yet his subject is essentially the good news of our salvation. Paul told the Corinthians what they needed to hear; and the relevance of his words becomes only ever more urgent and pressing in our own day.
As so often with St. Paul, the train of thought is not easy for us to follow, and the commentators can’t agree on the precise bearing of all his words or allusions. Still, it’s perfectly clear that the argument refers to Jesus Christ; to his saving death; to his resurrection from the dead; to his sending of the Holy Spirit; to our baptism into him, and to the direction of our life towards the glory of God the Father.
St. Paul’s intended audience was the Christian community, mostly converts from paganism, in Corinth. Corinth at that time was a booming, cosmopolitan port; a melting pot of all the world’s religions; notorious especially for its loose morals, and reputed to be the prostitution capital of the Mediterranean. Some of the Corinthian Christians, brought up in that society, did not like to be lectured about sexual morality. They were inclined to think that what we do with our body is our own business; that bodily behaviour need not affect our spiritual life; that fornication is after all as natural as eating; and that it was God who made us that way, and put in us all those desires and urges, which we like to indulge.
The Jewish Christians in Corinth of course already knew that fornication is always sinful. We Catholics nowadays say that the 10 commandments of the Old Testament express not only divine law, but also natural law. As a matter of fact, everyone knows that some things are always wrong, and unworthy, and shameful, and degrading. All the Corinthians ought to have known that, just as all modern secularists ought to know it. But people are very clever at arguing for the lawfulness of what they want. So St. Paul here by-passes all arguments from law, and speaks instead about the significance of our bodies in the light of Christ. The lectionary omits a verse in the middle of our passage, presumably thinking it too strong for pious ears. But there, in order to enforce his point, Paul speaks about carnal union with a prostitute. St. John Chrysostom comments that nothing could be more horrible than this. Quoting Genesis, St. Paul says such an action makes us one flesh with the prostitute. But that is utterly opposed to the one flesh we already share with Jesus Christ. Our bodies are destined to share in his resurrection. So, says Paul, if we truly belong to Christ, and unite ourselves to him, we are even made one spirit with him.
Plato thought that our bodies are prisons. But no, on the contrary: they are Temples; indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Our bodies are holy, because members or parts of Christ’s Body. We belong to God, for, says Paul, we have been purchased, ransomed, bought, redeemed; released from slavery for the sake of perfect freedom. These expressions carried a lot of weight with the Corinthians, for in their City fully two thirds of the population were slaves.
Fornication is not the worst of all the sins. It’s not nearly as bad, for example, as pride. But its attraction is uniquely powerful, as are also its destructive effects. The poet Dante knew all this. In his imagined journey through Hell, in the very lightest of all its circles, Dante meets the beautiful Francesca da Rimini. She was a real person, who had been the Aunt of one of his friends. She tells of her sin, not as something vile or disgusting, but as alluring, soft, easy. She slipped into it, amid all sorts of mitigating circumstances. Her horrible husband, who murdered her in the act of adultery, is consigned to a far far deeper pit of hell. Yet Dante’s point here is precisely the one made by St. Paul. Flee from fornication! Don’t argue with it, don’t play with it, don’t negotiate with it, don’t look at it. Jesus the Lord himself taught, even more starkly than St. Paul, that by an unchaste look, or thought, we can already commit adultery in our hearts (Mt 5:27).
So we are called to true purity of heart and mind! We must be certain that we can attain this, with God’s help. We are better than animals, which are pre-programmed to obey their natural instincts. More than that: we have been made one with Jesus Christ. Let us not, then, for the sake of momentary carnal pleasure, throw away our divine and eternal destiny! And in our desire for blessed purity, let us resolutely set out on the long hard journey of self conquest and ardent love that will bring us to it.
2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the launch or establishment of the sexual revolution. That was made fully possible for the first time in human history by the invention of the contraceptive pill. And in that very year, 25th July 1968, Blessed Pope Paul VI published his Encyclical letter Humanae Vitae. There he taught that contracepted intercourse is in all circumstances immoral, and contrary to the law of Christ. His teaching here remains a central reference point for all Catholic moral thought. Or, at least: an avalanche, a tsunami of protest, from that day to this, has sought to bury the Encyclical, to refute it, or explain it away, or mitigate it, or sideline it. Unfortunately though, all these protests have been made at cost of fidelity to the truth of the Gospel, and to the truth of the human condition.
Pope Saint John Paul II took Pope Paul’s teaching forward in his Theology of the Body. According to John Paul, we can express or imitate the self-giving love of Jesus Christ precisely and above all through our sexuality. We do so in the first place through Christian marriage; but even more directly through consecrated chastity for the sake of the Kingdom.
This is my Body, said Jesus, which will be given up for you. Through union with me, through sharing precisely in my Body, you will receive all the grace you need for perfect spiritual freedom. Receive my Body, then, in order to be my Body. And as I am given, so must you be: given up, given away, given over to God; for his glory, and for your own eternal glory.