Spousal Meaning Corrupted: Using and Possessing One Another

This will be the third and last post specifically on the subject of concupiscence and its effect on sexuality and the meaning of the body. The first post was about original shame, the second about the “insatiability” of male-female relationships; this one is about the corruption of the spousal meaning of the body.

First, recall what the spousal meaning of the body is.
spousal meaning = sign of gift + experience as gift
The body itself, because it is male and female, is a physical, objective message that the human person is meant to be a gift to another person. Our bodies fit together. The male body only makes sense in light of the female body, and vice versa. But the more important aspect is really the experience of the body as a gift – because we are intelligent people, conscious beings with experiences that we remember and interpret and reflect deeply on, we are capable of actually understanding this objective message and of experiencing ourselves as gifts, physically and spiritually. “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.” (Gaudium et Spes 24:3)

The first aspect, “sign of gift,” is not affected by sin – our physical bodies still physically and objectively show that we are meant for one another. It’s the “experience as gift” that undergoes a radical limitation, violation or corruption because of sin. Let’s talk about some specific ways that this personal experience of the body has changed for the worse.

Separation of Body and Spirit

In the state of original innocence, the body and the spirit were a perfect unity. The body expressed the spirit, and one person understood the spirit of another by interacting bodily. The body was a means of personal, spiritual communion, not an obstacle to it.

Does this sound like your experience of being a body-spirit? Are you always perfectly able to express what you are thinking, and to understand what the person next to you is thinking? Do your emotions always perfectly correspond to what you know intellectually and what you really will at the core of your being? Yeah, mine don’t either. In fact, no person in all of history has ever had this experience, because it lies in what JPII calls our “theological prehistory.” That doesn’t mean that it was relevant to Adam and Eve, perhaps, but irrelevant to everyone else – our prehistory is like a buried layer in our hearts and minds which we can’t access perfectly, because sin has blocked and eaten away at it, but which we are still aware of on some level. We still long for the prehistoric state of innocence, and when we’re at our best, we still experience it imperfectly.

So, for actual, historical, sinful people like you and me, sometimes the body doesn’t express the spirit very well. Sometimes you might interact bodily with another person (this happens pretty often since we only interact spiritually with those in Heaven) and instead of using your bodies as well-tuned instruments for spiritual communication, the interaction stays on a physical level. This happens mostly in the interactions of a man and a woman. For example, he looks at her, and instead of seeing through her body that she is a person in the image of God who he might love, either romantically or not, he sees an attractive body that could bring him pleasure. Perhaps just the pleasure of looking at her, or perhaps something further.

When this happens, the function of the human body is reduced from the human dignity it had in creation, bringing about personal communion, to an essentially animal role, bringing two bodies together for sex on a merely instinctive level. This physical, sexual attraction was certainly present in the original state, but it was lifted up by the spirit to a call for personal union, not just physical. Without that spiritual lift, it becomes rather an obstacle to personal expression and an obstacle to love.

The heart has become a battlefield between love and concupiscence…[lust] appears in many forms in the human heart: it is not always plain and obvious; sometimes it is concealed, so that it passes itself off as “love.” … Does this mean that we should distrust the human heart? No! It is only to say that we must remain in control of it.     ~TOB 32.3

Loss of Self as a Gift

Every person is created as a gift – a gift from God to himself, a gift from God to the rest of the world, and a gift from himself to another person / other people. To give yourself as a gift implies that you “own” yourself – that I am mine to give. Unfortunately, due to concupiscence, we aren’t completely in control of ourselves. Self-mastery is required before we can truly make a self-gift.

At the same time, through concupiscence we lose the ability to see and receive the other person as a gift, seeing them instead as an object that we can simply claim for our own use. To give an analogy: I see a beautiful garden in a front lawn. I might think of those flowers as belonging to the one who owns the house and planted them, as something that she could give to whomever she wanted or to no one at all, though I am free to walk by and admire them. Or, I could think, “Great! Flowers! These would look perfect in my kitchen,” pick them, and bring them home as if they were wild flowers, a common resource for anyone. A man could see a woman and think of her body, mind and heart as belonging to her, as something she can choose to bestow in friendship and marriage, while respectfully admiring her. Or, he could think, in the words of a popular song, “Gotta get me some of that!” as if she, too, were a common resource to be used by any man who wants her. Of course, if he does use her in this way, he is condemning himself to be only an object for her enjoyment as well.

“Your desire will be for your husband, but he will dominate you.” We already touched on (last post) the idea that the woman is more, or at least differently, affected by the break in personal communion caused by sin. To reflect on this more deeply, recall the fundamental roles of the man and the woman – the woman as the gift, and the man as the receiver of the gift. The man initiates the gift-communion relationship by receiving the beautiful woman as a gift for him, and giving himself back to her in turn. The point is not that the woman is primarily the one objectified in lust, because the man is more likely to lust, but rather that “the man ought to have been ‘from the beginning’ the guardian of the reciprocity of the gift and of its true balance… It is in open conflict with this exchange to take from the woman her own gift by concupiscence.” (TOB 33.2)

The man has the particular role and responsibility of safeguarding the balance and respect of the sexual relationship, though both are certainly responsible. While the scriptural foundations of this idea (Gn 3:16, Mt 5:28) were impacted by the social marginalization of women at the times they were written, they also contain a universal truth about  humanity and sexuality independent of specific cultural customs and conditioning.

“MY” Husband, “MY” Wife

“My beloved is mine, and I am his.” (Song 2:16)
“They shall be my people, and I shall be their God.” (Jeremiah 32:38)

The personal possessive, “my,” has always been applied appropriately to the relationship between a husband and wife.” But what does it mean in this context? Is it the same as “my backpack” or “my house”? These terms imply that a person possesses property. But when applied properly to the spousal relationship, “my beloved,” the meaning is actually the opposite. “My” has the meaning of analogy only.

In a sexual relationship dominated and corrupted by concupiscence, however, “my” ceases to be an analogy and is interpreted literally. I possess my wife (or even my girlfriend), she is my property, and I can use and enjoy her whenever and however I want. This kind of self-serving enjoyment of the other person completely excludes the possibility of the free mutual gift. How can I give myself to you if you are already using me as if you owned me?


All of us can say with St. Paul, “there exists another law at war with the law of my mind.” (Romans 7:23) While the force of original innocence persists, urging us toward true personal communion, love, and the gift of self, there is also the force of original sin, urging us to dominate, possess and use the other person. When we interact with the opposite sex, we are in “almost constant danger” of letting the desire of the body – objectification – prove stronger than the desire of the mind – love.

Now that we have discussed our fallen nature and some effects of concupiscence, we are going to change focus and discuss ethics – given that this is our nature, what are we supposed to do? The next few posts will focus on the the words of Christ, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” We will see how Jesus shifts the focus of ethics from exterior actions to the interior acts of the heart.



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