Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Fullness Of Interpersonal Communication, The

by Pope Saint John Paul II

Descriptive Title

The Fullness Of Interpersonal Communication


Pope John Paul II's catechesis on Genesis 2:25. The Holy Father addresses the question: "What is shame and how can we explain its absence in the state of original innocence, in the depth of the mystery of the creation of man as male and female?"

Publisher & Date

Vatican, December 19, 1979

What is shame and how can we explain its absence in the state of original innocence, in the depth of the mystery of the creation of man as male and female? From contemporary analyses of shame — and in particular of sexual modesty — we can deduce the complexity of this fundamental experience, in which man expresses himself as a person according to his own specific structure. In the experience of shame, the human being experiences fear with regard to his "second self," (for example, woman before man). This is substantially fear for one's own "self." With shame, the human being manifests almost instinctively the need of affirmation and acceptance of this "self," according to its rightful value. He experiences it at the same time both within himself, and externally, before the "other." Shame is a complex experience. Almost keeping one human being away from the other (woman from man), it seeks at the same time to draw them closer personally, creating a suitable basis and level to do so.

For the same reason, it has a fundamental significance as regards the formation of ethos in human society, and especially in the man-woman relationship. The analysis of shame clearly indicates how deeply it is rooted precisely in mutual relations, how exactly it expresses the essential rules for the "communion of persons," and likewise how deeply it touches the dimension of man's original "solitude." The appearance of shame in the subsequent biblical narration of chapter 3 of Genesis has a pluri-dimensional significance. It will be opportune to resume the analysis in due time.

On the other hand, what does its original absence mean in Genesis 2:25: "They were both naked and were not ashamed"? In the first place, it is a question of a real non-presence of shame, and not a lack of its development. We cannot in any way sustain here a "primitivization" of its meaning. Therefore the text of Genesis 2:25 does not only exclude decisively the possibility of thinking of a "lack of shame" or immodesty. Even more, it excludes the possibility of explaining it by analogy with some positive human experiences, such as those of childhood or of the life of so-called primitive peoples. These analogies are insufficient and can even be misleading. The words of Genesis 2:25: "They were not ashamed," do not express a lack, but, on the contrary, serve to indicate a particular fullness of consciousness and experience. Above all they indicate a full understanding of the meaning of the body, bound up with the fact that they were naked.

The continuation of the Yahwist narrative testifies that this is how the text quoted is to be understood and interpreted. In it, the appearance of shame, and in particular of sexual modesty, is connected with the loss of that original fullness. Taking the experience of shame as a "borderline" experience, we must ask ourselves what does the meaning of the original nakedness which Genesis 2:25 speaks of, correspond to? To what fullness of conscience and experience, and in particular to what full understanding of the meaning of the body, does the meaning of original nakedness correspond to?

To answer this question, we must keep in mind the analytical process carried out so far, which has its basis in the Yahwist passage as a whole. In this context, man's original solitude was manifested as "non-identification" of his own humanity with the world of living beings (animalia) that surround him.

This non-identification, following upon the creation of man as male and female, made way for the happy discovery of one's own humanity with the help of the other human being. Thus the man recognized and found again his own humanity with the help of the woman (cf. Gn 2:25). At the same time, this act of theirs realized a perception of the world, which was carried out directly through the body ("flesh of my flesh"). It was the direct and visible source of the experience that arrived at establishing their unity in humanity. It is easy to understand that nakedness corresponds to that fullness of consciousness of the meaning of the body, deriving from the typical perception of the senses.

One can think of this fullness in categories of truth of being or of reality, and it can be said that man and woman were originally given to each other precisely according to this truth, since they were naked. In analyzing the meaning of original nakedness, this dimension absolutely cannot be disregarded. This participating in perception of the world — in its "exterior" aspect — is a direct and almost spontaneous fact. It is prior to any "critical" complication of knowledge and of human experience and is seen as closely connected with the experience of the meaning of the human body. The original innocence of "knowledge" could already be perceived in this way.

However, it is not possible to determine the meaning of original nakedness considering only man's participation in exterior perception of the world. It is not possible to establish it without going into the depths of man. Genesis 2:25 introduces us specifically to this level and wants us to seek there the original innocence of knowing. The dimension of human interiority is necessary to explain and measure that particular fullness of interpersonal communication, thanks to which man and woman were naked and were not ashamed.

In our conventional language, the concept of communication has been practically alienated from its deepest, original semantic matrix. It is connected mainly with the sphere of the media, that is, for the most part, products that serve for understanding, exchange, and bringing closer together. On the other hand, it can be supposed that, in its original and deeper meaning, communication was and is directly connected with subjects. They communicate precisely on the basis of the common union that exists between them, both to reach and to express a reality that is peculiar and pertinent only to the sphere of person-subjects.

In this way, the human body acquires a completely new meaning, which cannot be placed on the plane of the remaining "external" perception of the world. It expresses the person in his ontological and existential concreteness, which is something more than the individual. Therefore the body expresses the personal human "self," which derives its exterior perception from within.

The whole biblical narrative, and in particular the Yahwist text, shows that the body through its own visibility manifests man. In manifesting him, it acts as intermediary, that is, it enables man and woman, right from the beginning, to communicate with each other according to that communio personarum willed by the Creator precisely for them. It seems that only this dimension enables us to rightly understand the meaning of original nakedness. In this connection, any "naturalistic" criterion is bound to fail, while, on the contrary, the "personalistic" criterion can be of great help. Genesis 2:25 certainly speaks of something extraordinary, which is outside the limits of the shame known through human experience. At the same time it decides the particular fullness of interpersonal communication, rooted at the very heart of that communio, which is thus revealed and developed. In this connection, the words "they were not ashamed" can mean in sensu obliquo only an original depth in affirming what is inherent in the person, what is "visibly" female and male, through which the personal intimacy of mutual communication in all its radical simplicity and purity is constituted. To this fullness of exterior perception, expressed by means of physical nakedness, there corresponds the interior fullness of man's vision in God, that is, according to the measure of the "image of God" (cf. Gn 1.:17). According to this measure, man "is" really naked ("They were naked" - Gn 2:25), even before realizing it (cf. Gn 3:7-10).

We shall still have to complete the analysis of this important text during the meditations that follow.

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