Celibacy for the Kingdom Affirms Marriage

Author: Pope John Paul II

Celibacy for the Kingdom Affirms Marriage

Pope John Paul II


At the general audience in St Peter's Square on Wednesday, 5 May, Pope John Paul II concluded his considerations on Christ's words recommending continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

1. In answering the Pharisees' questions about marriage and its indissolubility, Christ referred to the beginning, that is, to its original institution on the part of the Creator. Since those with whom he was speaking recalled the law of Moses, which provided for the possibility of the so-called "decree of divorce," he answered, "Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses permitted you to divorce your wives, but it was not so from the beginning" (Mt 19:8).

After the conversation with the Pharisees, Christ's disciples addressed the following words to him: "'If this is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.' He answered them, 'Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it'" (Mt 19:10-12).

Understanding values

2. Christ's words undoubtedly allude to a conscious and voluntary renunciation of marriage. This renunciation is possible only when one admits an authentic knowledge of that value that is constituted by the nuptial disposition of masculinity and femininity to marriage. In order for man to be fully aware of what he is choosing (continence for the sake of the kingdom), he must also be fully aware of what he is renouncing. (It is a question here of the knowledge of the value in an ideal sense; nevertheless this knowledge is after all realistic.) In this way, Christ certainly demands a mature choice. The form in which the call to continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is expressed proves this without a doubt.

Renunciation is not enough

3. But a renunciation made with full awareness of the above-mentioned value is not enough. In the light of Christ's words, and also in the light of the whole authentic Christian Tradition, it is possible to deduce that this renunciation is at the same time a particular form of affirming that value from which the unmarried person consistently abstains, following the evangelical counsel. This can seem paradoxical. Nevertheless, it is known that many statements in the Gospel are paradoxical, and those are often the most eloquent and profound. Accepting such a meaning of the call to continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, we draw a correct conclusion, holding that the realization of this call serves also—and in a particular way—to confirm the nuptial meaning of the human body in its masculinity and femininity. The renunciation of marriage for the kingdom of God at the same time highlights that meaning in all its interior truth and personal beauty. We can say that this renunciation on the part of individual persons, men and women, in a certain sense is indispensable. This is so that the nuptial meaning of the body can be more easily recognized in all the ethos of human life and above all in the ethos of conjugal and family life.

Aspects to consider

4. So, therefore, although continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (virginity, celibacy) orients the life of persons who freely choose it toward the exclusion of the common way of conjugal and family life, nevertheless it is not without significance for this life, for its style, its value and its evangelical authenticity. Let us not forget that the only key to understanding the sacramentality of marriage is the spousal love of Christ for the Church (cf. Eph 5:22-23): Christ, the Son of the Virgin, who was himself a virgin, that is, a "eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven," in the most perfect meaning of the term. It will be convenient for us to take up this point again at a later time.

5. At the end of these reflections there still remains a concrete problem: In what way is this call formed in man, to whom the call to continence for the sake of the kingdom has been given, on the basis of the knowledge of the nuptial meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity, and further, as the fruit of such knowledge? In what way is it formed, or rather transformed? This question is equally important, both from the viewpoint of the theology of the body, and from the viewpoint of the development of the human personality, which has a personalistic and charismatic character at the same time. If we should want to answer this question exhaustively—in the measure of all the aspects and all the concrete problems that it includes—it would be necessary to make a study based on the relationship between marriage and virginity and between marriage and celibacy. However this would go beyond the limits of the present considerations.

Value in this life

6. Remaining within the sphere of Christ's words according to Matthew (19:11-12), we must conclude our reflections with the following affirmation. First, if continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven undoubtedly signifies a renunciation, this renunciation is at the same time an affirmation: an affirmation that arises from the discovery of the gift, that is, at the same time from the discovery of a new perspective of the personal realization of oneself "through a sincere gift of oneself" (Gaudium et Spes 24). This discovery still lies in a profound interior harmony with the significance of the nuptial meaning of the body, bound "from the beginning" to the masculinity or femininity of man as a personal subject. Second, although continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is identified with the renunciation of marriage, which in the life of a man and woman gives rise to the family, in no way can one see in this a denial of the essential value of marriage. On the contrary, continence serves indirectly to highlight what is most lasting and most profoundly personal in the vocation to marriage. It highlights that which in the dimensions of temporality (and at the same time in the perspective of the other world) corresponds to the dignity of the personal gift, bound to the nuptial meaning of the body in its masculinity or femininity.

Capital significance

7. In this way, Christ's call to continence "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven," rightly associated to the reference to the future resurrection (cf. Mt 21:24-30; Mk 12:18-27; Lk 20:27-40), has a capital significance not only for Christian ethos and spirituality, but also for anthropology and for the whole theology of the body, which we discover at its foundation. We remember that Christ, referring to the resurrection of the body in the other world, said, according to the version of the three synoptic Gospels, "When they rise from the dead...they will neither marry nor be given in marriage..." (Mk 12:25). These words, already analyzed, form part of our overall considerations on the theology of the body and contribute to building up this theology.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 May 1982, page 3

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