The Effective and Privileged Way of Continence

Author: Pope John Paul II

The Effective and Privileged Way of Continence

Pope John Paul II


At the general audience in St Peter's Square on 31 March, the Holy Father delivered the following address.

1. We continue our reflections on celibacy and on virginity for the kingdom of heaven, on the basis of Matthew's Gospel (Mt 19:10-12). Speaking of continence for the kingdom of heaven and basing it on the example of his own life, Christ undoubtedly wished that his disciples should understand it especially in relation to the kingdom which he had come to announce and for which he indicated the correct ways. The continence he spoke of is precisely one of these ways. As appears from the context of Matthew's Gospel, it is an especially effective and privileged way. Indeed, that preference given to celibacy and virginity for the kingdom was an absolute novelty in comparison with the old covenant tradition, and had a decisive significance both for the ethos and the theology of the body.

His own life a witness

2. Christ, in his statement, points out especially its finality. He says that the way of continence, to which his own life bore witness, not only exists and not only is it possible, but it is especially efficacious and important for the kingdom of heaven. So should it be, seeing that Christ chose it for himself. If this way is so efficacious and important, then continence for the kingdom of heaven must have a special value.As we have already noted, Christ did not approach the problem on the same level and according to the same line of reasoning in which it was posed by the disciples when they said: "If such is the is not expedient to marry" (Mt 19:10). Their words implied a certain utilitarianism. However, in his reply Christ indicated indirectly that marriage, true to its original institution by the Creator (we recall that the Master at this point spoke of the beginning), is fully appropriate and of a value that is fundamental, universal and ordinary. If this is so, then continence, on its part, possesses a particular and exceptional value for this kingdom. It is obviously a question of continence consciously chosen for supernatural motives.

3. If Christ in his statement points out, before all else, the supernatural finality of that continence, he does so not only in an objective sense, but also in a sense explicitly subjective—that is to say, he indicates the necessity of a motivation that corresponds adequately and fully to the objective finality implied by the expression "for the kingdom." To achieve the end in question—that is, to rediscover in continence that particular spiritual fruitfulness which comes from the Holy Spirit—then continence must be willed and chosen by virtue of a deep faith. This faith does not merely show us the kingdom of God in its future fulfillment. It permits us and makes it possible for us to identify ourselves in a special way with the truth and reality of that kingdom, such as it is revealed by Christ in his Gospel message and especially by the personal example of his life and manner of behavior. Hence, it was said above that continence for the kingdom of heaven—as an unquestionable sign of the other world—bears in itself especially the interior dynamism of the mystery of the redemption of the body (cf. Lk 20:35). In this sense it possesses also the characteristic of a particular likeness to Christ. Whoever consciously chooses such continence, chooses, in a certain sense, a special participation in the mystery of the redemption (of the body). He wishes in a particular way to complete it, so to say, in his own flesh (cf. Col 1:24), finding thereby also the imprint of a likeness to Christ.

Right motivation

4. All this refers to the motivation of the choice (or to its finality in the subjective sense). In choosing continence for the kingdom of heaven, man should let himself be guided precisely by this motivation. In the case in question, Christ did not say that man is obliged to it (in any event it is certainly not a question of a duty deriving from a commandment). However, without any doubt, his concise words on continence "for the kingdom of heaven" place in bold relief its precise motivation. They point that out (that is, they indicate the finality of which the subject is well aware), both in the first part of the entire statement, and also in the second part. They indicate that here it is a question of a particular choice—a choice that is proper to a rather exceptional vocation, and not one that is universal and ordinary.

At the beginning, in the first part of his statement, Christ spoke of an understanding: "Not all men can understand it, but only those to whom it is given" (Mt 19:11). It is not a question of an understanding in the abstract, but such as to influence the decision, the personal choice, in which the gift, that is, the grace should find an adequate response in the human will. Such an understanding involves the motivation. Subsequently, the motivation influences the choice of continence, accepted after having understood its significance for the kingdom of heaven. In the second part of his statement, Christ declared then that a man makes himself a eunuch when he chooses continence for the kingdom of heaven and makes it the fundamental situation or state of his whole earthly life. In such a firm decision a supernatural motivation exists, from which the decision itself originated. It subsists by renewing itself continually.

Viewed in the mystery of redemption

5. Previously we have already turned our attention to the particular significance of the final assertion. If Christ, in the case quoted, speaks of making oneself a eunuch, not only does he place in relief the specific importance of this decision which is explained by the motivation born of a deep faith, but he does not even seek to conceal the anguish that such a decision and its enduring consequences can have for a man for the normal (and on the other hand noble) inclinations of his nature.

The reference to "the beginning" in the problem of marriage enabled us to discover all the original beauty of that vocation of man, male and female. This vocation comes from God and corresponds to the twofold constitution of man, as well as to the call to the communion of persons. In preaching continence for the kingdom of God, Christ not only took a stand against the whole tradition of the old covenant, according to which marriage and procreation were religiously privileged, as we have said. But in a certain sense he expressed himself even in opposition to that beginning to which he himself had appealed. Perhaps also for this reason he nuanced his words with that particular rule of understanding to which we referred above. The analysis of the beginning (especially on the basis of the Yahwist text) had demonstrated that, even though it be possible to conceive man as solitary before God, God himself drew him from this solitude when he said: "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him" (Gn 2:18).

6. So then, the double aspect, male and female, proper to the constitution of humanity, and the unity of the two which is based on it, remain the work of God "from the beginning," that is, to their ontological depth. Speaking of continence for the kingdom of heaven, Christ had before him this reality. Not without reason did he speak of it (according to Matthew) in the most immediate context in which he referred precisely to the beginning, that is, to the divine beginning of marriage in the constitution of man.

On the strength of Christ's words it can be asserted that marriage helps us to understand continence for the kingdom of heaven. Not only that, but also continence itself sheds a particular light on marriage viewed in the mystery of creation and redemption.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5-12 April 1982, page 5

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