Marriage and Continence Complement Each Other

Author: Pope John Paul II

Marriage and Continence Complement Each Other

Pope John Paul II


At the general audience in St Peter's Square on 14 April, the Holy Father delivered the following address.

No reference to inferiority of marriage

1. Let us now continue our reflections of the previous weeks on the words about continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven which Christ addressed to his disciples, according to the Gospel of Matthew (cf. 19:10-12).

Let us say once more that these words, as concise as they are, are admirably rich and precise. They are rich with a number of implications both of a doctrinal and pastoral nature. At the same time they establish a proper limit on the subject. Therefore, any kind of Manichaean interpretation decidedly goes beyond that limit, so that, according to what Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, there is lustful desire "in the heart" (Mt 5:27-28).

In Christ's words on continence for the kingdom of heaven there is no reference to the inferiority of marriage with regard to the body, or in other words with regard to the essence of marriage, consisting in the fact that man and woman join together in marriage, thus becoming one flesh. "The two will become one flesh" (Gn 2:24). Christ's words recorded in Matthew 19:11-12 (as also the words of Paul in 1 Cor 7) give no reason to assert the inferiority of marriage, nor the superiority of virginity or celibacy inasmuch as by their nature virginity and celibacy consist in abstinence from the conjugal union in the body. Christ's words on this point are quite clear. He proposes to his disciples the ideal of continence and the call to it, not by reason of inferiority, nor with prejudice against conjugal union of the body, but only for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

Relationship between marriage and continence

2. In this light a deeper clarification of the expression "for the sake of the kingdom. of heaven" is especially useful. This is what we shall try to do in the following, at least briefly. However, with regard to the correct understanding of the relationship between marriage and continence that Christ speaks about, and the understanding of that relationship as all Tradition has understood it, it is worthwhile to add that superiority and inferiority fall within the limits of the same complementarity of marriage and continence for the kingdom of God.

Marriage and continence are neither opposed to each other, nor do they divide the human (and Christian) community into two camps (let us say, those who are "perfect" because of continence and those who are "imperfect" or "less perfect" because of the reality of married life). But as it is often said, these two basic situations, these two "states," in a certain sense explain and complete each other as regards the existence and Christian life of this community. In its entirety and in each of its members this is fulfilled in the dimension of the kingdom of God and has an eschatological orientation, which is precisely of that kingdom. So, with regard to this dimension and this orientation—in which the entire community, that is, all of those who belong to it, must share in the faith—continence for the kingdom of heaven has a particular importance and a special eloquence for those who live a married life. Besides, these constitute the majority.

3. It therefore seems that a complementarity understood in this way finds its foundation in the words of Christ according to Matthew 19:11-12 (and also 1 Cor 7). On the other hand there is no basis for a presumed counterposition according to which celibates (or unmarried persons), only by reason of their continence, would make up the class of those who are "perfect," and, to the contrary, married persons would make up a class of those who are "imperfect" (or "less perfect"). If, according to a certain theological tradition, one speaks of a state of perfection (status perfectionis), it is done not by reason of continence in itself. But it is in regard to the entirety of a life based on the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity and obedience), since this life corresponds to Christ's call to perfection: "If you would be perfect..." (Mt 19:21). Perfection of the Christian life, instead, is measured with the rule of charity. It follows that a person who does not live in the state of perfection (that is, in an institute that bases its life plan on vows of poverty, chastity and obedience), or in other words, who does not live in a religious institute but in the "world," can defacto reach a superior degree of perfection—whose measure is charity—in comparison to the person who lives in the state of perfection with a lesser degree of charity. In any case, the evangelical counsels undoubtedly help us to achieve a fuller charity. Therefore, whoever achieves it, even if he does not live in an institutionalized state of perfection, reaches that perfection which flows from charity, through fidelity to the spirit of those counsels. Such perfection is possible and accessible to every person, both in a religious institute and in the "world."


4. It seems then that the complementarity of marriage and continence for the kingdom of heaven, in their significance and manifold importance, adequately corresponds to Christ's words recorded in Matthew (19:11-12). In the life of an authentically Christian community the attitudes and values proper to the one and the other state—that is, to one or the other essential and conscious choice as a vocation for one's entire earthly life and in the perspective of the "heavenly Church"—complete and in a certain sense interpenetrate each other. Perfect conjugal love must be marked by that fidelity and that donation to the only Spouse (and also of the fidelity and donation of the Spouse to the only Bride), on which religious profession and priestly celibacy are founded. Finally, the nature of one and the other love is "conjugal," that is, expressed through the total gift of oneself. Both types of love tend to express that conjugal meaning of the body which from the beginning has been inscribed in the personal makeup of man and woman. We shall return to this point at a later date.

Each his special gift

5. On the other hand, conjugal love which finds its expression in continence for the kingdom of heaven must lead in its normal development to paternity or maternity in a spiritual sense (in other words, precisely to that fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit that we have already spoken about), in a way analogous to conjugal love, which matures in physical paternity and maternity, and in this way confirms itself as conjugal love. For its part, physical procreation also fully responds to its meaning only if it is completed by paternity and maternity in the spirit, whose expression and fruit is all the educative work of the parents in regard to the children born of their conjugal corporeal union.

As can be seen, there are many aspects and spheres of the complementarity between the vocation, in an evangelical sense, of those who "marry and are given in marriage" (Lk 20:34), and of those who knowingly and voluntarily choose continence "for the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 19:12).

In First Corinthians (which we will analyze later in our considerations), St. Paul will write on this subject: "Each has his special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another" (1 Cor 7:7).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 April 1982, page 10

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