Superiority of Continence Does Not Devalue Marriage

Author: Pope John Paul II

The Superiority of Continence Does Not Devalue Marriage

Pope John Paul II


At the general audience of 7 April, held in St Peter's Square, the Holy Father continued his catechetical series on the value of continence with the following discourse.

1. With our gaze fixed on Christ the Redeemer, let us now continue our reflections on celibacy and virginity "for the kingdom of heaven", according to the words of Christ recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 19:10-12).

Man "alone" before God

In proclaiming continence for the kingdom of heaven, Christ fully accepted all that the Creator wrought and instituted from the beginning. Consequently, on the one hand, continence must demonstrate that in his deepest being, man is not only "dual," but also (in this duality) "alone" before God, with God. Nevertheless, on the other hand, what is an invitation to solitude for God in the call to continence for the kingdom of heaven at the same time respects both the "dual nature of mankind" (that is, his masculinity and femininity), and the dimension of communion of existence that is proper to the person. Whoever, in compliance with Christ's words, correctly comprehends the call to continence for the kingdom of heaven and responds to it, thereby preserves the integral truth of his own humanity. He does this without losing along the way any of the essential elements of the vocation of the person created in God's image and likeness. This is important to the idea itself, or rather, to the idea of continence, that is, for its objective content, which appears in Christ's teachings as radically new. It is equally important to the accomplishment of that ideal, in order for the actual decision made by man or woman to live in celibacy or virginity for the kingdom of heaven (he who "makes himself" a eunuch, to use Christ's words) to be fully sincere in its motivation.

"Breaking away from"

2. From the context of the Gospel according to Matthew (Mt 19:10-12), it can be seen sufficiently clearly that here it is not a question of diminishing the value of matrimony in favor of continence, nor of lessening the value of one in comparison with the other. Instead, it is a question of breaking away from, with full awareness, that which in man, by the Creator's will, causes him to marry, and to move toward continence. This reveals itself to the concrete man, masculine or feminine, as a call and gift of particular eloquence and meaning for the kingdom of heaven. Christ's words (cf. Mt 19:11-12) arise from the reality of man's condition. With the same realism, they lead him out toward the call in which, in a new way—even though remaining "dual" by nature (that is, directed as man toward woman, and as woman, toward man)—he is capable of discovering in his solitude, which never ceases to be a personal dimension of everyone's dual nature, a new and even fuller form of intersubjective communion with others. This guidance of the call explains explicitly the expression "for the kingdom of heaven." Indeed, the achievement of this kingdom must be found along the line of the authentic development of the image and likeness of God in its trinitarian meaning, that is, precisely of communion. By choosing continence for the kingdom of heaven, man has the knowledge of being able in that way to fulfill himself differently and, in a certain way, more than through matrimony, becoming a "true gift to others" (cf. Gaudium et Spes 24).

3. Through the words recorded in Matthew (Mt 19:11-12), Christ makes us understand clearly that that going toward continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is linked with a voluntary giving up of matrimony. In that state, man and woman (according to the meaning the Creator gave to their union "in the beginning") become gifts to one another through their masculinity and femininity, also through their physical union. Continence means a conscious and voluntary renouncement of that union and all that is connected to it in the full meaning of life and human society. The man who renounces matrimony also gives up procreation as the foundation of the family, concessive renouncements and voluntary children. The words of Christ to which we refer indicate without doubt this kind of renunciation, although they do not go into detail. The way in which these words were stated leads us to assume that Christ understood the importance of such a sacrifice, and that he understood it not only in view of the opinions on the subject prevailing in Jewish society at that time. He understood the importance of this sacrifice also in relationship to the good which matrimony and the family in themselves constitute due to their divine institution. Therefore, through the way in which he stated the words he made it understood that breaking away from the circle of the good that he himself called "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven," is connected with a certain self-sacrifice. That break also becomes the beginning of successive self-sacrifices that are indispensable if the first and fundamental choice must be consistent in the breadth of one's entire earthly life. Thanks only to such consistency, that choice is internally reasonable and not contradictory.

Concupiscence remains

4. In this way, in the call to continence as Christ stated it—concisely but at the same time precisely—the outline and dynamism of the mystery of the redemption emerge, as has previously been stated. It is the same profile under which Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, pronounced the words about the need to guard against concupiscence, against the desire that begins with "looking at" and becomes at that very moment "adultery in the heart." Behind Matthew's words, both in chapter 19 (verses 11-12) and in chapter 5 (verses 27-28), the same anthropology and the same ethos are found. In the invitation to voluntary continence for the kingdom of heaven, the prospects of this ethos are enlarged upon. The anthropology of historical man is found in the overall view of the words of the Sermon on the Mount. In the overall view of the words on voluntary continence, essentially the same anthropology remains. But it is illumined by the prospect of the kingdom of heaven, in other words, of the future anthropology of the resurrection. Nonetheless, along the path of this voluntary continence during earthly life, the anthropology of the resurrection does not replace the anthropology of historical man. In him the heritage of the threefold concupiscence remains at the same time, the heritage of sin together with the heritage of redemption. It remains in the one who must make the decision about continence for the kingdom of heaven. He must put this decision into effect, subjugating the sinfulness of his human nature to the forces that spring from the mystery of the redemption of the body. He must do so just as any other man does who has not made a similar decision and whose way remains that of matrimony. The only difference is the type of responsibility for the good chosen, just as the type of good chosen is different.

Exceptional call

5. n his pronouncement, did Christ perhaps suggest the superiority of continence for the kingdom of heaven to matrimony? Certainly, he said that this is an exceptional vocation, not a common one. In addition he affirmed that it is especially important and necessary to the kingdom of heaven. If we understand superiority to matrimony in this sense, we must admit that Christ set it out implicitly. However, he did not express it directly. Only Paul will say of those who choose matrimony that they do "well." About those who are willing to live in voluntary continence, he will say that they do "better" (1 Cor 7:38).

6. That is also the opinion of the whole of Tradition, both doctrinal and pastoral. The "superiority" of continence to matrimony in the authentic Tradition of the Church never means disparagement of matrimony or belittlement of its essential value. It does not even mean a shift, even implicit, on the Manichean positions, or a support of ways of evaluating or acting based on the Manichean understanding of the body and sexuality, matrimony and procreation. The evangelical and authentically Christian superiority of virginity and continence is dictated by the motive of the kingdom of heaven. In Christ's words recorded in Matthew (Mt 19:11-12) we find a solid basis for admitting only this superiority, while we do not find any basis whatever for any disparagement of matrimony which, however, could have been present in the recognition of that superiority.

We shall return to this problem during our next reflections.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 April 1982, page 4

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