The Value of Continence Is Found in Love

Author: Pope John Paul II

The Value of Continence Is Found in Love

Pope John Paul II


At the weekly audience on Wednesday, on 21 April, held in St Peter's Square, Pope John Paul II continued his catechetical series on continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Following is the text of his discourse.

1. Let us continue our reflections on Christ's words about continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is impossible to understand fully the significance and the nature of continence if the last phrase of Christ's statement, "for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven," is not complete in its adequate, concrete and objective content. We have previously said that this phrase expresses the motive, or in a certain sense places in relief, the subjective purpose of Christ's call to continence. However, the expression in itself has an objective character. It indicates an objective reality for which individual persons, men and women, can "make themselves" eunuchs (as Christ says). The reality of the Kingdom in Christ's statement according to Matthew (19:11-12) is defined in a precise, but at the same time general way, so as to be able to include all the determinations and particular meanings that are proper to it.

Temporal establishment

2. The Kingdom of Heaven means the Kingdom of God, which Christ preached in its final, that is, eschatological, completion. Christ preached this kingdom in its temporal realization or establishment, and at the same time he foretold it in its eschatological completion. The temporal establishment of the Kingdom of God is at the same time its beginning and its preparation for definitive fulfillment. Christ calls to this kingdom and in a certain sense invites everyone to it (cf. the parable of the wedding banquet in Mt 22:1-14). If he calls some to continence "for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven," it follows from the content of that expression that he calls them to participate in a singular way in the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth, through which the definitive phase of the Kingdom of Heaven is begun and prepared.

Kingdom for all

3. In this sense we have said that this call bears in itself the particular sign of the dynamism of the mystery of the redemption of the body. Therefore, as we have already mentioned, continence for the sake of the Kingdom of God manifests the renunciation of one's self, taking up one's cross every day, and following Christ (cf. Lk 9:23). This can reach the point of implying the renunciation of marriage and a family of one's own. All this arises from the conviction that in this way it is possible to contribute more greatly to the realization of the Kingdom of God in its earthly dimension with the prospect of eschatological completion. In his statement according to Matthew (19:11-12), Christ said generically that the voluntary renunciation of marriage has this purpose, but he did not say so specifically. In his first statement on this subject, he still did not specify through what concrete obligation this voluntary continence is necessary and even indispensable for the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth and for its preparation for future fulfillment. We will hear something further on this point from Paul of Tarsus (1 Cor) and the rest will be completed by the life of the Church in her historical development, borne by the current of authentic Tradition.

4. In Christ's statement on continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, we do not find any more detailed indication about how to understand that kingdom—with regard to its earthly realization and its definitive completion—in its specific and exceptional relation with those who voluntarily "make themselves eunuchs" for it.

Neither is it said through which particular aspect of the reality that constitutes the Kingdom are those associated to it who freely are made "eunuchs." In fact, we know that the Kingdom of Heaven is for everybody. Those who "marry and are given in marriage" also are in a relation with it on earth (and in heaven). For everybody it is the Lord's vineyard in which they must work here on earth, and subsequently it is the Father's house in which they must be in eternity. Therefore, what is that kingdom for those who choose voluntary continence in view of it?

Clear expression of Christ's teaching

5. For now, we do not find any answer to this question in Christ's statement as reported by Matthew (19:11-12). It seems that this is in keeping with the character of the whole statement. Christ answered his disciples in such a way as not to keep in line with their thought and their evaluation, which contained, at least indirectly, a utilitarian attitude regarding marriage ("If this is the is better not to marry": Mt 19:10). The Master explicitly evaded these general lines of the problem. Therefore, speaking about continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, he did not indicate in this way why the renunciation of marriage is worthwhile, so that the "it is better" would not be understood by his disciples in any utilitarian sense. He said only that this continence is at times required, if not indispensable, for the Kingdom of God. With this he pointed out that continence, in the kingdom which Christ preached and to which he calls, constitutes a particular value in itself. Those who voluntarily choose it must do so with regard to that value it has, and not as a result of any other calculation whatever.

6. This essential tone of Christ's answer, which refers directly to continence itself "for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven," can also be referred indirectly to the previous problem of marriage (cf. Mt 19:3-9). Therefore, considering his statement as a whole, according to Christ's basic intention, the answer would be as follows. If anyone chooses marriage, he must choose it just as it was instituted by the Creator "from the beginning." He must seek in it those values that correspond to God's plan. If on the other hand anyone decides to pursue continence for the Kingdom of Heaven, he must seek in it the values proper to such a vocation. In other words, one must act in conformity with his chosen vocation.

Seek values proper to vocation

7. The Kingdom of Heaven is certainly the definitive fulfillment of the aspirations of all men, to whom Christ addressed his message. It is the fullness of the good that the human heart desires beyond the limits of all that can be his lot in this earthly life. It is the maximum fullness of God's bounty toward man. In his conversation with the Sadducees (cf. Mt 22:24-30; Mk 12:18-27; Lk 20:27-40), which we have previously analyzed, we find other details about that kingdom, or rather about that other world. There are still more in the whole New Testament. Therefore, it seems that to clarify what the Kingdom of Heaven is for those who choose voluntary continence for its sake, the revelation of the nuptial relationship of Christ with the Church has a particular significance. Among the other texts, however, a decisive one is that from Ephesians 5:25ff. It will be especially well to rely on this when we consider the question of the sacramentality of marriage.

That text is equally valid both for the theology of marriage and for the theology of continence for the sake of the kingdom, that is, the theology of virginity or celibacy. It seems that in that text we find almost concretized what Christ had said to his disciples, inviting them to voluntary continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

8. In this analysis it has already been sufficiently emphasized that Christ's words—with all their great conciseness—are fundamental, full of essential content and also characterized by a certain severity. There is no doubt that Christ put out his call to continence in the perspective of the other world. But in this call he put the emphasis on everything which expresses the temporal realism of the decision for such continence, a decision bound with the will to share in the redeeming work of Christ.

So, therefore, in the light of Christ's respective words reported by Matthew (19:11-12), the depth and the gravity of the decision to live in continence for the sake of the Kingdom emerge above all, and the importance of the renunciation that such a decision implies finds its expression. Undoubtedly, throughout all this, through the gravity and depth of the decision, through the severity and the responsibility that it bears with it, love appears and shines through, love as the readiness to give the exclusive gift of oneself for the sake of the Kingdom of God. However, in Christ's words this love seems to be veiled by what is put in the foreground instead. Christ did not conceal from his disciples the fact that the choice of continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven is—viewed in the light of temporal categories—a renunciation. That way of speaking to his disciples, which clearly expresses the truth of his teaching and of the demands contained in it, is significant through the whole Gospel. It is precisely this that confers on it, among other things, so convincing a mark and power.

In the name of love

9. It is natural for the human heart to accept demands, even difficult ones, in the name of love for an ideal, and above all in the name of love for a person (love, in fact, is by its very nature directed toward a person). Therefore, in the call to continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, first the disciples themselves, and then the whole living Tradition of the Church, will soon discover the love that is referred to Christ himself as the Spouse of the Church, the Spouse of souls, to whom He has given himself to the very limit, in the Paschal and Eucharistic Mystery.

In this way, continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, the choice of virginity or celibacy for one's whole life, has become, in the experience of Christ's disciples and followers, the act of a particular response of love for the divine Spouse, and therefore has acquired the significance of an act of nuptial love, that is, a nuptial giving of oneself for the purpose of reciprocating in a particular way the nuptial love of the Redeemer: a giving of oneself understood as renunciation, but made above all out of love.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 April 1982, page 3

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