Virginity or Celibacy for the Sake of the Kingdom

Author: Pope John Paul II

Virginity or Celibacy for the Sake of the Kingdom

Pope John Paul II


During the general audience in the Paul VI Hall on 10 March, the Holy Father commenced a series of talks on the subject of virginity or celibacy "for the kingdom of heaven".

1. Today we begin to reflect on virginity or celibacy for the kingdom of heaven. The question of the call to an exclusive donation of self to God in virginity and in celibacy thrusts its roots deep in the Gospel soil of the theology of the body. To indicate the dimensions proper to it, one must bear in mind Christ's words about the beginning, and also what he said about the resurrection of the body. The observation, "When they rise from the dead they neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Mk 12:25), indicates that there is a condition of life without marriage. In that condition, man, male and female, finds at the same time the fullness of personal donation and of the intersubjective communion of persons, thanks to the glorification of his entire psychosomatic being in the eternal union with God. When the call to continence for the kingdom of heaven finds an echo in the human soul, in the conditions of this temporal life, that is, in the conditions in which persons usually "marry and are given in marriage" (Lk 20:34), it is not difficult to perceive there a particular sensitiveness of the human spirit. Already in the conditions of the present temporal life this seems to anticipate what man will share in, in the future resurrection.

Christ on divorce

2. However, Christ did not speak of this problem, of this particular vocation, in the immediate context of his conversation with the Sadducees (cf. Mt 22:23-30; Mk 12:18-25; Lk 20:27-36), when there was reference to the resurrection of the body. Instead he had already spoken of it in the context of his conversation with the Pharisees on marriage and on the grounds of indissolubility, as if it were a continuation of that conversation (cf. Mt 19:3-9). His concluding words concern the so-called certificate of divorce permitted by Moses in some cases. Christ said, "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except in the case of concubinage, and marries another, commits adultery" (Mt 19:8-9). Then the disciples who—as can be deduced from the context—were listening attentively to the conversation and especially to the final words spoken by Jesus, said to him: "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry" (Mt 19:10). Christ gave the following reply: "Not all men can receive the 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 19:11-12).

Christ's words on voluntary continence

3. In regard to this conversation recorded by Matthew one could ask the question: what did the disciples think when, after hearing Jesus' reply to the Pharisees, they remarked: "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry"? Christ considered it an opportune occasion to speak to them about voluntary continence for the kingdom of heaven. In saying this, he did not directly take a position in regard to what the disciples said, nor did he remain in the line of their reasoning.(1) Hence he did not reply: "It is expedient to marry" or "It is not expedient to marry." The question of continence for the kingdom of heaven is not set in opposition to marriage, nor is it based on a negative judgment in regard to its importance. After all, speaking previously about the indissolubility of marriage, Christ had referred to the beginning, that is, to the mystery of creation, thereby indicating the first and fundamental source of its value. Consequently, to reply to the disciples' question, or rather, to clarify the problem placed by them, Christ recurred to another principle. Those who in life choose continence for the kingdom of heaven do so, not because it is inexpedient to marry or because of a supposed negative value of marriage, but in view of the particular value connected with this choice and which must be discovered and welcomed personally as one's own vocation. For that reason Christ said: "He who is able to receive this, let him receive it" (Mt 19:12). But immediately beforehand he said: "Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given" (Mt 19:11).

Grace needed to accept continence

4. As can be seen, in his reply to the disciples' problem, Christ stated clearly a rule for the understanding of his words. In the Church's doctrine the conviction exists that these words do not express a command by which all are bound, but a counsel which concerns only some persons(2)—those precisely who are able "to receive it." Those able "to receive it" are those "to whom it has been given." The words quoted clearly indicate the importance of the personal choice and also the importance of the particular grace, that is, of the gift which man receives to make such a choice. It may be said that the choice of continence for the kingdom of heaven is a charismatic orientation toward that eschatological state in which men "neither marry nor are given in marriage." However, there is an essential difference between man's state in the resurrection of the body and the voluntary choice of continence for the kingdom of heaven in the earthly life and in the historical state of man fallen and redeemed. The eschatological absence of marriage will be a state, that is, the proper and fundamental mode of existence of human beings, men and women, in their glorified bodies. Continence for the kingdom of heaven, as the fruit of a charismatic choice, is an exception in respect to the other stage, namely, that state in which man "from the beginning" became and remains a participant during the course of his whole earthly existence.

Continence is exceptional

5. It is very significant that Christ did not directly link his words on continence for the kingdom of heaven with his foretelling of the "other world" in which "they will neither marry nor be given in marriage" (Mk 12:25). However, as we already said, his words are found in the prolongation of the conversation with the Pharisees in which Jesus referred to the beginning. He was indicating the institution of marriage on the part of the Creator, and recalling its indissoluble character which, in God's plan, corresponds to the conjugal unity of man and woman.

The counsel and therefore the charismatic choice of continence for the kingdom of heaven are linked, in Christ's words, with the highest recognition of the historical order of human existence relative to the soul and body. On the basis of the immediate context of the words on continence for the kingdom of heaven in man's earthly life, one must see in the vocation to such continence a kind of exception to what is rather a general rule of this life. Christ indicates this especially. That such an exception contains within itself the anticipation of the eschatological life without marriage and proper to the "other world" (that is, of the final stage of the "kingdom of heaven"), is not directly spoken of here by Christ. It is a question indeed, not of continence in the kingdom of heaven, but of continence for the kingdom of heaven. The idea of virginity or of celibacy as an anticipation and eschatological sign(3) derives from the association of the words spoken here with those which Jesus uttered on another occasion, in the conversation with the Sadducees, when he proclaimed the future resurrection of the body.

We shall resume this theme in the course of the following Wednesday reflections.


1. On the more detailed problems of the exegesis of this passage, see for example: L. Sabourin, II Vangelo di Matteo, Teologia e Esegesi, Vol. II (Roma: Ed. Paoline, 1977), pp. 834-836; "The Positive Values of Consecrated Celibacy," The Way, Supplement 10, summer 1970, p. 51; J. Blinzler, "Eisin eunuchoi, Zur Auslegung von Mt 19:12," Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, 48 (1957) 268ff.

2. "Likewise, the holiness of the Church is fostered in a special way by the observance of the counsels proposed in the Gospel by Our Lord to his disciples. An eminent position among these is held by virginity or the celibate state. This is a precious gift of divine grace given by the Father to certain souls (cf. Mt 19:11; 1 Cor 7:7), whereby they may devote themselves to God alone the more easily, due to an undivided heart" (Lumen Gentium 42).

3. Cf. Lumen Gentium 44; Perfectae Caritatis 12.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 March 1982, page 3

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