Continence an effective and privileged way

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 and, as appears from the context of Matthew's Gospel, it is a particularly 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 particularly efficacious and important for “the Kingdom of Heaven.” And 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 before, 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 case... it is not expedient to marry” (Mt 19:10).   Their words implied a certain utilitarianism. Christ, however, in his reply indicated indirectly that if marriage, true to its original institution by the Creator (we recall that the Master at this very point spoke of the “beginning”), is fully appropriate and of a value that is fundamental, universal and ordinary, 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 which does not merely show us the Kingdom of God in its future fulfilment, but 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 behaviour.  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), and in this sense it possesses also the characteristic of a particular likeness to Christ.  He who 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. Christ, in the case in question, does 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.  And 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, by indicating 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 speaks of an understanding (“not all men can understand it, but only those to whom it is given”: Mt 19:11); and 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.” Christ, in the second part of his statement, declares 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 there exists a supernatural motivation, from which the decision itself originated.  It subsists by renewing itself, I would say, 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: a vocation that 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 takes a stand against the whole tradition of the Old Covenant, according to which marriage and procreation were, as we have said, religiously privileged, but he expresses himself, in a certain sense, even in opposition to that “beginning” to which he himself had appealed and perhaps also for this he nuances 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 in fact that, even though it be possible to conceive man as solitary before God, however God himself draws him from this “solitude” when he says: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18).

6. So, then, the double aspect, male and female, proper to the very constitution of humanity, and the unity of the two which is based on it, remain “from the beginning”, that is, to their ontological depth, the work of God.  Christ, speaking of continence “for the Kingdom of Heaven”, has before him this reality. Not without reason does he speak of it (according to Matthew) in the most immediate context in which he refers precisely “to the beginning”, that is, to the divine beginning of marriage in the very constitution of man.

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

L'Osservatore Romano April 05-12, 1982
Reprinted with permission