“Superiority” of continence does not devaluate marriage

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.

Beloved Brothers and Sisters!

Today's meeting falls during Holy Week, that is, during the central period of the liturgical year, which calls us to relive the so very important and basic events in the redemption brought about by Christ: the Last Supper, when Christ instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist, mystically anticipating and passing down by means of the priesthood the Sacrifice of the Cross; the Passion of Jesus Christ, beginning with the agony of Gethsemane up to the cruel crucifixion and death on the cross; and finally the glorious resurrection on the joyful Sunday of Easter.

They are moving, touching days, filled with a special atmosphere that all Christians know and feel. Therefore, they must be days of interior silence, of more intense prayer and special meditation on the extraordinary historical events which mark mankind’s redemption and which give true meaning to our existence.

I therefore urge you to live intensely these holy days with great love, and to take part in the liturgical functions in order to penetrate more deeply into the content of the faith so that you may draw from it resolutions for an authentic commitment to a consistently Christian life. Let us accompany the Holy Virgin along the road of Christ's Passion, looking on the tragedy of Good Friday in the light of a victorious Easter, in order to learn that all suffering must be accepted and interpreted in the perspective of the glorious resurrection and, most of all, to unite ourselves to Christ, who loved us so much that he gave himself for us (cf. Gal 2:20).

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 accepts all that from the beginning was wrought and instituted by the Creator.  Consequently, on the one hand, continence must demonstrate that man, in his deepest being, is not only "dual", but also (in this dualness) "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 responds to it, and thereby preserves the integral truth of his own humanity, 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; that is, in order for the actual decision taken 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 favour 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, which 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 (Mt 19:11-12) arise from the reality of man's condition and with the same realism lead him out towards the call in which, in a new way even though remaining "dual" by nature (that is, directed as man towards woman, and as woman, towards 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" (Gaudium et Spes, 24).

3. Through the words recorded in Matthew (Mt 19:11-12), Christ makes us understand clearly that that “going” towards continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven is linked with a voluntary giving up of matrimony, that is, of the state in which 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 comcessive 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. And 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 states the words he makes it understood that that breaking away from the circle of the good that he himself calls for "for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven", is connected with a certain self-sacrifice. That break also becomes the beginning of sucmunity consisting of parents and self-sacrifices that are indispensable if the first and fundamental choice must he consistent in the breadth of one's entire earthly life; and 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 it was stated by Christ—concisely but at the same time very precisely—the outline and dynamism of the mystery of the redemption merge, 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), are found the same anthropology and the same ethos.  In the invitation to voluntary continence for the Kingdom of Heaven, the prospects of this ethos are enlarged upon; in the overall view of the words of the Sermon on the Mount is found the anthropology of "historical" man.  In the overall view of the words on voluntary continence, essentially the same anthropology remains, but illuminated 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 whom remains at the same time the heritage of threefold concupiscence, the heritage of sin together with the heritage of redemption, who must take 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 taken 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. In his pronouncement, does Christ perhaps suggest the superiority of continence for the Kingdom of Heaven to matrimony? Certainly, he says that this is an “exceptional” vocation, not a “common” one. In addition he affirms that it is particularly 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 does not express it directly. Only Paul will say of those who choose matrimony that they do "well";  and 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, consequently, 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.

L'Osservatore Romano April 19, 1982
Reprinted with permission