The Kingdom of God, not the world, is man's eternal destiny

At the general audience in St Peter's Square late Wednesday afternoon, 14 July, the Holy Father continued his reflections on St Paul's teaching on marriage and voluntary continence, in which is contained the theology of a great expectation.

1.  During our previous considerations in analysing the seventh chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians, we have been striving to gather together and understand the teachings and advice that St Paul gives to the recipients of his letter about the questions concerning marriage and voluntary continence (or abstention from marriage). Declaring that one who chooses marriage "does well" and one who chooses virginity "does better", the Apostle makes reference to the passing away of the world—that is, of everything that is temporal.

It is easy to see that the argument from the perishable and transient nature of what is temporal speaks with much greater force in this case than reference to the reality of the "other world". Although the Apostle here expresses himself with some difficulty, we can nevertheless agree that at the basis of the Pauline interpretation of the subject of "marriage - virginity" there is found not so much the very metaphysics of accidental being (therefore fleeting), but rather the theology of a great expectation, of which Paul was a fervent champion. It is not the "world" that is man's eternal destiny, but the Kingdom of God. Man cannot become too attached to the goods that are linked to a perishable world.

2.  Marriage also is tied in with the "form of this world" which is passing away. Here we are in a certain sense very close to the perspective opened by Christ in his statement about the future resurrection (cf. Mt 22:23-32; Mk 12:18-27; Lk 20:27-40). Therefore the Christian, according to Paul's teaching, must live marriage from the point of view of his definitive vocation. And while marriage is tied in with the form of this world which is passing away and therefore in a certain sense imposes the necessity of "being locked" in this transiency, abstention from marriage, on the other hand, could be said to be free of this necessity. It is for this very reason that the Apostle declares that one who chooses continence "does better". Although his argumentation follows this course, nevertheless he decidedly stresses above all (as we have already seen) the question of "pleasing the Lord" and "being anxious about the affairs of the Lord".

3.  It can be admitted that the same reasons speak in favour of what the Apostle advises women who are widowed: "A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I have the Spirit of God" (1 Cor 7:39-40). Therefore, she should remain a widow rather than contract a new marriage.

4.  Through what we discover from a thoughtful reading of the Letter to the Corinthians, especially chapter seven, the whole realism of the Pauline theology of the body is revealed. If in the letter the Apostle proclaims that "your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you" (1 Cor 6:19), at the same time he is fully aware of the weakness and sinfulness to which man is subjected, precisely by reason of the concupiscence of the flesh.

However, this awareness in no way obscures for him the reality of God's gift, which is shared by those who abstain from marriage and also by those who take a wife or husband. In the seventh chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians we find clear encouragement for abstention from marriage, the conviction that he "does better" who decides on this abstention. But we do not find, however, any foundation for considering those who live in marriage as "carnal" and those who instead choose continence for religious motives as "spiritual". In fact, in both the one and the other way of living—today we would say in one and the other vocation—there is operative that "gift" that each one receives from God, that is, the grace that makes the body a "temple of the Holy Spirit", and this remains, in virginity (in continence) as well as in marriage, if the person remains faithful to his gift and, according to his state, does not "dishonour" this "temple of the Holy Spirit", which is his body.

5.  In Paul's teaching, contained above all in the seventh chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians, we find no introduction to what will later be called "manichaeism". The Apostle is fully aware that—insofar as continence for the sake of the Kingdom of God is always worthy of recommendation—at the same time grace, that is, "one's own gift from God", also helps married couples in that common life in which (according to the words of Genesis 2:24) they are so closely united that they become "one body". This carnal common life is therefore subject to the power of their "own gift from God". The Apostle writes about it with the same realism that marks his whole reasoning in the seventh chapter of this letter: "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise, the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does" (verses 3-4).

6.  It can be said that these statements are a clear comment in the New Testament on the words scarcely recorded in the Book of Genesis (Gen 2:24). Nevertheless, the words used here, especially the expressions "rights" and "does not rule", cannot be explained apart from the proper context of the marriage covenant, as we have tried to clarify in analysing the texts of the Book of Genesis. We will attempt to do it even more fully when we speak about the sacramentality of marriage, drawing on the Letter to the Ephesians (cf. Eph 5:22-33). At the proper time it will be necessary to return to these significant expressions, which have passed from Paul's vocabulary into the whole theology of marriage.

7.  For now we will continue to direct our attention to the other sentences in the same passage of the seventh chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians, in which the Apostle addresses these words to married couples: "Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control. I say this by way of concession, not of command" (1 Cor 7:5-6). This is a very significant text, and it will perhaps be necessary to refer to it again in the context of our meditations on the other subjects.

Very significant is the fact that the Apostle, who in all of his argumentation about marriage and continence makes a clear distinction, as Christ does, between the commandment and the evangelical counsel, feels the need to refer also to "concession", as to an additional rule, above all precisely in reference to married couples and their mutual common life. St Paul clearly says that conjugal common life and the voluntary and periodic abstinence by the couple must be the fruit of this "gift of God" which is their "own", and that the couple themselves, by knowingly cooperating with it, can maintain and strengthen that mutual personal bond and also that dignity conferred on the body by the fact that it is a "temple of the Holy Spirit who is in them" (cf. 1 Cor 6:19).

8.  It seems that the Pauline rule of "concession" indicates the need to take into consideration all that in some way corresponds to the very different subjectivity of the man and the woman. Everything in this subjectivity that is not only of a spiritual but also of a psychosomatic nature, all the subjective richness of man which, between his spiritual being and his corporeal, is expressed in the sensitivity whether for the man or for the woman—all this must remain under the influence of the gift that each one receives from God, a gift that is one's own.

As is evident, in the seventh chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul interprets Christ's teaching about continence for the sake of the Kingdom of  Heaven in that very pastoral way that is proper to him, not sparing on this occasion entirely personal accents. He interprets the teaching on continence, on virginity, along parallel lines with the doctrine on marriage, keeping the realism that is proper to a pastor, and at the same time the proportions that we find in the Gospel, in the words of Christ himself.

9.  In Paul's statement we can find again that fundamental structure containing the revealed doctrine about man, that even with his body he is destined for "future life". This supporting structure is at the basis of all the Gospel teaching about continence for the sake of the Kingdom of God (cf. Mt 19:12) —but at the same time there also rests on it the definitive (eschatological) fulfillment of the Gospel doctrine on marriage (cf. Mt 22:30; Mk 12:25; Lk 20:36). These two dimensions of the human vocation are not opposed to each other, but are complementary. Both furnish a full answer to one of man's fundamental questions, the question about the significance of "being a body", that is, about the significance of masculinity and femininity, of being "in the body" a man or a woman.

10.  What we usually define here as theology of the body is shown to be something truly fundamental and constitutive for all anthropological hermeneutics—and at the same time equally fundamental for ethics and for the theology of the human ethos. In each one of these fields we must listen attentively not only to the words of Christ, in which he recalls the "beginning" (Mt 19:4) or the "heart" as the interior, and at the same time "historical", place of meeting with the concupiscence of the flesh—but we must listen attentively also to the words through which Christ recalled the resurrection in order to implant in the same restless heart of man the first seeds of the answer to the question about the significance of being "flesh" in the perspective of the "other world".

L'Osservatore Romano July 19, 1982
Reprinted with permission