Voluntary continence derives from counsel, not from command

On Wednesday, 23 June, Pope John Paul resumed his catechesis on the value of voluntary continence, basing his audience message on St Paul's treatment of the theme of virginity or celibacy.

1.  Having analyzed Christ's words reported in Matthew's Gospel (Mt 19:10-12), it is now fitting to pass on to Paul's treatment of the subject of virginity and marriage.

Christ's statement about continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven is concise and fundamental. In Paul's teaching, as we will soon be convinced, we can distinguish a correlating of the words of the Master. However, the significance of his statement (l Cor 7) taken as a whole is assessed in a different way. The greatness of Paul's teaching consists in the fact that in presenting the truth proclaimed by Christ in all its authenticity and identity, he gives it a stamp of his own, in a certain sense his own "personal" interpretation, but which is drawn primarily from the experiences of his apostolic missionary activity, and perhaps directly from the necessity to answer the concrete questions of the men to whom this activity was directed. And so in Paul we encounter the question of the mutual relationship between marriage and celibacy or virginity, the subject that troubled the minds of the first generation of Christ's confessors, the generation of disciples, of apostles, of the first Christian communities. This happened through the converts from hellenism, therefore from paganism, more than through the converts from Judaism. And this can explain the fact that the subject appears precisely in a letter addressed to the community in Corinth, the first.

The tone of the whole statement is without doubt a magisterial one. However, the tone as well as the language is also pastoral. Paul teaches the doctrine handed down by the Master to the Apostles, and at the same time he engages in a continuous conversation on the subject in question with the recipients of his letter. He speaks as a classical teacher of morality, facing and resolving problems of conscience, and therefore moralists love to turn preferably to the explanations and resolutions of this First Letter to the Corinthians (chapter 7).  It is necessary, however, to remember that the ultimate basis for those resolutions is sought in the life and teaching of Christ himself.

3.  The Apostle emphasizes with great clarity that virginity, or voluntary continence, derives exclusively from a counsel and not from a commandment: "With regard to virgins, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my opinion". Paul gives this opinion "as one who has obtained mercy from the Lord and merits your trust" (1 Cor 7:25). As is seen from the words quoted, the Apostle, just as the Gospel (cf. Mt 19:11-12), distinguishes between counsel and commandment. On the basis of the "doctrinal" rule of understanding proclaimed teaching, he wants to counsel, he wishes to give his personal opinions to the men who turned to him. So, therefore, in the First Letter to the Corinthians (chapter 7), the "counsel" clearly has two different meanings. The author states that virginity is a counsel and not a commandment, and at the same time he gives his opinions to persons already married and also to those who still must make a decision in this regard, and finally to those who have been widowed. The problem is substantially the same as the one which we meet in the whole statement of Christ reported by Matthew (19:2-12): first on marriage and its indissolubility, and then on voluntary continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Nevertheless, the style of this problem is totally his own: it is Paul's.

4.  "If however someone thinks he is not behaving properly with regard to his betrothed, if his passions are strong and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: he does not sin. Let them marry! But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So then, he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage does better" (1 Cor 7:36-38).

5.  The one who had sought advice could have been a young man who found himself faced with the decision to take a wife, or perhaps a newly?wed who in the face of the current asceticism existing in Corinth was reflecting on the direction to give to his marriage. It could have been even a father, or the guardian of a girl, who had posed the question of her marriage. In any case, it would deal directly with the decision that derives from their rights as guardians. In fact, Paul is writing at a time when decisions in general belonged more to parents and guardians than to the young people themselves. Therefore, in answering in this way the question that was addressed to him, he tried to explain very precisely that the decision about continence, that is, about the life of virginity, must be voluntary, and that only such continence is better than marriage. The expressions, "he does well", "he does better", are completely univocal in this context.

6.  So then the Apostle teaches that virginity, or voluntary continence, the young woman's abstention from marriage, derives exclusively from a counsel, and given the appropriate circumstances, it is better than marriage. The question of sin does not enter in any way: "Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But it you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries, she does not sin" (1 Cor 7:27-28). Solely on the basis of these words, we certainly cannot make judgments on what the Apostle was thinking or teaching about marriage. This subject will indeed be partially explained in the context of the First Letter to the Corinthians (chapter 7) and more fully in the Letter to the Ephesians (Eph 5:21-33). In our case, he is probably dealing with the answer to the question of whether marriage is a sin; and one could also think that in such a question there might be some influence from dualistic pregnostic currents, which later become encratism and manichaeism. Paul answers that the question of sin absolutely does not enter into play here. It is not a question of the difference between "good" and "evil", but only between "good" and "better". He later goes on to justify why one who chooses marriage "will do well" and one who chooses virginity, or voluntary continence, "will do better".

We will treat of Paulís argumentation in our next reflection.

L'Osservatore Romano June 28, 1982
Reprinted with permission