Virginity or celibacy "for the sake of the Kingdom"

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 which 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, which already in the conditions of the present temporal life 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 previously 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 says: "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 particularly 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 gives 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"? Anyway, Christ considered it an opportune occasion to speak to them about voluntary continence for the Kingdom of Heaven. In saying this, he does not directly take a position in regard to what the disciples said, nor does he remain in the line of their reasoning (1). Hence he does 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, Christ, speaking previously about the indissolubility of marriage, 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 recurs 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. And for that reason Christ says: "He who is able to receive this, let him receive it" (Mt 19:12). But immediately beforehand he says: "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, Christ, in his reply to the disciples' problem, states clearly a rule for the understanding of  his words. In the Church's doctrine there exists the conviction 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". And 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 towards 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 state, 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 does 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). His words, however, are found—as we already said—in the prolongation of the conversation with the Pharisees in which Jesus referred "to the beginning", 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 will utter on another occasion, in the conversation with the Sadducees, when he proclaims 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, Il Vangelo di Matteo, Teologia e Esegesi, vol. II, Roma 1977 (Ed. Paoline), pp. 834-836; The Positive Values of Consecrated Celibacy, in "The Way" Supplement 10, summer 1970, p. 51; J. Blinzler, Eisin eunuchoi. Zur Auslegung von Mt 19:12, "Zeitschrift fòr die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft" 48 (1957) 268 ss.

2) "Likewise the Church's holiness is fostered in a special way by the manifold counsels which the Lord proposes to his disciples in the Gospel for them to observe. Towering among these counsels is that precious gift of divine grace given to some by the Father (cf. Mt 19:11; 1 Cor 7:7) to devote themselves to God alone more easily with an undivided heart in virginity or celibacy" (Lumen Gentium, 42).

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


Small Lenten sacrifices teach you how to live the Gospel

Before the general audience in the Paul VI Hall or Wednesday, 10 March, the Holy Father went into Saint Peter's Basilica to greet some thousands of young people from various Italian dioceses. Pope John Paul delivered the following message.

Dearest boys and girls, young men and women!

I am truly happy to receive you in this basilica and to welcome all of you who have come from parishes, schools, and associations in various parts of Italy. Your presence is always pleasant for me because in you are represented and expressed all the human, spiritual, and social values that the Church does not cease to proclaim and promote, and especially because you are the visible and joyful confirmation of the exuberant vitality of today's Church.

I gladly take this happy occasion to address to you a brief but strong exhortation inspired by the holy season of Lent that we arc observing.

The spirituality proper to this season of the liturgical year is marked by the obligation to change our very selves and to make reparation for our sins (and even those of others!). This obligation involves the effort to make the needs of the spirit prevail over the inclinations of the flesh, and to give primacy to reason and the will over the often contradictory and whimsical attitudes of the sensitivity that prescinds from every rule. The Church calls you to a spiritual army that you may become strong, free, responsible young people, as is fitting for authentic followers of Christ, and that you may be able to shun the allurements of the world and the snares of the so?called permissive morality.

Therefore, may you not find it disagreeable, especially in this time of Lent, to impose on yourselves a greater vigilance, some abstinence, some self?denial in order to do faithfully those little things that can help you tomorrow to undertake the great actions that you perhaps are already dreaming about in your mind. Don't be afraid to do your exercises in this Lenten training that teaches you to live according to the ideals of the Gospel which have revolutionized the world.

All this can be summed up under the threefold title: prayer, sacrifice, study. In fact, prayer is the soul of every commitment to perfection; sacrifice is its backbone, and study will help you prepare for life and give the reason for your faith to whoever may ask you.

May the Lord be with you always: may he help you, sustain you, and give you the strength to carry out these suggestions and wishes that I now gladly support with my Apostolic Blessing, which I impart to you and to your families.

L'Osservatore Romano March 15, 1982
Reprinted with permission