The vocation to continence in this earthly life

During the general audience on 17 March Pope John Paul II continued his reflection on the subject of virginity or celibacy for the Kingdom of Heaven.

1. We continue the reflection on virginity or celibacy for the Kingdom of Heaven—a theme that is important also for a complete theology of the body.

In the immediate context of the words on continence for the Kingdom of Heaven, Christ makes a very significant comparison; and this confirms us still more in the conviction that he wishes to root the vocation to such continence deep in the reality of the earthly life, thereby gaining an entrance into the mentality of his hearers. He lists, in fact, three categories of eunuchs.

This term concerns the physical defects which render procreation in marriage impossible. These very defects explain the first two categories, when Jesus speaks of both congenital defects: "eunuchs who have been so from birth" (Mt 19:11), and of acquired defects caused by human intervention: "there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men" (Mt 19:12). In both cases it is a state of compulsion, and therefore not voluntary. If Christ in his comparison then speaks of those "who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven" (Mt 19:12), as of a third category, undoubtedly he makes this distinction to indicate still further its voluntary and supernatural character. Voluntary, because those pertaining to this category "have made themselves eunuchs"; supernatural, because they have done so "for the Kingdom of Heaven".

2. The distinction is very clear and very forceful. Nevertheless, the comparison also is strong and eloquent. Christ speaks to men to whom the tradition of the Old Covenant had not handed down the ideal of celibacy or of virginity. Marriage was so common that only physical impotence could constitute an exception. The reply given to the disciples in Matthew (15:10-12) is at the same time directed, in a certain sense, at the whole tradition of the Old Testament. This is confirmed by a single example taken from the Book of Judges to which we refer here not merely because of the event that took place, but also because of the significant words that accompanied it. "Let it be granted to me... to bewail my virginity" (Judges 11:37) the daughter of Jephthah says to her father after learning from him that she was destined to be sacrificed in fulfilment of a vow made to the Lord. (The biblical text explains how such a situation came about). "Go", the text continues, "and he let her go...

She went with her companions and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. At the end of two months she returned to her father who did with her according to his vow which he had made. She had never known a man (Judges 11:38-39).

3. In the Old Testament tradition, as far as we know, there is no place for this significance of the body which Christ, in speaking of continence for the Kingdom of God, now wishes to present and reveal to his own disciples. Among the personages known to us as spiritual condottieri of the people of the Old Covenant, there is not one who would have proclaimed such continence by word or example (1). Marriage, at that time, was not only a common state, but, still more, in that tradition it had acquired a consecrated significance because of the promise made to Abraham by the Lord: "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations... I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you" (Gen 17:4, 6-7). Hence in the Old Testament tradition marriage, as a source of fruitfulness and of procreation in regard to descendants, was a religiously privileged state: and privileged by revelation itself. Against the background of this tradition, according to which the Messiah should be the "son of David" (Mt 20:30), it was difficult to understand the ideal of continence. Marriage had everything going in its favour: not only reasons of human nature, but also those of the Kingdom of God (2).

4. In this environment Christ's words determine a decisive turning-point. When he speaks to his disciples, for the first time, about continence for the Kingdom of Heaven, one clearly realizes that they, as children of the Old Law tradition, must associate celibacy and virginity with the situation of individuals, especially of the male sex, who because of defects of a physical nature cannot marry ("the eunuchs"), and for that reason he refers directly to them. This reference has a multiple background: both historical and psychological, as well as ethical and religious. With this reference Jesus— in a certain sense—touches all these backgrounds, as if he wished to say: I know that what I am going to say to you now will cause great difficulty in your conscience, in your way of understanding the significance of the body. In fact, I shall speak to you of continence, and undoubtedly, you will associate this with the state of physical deficiency, whether congenital or brought about by human cause. But I wish to tell you that continence can also be voluntary and chosen by man "for the Kingdom of Heaven".

5. Matthew, in chapter 19, does not record any immediate reaction of the disciples to these words. We find it later only in the writings of the Apostles, especially in Paul (3). This confirms that these words were impressed in the conscience of the first generation of Christ's disciples and they repeatedly bore fruit and in a manifold way in the generations of his confessors in the Church (and perhaps also outside it). So, from the viewpoint of theology—that is, of the revelation of the significance of the body, completely new in respect to the Old Testament tradition—these words mark a turning?point. Their analysis shows how precise and substantial they are, notwithstanding their conciseness. (We will observe it still better when we analyse the Pauline text of the First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 7). Christ speaks of continence "for" the Kingdom of Heaven. In this way he wished to emphasize that this state, consciously chosen by man in this temporal life, in which people usually "marry or are given in marriage", has a singular supernatural finality. Continence, even if consciously chosen or personally decided upon, but without that finality, does not come within the scope of the above-mentioned statement of Christ. Speaking of those who have consciously chosen celibacy or virginity for the Kingdom of Heaven (that is, "they have made themselves eunuchs"), Christ points out—at least in an indirect way—that this choice during the earthly life is joined to renunciation and also to a determined spiritual effort.

6. The same supernatural finality —"for the Kingdom of Heaven"— admits of a series of more detailed interpretations which Christ does not enumerate in this passage. It can be said, however, that by means of the lapidary formula which he uses, he indicates indirectly all that is said on the subject in Revelation, in the Bible and in Tradition; all that has become the spiritual riches of the Church's experience in which celibacy and virginity for the Kingdom of Heaven have borne fruit in a manifold way in the various generations of the Lord's disciples and followers.


1) It is true that Jeremiah, by explicit command of the Lord, had to observe celibacy (cf. Jer 16:1-2); but this was a "prophetic sign", which symbolized the future abandonment and destruction of the country and of the people.

2) It is true, as we know from sources outside the Bible, that in the period between the two Testaments, celibacy was maintained in the circles of Judaism by some members of the sect of the Essenes (cf. Josephus Flavius, Bell. Jud, II 8, 2:120-121; Philo Al., Hypothet 11, 14); but this happened on the margin of official Judaism and probably did not continue beyond the beginning of the second century.

In the Qumran community celibacy did not oblige everyone, but some members observed it until death, transferring to the sphere of life during peace time, the prescription of Deuteronomy (23:10-14) on the ritual purity which was of obligation during the holy war. According to the beliefs of the Qumran community this war lasted always "between the children of light and the children of darkness"; so celibacy was for them the expression of their being ready for the battle (cf. 1 QM 7, 5-7).

3) Cf. 1 Cor 7:25-40; see also Apoc 14:4.

L'Osservatore Romano March 22, 1982
Reprinted with permission