Celibacy and Virginity (6)
Father Richard M. Hogan
- Chapter 1: An Introduction to John Paul II's Theology of the Body
- Chapter 2: The Nuptial Meaning of the Body
- Chapter 3: Sin and Shame
- Chapter 4: The Redemption of the Body
- Chapter 5: The Resurrection of the Body
- Chapter 6: Celibacy and Virginity
- Chapter 7: Marriage
- Chapter 8: Humane Vitae (On Human Life)
The fourth cycle of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body series (nos. 73-86) takes up the important question of virginity and celibacy and its meaning for the body. This fourth cycle begins the application of some of the principles previously deline ated in the first three cycles of the series. As mentioned towards the beginning of the last chapter, the first three cycles of the Theology of the Body series considered the three “words” of Christ on marriage: His teaching about divorce in an answer given to the Pharisees; his remark during the Sermon on the Mount about committing adultery in the heart; and his answer to the Sadducees on the question of the Resurrection. In this fourth cycle, the unmarried state chosen for the sake of the Kingdom of God is considered. In the fifth cycle, John Paul takes up marriage and in the sixth cycle, he studies the relationship of marriage and procreation.
The topic of virginity and celibacy is a difficult one in the context of the Theology of the Body series. The Pope has clearly and brilliantly shown that God created human beings in His image and likeness, i.e., as persons, with bodies. As images of God, human beings are called to do what He does, i.e., to love one another as He loves Himself in the mystery of the Trinity and as He loves all created persons. This call, this “innate vocation” of every human being is “inscribed in the humanity of man and woman,” i.e., the vocation of each human person is clear first to Adam, and then to Eve, and then to every human person born into this world. It is crystal to clear to all of us because this meaning is “inscribed” in our very flesh. Our masculinity and femininity is the physical sign given to us so that we might know that we are called to enter a loving communion in imitation of the Trinitarian communion. This is what John Paul has called the nuptial meaning of the body.
However, our bodies not only reveal to us that we are to love others as God loves Himself and us, they also are the means of expressing or manifesting this love in the world. As we enter loving communions, we express our love in and through our bodies. Human persons are constructed by God in a body-person unity so that our acts (at least most of them---there are purely internal acts) would be visible. When acting as God acts and expressing those acts outwardly in and through our bodies, we become visible images of God. We are, in effect, the only beings God has created who can be (and are meant to be) visible images of the Creator Himself.
Marriage is, of course, the primary communion. After creating them “male and female,” God called them to imitate His own loving Trinitarian communion by inviting Adam and Eve to “be fertile and multiply,” i.e., to become the first human married couple. With an eloquence which betrays his love of language in drama and poetry, the Pope strikingly describes the incredible blessing and goodness God has conferred on the human race in inviting each of us to imitate His own Trinitarian communion through marriage. John Paul’s Theology of the Body addresses, most especially the first two cycles of the series, has one of the most exalted and noble theological word paintings of marriage the Church has ever proposed.
Given this true, but nevertheless, exalted description of the spousal communion, the whole question of virginity and celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God takes on a certain urgency. The question is obvious: If marriage is such an exalted calling, willed by the Creator Himself, inscribed in the very flesh of every human person, why would anyone choose not to enter into such a communion—especially for the sake of the KINGDOM OF GOD. This choice seems almost contradictory to the very will of God manifested, most obviously, when He created us male and female and again when He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”
John Paul admits this paradox. In speaking about Christ’s words regarding virginity and celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God, he writes that Christ “expresses Himself [in recommending virginity and celibacy to those who can accept it], in a certain sense, even in opposition to that ‘beginning’ to which He Himself had appealed.” Of course, John Paul’s reference here to Christ’s teaching on the “beginning” recalls Christ’s answer to the Pharisees’s question on divorce: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them ‘male and female’. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate." It was from this reference of Christ to the “beginning” that John Paul began his analysis of the first pages of Genesis because, as the Pope has taught us, when Christ referenced the “beginning,” He was saying to the Pharisees that the true nature of marriage is to be derived from the state of the human race before sin. In admitting that Christ’s words about virginity and celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God seem to be in opposition to the “beginning,” the Pope is admitting that virginity and celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom seem to be opposed to Christ’s own exalted teaching on the beauty of marriage.
On the other hand, Christ’s words on virginity and celibacy are just as much part of His teaching as are His words on marriage. Therefore, even though there seems to be a paradox, ultimately these two aspects of Revelation cannot be in opposition to one another. In fact, there are many paradoxes in the teaching of the Lord, e.g., death to self as a means of living life to the fullest (and there are many, many more).
It is interesting to note that Christ’s call to virginity and celibacy for “those who can receive it” is found in the very same passage that his answer to the Pharisees’s question on divorce is found. After answering the question of the Pharisees, Christ’s disciples say to him that it might be better not to marry (because divorce will no longer be accepted as a moral option). Christ responds to this remark and says: “Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that it is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it’." Obviously, Christ did not consider his teaching on marriage and his teaching on celibacy and virginity to be contradictory.
In fact, it is not. The essential points of John Paul’s analysis of the human body is that it is the expression of the person. In his meditations on the Stations of the Cross, given as part of his retreat preached to Pope Paul VI in 1976, the Pope writes about Christ at the tenth station (Christ is stripped of His garments): “With every wound, every spasm of pain, every wrenched muscle, every trickle of blood, with all the exhaustion in its arms, all the bruises and lacerations on its back and shoulders, this unclothed body is carrying out the will of both Father and Son.” Christ’s body expressed His Person because through His body His choices, the acts of His will, were expressed or manifested. Clearly, these choices rested on His knowledge in His intellect. Therefore, His body expressed His person because through it He manifested and outwardly demonstrated what He was thinking and choosing.
The human body, not just in Christ, but in all of us, is to express our persons, i.e., make apparent what we are thinking and choosing. In coming to know another person, a future spouse, a man or woman might first be drawn by beauty or handsomeness, by a sense of charm or strength; in short by all those characteristics that we label as masculine or feminine. But, if this relationship is to rest on a firm foundation, eventually one must come to see the dignity with which that other person was created by God. He or she comes to understand that here is another person who is also an image of God. In coming to understand the dignity and value of the other person, sometimes love develops—a deliberate choice in the will to give oneself to this other person because of the great treasure, the infinite value, of the other person as understood by the mind. When such a choice is met by a similar choice made by the other, there is a mutual commitment which is then sealed by the marriage vows repeated before a witness of the Church. The vows establish the marital communion. The martial communion is then expressed by the union of the two in one flesh. The bodily expression of the communion is the direct result of the spouses knowledge of each other and their mutual choice to give themselves to one another.
But, just as obviously (it happens all the time every day), people can freely choose not to enter such a communion. If the marital communion rests on the knowledge of the dignity of another and on a free choice to give oneself to that other person, then it is obvious that people are not forced to make such a choice. (In fact, force is contrary to love and invalidates marriages. For example, “shotgun” weddings are not recognized because force is opposed to love which is, in its essence, a free choice.) Every person can choose not to enter into a marital communion. Perhaps an individual is not suited to marry. Another may not yet have met someone appropriate. A third might choose not to marry because he or she desires to remain unmarried.
If the nuptial meaning of the body shows that we are called to love God and others as Christ loves us and express that love in and through our bodies: why could someone not choose to express one’s love for Christ and all that He did through His passion and death, by devoting one’s life to Him, i.e., by loving Him without entering the marital communion? Why could not someone imitate Him in His celibate, virginal state? Of course, as the Church has taught from the beginning, this is not only possible, but praiseworthy if one is called to this vocation. As the Pope puts it: “man (male and female) is capable of choosing the personal gift of his very self, made to another person in a conjugal pact in which they become ‘one flesh,’ and he is also capable of freely renouncing such a giving of himself to another person, so that, choosing continence ‘for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven,’ he can give himself totally to Christ. On the basis of the same disposition of the personal subject [a personal subject is constituted by the faculties of mind and will] and on the basis of the same nuptial meaning of the being as a body, male or female, there can be formed the love that commits man to marriage for the whole duration of his life (cf. Mt. 19:3-10), but there can be formed also the love that commits man to a life of continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Mt. 19:11-12).”
Obviously, if the celibate or virginal life is to be an act of love expressed in and through the body, it must be freely chosen because if it were not, as we have seen, it would not be an act of love—it would not be an adequate human alternative to the spousal union (as seen from the point of the human subject, who can only act in a human way through knowledge and free choice). Therefore, one of the essential characteristics of virginity and celibacy in the teaching of Christ is that it must be chosen. In fact, the Lord’s invitation to celibacy or virginity as a vocation makes this characteristic abundantly clear. Following Christ’s comments about divorce in Matthew, His disciples said to him, "If that is the case of a man with his wife, [i.e., that divorce is not permitted] it is better not to marry." He answered, "Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it." Christ cites three reasons why one would not marry: born incapable of marriage; rendered incapable of marriage by others; and having chosen not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. The first two categories concern physical defects which are the result of congenital difficulties or human intervention. In both these cases, the one who is incapable of marriage has had no choice in the matter. The third category listed by the Lord are those “having chosen not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. This third category is distinguished from the other two first because it is freely chosen by the individual and second because it is for heaven, i.e., for a supernatural reason.
The requirement for those embracing celibacy or virginity explicitly choose this sate for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven distinguishes their path of life from the unmarried state after the resurrection of the body (after the Second Coming) in heaven, at the end of the world, when our souls and bodies will be reunited in the glory. As the Pope writes, “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 earthly existence.”
There is no contradiction between Christ’s teaching on celibacy (or virginity) and his teaching on marriage. Both rest on the body-person unity of the human being. Both rest on, as the Pope would say, the disposition of the personal subject (knowledge and choice) toward another: either Christ or a spouse. Both represent an act of self-donation, an act of love, which is expressed in and through the body. Both rest on the revelation that the human being is called to love and to express that love in and through his or her body.
That the commitment to a spouse and the commitment to virginity or celibacy are not in conflict is graphically and symbolically demonstrated in some religious orders of women. In some of these orders, those to be received into the order dress themselves in wedding gowns because they are the brides of Christ. During the ceremony they make their vows to Christ. The ritual is in some ways not unlike the marriage ritual. If the commitment to celibacy or virginity were not a commitment of love expressed in and through the human body (as marriage is), the practice of these religious orders would be offensive.
It should be noted that Christ’s teaching on virginity and celibacy clearly indicate that this vocation is complementary to the marital vocation. John Paul notices that Christ’s teaching on virginity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven is not placed together with his answer to the Sadducees on the question of the woman who married the seven brothers. The Sadducees asked Christ whose wife she would be in heaven since she had married seven men. He responded that in heaven “they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Even though Christian celibacy and virginity is for the Kingdom of Heaven, Christ did not place this teaching together with the teaching on the resurrection and the way the human body-person unity will be in heaven. He did not put this teaching together with the heavenly body-person unity because virginity and celibacy in this life chosen for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven is a choice made in the context of “historical man,” the fallen (because of original sin) state of all human beings now on earth. In this way, the choice of Christian celibacy parallels the choice of marriage. Both vocations are chosen in the context of the heritage of original sin and its effects.
Christ’s placing of this teaching on celibacy and virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven immediately after his teaching on marriage clearly indicates that marriage is the norm and Christian celibacy and virginity is an exception. That Christ first talks about marriage and then about celibacy and virginity demonstrates this as does his remark that “whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” Further, the idea that it is “for the Kingdom of Heaven” indicates that this choice is not looking towards an earthly and natural result, e.g., as would marriage with the possibility of the procreation of children, but towards a supernatural one which would not be the norm for earthly existence.
Both vocations are expressions of love. They both are rooted in the discovery of the nuptial meaning of the body, i.e., of the discovery that human beings are called to love in imitation of the Trinity and to express that love in and through their bodies. The married person expresses love in the familial communion and the celibate or virgin does it in the communion of the Church which is, of course, the union of Christ with each member of the Church and with the Church as a whole. The vocation of marriage and the vocation of the celibate or virginal state confirm and mutually support one another. The celibate or virgin is the signpost of the love all men and women owe to God for all His gifts to us, most especially His gift to us in Creation when He created us in His image and likeness and called us to love as He loves. Celibates and virgins also testify to the true destiny of human persons in their body-soul unity: heaven. Those who are married give witness to the intent of the Creator when He made them “male and female.” Families give life to new human persons and through this cooperation in God’s creative act, testify to God’s ongoing gift of life/love (these are one reality because life is always part of love) to humanity. Without the constant reminder of God’s gift of life/love, how could celibates and virgins maintain their vocation: the vocation which reminds every one of the God’s gift to us in Creation? And, obviously, families look towards the true destiny of humanity because parents know that their fundamental calling is to help each other and their children to come to the glorification of the body-person in heaven after the resurrection of the body.
The entire logic of the vocation of marriage and the vocation of celibacy and virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven rules out any notion that celibacy or virginity is in any way an implicit criticism in of the marital union. In fact, the case is just the opposite. The vocation of celibacy or virginity is chosen on the very basis of the nuptial meaning of the body. In fact, the vocation of remaining unmarried for the sake of the Kingdom of God is an affirmation of the nuptial meaning of the body, i.e., an affirmation that our masculinity and femininity is intended as a gift to another person.
It would also be an error to see celibates and virgins as living in the perfect Christian state and married people as living in an imperfect state, as though the Church were divided into two tiers and the virgins and celibates were the more exalted members of the Church.
Christ’s teaching on virginity and celibacy shocked the Apostles. In the religious beliefs of the Chosen People of the Old Testament, marriage was a sacred and holy state. In God’s promise to Abraham to make him “the father of a host of nations,” marriage and procreation became the means by which this divine promise would be fulfilled. As John Paul writes, “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.” This divine approbation of marriage through the covenant with Abraham was built on and expanded the previous divine invitation to the entire human race given in the first chapter of Genesis to “be fertile and multiply.” Even before Christ’s exalted teaching on marriage, the Apostles would have held marriage as an exalted state willed by God at the very dawn of Creation and specifically endorsed by God for the Jewish people as the means of fulfilling the covenant God made with them through the patriarch, Abraham.
In hearing Christ recommend virginity and celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, i.e., for the sake of God, the Apostles would have been stunned! Marriage and procreation was the means of building the Kingdom of God according to the promise God made with Abraham. Making Abraham the father of a host of nations through procreation and expansion of the Jewish kingdom was THE fulfillment of the covenant sealed between Abraham and God. In the minds of the Apostles and according to the entire Old Testament tradition, the building and expanding of the Jewish Kingdom was identical to building the Kingdom of God. This notion was one of the reasons why the Apostles and disciples of Christ had such a difficult time understanding that His Kingdom was not of this world. Marriage and procreation was identified with the covenant and with the blessings of God on the Chosen People. Of course, this theological status of marriage and procreation was one of the reasons why infertility was seen as expressing the displeasure of God.
How could the Apostles who heard Christ’s teaching on virginity and celibacy for the Kingdom of God have accepted what Christ taught? To ask this question is to ask a whole series of related questions, e.g., how could they have accepted His teaching on the Eucharist when He taught them that they were to “eat his flesh and drink his blood?” The Apostles did not leave Him on this occasion, as many others did, because He “had the words of eternal life.” In other words, they accepted what Christ said because He was the Revelation of the Father and they knew this through the gift of the Holy Spirit: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” They entrusted themselves to the Lord and believed what He taught. Similarly, on the question of virginity and celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God, they accepted what He taught them because HE said it and because He lived what He said: He was unmarried. The Lord’s testimony and His own celibate life was the only basis they had for accepting this teaching.
Of course, there was a further testimony to the goodness of continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven: the marriage of Mary and Joseph. It was not just the Lord’s public life which testified to the goodness of virginity and celibacy; it was His entire life from His conception to His Ascension. Jesus was conceived by a virgin who remained a virgin her entire life even though married to a husband, Joseph. And Joseph, even as a husband lived a celibate life! The Apostles did not know this history of Christ’s parents, conception, and birth, but as the Church came to know the marvelous fruitfulness of Joseph and Mary’s virginity and celibacy, it could appreciate Christ’s teaching on virginity and celibacy in an entirely new way! And of course, after the Resurrection on the first Easter, the Apostles must have heard from Mary the profound truths of the Christmas story. In Mary and Joseph, the nuptial union was realized in a complete gift of each of them to one another and to God for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. It was through them that the full reality and truth of the Kingdom of God was announced because this is precisely the Good News their Son gave to the world. How could celibacy and virginity do more for the Kingdom of God? At the same time, in their union at Nazareth, they were as committed to one another in love as any couple could have been. John Paul notes this wonderful mystery when he writes: “The marriage of Mary and Joseph (in which the Church honours Joseph as Mary’s spouse, and Mary as his spouse) conceals within itself, at the same time, the mystery of the perfect communion of the persons, of the man and the woman in the conjugal pact, and also the mystery of that singular ‘continence for the Kingdom of Heaven:’ a continence that served, in the history of salvation, the most perfect ‘fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit’.” The apparent contradiction between the goodness of marriage, on the one hand, and celibacy and virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of God, on the other, is completely resolved in the marriage of Mary and Joseph. In learning this mystery, sometime after the Lord’s Resurrection, the Church could understand Christ’s teaching on celibacy and virginity, given to the Apostles before His Resurrection, in a much better way. Still, it is to the Apostles’s credit that without knowing of the example of Mary and Joseph, they still accepted Christ’s teaching on the goodness of virginity or celibacy when embraced for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Even more to the Apostles’s credit is that they accepted Christ’s teaching even though in proclaiming His teaching on virginity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, Christ implicitly rejects a conclusion the Apostles had reached. The Apostles responded to Christ’s teaching on divorce with the remark, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." They conclude it is better not to marry because if divorce and remarriage are morally unacceptable, marriage would lead people to sin because no one could live such a marriage. It is as if the Apostles were saying to Christ: “No married person can continue to live marriage as you expect. Married people will divorce and remarry and so it is better not to marry.” It is at this point that Christ offers his teaching on virginity and celibacy. However, the Lord teaches that virginity and celibacy are to be embraced by those called to those exceptional vocations not because marriage without divorce is too hard and would lead people to sin. Rather, Christ invites those called to virginity and celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God to live this renunciation of marriage and family life not because family life leads to sin or is hard, but because it is so good. Only the sacrifice of something truly good can be a meaningful renunciation for God. One is reminded of the comment of the fifth grader, “I will give up homework for Lent.” He knows it is a joke and everyone laughs because to him, homework is not a good thing. It is work and sometimes unpleasant. Sacrificing homework would hardly be a sacrifice. Giving up his favorite TV show is something different because it is something the fifth grader perceives as good. The only meaningful sacrifice for the Kingdom of God is something that is good. The renunciation of marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of God only makes sense if it is truly good and holy, a significant blessing of God to the human race. In teaching that celibacy and virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of God should be embraced by those called to this vocation, Christ implicitly rejected His Apostles’s conclusion that marriage was not to be lived because it would lead people to sin by divorce and remarriage.
Marriage and family life as a blessing from God is the normal vocation for men and women. Christ makes this perfectly clear when He teaches about virginity and celibacy embraced for the sake of the Kingdom of God that “Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. . . . Whoever can accept this ought to accept it." Further, Christ clearly indicates in these lines that virginity and celibacy are “granted,” but also should be “accepted.” Here, we enter into the mystery of a vocation. Whether called to marriage or celibacy, the gentle action of the grace of the Holy Spirit calls us to a specific path to heaven, a specific vocation. This is the “granting” which Christ speaks of. But this gentle stirring of God’s grace in our hearts must be chosen in our wills. In any vocation, there are two aspects: the gift of God and the acceptance on our part. Obviously, we can be so attuned to ourselves and our own situations that we do not perceive the sometimes almost imperceptible stirrings of God’s grace. If we do perceive them, we can choose to ignore them. Those called to virginity and celibacy “ought to accept” this vocation, i.e., they ought to choose it wholeheartedly in their wills, just as those called to marriage should choose marriage wholeheartedly in their wills.
But since every vocation is “granted,” i.e., since every vocation is a gift from God, we cannot simply choose our own. Of course, people try to do this all the time. If called to marriage to a specific person, sometimes people will not cooperate with this grace of God. They may doubt that they are actually called to marriage or to marriage with a specific person. If they realize that God is nudging them towards marriage with a specific person, they may decide not to enter marriage, i.e., they may refuse the vocation God has granted. Usually, in refusing such a gift from God, their paths to heaven are more difficult. It is not so much that there is only one vocation (one way to heaven) for each of us (e.g., that we are only suited for marriage, or, more specifically, that there is only one possible spouse for those of us called to marriage), but it seems God calls us to the best possible vocation suited to our personalities and talents. If we refuse to accept this vocation, then there will always be other alternatives, but they may not be the best possible ones for us. If there were not more than one possible, but not best, vocation for each of us, then a vocation could not be “accepted.” The role of our own human free will, what the Pope would call, human subjectivity, would not exist because in God’s mercy He would “compel” us to choose the only vocation leading to heaven. But this “compulsion” would be impossible because it would be an attack on the dignity of the human person. Constituted as persons by the creative act of God Himself, human persons can only act by their own free choice and in light of their own knowledge. God would NEVER violate His own creative act by compelling human persons to act in a certain way. (This is why God “tolerates” the choice to sin.) Therefore, there must be more than one possible path to heaven for each of us.
In the case of a vocation to virginity or celibacy for the Kingdom of Heaven, it first must be granted. Second, it must be accepted by the individual. Third, since it is “for the Kingdom of Heaven,” this vocation is one that serves the Kingdom of God on earth, i.e., the Church. The Church therefore discerns for itself whether an individual truly is called by God to virginity or celibacy. Certainly, sometimes people believed they are stirred by God’s grace towards the religious life when, in fact, they have not received such a grace from God. In the best of times, the Church gently tries to help individuals who may have made a mistaken judgment about a call to virginity and celibacy. In more difficult times, the Church’s structures which exist to help discern the action of God’s grace with respect to the religious vocation, do not function the way they should. In these times, sometimes people are treated harshly, much too harshly, and sometimes people enter religious life when they probably are called to a different vocation.
There is an essential truth hidden in the mystery of God’s calling each of us to a specific vocation which is very often overlooked in discussions of the religious life in relation to marriage. We do not choose our own vocation independent of God. We are called and then we choose to follow (or not to follow) God’s invitation. The best vocation is the one that God has invited us to follow. For most, that vocation is marriage. A married person living his or her vocation properly and doing all that he or she can to live out God’s invitation to him or her is far holier than a celibate or virgin who either should not have embraced a religious vocation (because he or she was not called to that vocation) or who only embraced such a vocation reluctantly and with bitterness. It is next to impossible (except in the most general sense) to speak of vocations in the abstract. For example, it is not very helpful to claim that this or that vocation is “better” than another. What is “best” for an individual is the vocation God has invited that person to embrace. Ultimately, the judgment on every vocation must be based on what God has “granted” that person and how that person has embraced (chosen) it. “If anyone chooses marriage, he must choose it just as it was instituted by the Creator ‘from the beginning,’ he must seek in it those values that correspond to God’s plan. If on the other hand anyone decides to pursue continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, he must seek in it the values proper to such a vocation. In other words, one must act in conformity with his chosen vocation.” And the “best vocation” for each of us is the one God grants us and the one we can most easily embrace and live.
Not every one in the history of the Church has presented the relationship between the marital vocation and the celibate or virginal vocation in the way John Paul does. Quoting St. Paul (1 Cor. 7:38), “So then, the one who marries his virgin does well; the one who does not marry her will do better,” some have argued that St. Paul teaches that the virginal or celibate state is “better” than the married state, i.e., not just better for a particular individual, but better in an objective sense. In other words, the claim sometimes made is that celibates or virgins are, by the very state of their lives, holier than those who are married. (Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century suggested that it was hardly possible for a monk to attain to the glories of heaven and next to impossible for anyone not in the religious life.) John Paul takes up Saint Paul’s teaching on marriage in the First Letter to the Corinthians in nos. 82-86, the last five addresses in the fourth cycle (nos. 73-86).
John Paul notes that in the seventh chapter of First Corinthians, Paul is speaking in response to questions addressed to him by the Church at Corinth. The very first lines of the chapter are: “Now in regard to the matters about which you wrote.” He is answering questions about marriage and virginity presented to him by his disciples at Corinth. It is the response of a pastor to a particular problem. While this does not mean that Paul’s teaching does not have force beyond the immediate context, it does mean that the passage must be read in accordance with Paul’s pastoral approach to a problem
It is also very important to note that Saint Paul is responding not only in an abstract way, but very personally. He writes, “Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am,” i.e., celibate. He also writes, “I should like you to be free of anxieties,” i.e., the anxieties of a married person. These are very personal notes drawn from his own life and his pastoral observations of married persons.
There are also passages which contain very clear doctrinal teaching in the seventh chapter of First Corinthians, e.g., “To the married, however, I give this instruction (not I, but the Lord): a wife should not separate from her husband.” The task then of properly understanding Saint Paul’s intent is to re-read First Corinthians 7 in accordance with the doctrinal teaching (clearly delineated and laid down), interpreting the personal and pastoral notes in light of that doctrinal teaching. This is the task John Paul has accomplished in the last four addresses of the fourth cycle.
No less than three times in the seventh chapter of First Corinthians, Saint Paul speaks about God calling people to a particular vocation. In verse 7, he writes, “Each has a particular gift from God.” In 17, we read, “Only, everyone should live as the Lord has assigned, just as God called each one. I give this order in all the churches.” (It is very important to realize that in this passage, Saint Paul teaches this principle as a command, i.e., an order.) Finally, in verse 20, we hear that “Everyone should remain in the state in which he was called.” In all three of these verses, Saint Paul is talking about a vocation, a call from God. He is also clearly saying that everyone should follow the vocation given to him or her by God and remain in that vocation. Everything else in Paul’s remarks about marriage and virginity or celibacy must be read in light of these “orders” he has laid down.
The questions to which Paul is responding are from individuals in the Church at Corinth in the first century. These people are Gentile converts to Christianity. They were not steeped in the traditional Old Testament Jewish understanding of marriage and procreation. Their understanding of marriage had been shaped by the pagan culture which existed in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ. “Marriage, in this ambience, was understood as a way of ‘making use of the world’—differently from how it had been in the whole Jewish tradition (despite some perversions which Jesus pointed out in His conversation with the Pharisees and in His Sermon on the Mount.)” In speaking about marriage and virginity to his Corinthian flock, Paul had not only to hold out the possibility of virginity and celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God, but he also had to insure that his followers understood marriage in the proper Christian context. Therefore, Paul stresses the transience of this world. In verse 29, he insists that “time is running out” because he wants to stress the future world of heaven to which all are called. He repeats this thought, in verse 31: “For the world in its present form is passing away.” To those who had had the practice of enjoying all the pleasures of this world (and marriage was one way of “using the world” in this way) Paul admonishes his readers that this world is not everything, that there is a future world to which all Christians, married or unmarried, are destined. In his pastoral way, Paul is telling his married readers that they need to live marriage differently than their culture would dictate. “Undoubtedly, all this explains the style of Paul’s answer. The Apostle is well aware that by encouraging abstinence from marriage he at the same time had to stress a way of understanding marriage that would be in conformity with the whole evangelical order of values.” To interpret Paul’s remarks as a criticism of marriage is a misinterpretation and directly against what St. Paul also teaches in this passage: “If you marry, however, you do not sin.” He repeats the same thought in verse 36.
Saint Paul, as pastor, was addressing in part a particular mis-understanding of marriage on the part of his flock. He is also responding to questions asked of him about marriage and virginity or celibacy: “Now in regard to the matters about which you wrote." We do not know what the question was, but there are hints in the passage Paul writes. Perhaps one of Paul’s new converts was asking whether or not marriage was sinful – in light of the new Gospel of Christ. It might have been a young man trying to decide whether he should marry or not. Even more likely, it could have been a parent or guardian trying to decide whether to arrange a marriage for a young woman. In first century Corinth, “decisions in general belonged more to parents and guardians than to the young people, themselves.” It could also have been a newly converted husband who was wondering how he should live his marriage now that he was a Christian. He might have been asking if the new Gospel required him not to enjoy the privileges of marriage. At any rate, the context of Paul’s answer clearly reveals a question about the relationship between marriage and virginity and how marriage should be lived. But it is important to realize that Paul was responding to a specific question or questions. The question determines not just the answer, but very often the tone of the answer. Therefore, Paul’s teaching in the First Letter to the Corinthians must be read with the understanding that he is responding to a question. In fact, as in many cases, he might have preferred to address the whole matter more systematically or in a different way. But the question and the confines of a letter may have prevented him from addressing this topic in a way different than he did.
The mis-understanding of the Corinthian Christians about marriage in light of the Gospel and the question asked of Paul give a certain “coloring” to his response. In light of this pastoral “coloring,” it would be a grave misinterpretation to ignore the definitive teaching, e.g., that everyone has a vocation given to him or her by God, and interpret marriage in a negative sense only because of certain phrases such as, “So then, the one who marries his virgin does well; the one who does not marry her will do better.” Having said that there is no sin or evil in marrying, the passage about he who marries does well and he who does not does better, must be seen in light of the previous teaching regarding marriage and virginity or celibacy as a vocation from God. Seen in this light, with the pastoral “coloring,” Paul is not saying anything different from Christ when He taught that those who are granted the vocation of virginity or celibacy should accept it.
There is a further pastoral note in the passage from the seventh chapter of First Corinthians which is very important. Paul writes, “If you marry, however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that.” The Pope writes about this phrase and similar ones in the Pauline texts:
“Would this be an expression of the Apostle’s personal aversion with regard to marriage? In this realistic observation we must see a just warning for those who – as at times young people do – hold that conjugal union and living together must bring them only happiness and joy. The experience of life shows that spouses are not rarely disappointed in what they were greatly expecting. The joy of the union brings with it also those ‘troubles in the flesh’ that the Apostle writes about in his Letter to the Corinthians.These are often ‘troubles’ of a moral nature. If by this he intends to say that true conjugal love – precisely that love by virtue of which ‘a man cleaves to his wife and the two become one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24) – is also a difficult love, he certainly remains on the grounds of evangelical truth and there is no reason here to see symptoms of the attitude that later was to characterize manichaeism.”
Saint Paul is speaking as a realistic pastor who has seen troubled and difficult marriages. He wants to “spare” his flock of these difficulties just as any pastor would. How many deacons, priests, bishops, even popes, as well as marriage counselors and all those in the “helping” professions have not had a similar thought from time to time when faced with some of the difficulties presented by their married parishioners or clients? Just because one wants to spare people difficulties in marriage does not mean that one necessarily is against all marriages. And clearly, Paul was not against marriage! He talks of a Christian wife or husband sanctifying an unbelieving spouse; he speaks of husbands and wives not separating; he clearly states that marriage is not sinful and that it is a call assigned by God; and finally he teaches that those who marry do well!
In addition to the pastoral comments, there are personal reflections included in Saint Paul’s remarks about the relationship between marriage and virginity or celibacy. As any pastor will testify, in responding to questions about the faith in relationship to personal difficulties, there is most often a mixture of doctrinal or moral teachings, pastoral applications of those teachings, and personal reflections. But Paul clearly distinguishes between personal opinions, founded on his own experiences, and the commandments of the Lord. For example, in verses 7-8, he writes, “Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, . . .Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do.” This is a personal reflection founded on his own life as is clear from the phrase “I wish everyone to be as I am.” There is no invocation of a commandment from the Lord. A little further on in the passage we read, “Now in regard to virgins, I have no commandment from the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy.” Again, here, there is a personal opinion. He states flatly that he “has no commandment from the Lord.” As further evidence that this remark is a very personal one, he invokes his own trustworthiness and his readers’s knowledge of that trustworthiness as a motive for accepting his opinion. A totally different note is struck in verse 10: “To the married, however, I give this instruction (not I, but the Lord): a wife should not separate from her husband.” Here, he clearly is invoking the authority of Christ. Another personal opinion follows only two verses later: “To the rest I say (not the Lord): if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she is willing to go on living with him, he should not divorce her.” “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.” Just as it would be a mistake to read Paul’s pastoral remarks without the light of his doctrinal statements, it would also be a grave mistake to read his personal comments without the whole context of the entire body of his teachings, including the doctrinal statements.
There are a number of passages in the seventh chapter of First Letter to the Corinthians which might lend one to believe that St. Paul saw marriage simply as a remedy for concupiscence. Of course, this interpretation has not been lacking in the Church’s reflections on St. Paul’s teachings. For example, he advises that it is better to marry than to be “on fire.” In the first couple of verses, he writes that “"It is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman, but because of cases of sexual immorality every man should have his own wife, and every woman her own husband.” These passages could easily be interpreted that marriage is only for the weak who cannot control their own sexual passions and desires. But these passages must be contrasted with verse 7 where he writes that “each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” Both vocations are gifts from God. One is not a refuge for those who are weak!
“Does the Apostle, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, perhaps look upon marriage exclusively from the viewpoint of a ‘remedy for concupiscence,’ as used to be said in traditional theological language? The statements mentioned a little while ago would seem to verify this. However, right next [the phrase “on fire” is in verse 9; the phrase about a “particular gift from God is in verse 7] to the statements quoted, we read a passage that leads us to see differently Paul’s teaching as a whole, contained in the seventh chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians: ‘I wish that al were as I myself am; (he repeats his favorite argument for abstaining from marriage) – but each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind, and one of another (1 Cor. 7:7). Therefore, even those who choose marriage and live in it receive a ‘gift’ from God, his ‘own gift,’ that is, the grace proper to this choice, to this way of living, to this state. The gift receive, by persons who live in marriage is different from the one received by persons who live in virginity and choose continence for the sake of the Kingdom of God. All the same, it is a true ‘gift from God,’ ‘one’s own gift, intended for concrete persons, and ‘specific,’ that is, suited to their vocation in life.”
Saint Paul speaks about the “fire” of desire not because he wishes to propose marriage merely as a remedy for it. (He has already spoken of his wish that everyone would remain as he was, i.e., celibate. Further, as we have seen, He later in the seventh chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of his desire to “spare” his flock the difficulties of marriage!) Rather, he is writing as a pastor who has a concrete understanding of the fallen nature (because of original sin) of all human persons. In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, “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.”
If marriage is a gift from God, as well as virginity and celibacy, and it is not a refuge for the weak, why would anyone choose such a life? Saint Paul answers this question also in this seventh chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians: “I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.” There are then, according to Paul, two reasons to embrace celibacy or virginity: to be anxious about the things of the Lord and to please the Lord. The first of these reasons, to be anxious about the things of the Lord, is to throw oneself into apostolic work. It is, in a word, to embrace the task of spreading the Gospel of Christ and to help people live that Gospel in their daily lives. This effort takes both time and commitment and those without families are able to devote themselves totally to this effort. But the motive for embracing such total and difficult work is found in the second reason: “to please the Lord.” This phrase is the one Christ used about himself: “I always do what is pleasing to him [i.e., the Father]." To do what is pleasing to someome means to unite one’s will with that person – to do what the other person chooses. In effect, do what is pleasing is to love. The motivation for embracing the evangelical work of the Gospel is the love of God.
But Paul also writes that the married person is “divided.” The married Christian is committed not only to his or her spouse, but also to God. This causes the “division” Paul speaks of since the Christian married person is called not only to the love of his or her spouse, but also to the love of God. There are a number of points which must be kept in mind for an adequate understanding of what Paul is saying. First of all, as has been said above, Paul is writing to new converts to Christianity who have not yet had an opportunity to develop a truly Christian married life. They were still steeped in a more secular and even pagan idea of marriage. This first-century Greek cultural understanding of marriage was far from the Christian one. Such a way of living a marriage would of course have left them “divided.” Second, it must be remembered that Paul is writing from his own experience. With his missionary work, he clearly understands that for him, personally, it would have been next to impossible to have the cares of a wife and family. Third, he is writing from his own pastoral experience. He has probably actually witnessed such “division” among the married members of his flock, especially in the case of marriages between a Christian and a non-Christian. (He speaks about such marriages in this same chapter of his letter.) Fourth (and very importantly) as has been emphasized, everything in this seventh chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians MUST be taken in light of the doctrinal principle, laid down towards the beginning of the chapter, that “each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” If one called to the vocation of marriage tried to ignore that call and live a celibate or a virginal life, he or she would probably be very “divided” because the person would not be able to “please the Lord” or to “be anxious about the things of the Lord.” Such an individual would find it hard to live a committed celibate or virginal life because he or she would constantly be longing for a spouse and for family life. Each of us is called to particular vocation and given the graces sufficient for that vocation. When someone tries to live a vocation to which one is not called, there are usually many, many difficulties. The only “best” vocation for each one is the one to which God calls each of us. Fifth, in the developed understanding of Christian marriage, the baptized spouse is Christ and the family is a domestic Church, a “subset” of the universal Church. In loving one’s wife, one loves Christ. In caring for the family, one does the missionary work of the Church because one must evangelize and catechize the children and sometimes, even the spouse. Today, pastors and teachers would probably not use the term “divided” for the Christian married person. Rather, Paul’s idea would be conveyed by the idea that the celibate or virgin “pleases the Lord” and is “anxious about the things of the Lord” in the universal communion of the Church and the married person “pleases the Lord” and is “anxious about the things of the Lord” in the domestic Church, the family. Certainly, this is the thought of John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Familiaris Consortio.
In this fourth cycle of the Theology of the Body addresses (nos. 73-86), John Paul has certainly tackled a very difficult and long-standing problem on Catholic moral theology: the relationship between the vocation of marriage and the celibate and virginal vocation for the sake of the Kingdom of God. His phenomenological analysis both of Christ’s and St. Paul’s words (because he brilliantly takes into account the personal and concrete circumstances in which those words were said or written) clarifies and solves some thorny theological difficulties. At the same time, the analysis is carried out on the basis of the principles he has already taught in the previous three cycles of the Theology of the Body addresses. Having discussed God’s establishment of marriage in His creative act (1st cycle), the situation of “historical” man, i.e., the human being after sin, (2nd cycle), the teaching on the resurrection of the body (3rd cycle), celibacy and virginity (4th cycle), the remaining topics are marriage for “historical” man according to the new covenant in Christ (5th cycle) and the whole question of procreation in marriage (6th cycle). The next chapter will discuss the fifth cycle, nos. 87-113.
 See above, Chapter 5: “The Resurrection of the Body.”
 See Matthew 19:3-9. See also above, Chapter 2: “The Nuptial Meaning of the Body.”
 See Matthew 5:27-28. See also above, Chapter 3: “Sin and Shame.”
 See Matthew 22:23-32. See also Mark 12:18-27 and Luke 20:27-38. See also above, Chapter 5: “The Resurrection of the Body.”
 See John Paul II, “The Apostolic Exhortation on the Family,” no. 11.
 See Genesis 1:28.
 Certain works of physics, e.g., Stephen Hawking’s more popular works, have been called “physics for poets” because of the beauty of the universe they convey. It seems to me that much of John Paul’s theological writings can be called “theology for poets” because they convey the most astounding truths about humanity in language which is indescribably clear (when you understand some of the vocabulary) and incredibly moving because of their beauty. I made the same point above, see Chapter 2: “The Nuptial Meaning of the Body,”, footnote # 21.
 See Genesis 2:18.
 See Matthew 19:11-12.
 See no. 76, Theology of the Body, March 31, 1982: “Continence An Effective and Privileged Way,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, nos. 14-15.
 See Matthew 19: 3-6.
 See no. 81, Theology of the Body, May 5, 1982: “Celibacy For the Kingdom Affirms Marriage,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, no. 19.
 See Matthew 19: 11-12.
 See Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Sign of Contradiction, (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), p. 192.
 See no. 80, Theology of the Body, April 28, 1982: “Celibacy is a Particular Response to the Love of the Divine Spouse,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, no. 18.
 See Matthew 19:3-9.
 See Matthew 19:10-12.
 See no. 73, Theology of the Body, March 10, 1982: “Virginity or Celibacy For the Sake of the Kingdom,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, no. 11.
 See Mark 12:18-27.
 See Genesis 17:4.
 See no. 74, Theology of the Body, March 17, 1982: “The Vocation to Continence in this Earthly Life,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, no. 12.
 See Genesis 1:28.
 See John 6:54.
 See John 6:68.
 See Matthew 16:17.
 See no. 75, Theology of the Body, March 24, 1982: “Continence For the Sake of the Kingdom Meant to have a Spiritual Fulfillment,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, no. 13.
 See Matthew 19:10.
 See Matthew 19:11-12.
 See no. 79, Theology of the Body, April 21, 1982: “The Value of Continence is Found in Love,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, no. 17.
 See 1 Cor. 7:1.
 See 1 Cor. 7:7.
 See 1 Cor. 7:10.
 See no. 84, Theology of the Body, July 7, 1982: “Everyone Has His Own Gift From God, Suited to Each One’s Vocation,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, no. 28. See also 1 Cor. 7:31 where Paul advises the Corinthians using the world not to use it fully. The Pope makes reference to this phrase in the quotation cited.
 See no. 84, Theology of the Body, July 7, 1982: “Everyone Has His Own Gift From God, Suited to Each One’s Vocation,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, no. 28.
 See 1 Cor. 7:28.
 See 1 Cor. 7:1.
 See no. 82, Theology of the Body, June 23, 1982: “Voluntary Continence Derives From Counsel, Not From Command,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, no. 26.
 See 1 Cor. 7:38.
 See 1 Cor. 7:28.
 See Matt. 19:10-12.
 See 1 Cor. 7:28.
 See no. 83, Theology of the Body, June 30, 1982: “The Unmarried Person is Anxious to Please the Lord,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, no. 27.
 See 1 Cor. 7:14.
 See Cor. 1:10-11.
 See 1 Cor. 1:7-8.
 See 1 Cor. 1:25.
 See 1 Cor. 7:10.
 See 1 Cor. 7:12.
 See no. 82, Theology of the Body, June 23, 1982: “Voluntary Continence Derives From Counsel, Not From Command,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, no. 26.
 See 1 Cor. 7:9.
 See 1 Cor. 7:1-2.
 See no. 84, Theology of the Body, July 7, 1982: “Everyone Has His Own Gift From God, Suited to Each One’s Vocation,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, no. 28.
 See no. 85, Theology of the Body, July 14, 1982: “The Kingdom of God, Not the World, Is Man’s Eternal Destiny,” L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), vol. 15, no. 29.
 See 1 Cor. 7:32-34.
 See John 8:29.
 See 1 Cor. 7:12-16.
 See 1 Cor. 7:7.
 See especially the third part of this document.
August 4, 2003 ---- Fr. Richard Hogan