GENERAL AUDIENCE: 30 JUNE
At the weekly Wednesday audience on 30 June, Pope John Paul II
continued his treatment of the question of marriage and celibacy, basing
his reflections on Saint Paul's reasoning as found in the First Letter
to the Corinthians.
1. Saint Paul, in explaining in the seventh chapter of the First
Letter to the Corinthians the question of marriage and virginity (or
continence for the sake of the kingdom of God), tries to give the reason
why one who chooses marriage does well, while one who decides on a life
of continence or virginity does better. He writes: "I tell you this,
brothers, the time is already short. From now on, let those who have
wives live as though they had none...." And then: "...those who buy, as
though they had no goods; those who deal with the world, as though they
had no dealings with it, for the form of this world is passing away. I
want you to be free from anxieties..." (1 Cor 7:29-32).
2. The last words of the text just quoted show that in his
argumentation, Paul is also referring to his own experience, which makes
his reasoning more personal. He not only formulates the principle and
seeks to justify it as such, but he ties it in with personal reflections
and convictions arising from his practice of the evangelical counsel of
celibacy. The individual expressions and phrases testify to their
persuasive power. The Apostle not only writes to his Corinthians: "I
wish that all were as I myself am" (1 Cor 7:7), but he goes further
when, referring to men who contract marriage, he writes: "Yet they will
have troubles in the flesh, and I would want to spare you that" (1 Cor
7:28). However, this personal conviction of his was already expressed in
the first words of the seventh chapter of the same letter, referring to
this opinion of the Corinthians, in order to modify it as well: "Now
concerning the matters about which you wrote, it is well for a man not
to touch a woman..." (1 Cor 7:1).
3. We can ask here, what "troubles in the flesh" did Paul have in mind?
Christ spoke only of suffering (or "afflictions"), which a woman
experiences when she is to deliver a child. However, he emphasized the
joy that fills her as a reward for these sufferings after the birth of
her child, the joy of motherhood (cf. Jn 16:21). Paul, rather, writes of
the "tribulations of the body" which spouses expect. 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" (Gn 2:24)—is
also a difficult love, he certainly remains on the grounds of
evangelical truth. There is no reason here to see symptoms of the
attitude that later was to characterize Manichaeism.
4. In his words about continence for the sake of the kingdom of God,
Christ did not in any way try to direct his listeners to celibacy or
virginity by pointing out to them the troubles of marriage. We see
rather that he tried to highlight various aspects, humanly painful, of
deciding on continence. Both the social reason and reasons of a
subjective nature led Christ to say about the man who makes such a
decision, that he makes himself a eunuch, that is, he voluntarily
embraces continence. But precisely thanks to this, the whole subjective
significance, the greatness and exceptional character of such a decision
clearly springs forth. It is the significance of a mature response to a
particular gift of the Spirit.
5. In the letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul does not understand the
counsel of continence differently, but he expresses it in a different
way. He writes: "I tell you this, brothers, the time is already
short..." (1 Cor 7:29), and a little later on, "the form of this world
is passing away..." (1 Cor 7:31). This observation about the
perishability of human existence and the transience of the temporal
world, in a certain sense about the accidental nature of all that is
created, should cause "those who have wives to live as though they had
none" (1 Cor 7:29; cf. 7:31). At the same time it should prepare the
ground for the teaching on continence. At the center of his reasoning,
Paul places the key phrase that can be joined to Christ's statement, one
of its own kind, on the subject of continence for the sake of the
kingdom of God (cf. Mt 19:12).
6. While Christ emphasized the greatness of the renunciation,
inseparable from such a decision, Paul demonstrates above all what the
kingdom of God must mean in the life of the person who has renounced
marriage in view of it. While the triple parallelism of Christ's
statement reaches its climax in the word that signifies the greatness of
the renunciation voluntarily made ("...and there are others who have
become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven": Mt 19:12), Paul
describes the situation with only one word: the "unmarried" (agamos).
Further on, however, he expresses the whole content of the expression
"kingdom of heaven" in a splendid synthesis. He says: "The unmarried
person is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord"
(1 Cor 7:32). Each word of this statement deserves a special analysis.
7. The context of the word "to be anxious" or "to try" in the Gospel of
Luke, Paul's disciple, indicates that one must truly seek only the
kingdom of God (cf. Lk 12:31), that which constitutes the better part,
the unum necessarium, the one thing necessary (cf. Lk 10:41).
Paul himself speaks directly about his "anxiety for all the churches" (2
Cor 11:28), about his search for Christ through his concern for the
problems of the brethren, for the members of the Body of Christ (cf.
Phil 2:20-21; 1 Cor 12:25). Already from this context the whole vast
field of the "anxiety" emerges, to which the unmarried can totally
dedicate his mind, his toil, his heart. Man can "be anxious" only about
what is truly in his heart.
8. In Paul's statement, the unmarried person is anxious about the
affairs of the Lord (ta tou kyriou). With this concise
expression, Paul embraces the entire objective reality of the kingdom of
God. "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it," he himself will say
a little further on in this letter (1 Cor 10:26; cf. Ps 24:1).
The object of the Christian's concern is the whole world! But Paul, with
the name "Lord," describes first of all Jesus Christ (cf. Phil 2:11).
Therefore the "affairs of the Lord" signify in the first place the
kingdom of Christ, his Body which is the Church (cf. Col 1:18) and all
that contributes to its growth. The unmarried person is anxious about
all this. Therefore Paul, being in the full sense of the term the
"Apostle of Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 1:1) and minister of the Gospel (cf.
Col. 1:23), writes to the Corinthians: "I wish that all of you were as I
myself am" (1 Cor 7:7).
9. Nevertheless, apostolic zeal and most fruitful activity do not yet
exhaust what is contained in the Pauline motivation for continence. We
could even say that their root or source is found in the second part of
the sentence, which demonstrates the subjective reality of the kingdom
of God: "The unmarried person is anxious...how to please the Lord." This
observation embraces the whole field of man's personal relationship with
God. "To please God"—the
expression is found in ancient books of the Bible (cf. Dt 13:19)—is
synonymous with life in God's grace and expresses the attitude of one
who seeks God, of one who behaves according to his will so as to please
him. In one of the last books of Sacred Scripture this expression
becomes a theological synthesis of sanctity. Saint John applies it only
once to Christ: "I always do what is pleasing to him [the Father]" (Jn
8:29). Saint Paul observes in his letter to the Romans that Christ "did
not please himself" (Rm 15:3).
Between these two observations all that makes up the content of
"pleasing God" is contained, understood in the New Testament as
following in the footsteps of Christ.
It seems that both parts of the Pauline expression overlap. In fact, to
be anxious about what "pertains to the Lord," about the "affairs of the
Lord," one must "please the Lord." On the other hand, one who pleases
God cannot be closed in upon himself, but is open to the world, to
everything that is to be led to Christ These evidently are only two
aspects of the same reality of God and his kingdom. Paul nevertheless
had to distinguish them in order to show more clearly the nature and the
possibility of continence "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven."
We will try to return to this subject again.