Marriage, Celibacy, and The Kingdom of God: St. Paul in I Corinthians 7
We are used to the Church speaking so highly of marriage, encouraging her children to remain faithful in marriage, referring us so often to that theology of marriage which St. John Paul II “The Great” taught—that marriage is at the dawn of creation written by God into the very fabric of the man-woman relation—that we might find it difficult to understand St. Paul’s commentary on the question of marriage as compared to celibacy in this Sunday’s Epistle. What does Paul mean when he says
“….a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided….A married woman….is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband” (1 Cor 7:33,34)
First, we might notice that Paul is just talking about an everyday human reality. St. Paul was not out-of-touch with normal life. The life of marriage and family is in a certain way a rather worldly life. A family is a small business all its own, and husband and wife are preoccupied with making a living and keeping a home. This means not only must they always be looking for ways to preserve and increase the family wealth, but they also have to strive constantly to live in peace with one another, to make each other happy, so as to hold as best they can to those romantic dreams of their early years. Husband and wife are concerned always to try their best not to disappoint one another—and this can come to seem like a full-time job! A Christian marriage is thus always threatened by “worldliness” because the business of the world is always a concern for the family, and also because the marriage itself can get lost in the daily activity of the world, in “taking care of business.” By the time husband and wife finish the workday there is still dinner to put on the table, and children to get to their homework and off to bed. At the end of all that, is there even a spare moment and a drop of energy left to keep the romance alive? Sometimes, but often it seems there isn’t. And we haven’t even gotten to the service of God yet!
If one takes just this passage out of context—especially if one is busy like this with marriage and family—it might look like St. Paul is really putting marriage down as a distant second, as something that a Christian shouldn’t really find desirable if he or she truly loves the Lord, as a basically hopeless project for any serious Christian.
“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…. 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….I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you, but for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction” (1 Cor 7:32, 34)
A Message for the Unmarried: Consider Religious Life
But Paul is not discouraging Christians from getting married. Remember, this is the same man who taught that the relation of a Christian husband to his Christian wife is an embodiment of the relation between Christ and the Church (Eph 5:29-32). What Paul is doing here is introducing a new way of human life, an alternate form of life unknown in the world before Christ—the life of consecrated celibacy. We call it today the “religious life.” This is the life of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God. It is the life that priests and consecrated religious (like Benedictines or Franciscans) live. It is the life that St. Paul himself lived. The consecrated life is that special, higher kind of life to which some are called in every age of the Church, to live a life conformed to Christ the Bridegroom, as a witness to the final state of life to which every Christian is destined in virtue of his or her baptism: the Eternal Life of the Blessed with God, “where they will neither marry nor be given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven” (Mt 22:30). Think of Paul, then, as he writes this passage, as a “recruiter” for consecrated celibacy. He is speaking here to unmarried people, and saying to them:
You know that Christian marriage is a symbol of Christ’s marriage to his Church. But there is something even higher to which you might open your heart. You might hear the call of the Lord to forsake marriage for the sake of total consecration to Him, to a life of total dedication to prayer and service to Christ’s Body in the world. If you hear this call, answer it with the total ‘yes’ of your heart!
It is crucial that the Church always obey the charge to support the special call of consecrated celibacy. But even more important is this responsibility in our time for the whole Church to pray for vocations to the priesthood and to religious life. These vocations are essential for the spiritual building-up of the Church and as a witness to the revolution of divine love which Christ has brought into the world. For the sake of the Church, for the sake of marriage, for the sake of the world—pray for vocations to consecrated celibacy and the priesthood.
And if you are an unmarried Christian reading this, hear the message of St. Paul, and open your heart to the voice of the Master. He could be calling you in this special way.