85. The Kingdom of God, Not the World, Is
Man's Eternal Destiny
By Pope John Paul II
1. During our
previous considerations in analyzing the seventh chapter of the First Letter to
the Corinthians, we have been striving to gather together and understand the
teachings and advice that St. Paul gives to the recipients of his letter about
the questions concerning marriage and voluntary continence (or abstention from
marriage). Declaring that one who chooses marriage does well and one who chooses
virginity does better, the Apostle refers to the passing away of the world—that
is, of everything that is temporal.
It is easy to see that the argument from the perishable and transient nature of
what is temporal speaks with much greater force in this case than reference to
the reality of the other world. The Apostle here expresses himself with some
difficulty. Nevertheless, we can agree that at the basis of the Pauline
interpretation of the subject of marriage-virginity, there is found not so much
the very metaphysics of accidental being (therefore fleeting), but rather the
theology of a great expectation, of which Paul was a fervent champion. The world
is not man's eternal destiny, but the kingdom of God. Man cannot become too
attached to the goods that are linked to a perishable world.
2. Marriage also is tied in with the form of this world which is passing away.
In a certain sense, here we are very close to the perspective Christ opened in
his statement about the future resurrection (cf. Mt 22:23-32; Mk 12:18-27; Lk
20:27-40). Therefore according to Paul's teaching, the Christian must live
marriage from the point of view of his definitive vocation. Marriage is tied in
with the form of this world which is passing away and therefore in a certain
sense imposes the necessity of being locked in this transiency. On the other
hand, abstention from marriage could be said to be free of this necessity. For
this reason the Apostle declares that one who chooses continence does better.
Although his argumentation follows this course, nevertheless he decidedly
stresses above all (as we have already seen) the question of "pleasing the Lord"
and "being anxious about the affairs of the Lord."
3. It can be admitted that the same reasons speak in favor of what the Apostle
advises women who are widowed: "A wife is bound to her husband as long as he
lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only
in the Lord. But in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I
think that I have the Spirit of God" (1 Cor 7:39-40). Therefore, she should
remain a widow rather than contract a new marriage.
4. Through what we discover from a thoughtful reading of the Letter to the
Corinthians, especially chapter seven, the whole realism of the Pauline theology
of the body is revealed. In the letter the Apostle proclaims: "Your body is a
temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you" (1 Cor 6:19). Yet 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.
However, this awareness in no way obscures for him the reality of God's gift.
This is shared by those who abstain from marriage and also by those who take a
wife or husband. In the seventh chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians
we find clear encouragement for abstention from marriage, the conviction that
whoever decides on this abstention, does better. But we do not find any
foundation for considering those who live in marriage as carnal and those who
instead choose continence for religious motives as spiritual. In both the one
and the other way of living—today we would say in one and the other vocation—the
"gift" that each one receives from God is operative, that is, the grace that
makes the body a "temple of the Holy Spirit." This gift remains, in virginity
(in continence) as well as in marriage, if the person remains faithful to his
gift and, according to his state, does not dishonor this temple of the Holy
Spirit, which is his body.
5. In Paul's teaching, contained above all in the seventh chapter of the First
Letter to the Corinthians, we find no introduction to what will later be called
Manichaeism. The Apostle is fully aware that—insofar as continence for the sake
of the kingdom of God is always worthy of recommendation—at the same time grace,
that is, "one's own gift from God," also helps married couples. It helps them in
that common life in which (according to the words of Gn 2:24) they are so
closely united that they become one body. This carnal common life is therefore
subject to the power of their own gift from God. The Apostle writes about it
with the same realism that marks his whole reasoning in the seventh chapter of
this letter: "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and
likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body,
but the husband does; likewise, the husband does not rule over his own body, but
the wife does" (verses 3-4).
6. It can be said that these statements are a clear comment in the New Testament
on the words scarcely recorded in the Book of Genesis (cf. Gn 2:24).
Nevertheless, the words used here, especially the expressions "rights" and "does
not rule," cannot be explained apart from the proper context of the marriage
covenant, as we have tried to clarify in analyzing the texts of the Book of
Genesis. We will attempt to do it even more fully when we speak about the
sacramentality of marriage, drawing on the Letter to the Ephesians (cf. Eph
5:22-33). At the proper time it will be necessary to return to these significant
expressions, which have passed from Paul's vocabulary into the whole theology of
7. For now we will continue to direct our attention to the other sentences in
the same passage of the seventh chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians,
in which the Apostle addresses these words to married couples: "Do not refuse
one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote
yourselves to prayer. But then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through
lack of self-control. I say this by way of concession, not of command" (1 Cor
7:5-6). This is a very significant text, and it will perhaps be necessary to
refer to it again in the context of our meditations on the other subjects.
In all of his argumentation about marriage and continence, the Apostle makes a
clear distinction, as Christ does, between the commandment and the evangelical
counsel. It is very significant that St. Paul feels the need to refer also to a
"concession," as to an additional rule, above all precisely in reference to
married couples and their mutual common life. St. Paul clearly says that
conjugal common life and the voluntary and periodic abstinence by the couple
must be the fruit of this gift of God which is their own. He says that the
couple themselves, by knowingly cooperating with it, can maintain and strengthen
that mutual personal bond and also that dignity conferred on the body by the
fact that it is a "temple of the Holy Spirit who is in them" (1 Cor 6:19).
8. It seems that the Pauline rule of "concession" indicates the need to consider
all that in some way corresponds to the very different subjectivity of the man
and the woman. Everything in this subjectivity that is not only of a spiritual
but also of a psychosomatic nature, all the subjective richness of man which,
between his spiritual being and his corporeal, is expressed in the sensitivity
whether for the man or for the woman—all this must remain under the influence of
the gift that each one receives from God, a gift that is one's own.
As is evident, in the seventh chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians,
St. Paul interprets Christ's teaching about continence for the sake of the
kingdom of heaven in that very pastoral way that is proper to him, not sparing
on this occasion entirely personal accents. He interprets the teaching on
continence and virginity along parallel lines with the doctrine on marriage. He
keeps the realism that is proper to a pastor, and at the same time the
proportions that we find in the Gospel, in the words of Christ himself.
9. In Paul's statement we can find again that fundamental structure containing
the revealed doctrine about man, that even with his body he is destined for
future life. This supporting structure is at the basis of all the Gospel
teaching about continence for the sake of the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 19:12). But
at the same time there also rests on it the definitive (eschatological)
fulfillment of the Gospel doctrine on marriage (cf. Mt 22:30; Mk 12:25; Lk
20:36). These two dimensions of the human vocation are not opposed to each
other, but are complementary. Both furnish a full answer to one of man's
fundamental questions, the question about the significance of "being a body,"
that is, about the significance of masculinity and femininity, of being "in the
body" a man or a woman.
10. What we usually define here as the theology of the body is shown to be
something truly fundamental and constitutive for all anthropological
hermeneutics. At the same time it is equally fundamental for ethics and for the
theology of the human ethos. In each one of these fields we must listen
attentively to the words of Christ, in which he recalled the beginning (cf. Mt
19:4) or the heart as the interior, and at the same time historical place of
meeting with the concupiscence of the flesh. But we must also listen attentively
to the words through which Christ recalled the resurrection in order to implant
in the same restless heart of man the first seeds of the answer to the question
about the significance of being flesh in the perspective of the other world.