A Second Look: Is St. Paul Down on Marriage?

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

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This Sunday’s second reading contains what could be construed as a controversial statement from St. Paul about marriage. The reading is from 1 Cor 7:32-35, in which Paul writes:

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.

It seems like St. Paul is saying it is more pleasing to God for people to remain single than to get married. Indeed, you’ll find many who argue for the Church’s tradition of celibate clergy and consecrated religious referencing this passage. An unmarried man or woman is in many ways less encumbered by worldly concerns and more free to devote their life to doing the Lord’s work.

But does this mean marriage is bad, or that married people are not capable of holiness? Hardly.

Context

As always, context is important. Catholics do not “proof text” the Bible, constructing doctrine by taking a single verse or passage in isolation. We read each part of scripture in the context of the whole. So let’s examine the context of this passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

At the time of St. Paul’s writing, Corinth was a young church, and it was a church in trouble. The city of Corinth was a flourishing commercial center, with people coming and going from all over the Mediterranean. It was wealthy, extravagant, and something of a tourist destination with a reputation for immorality. Starting a Christian church there would be a bit like trying to start a new congregation in Las Vegas. There was a lot in Corinth in terms of negative influences that could lead new Christians astray. The constant influx of new people from foreign lands also exposed the Church there to many different religious and philosophical ideas, many of which were incompatible with Christianity.

When Paul wrote his letter, the Corinthian church was only about five years old and had already begun to be divided into different factions. It was plagued by scandal, lawsuits, heresy, sloppy liturgy and sexual immorality. St. Paul addresses all of these concerns in this letter, offering corrections.

Apostolic Advice

This particular passage is part of a larger section in which St. Paul deals with issues the Corinthians were having with marriage. In this section, St. Paul states, “Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (1 Cor 7:25). St. Paul is telling the Corinthians (and us) that he’s not laying down any hard and fast rules, only giving his opinion. As valuable as this Apostolic opinion is, it is by his own admission advice and not law.

What St. Paul advises is that people who enter the Church (at this early date the Church was growing primarily through adult converts) should remain as they are. Married people should remain married. Unmarried people should remain unmarried. Remember that people in the early Church generally assumed Christ’s return was imminent. In light of that assumption, contracting a new marriage was seen as less important. Paul says, “the appointed time has grown very short; from now on let those who have wives live as through they had none” (1 Cor 7:29).

But even while advising unmarried people to remain unmarried, St. Paul makes a point of clarifying, “But if you marry, you do not sin” (1 Cor 7:28a). In other words, he is not talking about a matter of the moral law, but rather offering his practical advice. “Those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that” (1 Cor 7:28b).

The Ties That Bind

And he’s not wrong. Married people do have to be concerned with pleasing their spouse. And when children come, they have to be concerned with caring for them, as well. This is as it should be. It’s not a bad thing. But it does make one less free for certain other kinds of work.

As a married person who is employed in full time ministry, I can attest to the fact that it is difficult. With a wife, six children, and a mortgage, I am less free than a celibate priest, nun, or even a single lay person, to devote myself to ministering to others. A single young adult missionary on campus would be free to have 1:00am conversations with students at the coffee shop. I am not. I have children who need to be tucked into bed, and a wife who would like to spend time with her husband. A religious sister or brother might receive a call from their superior telling them they are needed in another city, or even another country, and they can freely answer that call. Uprooting your life to answer a missionary call is not nearly as simple with a family.

Then there is the cost of supporting a family. Ministerial jobs generally don’t pay very well, and so many married people employed in ministry have to find other means to support their family (I have an online business, for example), which is time and energy they don’t have to devote to ministry. An individual living alone requires much less financial support.

These are all very good reasons why the Church advocates for celibacy among clergy and consecrated religious. But does any of this mean marriage is bad, or that married people are not called to holiness? Absolutely not!

Some of the Christians in Corinth did believe marriage to be bad, suggesting even married Christians be celibate, refraining from sexual relations with their spouses. To these people, St. Paul agrees that celibacy is good, but says that it is wrong for spouses to withhold sexual relations from one another “except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote your selves 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. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor 7:5-7).

A Special Gift

The call to celibacy is a special gift from God. St. Paul had that call, as do countless priests and consecrated religious, as did Jesus. But not all have this call. The call to marriage is also a special gift from God, one that St. Paul elsewhere calls “a great mystery.” One of the most beautiful statements about Christian marriage comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in which he writes, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:31-32). St. Paul speaks of the Church as the Bride of Christ, and of Jesus as the Bridegroom. Marriage, understood properly, is a living icon of the relationship between Jesus and the Church, between God and Man. The most frequent image used in the gospels to describe heaven is a wedding feast.

Marriage is good, because marriage is designed by God. The Catechism teaches, “The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC 1603). Pope St. John Paul II called marriage “the primordial sacrament,” as its origins can be traced back to Genesis, when God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18) and “therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). To underscore the importance of marriage as a means of sanctification, John Paul II canonized more married saints during his pontificate than any pope before or since.

The Universal Call to Holiness

The Second Vatican Council is very clear that every human person is called to holiness, not just priests, monks and nuns. The Council Fathers spoke of a “universal call to holiness” and made sure to include married people in this call.

“Christian spouses, in virtue of the sacrament of Matrimony, whereby they signify and partake of the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and His Church, help each other to attain to holiness in their married life and in the rearing and education of children. By reason of their state and rank in life they have their own special gift among the people of God” (Lumen Gentium 11).

Marriage is all about learning to live your life in service to another. Married people have to be self-sacrificing, placing another’s needs before their own. Married people must learn what it is to forgive and to ask forgiveness. Married people — if they are to be good wives and husbands — must learn to take up their cross and follow Christ. These are lessons anyone striving to grow in holiness must learn, whether married or celibate. But those lessons will be learned in different contexts.

Sacramental Marriage

Another issue the early Church in Corinth was facing was the problem of mixed marriages. Often a husband or a wife would convert to Christianity, but their spouse would not. Some wondered whether this was justification for divorce or separation. St. Paul advocated that such a couple remain together, if both parties are agreeable, because an unbelieving husband or wife could be consecrated by their believing spouse (1 Cor 7:14).

A married person is concerned with pleasing their spouse. And if their spouse is not a Christian, then it will be difficult to also be concerned with pleasing the Lord. But if husband and wife are both Christians, this constitutes a sacramental marriage in which both parties are concerned with pleasing the Lord and one another. If husband and wife want to please each other, and both are concerned with pleasing the Lord, then there can be no conflict between their marriage and their call to sanctity.

The Most Excellent Good

By praising celibacy, St. Paul is not saying marriage is bad — in fact, the opposite is true. It is precisely because marriage is good that celibacy is so praiseworthy. If marriage were evil, then forgoing it would simply be the moral thing to do. But enduring the hardship of giving up something good for the sake of a greater good is truly praiseworthy. The men and women called to celibacy in the Church forsake marriage in this life in anticipation of the mystical marriage of heaven. Make no mistake; those who choose this make a real sacrifice. And just like Christ’s sacrifice, it is offered for the redemption of others.

I will end by offering this quote from St. John Chrysostom, which is included in the Catechism’s section on marriage (which I recommend you read for further study).

Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be truly good. The most excellent good is something even better than what is admitted to be good.


 

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