Does Paul have a negative view about marital sexuality? When St. Paul compares marriage and celibacy in today’s second reading, he clearly favors celibacy (1 Cor 7:32-35). However, if we read this passage closely, we see that his reason is not that marriage is intrinsically problematic.
Paul speaks of marriage and celibacy as “gifts”: “Each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor 7:7).
Marital sexuality is not the problem because Paul advises spouses “Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again” (1 Cor 7: 5). Notice than Paul sees the possibility of a time of abstinence for the sake of prayer.
When Paul says, ”I wish that all were as I myself am” (1 Cor 7:7), his reason is that they may be more attentive to the Lord: “An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he might please the Lord… An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she might be holy in both body and spirit” (1 Cor 7:32, 34).
Paul’s concern is attentiveness to God, “I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to the Lord” (2 Cor 11:2).
Paul considers the married person to be “divided” (1 Cor 7:34). St. Thomas Aquinas observes that the Greek word, monos, that was the origin of the name “monk” meant “united”: “The monk takes his name from ‘unity’ in contrast with this division” (2a2ae. 88, 11).
Thomas explains: “Holy virginity refrains from sexual pleasure in order more freely to have leisure for Divine contemplation” (2a.2ae. 152, 2).
Paul doesn’t say that virginity in itself is more virtuous. Thomas comments that not having sexual relations in itself does not make virginity a virtue but rather abstaining for the sake of God: “They have not that which is formal in virginity, namely the purpose of safeguarding this integrity for God’s sake, which gives virginity its character of virtue” (2a.2ae. 152, 3, ad 1).
Thomas affirms that chastity is directed to the relationship with God: “Virginity is directed to the good of the soul in respect to the contemplative life, which consists of thinking of the things of God” (2a.2ae. 152, 4).
While Thomas considers a solemn profession of chastity to be so binding that it cannot be dispensed even by the Pope (2a2ae. 88, 11), the Church does, in fact, allow such dispensations.
As strongly as Thomas maintains the special character of consecrated chastity, he does acknowledge that, in fact, a married person may be more virtuous than a virgin, “Perhaps, the person who is not a virgin has some more excellent virtue” (2a.2ae. 152, 4, ad 2).
Thomas considers consecrated chastity to be a means of being directed to God, yet he notes that a virtue is called “living” because it is formed by charity and prudence (2a2ae. 152, 3, ad 2). In this regard, the theological virtues of “faith, hope and charity” and worship actually unite a person with God:
“A thing may be most excellent simply and in this way virginity is not the most excellent of the virtues. Because the end always excels that which is directed to the end; and the more effectively a thing is directed to the end, the better it is. Now the end that renders virginity praiseworthy is that one may have leisure for divine things. Therefore the theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) as well as the virtue of religion, the acts of which consist in being occupied with Divine things are preferable to virginity” (2a.2ae. 152, 5).
As much as Thomas prizes the consecrated life, he reminds us that this life should be conducive to actually believing God, actually trusting God, actually loving God and one’s neighbors.
In fact, many married persons actually and deeply believe, trust and love God and some religious are divided and distracted. Still, many consecrated persons cooperate with the graces of their life and actually are what St. Paul and St. Thomas hoped they would be.
Denis Vincent Wiseman
References to the Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, in this case, the second part of the second part. This is followed by the question, which in this case is questions 88 and 152, and then the article within the question. When the reference includes the Latin “ad,” it means that the reference is from Thomas’ response to the objections that he poses in the beginning of the article.