Religious Studies Faculty Publications

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Leaving and Coming Home: New Wineskins for Catholic Sexual Ethics


If only Paul had not written chapter seven of his first letter to the Corinthians. Christians can fairly easily avoid questions about whether to be married or single when they stick to the Gospels, for Jesus does nothing clear-cut with respect to states of life. He is present at the wedding at Cana in John; in Matthew, he issues a prohibition against divorce; he speaks about being eunuchs for the Kingdom of God, and reconfigures family in his exhortation that the ones who are his disciples are his mother and brothers. Because Jesus does not appear to have much of a line one way or the other, the Gospels appear to allow us not to get too caught up in questions about whether to marry or whether to stay single.

Paul, though, does not let Christians off quite so easily. In verse eight he writes that for the unmarried and widows, it is "good for them if they remain as I do." Later in the selection, Paul contrasts the married and the non-married by suggesting that the unmarried virgins can follow Christ, but people who are married are concerned with the world and with family. Paul tempers these points by saying that it is better for people to marry than to be aflame with passion. In other words, do not strive for remaining unmarried if it will just cause you to sin.

Most of the early church fathers interpreted this passage as suggesting that virginity is better, far better, than marriage. For example, John Chrysostom discusses how Paul has saved a thorough discussion of virginity for after he already has spoken about marriage relationships "with the hope that they have learned from his previous words to practice continence, and can now advance to greater things."

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