St. Paul’s Advice to Virgins and Widows

Was Saint Paul married?  No evidence exists in the scriptures or in tradition that Paul had a wife and family.  If he had, it would be difficult to explain why his wife would never once have been referenced either in the Acts of the Apostles or in his own letters. [1] Yet he writes so deftly on the subjects of love, marriage, virginity, and sexuality.

Paul devotes the seventh chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians to marriage and virginity.  While not opposed to marriage, Paul believed that the unmarried state of life was preferable for a Christian because it freed them from marital responsibilities and for the work of the Lord.  But it is important to understand his bias. [2]  He believes this because he truly believes that the end is near, that at any moment he would look to the sky and see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with great power and glory.  Paul prayed for and would have welcomed this day for he longed to be with his Lord.

Corinth was a prosperous Greek city, a cultural center settled on the sea, a city known to be a center of vice.  There the first generation of Christians—mostly converts—struggled to live the gospel in a setting inhabited by those who held Christian values in contempt.  Some of the newly baptized determined it would be easier to avoid the corruption if they abandoned their livelihoods and their families altogether and adopted a quasi-monastic lifestyle.  Paul said that this was taking things too far.  These weighty issues would have dismayed a lesser man but he rose to the occasion.  The Corinthians made many mistakes but he considered them to be errors of enthusiasm.  Paul discusses them carefully and trusts the Corinthians to draw the appropriate conclusions.  “From many points of view the letter is a masterful object lesson on the exercise of authentic Christian community.” [3]  He encourages them to not abandon their normal lives but to continue to live out the state of life when they first became believers.  Christ’s grace strengthens us to live Christian lives even among nonbelievers.   

Jesus is the model for celibacy in the Church.  He gave his life wholeheartedly and entirely to his bride.  Paul was imitating Christ, and he recommended to the unmarried Corinthian Christians that they follow the Lord’s example and remain celibate, not because he denigrated marriage but because he felt celibates could be more single-minded in service.  In light of Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians, good reasons exist why this God-giving vocation is a gift to the Church.  His point is that consecrated celibacy and virginity actually help reveal and remind everyone who Christ really is.  

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.  But a marriage man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided (1 Cor 7: 32-34a).  

Paul wants the Corinthians to avoid the hysterical asceticism in vogue in Corinth.  Both the married and unmarried are preoccupied with their lifestyles, too much so to be in Christ, who demands fully allegiance.  A woman who responds to God’s call by giving herself body and soul to the Lord as a consecrated virgin reminds the world that Jesus is a real person, body, soul, and divinity, not just a mystical figure.  Jesus is somebody who loves and who can be loved in return.  

Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) began to discern her calling to consecrated virginity as a child, and she fought innumerable obstacles to carry out the call.  After years of patient suffering and praying to be united with the Bridegroom, the Lord appeared to her in glory with the Blessed Virgin Mary at his side.  Mary took Catherine’s hand and gave it to Jesus, who placed a ring on her finger, thus wedding her to her Christ.  For Catherine, Jesus was a real person who loved her and whom she desired to love with her whole heart.  Her sainthood and her consecrated virginity affirm the importance of that state of life in the Church. [4]  

Virginity for the sake of the kingdom is an unfolding of baptismal grace, a powerful sign of the supremacy of the bond with Christ and the ardent expectation of his return. … From the very beginning of the Church there have been men and woman who have renounced the great good of marriage to follow the Lamb wherever he goes. (CCC No. 1618-1619).    

Catholic priests bear the brunt of the assaults from those who rail against chastity and celibacy in the Church.  The man who receives and accepts the grace to live celibately as a priest displays to the world Christ’s love through his pastoral, fatherly care.  Through the priest, Jesus pastures his flock, for the priest prays the Liturgy of the Hours and administers the sacraments of healing and confects the Eucharist in Christ’s name.  This is a reflection of Jesus’s devotion to his Church, a mirror image of our Lord, who was celibate and married to the Church, his only bride.  Priestly celibacy, rather than being an antithesis to marriage, reveals the dignity of marriage.  The faithful practice of virginity and celibacy reminds the faithful of the commitment to service according to the state of life to which we have been called.

The Church has always taught that marriage is one of the seven sacraments instituted by Christ, just as valid as the sacrament of holy orders.  They are sacraments of vocation or service.  Far from denigrating marriage, the Church’s esteem for celibacy actually reveals its dignity.  God doesn’t call everyone to lifelong celibacy or consecrated virginity, as Paul makes clear in his First Letter to the Corinthians.  But by calling some of his children in every generation to imitate Christ in this way, he affirms the gift of Christ to the entire Church.

[1] Witherup, Ronald, D., SS. 101 Questions and Answers on Paul. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003.  

[2] Bergant, Dianne, C.S.A., and Fragomeni, Richard. Preaching the New Lectionary Year B. Collegeville, Minn.: the Liturgical Press.  1999.  

[3] Illustrated Dictionary and Concordance of the Bible. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2005.

[4] Undset, Sigrid. Catherine of Siena. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1951. 

Father Cordani was ordained to the priesthood in 2011. He holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MDiv from Pope Saint John XXIII National Seminary. He has written for Our Sunday Visitor, the National Catholic Register, and Columbia Magazine. Follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/tucker.cordani and Twitter @tuckercordani

Filed under: » »