GENERAL AUDIENCE OF WEDNESDAY, 24 OCTOBER 
At the general audience of Wednesday, 24 October, Pope John Paul II
resumed his series of reflections based on "Humanae Vitae", taking up
the subject of the virtue of continence. Following is our translation of
the Holy Father's address.
1. In keeping with what has already been said, today we will take up the
analysis of the virtue of continence.
Continence, which is part of the more general virtue of temperance.
Continence consists in the capacity to dominate, control and direct
drives of a sexual character (concupiscence of the flesh) and their
consequences, in the psychosomatic subjectivity of man. Insofar as it is
a constant disposition of the will, this capacity, merits being called a
We know from the previous analyses that concupiscence of the flesh, and
the corresponding desire of a sexual character aroused by it, is
expressed with a specific impulse in the sphere of somatic reaction and
also with a psycho-emotive excitement of the sensual impulse.
The personal subject, in order to succeed in mastering this impulse
and excitement, must be committed to a progressive education in
self-control of the will, feelings and emotions. This education must
develop beginning with the most simple acts in which it is relatively
easy to put the interior decision into practice. As is obvious, this
presupposes the clear perception of the values expressed in the law and
the consequent formation of firm convictions. If accompanied by the
respective disposition of the will, these convictions give rise to
the corresponding virtue. This is precisely the virtue of continence
(self-mastery). This virtue is seen to be the fundamental condition for
the reciprocal language of the body to remain in the truth and for the
couple to "defer to one another out of reverence for Christ," according
to the words of Scripture (Eph 5:21). This "deferring to one another"
means the common concern for the truth of the language of the body;
rather, deferring "out of reverence for Christ" indicates the gift of
the fear of God (a gift of the Holy Spirit) which accompanies the virtue
2. This is very important for an adequate understanding of the virtue of
continence and especially of the so-called "periodic continence" dealt
with in the Encyclical Humanae Vitae. The conviction that the
virtue of continence is set against the concupiscence of the flesh
is correct, but it is not altogether complete. It is not complete
especially when we take into account the fact that this virtue does not
appear and does not act abstractly and therefore in isolation. But it
always appears and acts in connection with the other virtues (nexus
virtutum), and therefore in connection with prudence,
justice, fortitude and above all with charity.
In the light of these considerations it is easy to understand that
continence is not limited to offering resistance to the concupiscence of
the flesh. But through this resistance it is open likewise to those
values, more profound and more mature, inherent in the spousal
significance of the body in its femininity and masculinity, as well as
in the authentic freedom of the gift in the reciprocal relations of the
persons. Concupiscence of the flesh itself, insofar as it seeks above
all carnal and sensual satisfaction, makes man in a certain sense blind
and insensitive to the most profound values that spring from love and
which at the same time constitute love in the interior truth that is
proper to it.
Linked to power of love
3. In this way also the essential character of conjugal chastity is
manifested in its organic link with the power of love, which is poured
out into the hearts of the married couple along with the consecration of
the sacrament of marriage. In addition, it becomes evident that the call
directed to the couple that they "defer to one another out of reverence
for Christ" (Eph 5:21) seems to open that interior space in which
both become ever more sensitive to the most profound and most mature
values that are connected with the spousal significance of the body
and with the true freedom of the gift.
Conjugal chastity (and chastity in general) is manifested at first as
the capacity to resist the concupiscence of the flesh. It later
gradually reveals itself as a singular capacity to perceive, love
and practice those meanings of the language of the body which remain
altogether unknown to concupiscence itself. Those meanings progressively
enrich the marital dialogue of the couple, purifying it, deepening it,
and at the same time simplifying it.
Therefore, that asceticism of continence, which the encyclical speaks of
(cf. HV 21), does not impoverish affective manifestations. But
rather it makes them spiritually more intense and therefore enriches
4. Analyzing continence in this way, in the dynamics proper to this
virtue (anthropological, ethical and theological), we see that that
apparent contradiction disappears, which is often an objection to the
Encyclical Humanae Vitae and to the doctrine of the Church on
conjugal morality. That is, there would be a contradiction (according to
those who offer this objection) between the two meanings of the conjugal
act, the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning (cf. HV 12), so
that if it were not licit to separate them, the couple would be deprived
of the right to conjugal union when they could not responsibly be
permitted to procreate.
The Encyclical Humanae Vitae gives an answer to this
apparent contradiction, if one studies it in depth. Pope Paul VI
confirms that there is no contradiction but only a difficulty connected
with the whole interior situation of the "man of concupiscence." Rather,
precisely by reason of this difficulty, there is assigned to the
interior and ascetical commitment of the couple the true order of
conjugal life. In view of this order, they become "strengthened and,
one might say, consecrated" (HV 25) by the Sacrament of Marriage.
5. That order of conjugal life means in addition the subjective
harmony between responsible parenthood and personal communion, a harmony
created by conjugal chastity. The interior fruits of continence mature
in it. Through this interior maturing, the conjugal act itself
acquires the importance and dignity proper to it in its potentially
procreative meaning. At the same time, all the affective manifestations
acquire an adequate meaning (cf. HV 21). They serve to express the
personal communion of the couple in proportion to the subjective
richness of femininity and masculinity.
6. In keeping with experience and tradition, the encyclical reveals
that the conjugal act is also a "manifestation of affection" (HV 16).
But it is a "manifestation of particular affection" because at
the same time it has a potentially procreative meaning. As a result,
it is oriented to express personal union, but not only that. At
the same time the encyclical indicates, although indirectly, many
manifestations of affection, effective exclusively to express the
personal union of the couple.
The role of conjugal chastity, and still more precisely that of
continence, lies not only in protecting the importance and
dignity of the conjugal act in relation to its procreative meaning,
but also in safeguarding the importance and the dignity proper to
the conjugal act as expressive of interpersonal union, revealing to the
awareness and the experience of the couple all the other possible
manifestations of affection that can express this profound communion of
It is indeed a matter of not doing harm to the communion of the
couple in the case where for just reasons they should abstain from
the conjugal act. Still more, this communion, continually being built
up, day by day, through suitable affective manifestations, may
constitute a vast terrain on which, under suitable conditions,
the decision for a morally right conjugal act matures.