According to Catholic theologians, why does St. Paul say that a husband is "divided" between pleasing his wife and pleasing God?

Can't a husband please God by pleasing his wife? Or is that what Paul meant?

1 Cor. 7:32-33:

  1. But I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God.
  2. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided.
  • Out of 21 popular translations of the bible only the Douay-Rheims Bible (the translation of the Catholic Vulgate) adds, "and he is divided" at the end of that verse, so St. Paul didn't say that, the Catholics added it. Your question should read, "Why do Catholics say that a husband is divided between his wife and God?"
    – ShemSeger
    Sep 10, 2014 at 18:00
  • 5
    Actually, all the other ones add "he is divided"; but the Douay-Rheims puts that text at the end of verse 33, and the others (including the New American Bible) put it at the beginning of verse 34. Sep 10, 2014 at 18:41
  • I stand partially corrected, there are 2 more translations that say a man is divided in the next verse, and another 7 translations that say his attention/interests are divided, the rest are similar to the KJV, which illustrate that married men and women devote much of their attention to each other, whereas unmarried men and women are free to devote their full attention to the Lord.
    – ShemSeger
    Sep 10, 2014 at 21:29
  • @ShemSeger: Some translations place it on verse 34, not 33. It's in the Greek: "καὶ μεμέρισται."
    – Geremia
    Sep 12, 2014 at 3:27
  • @Geremia, yes... that's what I said in the comment immediately preceding yours.
    – ShemSeger
    Sep 12, 2014 at 3:31

2 Answers 2


The Navarre Bible New Testament Compact Edition's Note on 1 Cor 7:25-38

The excellence of virginity and celibacy has to do with the love of God: the unmarried person can dedicate himself or herself to God more fully than a married person can. "Both the sacrament of Matrimony and virginity for the Kingdom of God come from the LORD himself. It is he who gives them meaning and grants them the grace which is indispensable for living them out in conformity with his will" (CCC, 1620).

It is plain but explaining ...

For the individual what is best for that person is the vocation to which one has been called to. So if God calls one to be married, that's the best for that person. If God calls another to virginity or celibacy, one achieves their sanctity by responding to that call and living truthfully their vocation in life.

The Church has always held and upheld the excellence of virginity and celibacy over marriage1 for the simple reason that those who have received it please God directly without the mediation of an earthly and noble love. They live here and now Jesus' own calling[cf. Mt 19:12] and what will be our state in the age to come.

1. cf. Virginity or Celibacy for the Sake of the Kingdom | General Audience 10 March 1982 | Pope St. John Paul II [the Great].

  • 1
    as I said above
    – Geremia
    Sep 12, 2014 at 3:36
  • Is loving our neighbor for God's sake a lesser, "mediated" love than loving God directly?
    – Geremia
    Apr 16, 2021 at 18:57

These verses need to be understood in the greater context of the New Testament. In isolation, they could be misconstrued as denigrating marriage, which they certainly do not.

Best modern exegesis on 1 Cor. 7:32-33:

"is divided"

The Greek verb μεμέρισται (μερίζω), translated as "divided" in 1 Cor. 7:33 (or 34 in some editions), can also mean "distribute", as in:

1 Cor. 7:17 But as the Lord hath distributed (εμέρισεν) to every one, as God hath called every one: so let him walk.

Thus, μερίζω in 1 Cor. 7 doesn't necessarily have the negative connotation that it does in Mt. 12:25: "Every kingdom divided (μερισθείσα) against itself".

"to please"

By "to please" (ἀρέσκω), St. Paul means much more than showing sentimental gestures of carnal love—since we cannot "please God" (v. 32), Who is a spiritual being, in this way. "To please" means more like "to be acceptable" or "agreeable", as one is after he's made amends with someone he offended.

Lucien Legrand, M.E.P., The Biblical Doctrine of Virginity, p. 94:

The verb "to please" in this context has a very strong meaning* and Paul's thought cannot be grasped properly unless this meaning is recognized. For the modern reader, the words "to please one's husband or wife" evoke merely the show of affection and feelings and, possibly, of coquetry which expresses and fosters conjugal love. Consequently, when the text goes on to say that the married man is divided (v. 33), we think spontaneously of a heart divided in its affections, in the modern romantic sense of the term. The difficulty for the married man would be that two different objects, Christ and his wife, appeal to his heart and that therefore he would be in the awkward position of being unable to give his love fully to either.1 This would be a very shallow explanation that hardly does justice to the views of the Apostle. After all, the love of God is not a matter of sensitivity; it belongs to a higher level and does not conflict with natural human feelings. God does not stand s a rival to his creatures, if they do not try to usurp his place. The danger in wedlock does not arise from a normal attachment of the affections to the partner; it lies elsewhere.2

*The Greek verb ἀρέσκω may be very strong. Its connotations are not merely sentimental. In 1 Cor 10:33, Paul's desire "to please everybody" does not mean that he aims at popularity or that he avoids hurting the feelings of others. It expresses Paul's readiness to oblige, almost to serve all. It means about the same as "being all to all" (1 Cor 9:22).

  1. In the Great Commandment, Jesus commands us both to "love the Lord thy God" (Mt. 22:37) and to "love thy neighbour as thyself" (v. 38). Love of neighbor is inseparable from love of God:

    1 Jn. 4:20 If any man say: I love God, and hateth his brother; he is a liar. For he that loveth not his brother whom he seeth, how can he love God whom he seeth not?
    St. Paul similarly commands: "Husbands, love (αγαπάτε) your wives" (Eph. 5:25). Thus, loving one's neighbor (a husband's wife is his very close neighbor!) for God's sake does not mean a division or diminution of one's love of God.

  2. The danger is that marriage (Legrand p. 98)

    often entails compromises with the world for, as St Paul and his Christians knew well, it is hardly possible "to please" both man and Christ (Gal 1:10 ["If I yet pleased (ήρεσκον) men, I should not be the servant of Christ."]).
    As having material riches makes it harder to practice detachment, so does having a wife make it harder to practice detachment from "the fashion of this world [that] passeth away." (1 Cor. 7:31). Hence, St. Paul advises "that they also who have wives, be as if they had none" (v. 29) and they "that buy, as though they possessed not" (v. 30); cf. St. John Chrysostom's commentary on this.

    St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that marriage is the least sacrament "because it has less participation in the nature of the spiritual life" (III q. 65 a. 1 co.); marriage, like all other temporal things, will pass away:
    Mt. 22:30 In the resurrection they shall neither marry nor be married, but shall be as the angels of God in heaven.

"is divided" not present in all marriages

St. Alphonsus Liguori, in his Sermon 10 for the Feast of St. Joseph, interprets St. Paul's "divisus est" (1 Cor. 7:33) as what is usually the case for marriages. He says it did not apply to St. Joseph's marriage:

It is true that he had a great love for his spouse Mary; but his was not a divided love, although, as the apostle says, the heart of the husband is usually divided. “But he that has a wife is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife and he is divided.”—1 Cor. 7:33. No, the love which he felt for his spouse, filled him still more with divine love and therefore, we cannot doubt that Joseph whilst he lived with Jesus Christ, increased so much in sanctity and merits, that we may say he excels all the other saints.

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