In the last post we started studying Christ’s teaching about the three kinds of eunuchs, which is really a study of Christian celibacy. Today we will go further with the motivation of celibacy “for the kingdom of heaven.”
First, let’s discuss some wrong motives that have been proposed for celibacy and get that out of the way. Celibacy is not chosen because…
- It is required for Christians. Jesus clearly says, “not all can understand it.” He also affirms the vocation to marriage as it was “in the beginning.”
- It is easier or more pleasant. Celibacy is a sacrifice, a renunciation, equivalent to self-castration. While the disciples ask a utilitarian question, Jesus clearly rejects this reasoning, giving celibacy as a choice made “for the kingdom.”
- Marriage is bad. Marriage was created by God when he saw that everything was good.
- Sex is bad. Again, sexual union is a good part of creation, and Jesus affirms that you can be married and pure of heart.
- You must be celibate to be perfect. While celibacy, especially in a consecrated religious life, is a great aid in the life of perfection, it is possible to reach a high degree of love of God and of neighbor while married.
Now let’s consider the only true motivation for Christian celibacy – “for the kingdom of heaven.” A person who chooses to be celibate must have a particular sense of the meaning and existence of the Kingdom of Heaven – it must be so real to him or her that he is willing to make great personal sacrifices to bring about the Kingdom. She must see herself in a personal way as a part of the Kingdom and see her sacrifice also as particularly directed toward the Kingdom. He must be willing to participate in the redemption of the body, to “make up in my own flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of His body, the Church.”
A celibate person is still a human, with the same fallen nature as all the rest of us humans. A woman called to celibacy still experiences by the very nature of being feminine an attraction, physical and spiritual, to men, and a natural pull toward marriage and motherhood. She experiences first-hand that “it is not good for man to be alone.” She also experiences, just as each one of us does, original solitude – the reality that I am not an animal, I am a person, and because I am a person, I need other people to be in a relationship with. She knows, just as each of us knows, that she cannot truly be herself unless she gives the gift of herself to another person in love.
Moreover, a celibate man, just like every one of us, is still a fallen man. He knows the reality of concupiscence and feels temped to use women and to lust after them. A virtuous man can teach himself not to act on these impulses, but it is an earthly reality that we can never be fully rid of the evil impulses themselves. “I do not do what I want, but what I do not want.”
We know that God loves each of us and does not want to destroy our good human nature. He wants to lead us to a full realization of the best that our nature can be, and then he makes us even better than our nature through grace. “Grace perfects nature.”
If the vocation to celibacy is a grace, the gift of a certain personal, experiential understanding, then we can be sure that this grace perfects the nature of our human sexuality and does not destroy or diminish it. If a loving marriage perfects us because we can give the gift of ourselves, then celibacy must perfect even more by allowing the gift of self to others even more than in marriage. If marriage is a trinitarian-like communion of persons, celibacy must allow even more true communion of persons. If in marriage two people become fruitful in bearing children, then celibacy must allow a man or a woman to be even more fruitful than he would have been as a father. If it didn’t, why would God call people to renounce marriage?
Though he remains by his nature a dual (directed toward woman) being, he is able to discover in this solitude of his, which never ceases to be a personal dimension of everyone’s dual nature, a new and even fuller form of intersubjective communion with others. ~TOB 77.2
A Superior Vocation?
Is celibacy a superior vocation to marriage? I have heard this question debated many times by many Catholics, often with married people on the defensive. “How could God be saying that you’re better than I am? My vocation is a sacrament!”
Well, sorry, fellow married people, but objectively speaking, celibacy is a superior vocation. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t make sense! Why would a woman voluntarily give up having a husband and a houseful of children except for something better?
Let’s get this straight – none of this is to say that marriage is bad in any way, or that it is a bad choice. This entire work of Theology of the Body is an explanation of the beauty of marriage. We’re not being Manichaean, either. Celibacy is not superior because it doesn’t involve sex, which is physical and therefore bad. It is superior because its direct goal and purpose is the kingdom of heaven, and because it is a certain way of living a foretaste of that kingdom even here on earth.
Does this mean that a celibate person is superior to a married person? No. Does it mean that nuns are the real, perfect, superior Christians, in a class above the rest of us regular folk? No. “The perfection of Christian life is measured by the measure of love.” (TOB 78.3) Living celibacy, especially in the structure of a religious life along with poverty and obedience, does help a person to grow in the fullness of love. It helps, but religious life does not have a monopoly on Christian love, perfection or sanctity.
Whatever your vocation is, whether it is to love your spouse exclusively, permanently and fruitfully or to love our divine Bridegroom and His Church with a heart undivided, let us strive together to live that vocation perfectly and to reach the fullness of love and holiness that each of us is called to. In the next post, we will look into what the celibate life teaches us about marriage and what marriage teaches us about the celibate life.