Do you think that Theology of the Body has nothing to say for priests or religious, except perhaps something useful in preaching? Do you object to Theology of the Body on the grounds that it overemphasized and overglorifies sex and marriage? Are you perhaps discerning a religious vocation yourself? If so, then this is the section for you.
What does Christ say in the gospels about voluntary Christian celibacy? He mentions it directly only once, in the context of the important conversation about divorce and “the beginning.” After that public dialogue, his disciples come to him in private.
‘If that [no divorce] is the condition of a man with his wife, it is not advantageous to marry!’
Christ replied, ‘Not all can accept this, but only those to whom it has been granted. For there are eunuchs who were born this way from their mother’s womb; there are some who were made eunuchs by men, and there are others who made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone understand this who can.’
Perhaps the disciples had a rather unattractive idea behind their question – if divorce is impossible, then it might be best not to risk marrying at all. Is that why you haven’t married, Jesus? But Jesus, planning to call some of his followers down a road yet unheard of, reframes the subject in his own terms. They will not avoid marriage because they are afraid, or because marriage is bad. They will avoid it for the kingdom of heaven.
A Particular Vocation
Think of the many things Jesus might have said about the vocation to celibacy. He chose only three – that Christian celibacy is voluntary, it is for the kingdom of heaven, and it is a gift given only to some individuals. He asks all of his followers to “take up your cross and follow me.” He does not ask everyone to renounce marriage.
Let anyone understand this who can. He does not mean that most people are incapable of intellectually understanding the purpose of the celibate vocation from a Christian perspective. Married and single people alike have written eloquently on the subject. He means that, while all of humanity experiences an innate attraction to marriage, celibacy is not innately attractive. In fact, it can only be accepted if a particular gift of understanding “has been granted” by God himself. Christian celibacy is an individual choice made in response to a particular grace granted.
An Exception to the Rule
For all of human history on earth, past, present, and future, marriage is the normal state. Marriage is the rule. Jesus does not change that. Christian celibacy exists as a particular exception to the normal state of earthly things – it brings a bit of the normal state of heaven for us to see here and now on earth.
The Jews at the time of Jesus, the Jews of the Old Testament, did not have any tradition of celibacy or any means of understanding it. “Grant me that I may go and bewail my virginity.” (Judges 11:37) In fact, they saw marriage as a chance to participate personally in God’s covenant with them through Abraham. “I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you. I will establish my covenant with you and your offspring from generation to generation, to be the God of your descendants after you.” (Genesis 17:4-7) Not only does marriage grant all of the advantages of nature – children to help with the work, to inherit, to care for you in your old age, to pass on your name – it also bring about the increase of the kingdom of God and, eventually, the Messiah. Christ’s disciples thought of celibacy as something inflicted upon men with a physical defect.
“By speaking of those who ‘made themselves eunuchs,’ Christ emphasizes that the choice is connected with renunciation and also with a determined spiritual effort.” (TOB 75.5)
If continence is a grace granted to certain people and fully understood only by them, what is the rest of the world to make of it?
Recall that in heaven, “they will neither marry nor be given in marriage.” There will be men and there will be women, but we will all be so completely absorbed in the love of God himself that we will not individually marry one another; we will all be so united to one another in Heaven that we will not need the individual union of marriage. When we see men and women right now who are living celibate lives, it proves to each of us, in an indirect way, that there will be no marriage in Heaven. Of course the state of heavenly virginity, marriage with God, exists – you are living it right before my eyes!
If anyone doubts the value of a celibate life, consider the life of Jesus himself. Each celibate person today bears a special resemblance, in this way, to Christ in his time on earth. His own disciples had no way to understand continence but as a particular imitation of Christ.
Consider that Jesus came to earth through a virgin mother, to a celibate father. Mary and Joseph were the first witnesses to the possibility and the reality of fruitfulness, not according to the flesh, but through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Mary and Joseph experienced, on the one hand, a perfect fulfillment of the communion of persons in a human marriage, and on the other hand, continence “for the kingdom of heaven” and the fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus became man, the human and the divine natures united for the first and only time in a single person; this grace came through the intimate cooperation of a human person, Mary, with a divine person, the Holy Spirit. If anyone wants to understand spiritual fruitfulness, you need look no further than Mary and the Incarnation.
In the next post, we will take a look at the motivation behind continence “for the kingdom of heaven.” Why does anyone choose this? Is celibacy a higher vocation than marriage? Is it supposed to be painful, or joyful, or both?