by Fr. Gerald Kelly
"How great is the dignity of chaste wedlock," are the opening words of Pius XI's memorable encyclical on Christian Marriage. In our series we have kept this sublime teaching constantly in mind; we have pointed out that the generative faculty is a gift of God, that marriage is a divine institution, raised to Sacramental dignity by Christ our Lord. Through marriage, souls are born for the Kingdom of God in this world, and the Kingdom of Heaven in the next. Marriage lived according to Christian principles produces saintly husbands and wives, saintly fathers and mothers. It is, therefore, a noble state of life, a perfect state of life.
Yet, the solemn teaching of the Church recognizes celibacy and virginity, voluntarily embraced from a motive of virtue, as more perfect and more noble than marriage. This does not mean that the Church glorifies the mere renunciation of marriage; the renunciation must be made from a motive of virtue. It does not mean that for every individual celibacy would be the more perfect thing. That is precisely the reason for making a choice of a state of life: each must decide in what state of life he, with his own particular talents and opportunities, can serve God more perfectly. Yet the fact remains that if any individual could decide that he was equally fitted for either marriage or celibacy, a confessor would have to tell him that the latter course would be the more perfect thing.
The Scriptural foundation for this Catholic doctrine is found in our Lord's teaching and in the apostolic doctrine of St. Paul. When the disciples told our Lord that His teaching on marriage was so strict that it would be better for a man not to marry, He answered them: "Not all take in this saying, but they to whom it hath been given. For there are eunuchs who were born so from their mother's womb, and eunuchs who were made such by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves such for the Kingdom of the heavens. He that can take this in, let him take it in. " (St. Matthew, ch. 19, vv. 11,12. Westminster Version.) A eunuch is one who does not possess the use of the generative faculty; hence our Lord's words mean: "There are some who are born without this power; some who are deprived of it by men; and some who voluntarily renounce their right to use it for the Kingdom of Heaven. The last is a higher call, and let him who can follow it do so." St. Paul's teaching in the Seventh Chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians may be summarized in these words: One who marries, does well: one who voluntarily remains a virgin does better. From the earliest days of Christianity, these two passages of Scripture have been the foundation of the Catholic doctrine that celibacy and virginity embraced from a motive of virtue constitute a higher state of perfection than marriage.
Why is virginity preferable to marriage? Because, all other things being equal, the soul that is free from the obligations of marriage and that is resolved to observe absolute chastity is better able to unite itself to God--and this is the highest perfection of the individual soul. Moreover, since the fall of Adam, one of the most signal victories of the human spirit and Divine Grace over the unruly appetites is that of virginity. Finally, in a practical way, it is easy to see that for the work of the priesthood and of religious orders, celibacy affords a freedom from human affairs that is at least highly desirable.
The foregoing are some of the reasons ordinarily given for the superiority of virginity, over marriage. But it seems to us that the full inner meaning of voluntary celibacy and virginity is found only in the light of the entire Gospel of our Lord. His is a message of love: of self-renouncing, self-sacrificing love. Sacrifice was the language of His love for us from the poverty and obscurity of Bethlehem to the blood and humiliations of Calvary. For love of us He turned aside from many comforts and honors that would have been perfectly legitimate for Him.
As our Lord, so His followers. Loving self-renunciation is the language of sanctity. And surely there is nothing unusual in this--that the love of God should find expression in sacrifice. Even merely human love speaks the same language. The true lover gives; and he gives, not what is cast off or worthless, but what he considers best and most precious.
Celibacy is but one example of the "Gospel of Sacrifice." Marriage is good; Christian Marriage is truly beautiful. Yet the more one appreciates the meaning and beauty of marriage, the more clearly should he see that the renunciation of marriage can be a superb act of the love of God. He who renounces his right to marry offers to God a "pearl of great price." As our Lord said: "Go, sell what thou hast... and come, follow me"; "He that can take this in, let him take it in."
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Copyright © Gerald Kelly. Reproduced with permission of Fusion International. All rights reserved.