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Virginity And Celibacy For The Sake Of The Kingdom

December 30, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

In last week’s column, as we considered St. Paul’s inspired words on the sacramentality of marriage in Eph. 5:21-33 (as explained by Pope St. John Paul II over a half-year period during the course of his general audiences on the “theology of the body”), it was immediately acknowledged that the Holy Father was tackling one of the most difficult subjects in the New Testament for modern culture.
Candidly expressed, many people in our era consider the admonition “Wives, be subject to your husbands” (Eph. 5:22) to be offensive, the remnant of a male-dominated culture that existed during the apostolic era. One can even observe sensitivity to this verse in the liturgical expression of the Church.
In wedding liturgies, if the reading from the Letter to the Ephesians is chosen by the couple, an optional shorter form of the full text may be selected that does not include any reference to subjection or subordination. The same is true on Sunday when this Pauline passage is designated as the Second Reading during the Church’s liturgical cycle.
Which option would you guess that most couples and pastors choose for weddings and Sunday Mass?
According to Fr. John Paul Echert, who has witnessed hundreds of Catholic weddings over the course of many years, the abbreviated version is most often selected. Why? “Many couples and pastors,” says Fr. Echert, “simply shy away from the issue of subordination within marriage or else they attempt to explain it away by various means” (The Catholic Servant, volume XX, n. XI, November 2014).
Some, as suggested above, argue that the biblical language is culturally conditioned and therefore only temporal; others attempt to manipulate the original Greek word for “subordinate” to reflect a softer sense of mutual submission without distinction.
If one accepts that “all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16), however, neither approach is tenable. Moreover, the exact same language is used in other places in Sacred Scripture (see Col. 3:18 and 1 Peter 3:1).
The true meaning of St. Paul’s passage, as we saw last week, lies in that it is the will of God that Christian marriage should conform to the model of the relationship between Christ, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride.
“When Christian marriage is understood in terms of the supernatural love between Christ and the Church,” explains Fr. Echert, “the matter of subordination can be seen to be something noble and not oppressive. For it requires that the husband love his wife as Christ loves the Church, willing to sacrifice his own life for her out of love” (ibid.).
In Dr. Michael Waldstein’s translation of St. John Paul II’s general audiences entitled Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB), the Holy Father suggests that “the wife’s ‘submission’ to the husband . . . means above all ‘the experiencing of love’” (p. 485). The vocation of marriage, as intended by God, should be seen by spouses as a path to Heaven.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) next considers the topic of “virginity for the sake of the Kingdom.” After affirming that Christ is the center of all Christian life and that one’s relationship with Him takes precedence over all familial and societal bonds, the Catechism speaks of those who receive a special call to align themselves more closely to Christ:
“From the very beginning of the Church there have been men and women who have renounced the great good of marriage to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, to be intent on the things of the Lord, to seek to please him, and to go out to meet the Bridegroom who is coming” (CCC, n. 1618).
[Note: Although virginity and celibacy have somewhat different connotations, the terms will be used interchangeably to refer to one’s voluntary renunciation of marriage and consecration to God.]
To underscore its importance in the life of the Church, St. John Paul II devotes 14 general audiences (March 10, 1982 to July 21, 1982) to the topic of celibacy. In a work entitled The Theology of the Body in John Paul II: What It Means, Why It Matters (TOB-S), Fr. Richard M. Hogan explains that the Holy Father purposefully begins by making clear that “marriage and family life are blessings from God and the normal vocation for men and women” (TOB-S, p. 147).
In fact, the Holy Father explicitly states that the vocation to continence is “a kind of exception to what is, by contrast, a general rule of this [earthly] life” (TOB, p. 415).
Interesting to note is that in the text from the Gospel of St. Matthew cited in an earlier column regarding the Pharisees’ attempt to trip Jesus up on the question of divorce (see volume 150, n. 12; March 23, 2017), our Lord speaks first of marriage. Only afterward does He speak of embracing celibacy, a state of life “which is granted only to some, who are invited to voluntarily accept it” (TOB-S, ibid.). In other words, the celibate life is a vocation to which one must be called, for “not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given” (Matt. 19:11).
Why might one be called by the Lord to a vocation of celibacy or virginity? St. Paul gives a compelling answer: “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband” (1 Cor. 7:32-34).
In other words, the celibate state of life enables one to devote himself or herself entirely to the work of God without concern for the duties or distractions of family life.
The Vatican II fathers speak beautifully of the esteem held by the Church for those called to the celibate state:
“An eminent position among these [the counsels proposed in the Gospel] is held by virginity or the celibate state. This is a precious gift of divine grace given by the Father to certain souls, whereby they may devote themselves to God alone the more easily, due to an undivided heart. This perfect continency, out of desire for the kingdom of heaven, has always been held in particular honor in the Church. The reason for this was and is that perfect continency for the love of God is an incentive to charity, and is certainly a particular source of spiritual fecundity in the world” (Lumen Gentium, n. 42 § 3).
Similarly, in his 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Blessed Paul VI states: “The free choice of sacred celibacy . . . signifies a love without reservations” (n. 24).
Making reference to the eschatological dimension of consecrated virginity, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “virginity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is…a sign which also recalls that marriage is a reality of this present age which is passing away” (CCC, n. 1619).
For as Jesus said in response to the Sadducees who questioned him about a widow who had lost seven husbands: “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:34-36).
As Dr. Brant Pitre writes in Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told (JtB): “For the early Church Fathers, the voluntary renunciation of marriage . . . was a sign in this life on earth of the future reality, in which there will be no marriage in the resurrection, because all of God’s people will be wedded to Christ in the Church” (p. 162).
St. Cyprian of Carthage, a third-century bishop and martyr, declared of consecrated virgins: “What we shall be, you have already begun to be. You already have in this world the glory of the resurrection” (The Dress of Virgins, 22).

Complementarity

In the Church’s solemn rite of consecration, the virgin is “constituted . . . a sacred person, a transcendent sign of the Church’s love for Christ, and an eschatological image of this heavenly Bride of Christ and of the life to come” (Ordo Consecrationis Virginum, Praenotanda 1; as cited in CCC, n. 923).
“The entire life of each consecrated woman,” says Dr. Pitre, “speaks to this world about the reality of the world to come, in which there will be no earthly marriage, but rather the fulfillment of the unbreakable covenant with Christ, ‘the Bridegroom of Virgins’” (JtB, p. 163).
The Catechism concludes its treatment of consecrated virginity by highlighting that “both the sacrament of Matrimony and virginity for the Kingdom of God come from the Lord himself. . . . Esteem of virginity for the sake of the kingdom and the Christian understanding of marriage are inseparable, and they reinforce each other” (CCC, n. 1620).
St. John Paul II emphasizes how they complement and support one another: “Marriage and virginity or celibacy are two ways of expressing and living the one mystery of the covenant of God with His people. When marriage is not esteemed, neither can consecrated virginity or celibacy exist; when human sexuality is not regarded as a great value given by the Creator, the renunciation of it for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven loses its meaning” (Familiaris Consortio, n. 16 § 1).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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