“Dismantling the Cross”: Patricia Snow on Renewing Honor for Celibacy

“Dismantling the Cross”: Patricia Snow on Renewing Honor for Celibacy March 22, 2015

This is a fantastic, hard-fought essay. I don’t know that every aspect of it works (see below) but it’s countercultural and deeply worth your time. Plus it includes an angle on Kristin Lavransdatter which I had not even considered:

Generally speaking, there are two principal vocations in the life of the Catholic Church: marriage on the one hand, and celibate priesthood and religious life on the other. Both are expressions of conjugal love. In the normal calling of marriage, an individual binds himself for life to another human being. In the exceptional calling of priesthood or religious life, an individual binds himself eternally to God.

The fruitful life of the Church has always depended upon a healthy interaction between these two states of life. In truly Catholic periods or cultures, an equilibrium has been established, whereby the family bears children, some of whom are called to religion, and religious life in turn justifies and sanctifies the family. In Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock, a novel about Catholic Quebec in the seventeenth century, a young domestic heroine’s love of order and cleanliness is such that she can’t sleep in a dirty bed. She is balanced in the world of the novel by a beautiful ascetic in a church in Montreal, walled up behind the Blessed Sacrament with a stone for a pillow. Like the French ships that convey to the Canadian colonies “everything to comfort the body and the soul,” the capacious hold of the Church enfolds both vocations. Neither Shaker nor Protestant, the Church affirms both women’s choices, just as the young heroine of the novel is enamored of her alter ego in Montreal, and the recluse, in her turn, prays for her brothers and sisters in the world, night and day.

Still, this mutual dependency and reciprocal respect notwithstanding, in the whole history of the Church the choice for celibacy has always been understood to be objectively higher than the choice for marriage, because the celibate anticipates in his flesh the world of the future resurrection.

more (includes one of the most striking observations on “the Catholic novel” that I’ve seen–paragraph about “rupture and transcendence”)

My three thoughts:

1. The tight connection Snow makes between provision of the sacraments and celibacy would strike Orthodox and Eastern Catholic readers quite oddly. You could still write this article in an Eastern context, but how would it need to be constrained or recast in order to tie celibacy to monasticism rather than all priesthood?

2. I don’t think Snow acknowledges how much of the sex-abuse crisis was caused by the quasi-mystical personal status of priests. Abuse of power comes as no surprise, and abusive priests (and abuser-shuffling bishops) gained their power largely from the reverence in which they were held by Catholic culture. There’s an unexplored tension here between honor for celibates and what I’d call a healthy degree of anti-clericalism, which others might call attentiveness to universal human frailty.

3. BUT that said, Snow is making basically the same challenge to my weirdly secular style of celibacy that St Gregory of Nyssa did in my “Captive Virgins” post. And I still need the challenge. You probably do too!


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