Dwight: On the other side, I’m one of those Catholics who feel that we have often over emphasized celibacy to the neglect of marriage. We’re still struggling with what I personally feel is a misguided discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests for example. There has been an element in Catholic teaching that has viewed any sexual activity as degrading, and we have been too slow to promote a mature understanding of the true value of sex and married love. I don’t think Catholics have a monopoly on prudishness, but I admit we have had our share. Despite this danger, we still rightly uphold the value of virginity and the sacredness of celibacy.
The reason celibacy is honored is because it’s a higher spiritual calling. I know in our egalitarian day we dislike the idea that one way of holiness might be better than another, but this is a gospel principle. Martha served the Lord by giving him a meal. Mary served him by sitting at his feet in love. Jesus praises Mary for choosing the “better way.” (Luke 10:42.) Martha isn’t condemned for her more practical service; Jesus just establishes that there is a good way and a better way.
In 1 Corinthians chapter seven Paul says that celibacy is a better way. He says it is a good thing not to marry. (vv.1, 7-8.) He recommends single people and widows to stay as they are, and actually calls marriage a “concession” (v.6) because there is “so much immorality” (v.2). From the earliest times, the Church valued consecrated virginity, but this had also been part of the Jewish religious tradition. The Essenes, a Jewish sect contemporary with Jesus, encouraged celibacy; and Philo Judaeus, a Jewish philosopher and another contemporary with Jesus, records the existence of an order of Jewish virgins who give their lives in pursuit of God’s wisdom. The Jewish tradition was that Elijah and Elisha were celibate. John the Baptist followed in their footsteps of celibacy, and Jesus said there was no one greater than John. (Matt. 11:11.)
The classic understanding of the Adam and Eve story is that part of their primal perfection was that they lived together in a kind of child-like innocence. That’s why, with the fall, they suddenly became aware of their nakedness, and only after the fall did Adam lie with Eve and have children. This indicates that virginity is part of the un-fallen human condition. To confirm this, Jesus teaches that this higher state is what we are destined to return to. This is why there is to be no marriage and sex in the resurrection life. (Mark 12:25)
There are other passages of Scripture that suggest that celibacy is in fact both a special and a higher calling. Jesus himself was the consecrated virgin par excellence. He actually recommends perpetual virginity as a way of total consecration to God in Matthew 19:12 and so implies that lifelong celibacy is a higher calling. The Book of Revelation also teaches that virginity is a higher spiritual calling. In chapter fourteen John has a vision of the throne of the Lamb before which a great crowd are singing a hymn of glory to the Lamb. “These are the ones who have kept their virginity and not been defiled with women; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes; they, out of all people, have been redeemed to be the first fruits for God and for the Lamb.” (Rev. 14:4) Presumably they are “out of all people…the first fruits” because they followed Jesus in the higher way of perpetual virginity.
As Catholics we believe that the Virgin Mary identified with her son by following this higher spiritual calling and remaining a virgin for her whole life. Continue Reading