In our previous article, we gave a summarized and simplified reflection on the resurrection of the body as taught in the third cycle of catechesis (64-72) of St. John Paul II’s theology of the body. In this article we will continue these reflections, moving on to the fourth cycle of the Holy Father’s catechesis (73-86), which treats of Christian virginity and celibacy for the Kingdom of God.
This article will cover:
- Why Christian virginity and celibacy is the topic of the fourth cycle
- Where Jesus approached this teaching in the Gospels
- Whether the vocation of virginity or celibacy is a commandment
- Why the disciples were surprised when Jesus told them about this new vocation
- The relationship between the vocations of marriage and religious life
- Why virginity or celibacy for the Kingdom of God is superior to sacramental marriage
1. Why is Christian virginity and celibacy for the subject of the fourth cycle?
In our previous article we dealt with Jesus’ teaching on the resurrection of the body. As we pointed out, the resurrection of the body sheds light on God’s revelation about the human body. This doctrine indicates to the human person living in this world what his or her final destiny will be. The hope of attaining that final destiny, the fullness of the redemption of the body, moves the human person to gradually work out, with God’s grace, the redemption of his body in this life, the fullness of which will be accomplished in Heaven.
In the second cycle of St. John Paul II’s teachings, previous to the resurrection of the body, we dealt with Jesus’ teaching on the purity of the heart. The heart is the center of the interior life of the human person, the center of the soul, where he or she decides for or against God. Therefore, the topic of purity of heart sheds light on God’s revelation on the human soul, especially on how it ought to use its spiritual powers (the intellect and the will) to follow God’s will.
Thus far, we have presented St. John Paul II’s teaching on the human person as a whole, a composite being of body and soul, which is the teaching of Christ Himself. Moreover, this teaching shows how the human person ought to live in order to one day attain the resurrection of the body and the glorification, by the Holy Spirit, of both body and soul.
The next logical topic is Jesus’ teaching on living the vocation or God’s call to love as Jesus Himself did in order to attain the fullness of redemption in the future life. Jesus calls all Christians to love Him and their neighbors as themselves. Following Jesus’ teachings, the Catholic Church has always taught that Christian love can be expressed by means of two vocations (God’s callings):
- Virginity and celibacy for the Kingdom of God, which includes bishops, priests, and religious.
Of these two, St. John Paul II treats first of virginity and celibacy because it follows more logically from the topic of the resurrection of the body, which he just covered. Recall that the resurrected human person will be in a virginal state. The virginal state will be the definitive state of the human person because his union with God will be so complete that he will not need any other union.
As we explained, this does not mean that in the future world the human person will not be united also to his brothers and sisters in the Lord who have also attained the resurrection. In fact, the Love of God that the human person will experience will overflow in his virginal love for others. Moreover, in the resurrected state the human body will attain the fullness of its meaning, which is to fully and perfectly express in his body the pure, virginal love contained in the human soul thanks to his union with God.
Once St. John Paul II discusses virginity and celibacy , he sets the stage for the next two and final cycles of his catechesis on the theology of the body. These two cycles deal, respectively, with the Sacrament of Marriage (cycle 5) and love and fertility (cycle 6). These two final cycles also follow logically from all the previous ones, since, as we have already indicated and according to St. John Paul II himself, his theology of the body is a huge commentary on St. Paul VI’s prophetic Encyclical Humanae Vitae. The central topics of Humanae Vitae were the transmission of human life and conjugal love.
2. Where in the Gospels did Jesus approach this teaching about virginity and celibacy?
Christ taught his disciples about this vocation right after his debate with the Pharisees on the oneness and indissolubility of marriage (Matthew 19:3-9). Once the Pharisees left, his bewildered disciples told Him that if such were the characteristics of true marriage, then it was not worth it to get married! (cf. verse 10.)
Jesus responds (vv. 11-12) to such a pessimistic view in this way:
Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.
First of all, Jesus is not saying that some men castrate themselves for the kingdom of heaven. That would be absurd and would contradict the teaching of Scripture elsewhere (see for example Ephesians 5:29).
The important point here is this: understanding the true nature both of marriage and of virginity or celibacy is a grace given by God Himself. Both vocations have a divine origin and as such, they must be understood and accepted not on a purely human level, but at the divine level—that is to say, under the action of divine grace.
Moreover, because He teaches the divine origin and nature of both vocations, Christ is not setting them against each other. Those who are called by God to celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom must not do so because of a negative view of marriage, but because of the intrinsic value of this vocation. In this way, Jesus, once again raises the discussion to a higher level, the level of God’s perspective.
3. Is the vocation of virginity or celibacy a commandment given by Jesus?
No, it is not. It is one of the evangelical counsels that Jesus gives to some, not all, and it is a special gift of the Holy Spirit (or a “charism”). The three evangelical counsels are chastity, poverty and obedience. Everyone must live the three evangelical counsels to a certain degree according to his or her state in life; those who are called by Christ to live a consecrated life must live the three counsels in a higher degree than those who are married.
For example, those who are single and those who are consecrated must live the counsel of chastity in continence, which is total abstention from sexual relations. Those who are married live conjugal chastity by sometimes practicing periodic continence, for example, when they are spacing out pregnancies for serious reasons. They also practice conjugal chastity when they engage in conjugal relations to mutually express their true love and are always open to the possibility of a new life, that is, when they reject contraception, sterilization, and abortion.
Virginity and celibacy for the Kingdom of God is an exceptional vocation, whereas marriage is the more common vocation. As we indicated in our previous article, this special vocation is a living reminder that there is a heavenly life beyond this earthly life. It is a living anticipation of that future and glorious life, where the final and definitive state of the human person will be the virginal state.
4. Why were the disciples surprised when Jesus told them about this new vocation?
Even though the disciples had left everything to follow Jesus, they were surprised by this new vocation because there was nothing in the Old Testament to suggest its existence. In fact, marriage was regarded with such high esteem that it was considered a kind of consecration to God.
This special calling to virginity or celibacy was something totally new for them and also for the entire People of Israel. Jesus was publicly inaugurating this special calling from God, both in His teachings and in His own person. (Actually, Mary and Joseph also lived this special calling of virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of God, but they did not make public their vocation. It was only later that the mystery of Mary and Joseph’s special calling was revealed to the disciples, and eventually to the entire Church.)
But Jesus continued to hold marriage in high esteem, and moreover, He would actually raise it to the dignity of a sacrament, a visible sign of the special presence of God among His People. We will expand and deepen this teaching about sacramental marriage when we discuss St. John Paul II’s next cycle of teachings.
Jesus emphasized that this new vocation was entirely voluntary; the acceptance of this calling requires a mature reflection on one’s own motives as well as the serious demands of virginity or celibacy for the Kingdom of God. By responding to this vocation, a person imitates more closely than before the character of Christ in His total dedication to the Kingdom of God.
5. What is the relationship between the vocations to marriage and religious life?
The virginal marriage of Mary and Joseph is a living demonstration of the mutual illumination of the two vocations. They enrich and value each other. It is no secret that large families are cradles of religious vocations. It is no secret either that orthodox teaching by bishops, priests and religious about the dignity and beauty of marriage fosters a deep appreciation for marriage and, at the same time, for the incomparable value and dignity of the consecrated life. Those who are called to the consecrated life value their special vocation all the more because they are giving up the vocation of marriage and family life as something beautiful, and not as something base or sinful.
Both vocations are called by God to be fruitful. Married couples are called to be generous in their openness to life. The children they bring into this world by cooperating with the awesome creative power of God are the most precious gift of God to their marriage. Moreover, procreation does not end with the begetting of children: the spouses, who now also become parents, have the primary duty to educate their children in the ways of God.
Virginity and celibacy are also called by God to be fruitful. By means of preaching and teaching, those consecrated to God prepare married couples for the baptism of their children, which makes them sons and daughters of God. It is a spiritual generation. Therefore, consecrated persons are spiritually fruitful. Moreover, baptism makes the children members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church. Thus, we realize that when Christ unites Himself to His Bride the Church through baptism, new sons and daughters of God are spiritually begotten and, at the same time, are united to the Body of Christ. (See Ephesians 5:21-33.)
Of course, priests and religious (as well as lay people) also help adults convert to Christ and prepare for baptism through an adequate catechesis. They too become sons and daughters of God and members of the Body of Christ.
Jesus is the only Son of God in that He alone possesses the one and the same divine nature as the Father and the Holy Spirit. As the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, He is eternally and spiritually generated by the Father, and as such, He is the only One Who can claim the title of the only Son of God. Baptized persons are sons and daughters of God by adoption. But this adoption is not a mere legal status. This adoption is a participation in God’s grace, in God’s own Trinitarian Life. The baptized are thus partakers of the divine nature (see 2 Corinthians 5:17; 2 Peter 1:4; Galatians 4:5-7). In short, Jesus possesses the divine nature, the sons and daughters of God participate in the divine nature.
6. Why is the vocation of virginity or celibacy superior to that of Sacramental Marriage?
First of all, this superiority has nothing to do with a negative view of human sexuality. We have already seen time and again how Jesus values marriage. But the demands of virginity and celibacy can raise the person to a more intimate communion with God. They also free the person from the many responsibilities of marriage and family life, so the consecrated can work more directly for the expansion of the Church, and thus of the Kingdom of God, here on earth.
As St. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7, the person who chooses marriage chooses well, and the person who chooses virginity or celibacy for the Kingdom of God chooses even better.
St. Paul also teaches that the married person is occupied in pleasing his or her spouse, while the consecrated person is occupied in pleasing the Lord. Importantly, St. Paul is not saying that married persons do not please Jesus. In the rest of his letters he is abundantly clear on this point, especially in Ephesians 5:21-33, where he lays out his beautiful teaching on sacramental marriage (which we will examine in a following article). Nevertheless, St. Paul is being realistic about the demands of marriage and family life. Of course, spouses do serve the Lord by loving each other and their children. But it is true that the consecrated person is more directly occupied with the things of God.
This teaching does not mean that persons who choose the consecrated life are automatically holier than those who choose marriage. In fact, there could be people in the consecrated life who live their vocation in lousy way, and there are married people who live their married life in an exemplary way. The Church has declared saints in both states of life. But it is still true that the demands of the vocation of virginity or celibacy do create the possibility of a holier life.
Nevertheless, none of the above arguments, as valid as they are, constitute the most important reason why virginity or celibacy for the Kingdom of God is a superior state of life. We have already discussed what that reason is. The consecrated person is living in anticipation of the future life, in which the final and definitive state of the human person will be the virginal state. It is true that sacramental marriage, as we shall see in the next cycle, is a visible sign of Christ union with His Church. Sacramental marriage is the mediation through which the spouses make present that unity, which is in turn an anticipation of the eternal wedding banquet of Christ and His Church (the redeemed in Heaven) – see Revelation 21:1-2. However, the consecrated person is already living on this earth in direct anticipation of that definitive and full union with Christ without the need of the mediation of the married state.
Consecrated persons and married persons should value and support each other in their respective states of life. Moreover, they should work together as much as possible in advancing the Kingdom of God on earth by expanding the Catholic Church. Of course, it is still true that bishops and priests are the ones who govern, teach and sanctify the faithful through the Sacraments. But this should not at all imply a childish attitude on the part of lay people. On the contrary, the guidance, teaching, and sanctification that the shepherds of the Church offer to the members of the Body of Christ ought to empower all Catholics to humbly live a mature and holy Christian life.