Patricia Snow, "Dismantling the Cross" (April 2005):
Contrary to popular impressions, the documents of Vatican II did not break with this traditional understanding. The same documents that resoundingly affirm marriage continue to assign to celibacy an “eminent” position, one “always . . . held in particular honor in the Church.” In the language of Lumen Gentium, the religious, by his profession, seeks “more abundant fruit” from the grace of his baptism, is “more intimately consecrated to divine service,” ... In St. John Chrysostom’s formulation, “It is something better than what is admitted to be good that is the most excellent good,” a conclusion echoed by John Paul II. “Virginity, or celibacy, by liberating the human heart in a unique way bears witness that the Kingdom of God . . . is that pearl of great price which is preferred to every other value no matter how great.”[Hat tip to JM, including the preface]
Put another way, the Catholic view of human life and history is never circular but always teleological, always “straining forward,” in the words of St. Paul, “to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:13). Catholic family life is not ordered to itself, but to what is future and ultimate: life with God and his saints in heaven. Catholic families do not bear children simply so that their children may bear children, and so on. They bear children for God. ...
Few families in the history of the Church have risen to the level of the Martins in this regard. But whether acted upon or not, whether explicit or implicit, there was a consensus in Christendom as to the direction and meaning of human life. When mortality was high and childbearing dangerous, when there was no Viagra or estrogen therapy, there were few illusions about the duration of either sexuality or marriage, and there was a general acknowledgment that, soon enough, everyone would be obedient, celibate, and poor. While the vast majority of people in those days chose marriage in the first place, if they outlived their spouse they were less likely than our contemporaries to choose marriage again. Even before death intervened, a small minority of spouses separated by mutual agreement and entered monasteries. Many more widows and widowers did the same. Marriage was not regarded as a treadmill to be endlessly resumed, but as a passing phase of life, even as everyone, married or not, was passing from earth to heaven, where “they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt. 22:30).
In the view of St. Ignatius, marriage was so provisional a state that it was scarcely deserving of a vow, for “it must be remembered that a vow deals with matters that lead us closer to evangelical perfection. Hence, whatever tends to withdraw one from perfection may not be made the object of a vow, for example, a business career, the married state, and so forth.” If we bristle at this seemingly low view of marriage, we might remember that in Ignatius’s day most marriages lasted until death, suggesting that what holds a marriage together more effectively than a promise or vow is the larger faith tradition in which an individual marriage is embedded.
O course, in the view of the human community, intent on its own survival, it is one thing when an old person leaves the world for religion, and quite another when a young person, and someone’s heir, does the same. In the abstract or the case of someone else’s child, Christendom conceded the superiority of celibacy, but when the Franciscans or Dominicans came to town families famously locked up their sons. ... Thus even the most saintly celibates, in their youth, met with scandalized resistance and hostility.
It is easy to forget, for example, now that St. Thérèse’s cult is secure, what the neighbors were thinking and saying as, one after another, the Martin girls left their widowed father for the convent. ...
It is easy to forget, too, that hostility to celibacy can also afflict the saint in an interior way. St. Francis was not only stoned in the street, but taunted by internal accusers. We think of him as having made one definitive act of renunciation when he stripped himself in the town square, but a close reading of his life suggests a long struggle, painfully waged. As he said sardonically toward the end of his life, “Don’t canonize me too quickly. I am perfectly capable of fathering a child.”
Recently I heard a sermon preached on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. In Matthew’s parable, ten virgins go with their lamps to meet a bridegroom. The five wise virgins have oil for their lamps; the five foolish have none. When the bridegroom is near, the foolish ask the wise for oil, but the wise refuse them. Looking for oil elsewhere, the foolish are shut out from the feast. When they return and knock, the bridegroom says, “I do not know you” (Matt. 25:1–13).
The meaning of the parable is clear enough. It is about the vertical dimension of the Christian life: the primacy of the individual’s relationship to God and the limitations and final inadequacy of human relationships. The virgins who hold on to their oil are not condemned by Jesus; on the contrary, he calls them wise. The foolish show their foolishness both in their delinquency and in their attempt to get oil from the others. The “oil” that lights our human lamps—our fundamental fuel, if you will—comes from God. Like the oil of chrism in the sacrament of baptism, it signifies sanctifying grace, the gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift of grace we can receive only from God, either directly in prayer or sacramentally through his chosen ministers. We can neither give it to others, nor receive it from them. The high virtue of charity—“willing good to someone,” in Aquinas’s formulation—demands that we tell this truth. To attempt, instead, to do what the foolish demand of us—to try to be “nice,” in other words—or to make foolish demands ourselves, avails nothing. But the preacher, influenced, I dare say, by current trends in the Church, offered his own interpretation. “Here’s what I think,” he said. “They should have shared.”
For Catholics like myself, who at some point in our lives decamped to the Catholic Church from the lower horizon of Protestantism, these are discouraging times. It is disheartening, to say the least, to see the Church so infiltrated by the surrounding culture and so demoralized by the recent scandals that she is in danger of rejecting in her own life what is most decisively Catholic and selling for a mess of pottage her deepest mysteries and highest privileges.
Ideally, in the Church’s life, there is a continual interplay between marriage and celibacy, sensuality and asceticism, like the interplay in the creation between heat and cold, day and night, light and darkness, and so on, all of which rhythmic oppositions, in their alternating times and seasons, bless the Lord (Dan. 3:57–88). Even within marriage itself there were seasons of feasting and fasting, indulgence and abstinence, just as in the Church’s traditional attitude to marriage there was idealism but also a healthy skepticism, romance but also a bracing note of sardonic realism (“better to marry than burn”), that paradoxically served marriage well. In fact, it was by downplaying earthly marriage and ordering it to what was greater and eternal that the Church ensured marriage’s health, tamping down urealistic expectations and not placing on marriage a weight greater than it was intended to bear.
In our relational lives there is only one absolute good, and that is our relationship to God, a good denied to no one, lay or religious, who seeks it, prioritizes it, sacrifices for it, holds fast to it. Relative goods, on the other hand—including health and success, marriage and children—man cannot demand. God dispenses relative goods as he sees fit, in order to help man find his way to the final good of eternal life with him.
But in our culture, and increasingly in the Church itself, marriage is not regarded as a means but an end. It is not considered a relative but an absolute good, and therefore a right. The usual solution or sequel to widowhood or divorce in our day isn’t a late religious vocation or a salubrious solitude, but more marriage, or more venery in Roger Angell’s phrase in a recent essay in the New Yorker: “More venery. More love; more closeness; more sex and romance. Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are.” In a climate like this—a climate for which the Church bears a certain responsibility, given her abuse of the grace of celibacy and her disproportionate enthusiasm for marriage—what does the Church say to homosexual persons who wish to marry? What does she say, for that matter, to the invalidly remarried who want to receive the Eucharist and are dumbfounded by the suggestion that they forgo sexual relations in order to do so? Should we be surprised that in a culture that so privileges marriage over celibacy, many Catholics now assume that the Eucharist is ordered to marriage rather than the other way around—that the choice for marriage is primary, in other words, and the Eucharist simply a secondary enhancement? [Emphasis added]