Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In Praise of Virginity? Anybody?

While the secular world continues its onslaught against the family with its relentless promotion of same-sex so-called marriage, the Church has been enduring a parallel attack against the discipline of celibacy. Both attacks are diabolical, both equally ferocious, and both based on the premise that human beings are absolutely and utterly incapable of moderating their sexual appetites.

On the homosexual question, conservative pundits, mostly Protestant and severed from Catholic Tradition, can offer no defense of traditional marriage grounded in natural law and largely stand by dumbly, protest on the grounds of biblical prohibitions, or else meekly acquiesce so they can be "on the right side of history." Similarly, as the discipline of celibacy is assaulted within the Catholic world, no one steps forward to boldly praise the ancient discipline. While liberal ecclesiastics clamor for its abolition, conservative clerics fumble about the practical difficulties of a married clergy or, even worse, meekly shrug and say "It's only a discipline. It could be changed," as if one of the Church's most ancient disciplines could be tossed aside with no consequences.

It is not surprising that the Faith is under attack; a reflective view of Church history reveals that the Faith is always under attack. But what is surprising with regards to celibacy is the lack of any truly zealous defenders of the discipline. Sure, we get apologetics and defenses of the reasonableness of celibacy, but when was the last time we really heard a bishop speak out boldly in praise of virginity, as the Fathers of the Church used to do? Arianism threatened the Church, and St. Athanasius opposed it with such rigor that the heresy was subdued; St. Augustine almost single handedly undid the Pelagians with his masterful exposition of the doctrines of grace; when Iconoclasm reared its destructive head, St. John Damascene slew the beast with his treatises in praise of holy images; St. Gregory VII, Anselm and Thomas Becket humbled kings and emperors who sought to define the Church as a functionary of the state, St. Thomas Aquinas put the nail int he coffin of Latin Averroism, and St. Francis of Assisi's life and message served as a stinging rebuke to the worldliness of his day, just as the holy life and teachings of St. Ignatius served as an antitode to the poison of the Protestant revolt and the bold defense of papal primacy made by Bl. Pius IX and St. Pius X served to combat the errors of modernism.

Where, then, are the zealous promoters of celibacy who will rise up in this hour and glorify the Church's teaching on holy virginity? Where are those ecclesiastics who, with their teaching, will not only meekly defend the legitimacy of the practice, but will actually show forth its splendor and praise it? Where are those who will speak of the radiant beauty of the consecrated soul, the many spiritual and temporal benefits that virginity bestows upon him who practices it, and the immense merit consecrated virgins accrue before the throne of God?

The silence is appalling. Oh, don't get me wrong, we have plenty of folks out there defending celibacy. We have plenty of priests who are willing to explain its reasons and its legitimacy and point out the possible difficulties we would run into if we had a married clergy. But to defend the validity of a discipline is not the same thing as to praise it, and to coolly remind the hostile world of the reasons behind the discipline is not the same thing as to heap glory upon a custom that is universally praised in the eastern and western traditions.

When Tertullian and Cyprian and Augustine write in praise of virginity, their goal is not to explain virginity to a hostile world, but to laud virginity among other Catholics, helping them to see the mystical reality behind the discipline. When the Church Fathers praise virginity, the praise it as men who have seen a vision of something truly beautiful, something gloriously resplendent, a pearl of great price that they do not offer a defensive apologetic for, but rather a glowing hymn in praise of.

The modern apologists attempt to convince the intellect to accept the reasonableness of celibacy; the Church Fathers attempted to move the will in order that their hearers would personally embrace celibacy themselves as a positive good to be sought.

It is difficult enough these days to find someone who will rigorously defend celibacy, let alone attempt to convince their readers to take up the discipline. Yet this is how the practice was first introduced to the faithful, not as a practice that the Church should accept, but as an ideal way of life that is actually superior to matrimony.

There are many facets to the vocations crisis - there is the man-made aspect of it, in which the crisis is artificially blown out of proportion for the purpose of creating lay-run parishes; like the canard of "religious liberty", there is the fact that most American Catholics cannot offer satisfactory answers to critics of the discipline. But can the major problem perhaps be that we have lost sight of celibacy/virginity as a treasure to be cherished? That in fighting so hard to defend it against a hostile world without and a skeptical Church within, we have contented ourselves with defending the existence of celibacy alongside of marriage when we should have been praising it as a superior vocation to marriage? As is the case with so many other issues in the Church today, can our problem be not that we are expecting too much, but that we have been habitually aiming too low?

"As a Church living in expectation of glory to be revealed she will find ever greater strength to proclaim the value of celibacy that is lived for the Kingdom of God." (John Paul II, ad Limina Address, "The Church of the Millennium Bears Witness to Christ with No Fear of Displeasing the World," L'Osservatore Romano English ed., April 25, 1988, 5,8).


Crouchback said...

Excellent, Boniface! Precisely what is needed. Perhaps you could assemble a small anthology of past praises by the great Fathers, Saints and Doctors to inspire action? This could then be forwarded to a thousand bishops! How one longs to hear them sing the praises of virginity in the public square!

Ralph said...

Question: if virginity is an ideal form of life that is superior to matrimony, and we are supposed to encourage as many as possible to embrace it, then how will the human race re-produce and endure?

Boniface said...


Because we know that not everybody will embrace it. The goal is not to have as many human beings as possible live celibate, but, in our Lord's words, to have as many people accept it who can accept it (Matt. 19:12). But if it is never preached and never glorified, how will they rightfully discern whether they can accept it?

The superiority and preference of virginity over marriage is a teaching of the Bible itself:

" I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord." (1 Cor. 7:32-35)

The Church has also defined this:

In Session 24, Canon 10 the Council of Trent declared:

"CANON X.-If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema."

This is not really a matter of opinion. It is a constant teaching of our Faith that is just getting ignored.

Ralph said...

Thanks, Boniface.

May I ask, not meaning to stray too much off topic, what your view is of a married priesthood in the Eastern rites?

Boniface said...

The issue is really not different; in the East, they acknowledge the superiority of virginity as well, they just do not make it mandatory.

Even there, they do not "allow priests to marry." Married men may become priests, but priests may not marry. It is my understanding that bishops must be celibate as well. This is not what people are clamoring for in the west - here folks actually want priests to be able to marry. If we were to suddenly adopt the practice of the Eastern Churches tomorrow, still, not a single priest could marry because in the East priests cannot get married. I think people need to understand that the Eastern discipline is not the same thing as having a "married priesthood", and also realize that what has worked in one Tradition may not be able to be so easily transplanted to another, especially when the motivations for wanting a married priesthood are so questionable here,.

Ralph said...

Thanks, Boniface.

My question, I suppose, is, in an ideal world, would we or should we want to see the Eastern rites make celibacy the required, standard norm for their priesthood?

Boniface said...

In absence of any data about how many Eastern priests are married, how it works out over there, and what the problems are, I could not make a positive judgment. I would say that celibacy should be a norm, not an exception. The precise legal status should be left up to them.

Ralph said...


Is it possible to have direct, private email contact with you in some manner to discuss some Catholic contemporary issues in more detail?

Beefy Levinson said...

My mother went through RCIA the year after I did. She told me that one of the catechumens asked "Why can't priests be married?" Father began his answer with, "Personally, I think married men can be priests." With shepherds like these...

In my little biography of Pope St. Pius V, there's a section where some within the Church are urging him to relax the discipline on celibacy to enlarge the pool for priestly candidates. He vigorously shot them down.

Boniface said...

Sure. Post your email. I will not publish the comment.

christabel said...

a number of years ago as I breakfasted in a cafe in Dingle town I overheard some priests at the next table, discussing the issue of celibacy. I became a little frustrated with their insipid reasoning and broke in on their conversation. I gave them a little lecture on the necessity of celibacy not just for the religious but also for the lay man and woman as a offering of penance. And this is the interesting part of my story. One of the priests turned to me and sadly said, "Oh yes. You can say these things but if we priests were to say them we would find our churches empty."

Fr. S.A. said...

I've always kept near me the little book _The Case of Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development & Theological Foundations_ by Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler. Great book!

Eric Brooks said...

This has a decent short history of celibacy east and west. Of course there are many who would take more firm positions than this. E.g. Greek orthodox typically accept the false council of quintisext which declared that no law could be made requiring priestly celibacy. I might on th other hand argue based on st Peter leaving his wife, as well as the testimony of Jerome and other saints from his time, that even before celibacy became the universal norm it was already required most places that a priest cease to live as a husband, so that the present discipline of eastern Catholics is something like a perpetual indult to remove barriers to reunion (worth noting in that connection that uniate churches have sometimes adopted celibacy but w haven't made any move in th other direction, at least not until the married deacons after vii). Whatever the solution to these difficulties, both disciplines are obviously allowed.

It may be worth noting that many eastern Christians I've met have a more angelic view of virginity than we do because of the centrality of monasticism in the Christian east, so they sometimes have a view more like that recommended in the post even though they don't require celibacy of their priests.

SacraVirgo said...

Are you looking for the Church's appreciation of celibacy or are you seeking for Her appreciation of virginity? As you know, consecrated virginity reflects the vocation of the Church Herself in the person of female virgins consecrated by their Bishops in the ancient Order of Virgins. Virginity, celibacy, continence, and chastity are not synonymous terms. A virgin is one who has been continent all her life. A consecrated virgin is a virgin who has been consecrated as a virgin, bride, and mother by her bishop (this, please note, is not the same definition of a religious woman who vows poverty, chastity, and obedience). A celibate is one who has decided at some point to renounce future marriage. A continent person is one who does not engage in sexual relations. A person under the promise or vow of chastity is one who has agreed before God to remain continent from that time forward. Celibacy in clerics is praised because Our Lord was celibate (and virginal), and it imitates His life more perfectly. Virginity in women is praised because it reflects the Church's nature more perfectly than widowed or married chastity.