Consecrated Celibacy: Eschatological Sign of the Kingdom by Andrew Preslar
By Andrew Preslar
I want to follow up on a topic briefly raised in the current lead article (Holy Orders and the Sacrificial Priesthood, Section VI.b.) and in Jonathan Deane’s recent post, Drawn Closer by Scandal? The topic is consecrated celibacy, as required for religious life and the higher Orders of Catholic clergy.
Celibacy and Protestantism: No Application Required
Protestants have all but unanimously rejected the discipline of celibacy among the clergy. Historically, the most commonly cited reason is that, in the New Testament, married men are permitted to be ordained.1 Tim Troutman addresses this objection in his article:
Furthermore, the Church Fathers have consistently understood the passages regarding one wife as a prohibition of second marriage for clergy. Protestants reject both this traditional reading and any honor given to religious celibacy whatsoever.2
Some interpreters actually take 1 Timothy 3:2 as a requirement that all bishops be married. Interestingly, I have yet to come across an interpretation which prohibits childless men from holding the office of bishop.3 Of course, many Protestants follow the traditional line of interpretation, up to the point of admitting that unmarried men are not prohibited from being ordained a bishop or presbyter. The point at which virtually all Protestants jump off the traditional bandwagon, however, is in their failure to promote consecrated celibacy as a particularly fulfilling, much less the most fulfilling, way of life to which a Christian person might be called. Jonathan Deane describes this void in his experience as a Protestant:
The more I thought of the disconnect between this ideal [i.e., consecrated celibacy] and my world where [consecrated] celibacy was nonexistent, the more I realized that I needed to consider the claims of the Church who praised both the single and the married in their call to holiness.
Two of the most important New Testament texts concerning consecrated celibacy are 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, 25-40 and Matthew 19:9-12. Both passages are concerned to uphold the indissolubility of Christian marriage.4 St. Paul, however, clearly affirms the superiority of the gift of consecrated celibacy,5 and recommends that state of life to his readers generally, with provisions for those who are unable to remain continent. Of course, it would be wrong to conclude that Paul had a low view of marriage–quite the opposite.6
Among Protestants, St. Paul’s advocacy of consecrated celibacy has been dismissed, or tempered, by restricting its application 7 or confining its significance to the realm of practicality.8 It has been admitted that Our Lord, in Matthew 19, refers to continence as a special gift from God.9 What Protestant communities have generally failed to do, however, is provide for any definite expression of this unique gift in and for the life of the Church.
Signs of the Kingdom: Celibacy and Marriage in the Catholic Church
So what is it that Catholics see in celibacy that Protestants fail to see? The answer, I think, is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Christ is the center of all Christian life. The bond with him takes precedence over all other bonds, familial or social.10 From the very beginning of the Church there have been men and women who have renounced the great good of marriage to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, to be intent on the things of the Lord, to seek to please him, and to go out to meet the Bridegroom who is coming.11 Christ himself has invited certain persons to follow him in this way of life, of which he remains the model:
“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.”12
Virginity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is an unfolding of baptismal grace, a powerful sign of the supremacy of the bond with Christ and of the ardent expectation of his return, a sign which also recalls that marriage is a reality of this present age which is passing away.13 14
Notice the correlation made, at the end of this quotation, between Mark 12:25 and 1 Corinthians 7:31. According to these verses, “when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven”, and “the form of this world is passing away.” We have all heard of “near and far” applications of apocalyptic passages, and I don’t think that anyone would wish to deny that 1 Corinthians 7:31 sounds pretty apocalyptic. My point is that, yes, the Corinthians faced an “impending distress” in light of which it might have been prudent to refrain from marriage (all things being equal), but that fact does not absolve us from any continuing, straightforward application of this bit of Sacred Scripture. The “form of this world” did not become permanent once the “impending distress” had passed away.
Everyone in Christ is called to the resurrection of glory,15 though we must strive to lay hold of that high destiny.16 By implication (Mark 12:25) we are all, ultimately, called to consecrated celibacy (“like angels”). The discipline of celibacy for religious and clergy, in addition to being of great practical benefit to the Church, is a sign of the eschatological kingdom of God. Consecrated celibacy points towards the future consummation of the Church’s spousal union with Christ (which is mystically brought about in the Eucharist). The celibate is a constant reminder to the Church that “the form of this world is passing away.” They live now as we shall all live then.
Marriage is likewise a sign of the Kingdom,17 but in a different way. The sign of sacramental marriage mystically represents the spousal union of Christ and the Church in the here and now. Marriage underscores the “already” of the Kingdom of God, while celibacy points towards the “not yet.” In the Catholic Church, these signs reinforce and interpret one another. Neither pushes the other aside.
In the Catholic Church, the eschatological sign of celibacy has been given concrete and enduring expression, through the discipline of clerical celibacy and the institutions of religious life. Some Protestants criticize the Catholic Church for having an “over-realized eschatology.”18 I suspect that they are only looking at part of the picture. I further suspect that part of what they fail to see, or rightly read, is the sign of consecrated celibacy.
See 1 Timothy 3:1-3. [↩]
The traditional interpretation is represented in a footnote to 1 Timothy 3:2 in the Douay-Rheims Bible. [↩]
Despite the instruction given by St. Paul in 1 Timothy 3:4. [↩]
The “exception clause” in Matthew 19:9 has been variously interpreted. The Catholic Church has disallowed the interpretation which reads Our Lord’s words as permitting an “absolute divorce” (i.e., the dissolution of a valid, sacramental marriage). Other interpretive options are summarized in this article from the Catholic Encyclopedia (1909). [↩]
1 Corinthians 7:7, 38. [↩]
See Ephesians 5:22-32. [↩]
See, for example, this post. [↩]
See, for example, Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, XXVI, XVII. [↩]
See Turretin, Institutes, XXVI, XV. [↩]
Luke 14:26; Matthew 10:28-31. [↩]
Revelation 14:4; 1 Corinthians 7:32; Matthew 2:56. [↩]
Matthew 19:12. [↩]
Mark 12:25; 1 Corinthians 7:31. [↩]
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1618-19. [↩]
John 11:25, Romans 6:5, 1 Corinthians 15:22. [↩]
Philippians 3:7-14. [↩]
Isaiah 62:1-5, Matthew 25:1-13, Ephesians 5:22-32 [↩]
Usually, “over-realized eschatology” is predicated of any position that involves: a high view of the Church, a literal interpretation of the Words of Institution, and a belief that matter, including matter as informed by man (culture and its artifacts), is not repugnant to spirit, nor nature to grace. [↩]