I had a really tough time at Mass last Sunday. Since the readings were so clearly about marriage, I expected to hear a homily on that—and I did. I heard a great homily, actually; I’m thankful for that. Yet as someone who is openly celibate and may well remain so until death, I wasn’t hearing much for myself. That’s not the first time I’ve felt kind of left out by a homily, but it hit me really hard last week for some reason only God knows.
One point of consolation I have, in my life of being single and wishing I weren’t, is this: There is a place for celibacy in the Catholic Church. It’s an honored place, actually. Inconveniently for me, it is a place rarely occupied by people who haven’t taken some sort of vow, but at least our church doesn’t treat celibates like freaks. If it was good enough for Jesus, Mother Theresa, and (eventually) St. Augustine, it can be good enough for me. It was in this frame of mind that I came across Patricia Snow’s beautiful and well-developed essay in First Things, “Dismantling the Cross.” Her central message might not speak directly to me, and I don’t necessarily agree with every word, but it provides rich food for thought.
My own commentary pales in comparison to the original; I encourage you to read the whole thing. Here are some of my favorite quotations from the essay and my thoughts on Snow’s argument.
Celibacy Is Better than Marriage
In the whole history of the Church the choice for celibacy has always been understood to be objectively higher than the choice for marriage, because the celibate anticipates in his flesh the world of the future resurrection. Rather than pass through the intermediate state of earthly marriage, the priest or religious steps outside the bounds of ordinary life and begins to live, in advance, the nuptial realities of heaven.
When I worked in ministry, I had the opportunity to watch and discuss the Introduction to the Theology of the Body video series by Christopher West. I remember the distinct bristling around the room from the married folks present at the idea that celibacy is greater than marriage. I’ve never been married, but that idea made sense to me. Heaven is greater than Earth, so of course the marriage of heaven is greater than the marriage of Earth. Everything in heaven is greater than anything on Earth. Snow’s primary argument is that, in the recent trend toward devaluing celibacy, the critical interaction between marriage and celibacy, heaven and Earth, has been forgotten. A cross must have both its vertical and horizontal beams. Without either one, it falls apart.
Celibacy is not comfortable, but it is important. Honoring celibacy keeps us from holding too tightly to one another, even to our spouses. Our first and greatest love must be the Lord, and ideally, married people find spouses who also put God first, so that they are moving toward him side by side. Vowed celibates skip marriage here and go straight to the heavenly kind.
Of course, not everyone can be celibate. We won’t get any more people that way. The majority must participate in marriage both on Earth and in heaven. However, even the earthly marriage must be ordered toward heaven.
Families Need to Support Celibacy
Catholic families do not bear children simply so that their children may bear children, and so on. They bear children for God. … 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’s much easier to focus on earthly things than to think of heaven. Consider the resistance many seminarians and newly-ordained priests report facing from their own parents. Those parents want grandchildren; they want their sons to finish college, work for a few years, and date. Their inclinations aren’t inherently wrong. That resistance, though, speaks to the modern tendency to see following a call to celibacy as giving up or losing out on something. Snow alludes to the contemporary interpretation of Blessed Louis Martin’s state: aging and ill, with no wife and no grandchildren and his surviving daughters apparently abandoning him. Yet his great trust in God even through undoubtedly sad farewells led him to be the father of a great saint and, this coming Sunday, a saint himself, along with his wife.
We need families, and we need celibates. The church will not survive without both, yet Snow makes a passionate case for the primacy of the celibate state.
We All Need Celibates
Relative to the laity, priests and religious will always be few, even where vocations increase. It is inevitable that they be few, because the demands placed on the celibate are beyond the reach of most men. Yet it is on the example of the few that the rest of the Church depends: for the sacraments, in the case of the priest, but also for a visible witness to the contemplative foundation of every Christian existence.
We laypeople would surely be sunk without our priests. The contemplatives who pray unceasingly for us in the world are a great help to our salvation. Even Christ himself identifies contemplation as being better than action: Mary chose the better part (Luke 10:38-42). For the Catholic, celibacy is good.
Celibacy Is Not Evil
The rest of the world, however, sees celibacy as something strange. At best, it’s a pointless sacrifice. At worst, it turns men into monsters.
[Once the priestly sexual abuse scandal had been exposed,] the traditional script in which the celibate is belatedly vindicated by the holy fruits of his life could be torn up and replaced by a script that says that celibacy ends in depravity.
“Of course priests abused children,” thinks the world. “You should have let them get married.” Marriage is good, but it is not the answer to sexual abuse any more than marriage is the answer to an addiction to pornography. Brains, souls, and hearts don’t work like that.
Celibates Are People, Too
In the short run, it does no harm and possibly much good to try to strengthen monogamous, lifelong marriage. But to think that this is the answer to the Church’s problems is to think as man thinks rather than as God thinks.
The key is that celibacy is not a punishment, and it’s not as off-putting as many might think. I manage it. As Snow notes, the fastest canonization in recent history, one called for and greeted with loud cheers, was that of St. John Paul II. He was a celibate—and one who left us an abundant exposition of the Church’s teaching on sex and marriage, no less. If a man who vowed to forsake a wife can understand and explain the beauty of married love, who are we to say that you don’t understand marriage unless you live it?
Our primary vocation as Christians is to holiness. Ever wonder what God wants you to do? That’s your answer: he wants you to be holy. Maybe you will be a holy celibate. Maybe you will be a holy spouse. One path points more directly toward heaven, but they’re both supposed to get you there in the end. Keep your eyes on the prize and never forget that your true home lies above.