[NOTE: The posts that comprise this series are excerpted and adapted from Christopher West’s 2018 revised, updated and expanded edition of Theology of the Body for Beginners: Rediscovering the Meaning of Life, Love, Sex, & Gender (Wellspring 2018). Click here to order bulk copies of this book for your parish at just $3/copy or get your first copy for free using the checkout discount code DESIRE.]
“Celibacy for the kingdom signifies the risen man, in [whom] the absolute and eternal spousal meaning of the glorified body will be revealed in union with God himself.” —Saint John Paul II
It was a gorgeous starlit night. A young couple, madly in love, drove off into the country to find a secluded place where they could express their amorous desires. Spotting a grassy knoll, they parked on the side of the road, grabbed a blanket and headed for the far side of the hill.
Little did they know they were on the property of a country parish and an elderly monsignor, hearing some commotion, looked out his rectory window, gathered what was happening, and decided he would go for a little “prayer walk.” The young lovers, engrossed as they were in one another, had no idea someone had approached and was now standing at the edge of their blanket. Jolted out of their passion by a startling but nonetheless polite, “Excuse me,” they were all the more startled by the sight of his Roman collar. Expecting he would scold them roundly, instead, the mysterious man in black looked toward the heavens and probed inquisitively, “Tell me, what does what you’re doing here have to do with … the stars?” After a pregnant pause, he walked back to his rectory leaving the dumbfounded lovers to ponder his question.
Saint John Paul II, in his own way, invites us to ponder the same question in his extended reflections on the “great mystery” of our creation as male and female and the call of the two to become “one flesh.”
Let’s return to the scene of the elderly monsignor interrupting the young couple under the stars. It’s quite a picture—two passionate lovers and a celibate priest looking up at the heavens together. The lovers hearken back to God’s original plan for man and woman and the celibate priest hearkens forward to the ultimate plan when eros will find superabundant fulfillment in the nuptials of eternity. Both need each other. The couple needs the celibate witness to help direct their love toward the stars and those who are consecrated celibates need the love of man and woman to keep them grounded in the spousal meaning of their own bodies.
[In this] exploration of the Theology of the Body (TOB), we will see clearly how both vocations provide a “full answer,” John Paul II tells us, to the “question about the meaning of ‘being a body,’ that is, the meaning of masculinity and femininity, of being… a man or a woman” (TOB 85:9).
The Meaning of Being Human
We have looked in the last three chapters [of TOB for Beginners] at our origin, history, and destiny in order to answer the question “What does it mean to be human?” So, what does it mean? In brief, we have learned that to be human means we are called to communion—communion with God and with one another in a rapture and bliss that will never end. This means that “we are in the middle of a love story,” says Pope Francis, “each of us is a link in this chain of love. And if we do not understand this, we have understood nothing of what the Church is” (April 22, 2013).
We’ve also learned throughout that our bodies tell this love story, that this call to communion with God and with all humanity is stamped right in our bodies as male and female. Eros was given to us by God precisely to lead us to the eternal marriage of Christ and the Church. What typically passes for Christianity in the modern world—a list of oppressive rules aimed precisely at squelching eros—couldn’t be further from what Christianity actually is. It’s an invitation to the ultimate satisfaction of eros in an eternal communion beyond our wildest imaginings.
As we come to realize who we really are as male and female, we also come to realize how we are to live. We come to realize that love is “the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” And we come to realize that there are “two specific ways of realizing the vocation of the human person, in its entirety, to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy. Either one is in its own proper form an actuation of the most profound truth about man, of his being ‘created in the image of God’” (Familiaris Consortio 11).
Subsequent chapters are dedicated to the sacrament of marriage, while this chapter will explore the celibate life. Saint John Paul II begins here because, as we will see, we can’t know what marriage is a sacrament of unless we first understand Christian celibacy. This chapter will also prove meaningful for those who are single and might prefer not to be. As John Paul II observed, a proper understanding of Christian celibacy can “enlighten and help those who, for reasons independent of their own will, have been unable to marry and have then accepted their situation in a spirit of service” (FC 16).
A growing number of men and women find themselves single and would very much prefer not to be. I have great reverence for that cry of the heart for a spouse. I know how agonizing it can be both from my own experience in life and from the honor of having many single people over the years share their hearts with me. We all experience that ache of solitude and long for it to be filled. However, that longing “is not finally and completely satisfied simply by union with another human being,” as John Paul II rightly observed (Love & Responsibility, p. 254). In fact, if eros is truly a cry of our hearts for the infinite, then the marriage we really desire is the one already promised us: the marriage of the Lamb.
Whether we are single, married, or consecrated celibates, setting our sights on that eternal union is the only hope that can safely see us through the inevitable sorrows and trials of this life. “Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall thrill and rejoice” (Isa 60:5). Never again will you hunger; never again will you thirst. For the Bridegroom will lead you to springs of living water and wipe away every tear from your eyes (see Rev 7:16–17). Witnessing to this living hope is the very essence of Christian celibacy.
Eunuchs for the Kingdom
When Jesus restored the permanence of marriage according to God’s original plan, his disciples (like many today) concluded that it was better not to marry at all (see Matt 19:10). In response to their contention, Jesus takes the discussion to a different plane altogether: “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” (Matt 19:12).
A eunuch is someone physically incapable of sexual relations. In the Christian tradition, a eunuch “for the kingdom of heaven” is someone who freely forgoes sexual relations in anticipation of that state in which men and women “neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Celibacy for the kingdom, therefore, “is a sign that the body, whose end is not the grave, is directed to glorification.” It “is a testimony among men that anticipates the future resurrection” (TOB 75:1). In a sense, the celibate man or woman steps beyond the dimensions of history—while living within the dimensions of history—and proclaims to the world that “the kingdom of God is here”; the ultimate marriage has come.
Christian celibacy, therefore, is not a rejection of sexuality. It points us to the ultimate purpose and meaning of sexuality. “For this reason … the two become one flesh.” What reason does Saint Paul give? Man and woman become one flesh as a sign or “sacrament” of Christ’s eternal union with the Church (see Eph 5:31–32). Those who remain celibate for the kingdom forgo the sacrament of marriage in anticipation of the heavenly reality, the marriage of the Lamb. If it is “not good for man to be alone,” Christian celibacy reveals that the ultimate fulfillment of solitude is found only in union with God. In a way, the celibate person freely chooses to remain in the ache of solitude in this life in order to devote all of his longings to the union that alone can satisfy.
The word “celibacy,” unfortunately, does not usually carry this profound “spousal” meaning for people. It’s a negative word in the sense that it tells us what these people are not doing. “Eunuch” can have even worse connotations. Perhaps we would do better to define this vocation in terms of what it embraces and anticipates rather than what it gives up. It embraces and anticipates the heavenly marriage. All people, of course, regardless of their particular vocation, are called to “prepare and perfect themselves for eternal union with God,” wrote John Paul II. Christian celibacy, as “the self-giving of a human person wedded to God himself, expressly anticipates this eternal union with God and points the way to it” (LR, p. 255).
Celibacy Must Be Freely Chosen
A survey recently circulated among priests posed a question something like this: “Should celibacy be a free choice or should it continue to be imposed by the Church?” Contrary to widespread opinion, the Church forces no one to be celibate. Christ’s words (“there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs”) clearly indicate the importance of the personal choice of this vocation (see TOB 74:1). If someone were forced into celibacy, it would be no more legitimate than if someone were forced into marriage.
We tend to forget in the Latin Church that male celibacy is a vocation in itself, apart from priesthood. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches of the East not only have a valid married priesthood, they also have a vibrant nonordained celibate brotherhood (this exists in the West as well, but isn’t as prominent). As the Catechism indicates, the Latin Church usually chooses her priests from among men of faith who have chosen celibacy as their life’s vocation (see Catechism 1579). This seems to imply that the choice of celibacy should come first. If a Catholic man has discerned a celibate vocation, then, within his life of celibacy, he might also discern a call to priesthood. Those priests who believe celibacy was foisted on them, it seems, have not understood these important distinctions.
As a result, many today are clamoring for an end to priestly celibacy. Some even blame celibacy itself for the sexual problems and abuses of some of the clergy. As I wrote in my book Good News about Sex & Marriage (GN), “Celibacy does not cause sexual disorder. Sin does. Simply getting married does not cure sexual disorder. Christ does. If a priest, or any other man, were to enter marriage with deep-seated sexual disorders, he would be condemning his wife to a life of sexual objectification. The only way the scandal of sexual sin (whether committed by priests or others) will end is if people experience the redemption of their sexuality in Christ” (GN, p. 167).
Authentic Christian celibacy witnesses dramatically to this redemption. It’s true that, as a discipline of the Latin Church (rather than a doctrine), the practice of reserving priestly ordination to those men who have chosen a celibate life could change. But when we realize how celibacy points us to the ultimate meaning of sex, we recognize that our world needs the witness of Christian celibacy now more than ever.
 My thanks to the late Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete for sharing a version of this story with me when I was in graduate school. It’s loosely based on an actual encounter that took place between an Italian priest (Monsignor Giussani) and some star-struck lovers.
 John Paul II included his reflections on “celibacy for the kingdom” in the context of his reflection on the resurrection of the body. Here, I have given his treatment of the subject its own chapter.
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