249. The Joyful Truth About Celibacy Pt. 3: Living In Freedom of the Gift

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[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.]

To a world bound by lust, lifelong celibacy seems absurd. The world’s general attitude toward Christian celibacy might be summarized like this: “Hey, marriage is the only ‘legitimate’ chance you Christians get to indulge your lusts. Why the heck would you ever want to give that up? You would be condemning yourself to a life of hopeless repression.”

The difference between marriage and celibacy must never be understood as the difference between having a “legitimate” outlet for sexual lust on the one hand and having to repress it on the other. Christ calls everyone—no matter his or her particular vocation—to experience redemption from the domination of lust. Only from this perspective do the Christian vocations (celibacy and marriage) make any sense. Both vocations—if they are to be lived as Christ intends—should flow from the experience of the redemption of the body.

As John Paul II states, the celibate person must submit “the sinfulness of his humanity to the powers that flow from the mystery of the redemption of the body … just as every other person does” (Theology of the Body 77:4). This is why he indicates that the call to celibacy is not only a matter of formation but of transformation (see TOB 81:5). To the degree that a person lives this transformation he is not bound to indulge libido. He is free with the freedom of the gift. For such a person, sacrificing sexual union (the icon) for the sake of the kingdom (the reality to which the icon points) not only becomes a possibility, it becomes quite attractive. The reality, in fact, is infinitely more attractive than the icon! To think otherwise turns heaven and earth upside down; it turns the icon into an idol.

Addressing consecrated celibates on the role of eros in their vocation, Father Raniero Cantalamessa observed that Christian celibacy witnesses to the truth that “the primary object of our eros, of our search, desire, attraction, passion, must be Christ.” He continued:

Only this is able to defend our heart from going off the rails … His love does not subtract us … from the attraction of the other sex (this is part of our nature that he has created and does not wish to destroy); he gives us, however, the strength to overcome these attractions with a much stronger attraction. “The chaste one,” writes Saint John Climacus, “is he who drives out eros with Eros.” (“The Two Faces of Love”)

Ah, capital “E” Eros—the very fire of God’s love—this is where small “e” eros, the fire within each of us—is meant to lead. And if describing God’s love with the Greek word agape is more familiar to us, recall Pope Benedict XVI’s statement that God’s love “may certainly be called eros.” In Christ, eros is “supremely ennobled … so purified as to become one with agape” (Deus Caritas Est 9, 10). Indeed, the unification of eros and agape is the “fire” that Christ came to cast upon the earth (see Luke 12:49). (See my book The Love That Satisfies for an extended reflection on the unification of eros and agape).

Saint Paul’s Teaching

In this context, it’s important to understand properly Saint Paul’s teaching about marriage and celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7. He writes that people who “cannot exercise self-control … should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (v. 9). Is marriage only intended for those who “can’t handle” celibacy? Does marriage suddenly make a person’s lack of self-control (lust) “okay”? Not according to John Paul II.

The Polish saint reminds us that we cannot interpret Paul’s words apart from Christ’s words about lust. The verb translated “to be aflame” signifies lust. “To marry” signifies the ethical order—the call to overcome lust—that Saint Paul consciously introduces in this context (see TOB 101:3). So, according to John Paul II, it seems that Paul is saying something like this: “It is better to overcome lust through the grace of marriage than to remain engulfed by its flames.”

John Paul II acknowledges that Paul’s teaching on marriage and celibacy is marked by “his own tone, in some sense, his own ‘personal’ interpretation” (TOB 82:1). He even asks if Paul’s statements indicate a “personal aversion” to marriage (see TOB 83:3). When taken out of context, verses such as “It is well for a man not to touch a woman” (v. 1), “I wish that all were [celibate] as I myself am” (v. 7), and “Do not seek marriage” (v. 27) might lead one to believe so. But John Paul II demonstrates that a thoughtful reading of the whole text leads to a different conclusion.

Saint Paul directly combats the badly mistaken idea circulating in Corinth that marriage and sexual union were sinful. Marriage is a “special gift from God” (v. 7). Spouses “should not refuse one another” in their sexual relationship “except perhaps by agreement” (v. 5). And Saint Paul commends those who marry for “doing well” (see v. 38).

Is Celibacy “Better” Than Marriage?

Why, then, does Saint Paul say that “he who refrains from marriage will do better” than those who marry (v. 38)? Based on these words, the Church has traditionally taught that celibacy is an objectively “superior” vocation. But this must be understood with great care lest we fall into serious error. Many have erroneously concluded that if celibacy is so good, marriage must be so bad. If refraining from sex makes one “pure and holy,” having sex—even in marriage—must make one “tainted and dirty.” This is not the mind of the Church! Such devaluations of marriage and sexual union actually stem from the Manichaean heresy we spoke of earlier.[1]

John Paul II makes it perfectly clear: The “superiority” of celibacy to marriage in the authentic Tradition of the Church “never means disparagement of marriage or belittlement of its essential value. It does not … mean a shift, even implicit, on the Manichaean positions, or a support of ways of evaluating or acting based on the Manichaean understanding of the body and sexuality.” In the authentic teaching of the Church “we do not find any basis whatsoever for the disparagement of marriage” (TOB 77:6).

Celibacy is the “exceptional” calling because marriage remains the “normal” calling in this life. It is “better” not because of celibacy itself, but because it is chosen for the kingdom. It is better in the sense that the heavenly marriage (to which celibates devote themselves more directly) is superior to the earthly marriage. Christian celibacy gives those who live it authentically an even more intense foretaste of the communion to come with God and with all the saints.

Does this mean that if we really wanted to follow God we would all be celibates? No. As Saint Paul writes, “Each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (v. 7). We must carefully and prayerfully discern which “gift” God has given us. Subjectively speaking, the better vocation is the one God calls us to as our own personal gift. If marriage is your gift, rejoice! This is your path to heaven. If celibacy is your gift, rejoice! This is your path to heaven.

[1] Manichaeism teaches that there is a dualistic split of body and soul, leading to the heretical belief that the spirit is good but the body is bad.

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Part One: Authentic Sexual Freedom Is the Solution to the Sexual Crisis in the Church

Part Two: What Does This Have to Do With the Stars?

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