[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.]
Marriage and celibacy obviously differ in important ways. Yet these differences do not conflict. The values of one and the other vocation interpenetrate. In fact, marriage and celibacy “explain or complete each other” (Theology of the Body (TOB) audiences 78:2). Let me explain.
How does marital love shed light on the nature of the celibate vocation? John Paul II writes that the fidelity and “total self-donation” lived by spouses provide a model for the fidelity and self-donation required of those who choose the celibate vocation. Both vocations in their own way express marital or spousal love, which entails “the complete gift of self” (see TOB 78:4). Furthermore, the fruit of children in married life helps celibate men and women realize that they are called to a fruitfulness as well—a fruitfulness of the spirit. In these ways we see how the “natural” reality of marriage points us to the “supernatural” reality of celibacy for the kingdom. In fact, full knowledge and appreciation of God’s plan for marriage and family life are indispensable for the celibate person. As John Paul II expresses it, in order for the celibate person “to be fully aware of what he is choosing … he must also be fully aware of what he is renouncing” (TOB 81:2).
Celibacy, in turn, “has a particular importance and particular eloquence for those who live a conjugal life” (TOB 78:2). As a direct anticipation of the marriage to come, celibacy shows couples what their union is a sacrament of by showing them that to which their marriage points. In this way, as Pope Francis expressed, Christian celibacy “encourages married couples to live their own conjugal love against the backdrop of Christ’s definitive love, journeying together towards the fullness of the Kingdom” (Amoris Laetitia 161).
Furthermore, by abstaining from sexual union, celibates demonstrate the great value of sexual union. How so? A sacrifice only has value to the degree that the thing sacrificed has value. For example, if I were to give up pickles for Lent, there would be no value in that for me, because I do not like pickles. However, if I were to give up beer for Lent, that would be a real sacrifice because I love a good beer. The Church values celibacy so highly precisely because she values what it sacrifices—sexual union and all that is connected to it—so highly.
Once again, the self-denial involved in such a sacrifice must not be conceived of as a repression of sexuality. Celibacy for the kingdom is meant to be a fruitful living out of the redemption of sexual desire, understood as the desire to make of oneself a “sincere gift” for others.
Celibacy Expresses the Spousal Meaning of the Body
As we can see, marriage and celibacy are much more closely related than most people realize. Both vocations provide “a full answer” to the meaning of sexuality (see TOB 85:9). That meaning is self-donation in the image of God. As a result, it shouldn’t surprise us that whenever a culture devalues sexuality, it inevitably devalues both marriage and the celibate vocation. The sexual revolution of the twentieth century has certainly demonstrated this in practice.
John Paul II insists that the celibate life Christ spoke of must flow from a deep and mature awareness of the spousal meaning of the body. Only on this basis does celibacy for the kingdom “find a full guarantee and motivation” (TOB 80:5). Thus, if someone were to choose this vocation based on a fear or rejection of sex, or because of deep-seated sexual wounds that prevented a healthy married life, it would not correspond to Christ’s invitation (see TOB 80:7).
If we reject the spousal meaning of our bodies we do violence to the image of God inscribed in our humanity as male and female. The spousal meaning of the body is “the fundamental component of human existence in the world” (TOB 15:5). It reveals that the human person is created to be a gift “for” another. Christ’s words about celibacy show that this “for,” which stands at the basis of marriage, can also stand at the basis of celibacy “for” the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, on the basis of the same spousal meaning of the body, there can be formed the love that commits a person to marriage, but there can be formed also the love that commits a person to celibacy “for the kingdom of heaven” (see TOB 80:6).
The point is that our sexuality calls us to give ourselves away in life-giving love. The celibate person doesn’t reject this call. He just lives it in a different way. Every man, by virtue of the spousal meaning of his body, is called in some way to be both a husband and a father. Every woman, by virtue of the spousal meaning of her body, is called in some way to be both a wife and a mother. As an image of Christ, the celibate man “marries” the Church. Through his bodily gift of self he bears numerous “spiritual children.” As an image of the Church, the celibate woman “marries” Christ. Through her bodily gift of self she bears numerous “spiritual children.” This is why the terms husband, father, brother, son, and wife, mother, sister, daughter are applicable both to marriage and family life and to those who choose celibacy for the kingdom.
The Celibate Marriage of Joseph and Mary
We will conclude our discussion of celibacy by looking briefly at the “oddity” of the virginal marriage of Mary and Joseph. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary and Joseph were given the exceptional calling to embrace both the celibate vocation and the marital vocation at the same time. In other words, they lived the earthly marriage and the heavenly marriage simultaneously. In turn, their virginal marriage played an indispensable role in the marriage of heaven and earth: the Word made flesh (see TOB 75:3). In this way Joseph and Mary “became the first witnesses of a fruitfulness different from that of the flesh, that is, the fruitfulness of the Spirit: ‘What is begotten in her comes from the Holy Spirit’ (Matt 1:20)” (TOB 75:2).
Joseph and Mary remained virgins not because “sex is bad.” As a married couple, they were given the exceptional calling to live their sexuality according to its ultimate meaning—total openness and self-donation to God. By embracing that heavenly dimension of sexuality on earth, they enabled heaven to penetrate earth. As we have been unfolding throughout this book, sexual union, from the beginning, was meant to foreshadow the union of God and man, Christ and the Church. Undoing Eve’s “no,” Mary, the new Eve, represents the whole human race in giving her “yes” to God’s marriage proposal (see Catechism 411, 505). Even during her journey on earth, Mary was already participating uniquely in the nuptials of heaven. For her to engage in the sexual act would have been for her a step backward. Instead, she pulled Joseph forward into the virginal mystery of union with God.
If the Church holds out the Holy Family as a model for all families, this does not imply that married couples should never have sex. Joseph and Mary are a model for all married couples because of their example of total self-donation. The normal call is for spouses to model the Holy Family by living their one-flesh union in total self-donation. In this way, spouses also bring Christ to the world because the marital embrace—when lived as God intends—proclaims the mystery of Christ (see Eph 5:31–32).
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