The Relationship of Marriage and Celibacy

There is often a confusion over the relationship of marriage to celibacy. Part of that has simply been a false cultural understanding that has grown up in the Church. Prior to Vatican II, one talked about a religious vocation which always meant a person deciding to live a celibate life as a priest, brother or sister.

The false understanding was that only those who were truly religious and could give up everything could live in such an exalted state. This was never the teaching of the Church but it was the cultural perception that grew up around celibacy.

But in the early Church, as witnessed in the NT, all who were baptized into Christ were called ¨holy ones¨or ¨saints¨. Anyone who chose to follow Christ, whether they be lay or ordained, celibate or married, were putting their lives on the line. At that time, to be a Christian was simply an all or nothing decision. In fact, the family was seen as the paradigm for Christian living. The Church was the household of God. Christians were brothers and sisters, etc. All strove towards holiness, and this often cost people their lives, married and celibate. Holiness was not tied to the state you were in, but flowed from the decision to follow Jesus.

What the NT does teach is that celibacy is an objectively superior state. (See Matt 19.) Some are called to live this lifestyle in which they live out proleptically, i.e., in advance, what all will live out in the eschaton when Christ returns. This does not mean that only those who live consecrated celibate lives are striving for holiness. This was the mistake that was made culturally in later centuries. This idea emerged after the world rushed into the Church following the Edit of Milan in which Constantine made Christianity legal. Now Christianity became politically correct and everyone was rushing to enter the Church. But some wished to live out their faith in greater earnestness and so formed monastic communities. The monastic vocation then became the paradigm for Christian living surplanting the family model.

Fast forward to Vatican II and its teaching on the universal call to holiness. This teaching recovers the NT emphasis on the baptismal holiness of every Christian. Holiness is the vocation of all, not because of a specific state of life, but because of our baptism into Christ Jesus.

The truth is that marriage and celibacy are not separate realities but actually mutually illumine each other. As JP II shows in Familiaris Consortio, they are the two authentic ways of living out the call to love unconditionally and totally. Historically, wherever one is valued, so is the other. Where one is deprecated, so is the other. While celibacy is superior because it foreshadows the coming of Christ, nonetheless, the Scriptures do not point to celibacy as the symbol of Christ´s love for the Church in the world. Rather it is the married love of a man for a woman that is that sign (Eph 5:32 ).

May we all come to taste and live out the holiness God is calling us to.

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