Saturday, December 24, 2011

Incarnating God's love

There's time for one more post before the great Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord commences. So, I am posting on something that is near and dear to my heart, vocation. I cannot repeat often enough that there is but one Christian vocation: to follow Christ. All vocations are rooted in and so arise from the primal sacrament of baptism. This includes, still to the vexation of some, marriage. It also includes the vocation to celibacy (i.e., not getting married) with its inherent, at least in Christian terms, requirement for perpetual continence (i.e., not engaging in sexual relations), in all the various forms this takes (i.e., priesthood, religious life, secular institutes, like my beloved friends who belong to Memores Domini, and those who simply live single in the world glorifying the Lord by their lives). The excellence of this form of life is indisputable for Christians.

In this regard it is interesting to consider Matthew 19:11, where Jesus says to His disciples, "Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted." It is unclear whether Jesus is referring back to His teaching on marriage and divorce, which immediately precedes this quote, or whether He is referring back to His disciples' inference from that teaching, "If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry" (Matt. 19:10).

New Testament scholar Dale Allison, Jr., writing on St. Matthew's Gospel in the The Oxford Bible Commentary, holds that it is likely not only a reply to the disciples' conclusion that given the level of commitment marriage requires and the difficulty of leaving a marriage that "it is better not to marry," but a correction. Allison notes that the conclusion of the disciples is a universal one, whereas Jesus makes clear, not only in verse eleven, but in the following verse, where He says, "Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it," that the call to celibacy is not for everyone.

Allison goes on to opine that the author of Matthew's Gospel might have been combating "a perceived excess in his community" with regard to celibacy. Allison also notes that Jesus' teaching includes two previously known categories of eunuchs, the first category being men "who had either been literally castrated or who had sometime after birth lost the power to reproduce." The second category consisted of those males who were born with defective genitalia. To these Jesus adds a third category- men who remain unmarried by choice, who have had a "duty placed on them" such that "it is best discharged outside of marriage." Allison concludes, "For these people, the good and valuable thing that marriage undoubtedly is must be sacrificed in view of the demand made up them by something greater."

Since we are on the verge of the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ, it seems opportune to point out that the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose perpetual virginity Roman Catholics revere, and St. Joseph, whom we laud in The Divine Praises Litany as the Blessed Virgin's "most chaste spouse,"which I take to mean living in a continent manner though married to the Blessed Virgin, are understandably a very unique case.

John Garvey, who is a married Orthodox priest, in a lovely piece that appeared in Commonweal magazine back in 2010, "Good Gift, Bad Rule: The Uses and Abuses of Celibacy," relayed the story of a young man who asks a monk whether he should marry or become a monk. The monk wisely responded, "If you have to ask that question you shouldn't be a monk. You should be a monk if the alternative to being a monk would make you go crazy."

In a similar vein, in the film Of Gods and Men, a young Algerian woman who helps Frère Luc, a monk who is a physician, in the dispensary asks the now elderly Cistercian how to tell if one is in love. Frère Luc responds: "There’s something inside of you that comes alive. The presence of someone. It’s irrepressible and makes your heart beat faster, usually. It’s an attraction, a desire. It’s very beautiful. No use asking too making questions. It just happens. Things are as usual, then suddenly happiness arrives, or the hope of it. It’s lots of things. But you’re in turmoil. Great turmoil. Especially the first time." Seeking verification that transcends abstraction, the young woman then asks Luc the truly important question, if he has ever been in love. "Several times," he answers. Then, referring to his monastic vocation, he says, "And then I encountered another love, even greater. And I answered that love. It’s been a while now. Over 60 years."

It is this logic that has helped me assist several young people to discern and pursue not vocations that require celibacy, but celibate vocations of the kind described by Jesus, Garvey, Frère Luc, and responded to in a unique way by the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph. I often wonder why we're so scared of the Holy Spirit, which simply amounts to wondering why we don't trust God more. My experience is that the sexual excess of our current culture is exactly the kind of dark abyss that God's ru'ah (i.e., breath or wind) can sweep over bringing life and fruitfulness for God's kingdom.


  1. You are still afraid, it would seem, to speak of celibacy as having a "superiority". Before you spoke of it as being "indispensible", which is true, but then so is marriage. Now, you speak of its "excellence", but you fail to mention its "'surpassing' excellence", the term used in Vatican II's "Optatum Totius" in reference to celibacy vis-a-vis marriage (paragraph 10). Once again, I think you merely give "lip service" to the dogma of the superiority of celibacy to marriage, because in practice and in your theology, you seem to take the substance out of it.

    Once again, you quote the Anglican Oxford Bible Commentary (with its anti-celibate bias), just as you quoted from a married Orthodox priest. On the contrary, I will quote from Matthew 19:11 of the "Catholic" Haydock commentary, which I think represents the true Catholic position on the "vocations" to marriage and celibacy, which would also be what was taught by St. Thomas, as seen in the book, "Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery":

    "To be able to live singly, and chastely, is given to every one that asketh, and prayeth for the grace of God to enable him to live so ... There are evangelical counsels, to the observance of which it is both lawful and meritorious for a Christian to devote himself, especially for the purpose of employing himself with greater liberty and less encumbrance in the service of his God ... ll cannot receive it, because all do not wish it. The reward is held out to all. Let him who seeks for glory, not think of the labour".

    In other words, the "call to celibacy" is not for everyone because some refuse to pray for the gift and others do not respond to Our Lord's call to aspire to the "greater gift" of the evangelical counsels, which, as the Church teaches dogmatically, is recommended to all. This is all in the aforementioned book.

    I meant to mention this before, but the problem with John Garvey's anecdote that you have now just cited again now is this: it contradicts the vocational call of St. Teresa of Avila. St. Teresa, as has been well-documented, mostly by herself in her "autobiography", asked the question the young man asked the monk: "Should I marry or become a monk". But she did not follow the monk's advice to "not be a religious" because she asked that question, and that she should only be a religious if being married would "drive her crazy". St. Teresa "desired" marriage, not religious life. But because her Church taught that the surest path to salvation was in religious life, she "forced" her will to embrace it. Deacon Dodge, please tell us whether or not St. Teresa was wrong to pursue her vocation as she did, and explain to us why.

  2. Because I am not going to respond to things for which I have already given extended replies, I simply point you back to our extended discussion: Year A Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time. At some point I would encourage you to read my entire homily.

    Beyond that, let's look at VII's Decree on Priestly Training par. 10, which certainly gives us a much more balanced grasp of things than you do. I want to highlight two pasts of section 10 keeping in mind that it is addressed to those who have charge of those, called "students" or, in Latin "alumni," meaning seminarians (i.e., those who have already gone some distance towards discerning a vocation to the priesthood):

    1) "Students who follow the venerable tradition of celibacy according to the holy and fixed laws of their own rite are to be educated to this state with great care. For renouncing thereby the companionship of marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt. 19:12), they embrace the Lord with an undivided love altogether befitting the new covenant, bear witness to the resurrection of the world to come (cf. Luke 20:36), and obtain a most suitable aid for the continual exercise of that perfect charity whereby they can become all things to all men in their priestly ministry. Let them deeply realize how gratefully that state ought to be received, not, indeed, only as commanded by ecclesiastical law, but as a precious gift of God for which they should humbly pray. Through the inspiration and help of the grace of the Holy Spirit let them freely and generously hasten to respond to this gift."

    2) "Students ought rightly to acknowledge the duties and dignity of Christian matrimony, which is a sign of the love between Christ and the Church. Let them recognize, however, the surpassing excellence of virginity consecrated to Christ, so that with a maturely deliberate and generous choice they may consecrate themselves to the Lord by a complete gift of body and soul."

    Because prudence governs all the virtues, it is more important not to overstate than not to understate. So, to help you hold things in balance rather than generate false dilemmas and talk about vocations as the forcing of the will, I direct your attention to Gaudium et Spes, paragraphs 46-52.

  3. So, let's look at one authoritative commentator on these matters, Leonhard M. Weber, but we'll use something brief, an extract from his entry on "Celibacy" in Sacramentum Mundi: "Though the Council of Trent emphasized very strongly the dignity of sacramental matrimony, it condemned those who maintained that 'the married state is preferable to that of virginity or celibacy and that it is not better and more blessed to continue in the state of virginity or celibacy than to enter on matrimony' (DS 1810). This verdict, however, which considers the various states of life, does not deny that many married persons grow closer to God than those obliged to celibacy. In the encyclical Sacra Virginitas, which also dealt with celibacy, Pius XII rejected the opinion that 'only marriage guarantees a natural development of the human person' and that the sacrament 'sanctifies married life to such a degree that it becomes a more effective means of union with God than virginity itself.' This way of putting things, which is a variation on the Council of Trent, is an indirect invitation to work out the manifold relationships between marriage and celibacy, which may be evaluated from more than one standpoint" (Sacramentum Mundi, Vol 1, pg 277).

    All of this before we even get to VII! So, cutting to the chase in order to cut out the nonsense, nowhere have I insisted or implied that marriage is a superior state-of-life to celibacy. Beyond that, I have taken every opportunity to hold up and exalt celibacy and to recommend it, even while upholding matrimony as a holy state of life. So, feel free in whatever positive endeavors you engage in to write about the irreplaceable value of celibacy in any way you choose. The best way to show forth the divine value of any vocation is simply to live faithfully vocation to which you are called. To quote the motto of The Christophers: "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness."

    To paraphrase something Weber went on to observe: whether the number of those who respond to the call to celibacy be many or few is beyond human agency. Despair, after all, is contrary to theological virtue of hope.