John Paul II demonstrates that, far from devaluing sexuality and marriage, true Christian celibacy actually points to their ultimate fulfillment. In fact, we simply can't understand the Christian meaning of sex and marriage unless we understand the Christian meaning of celibacy.
"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. He who is able to receive this let him receive it" (Mt 19:12).
A eunuch is someone incapable of sexual relations. Thus, when Christ speaks of eunuchs from birth, he's referring to people who are incapable of sexual union because of some birth-defect. When he speaks of those who have been made eunuchs by men, he's probably referring to those sorry souls who have fallen under the blade of castration. But what is a eunuch for the kingdom?
Place yourself in the shoes (or sandals) of one of the descendents of Abraham who was hearing Christ utter these words. You've known and understood from your youth that God's promise to your father in the faith was to make him exceedingly fruitful, the father of a multitude of nations (Gn 17:2-6). In fact, every time God established a covenant with his people, whether it was with Adam (Gn 1:28), Noah (Gn 9:1), Jacob (Gn 35:10-12), or Moses (Lv 26:9), God called them to be "fruitful and multiply."
God's kingdom would be established by the multitude of Abraham's descendents. Indeed, the messiah was to come from Abraham's seed. Hence, those who couldn't engage in sexual union (i.e., eunuchs) were seen as cursed by God, and even excluded from "the kingdom."
Yet this Jesus is saying that some men and women who are perfectly capable of sexual union might actually choose to abstain for the whole duration of their lives specifically for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. WHAT?
Christ's words mark a dramatic turning point in God's revelation. Such a choice is almost too difficult for the sons and daughters of Abraham to comprehend. Indeed, many of Christ's followers throughout history would also find the celibate vocation difficult to understand. Some, in fact, as Christ seemed to acknowledge, would not be able to "receive" it at all.
Marriage, Sex, & Celibacy Are Interrelated
John Paul II offers us a refreshing perspective on the meaning of celibacy for the kingdom in his series of general audiences known as the "theology of the body" (TB). He demonstrates that, far from devaluing sexuality and marriage, true Christian celibacy actually points to their ultimate fulfillment. In fact, we simply can't understand the Christian meaning of sex and marriage unless we understand the Christian meaning of celibacy.
Marriage, sex, and the celibate vocation are much more interrelated than we might first think. They're also interdependent. When each is given proper esteem and respect, the delicate balance among them is maintained.
On the other hand, if any of the three (marriage, sex, or celibacy) is devalued, overvalued, or otherwise disrespected, the others inevitably suffer. It's no coincidence, for example, that the sexual revolution brought both a dramatic rise in divorce and a dramatic decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Nor is it any coincidence that historical misinterpretations of the celibate vocation have led to a disparagement of sex and marriage.
All such error stems from failure to deal with the tension of paradox. To say that celibacy demonstrates the fulfillment of sexuality is not a contradiction of terms. It's a paradox. There's something mentally torturous about reconciling the (seemingly) irreconcilable poles of paradox. So, to avoid the discomfort we focus on one aspect of a truth and end up denying others.
But it's precisely by pressing into the tension of paradox that we discover the fullness of truth. We must find our home in that tension. Only then can we properly understand the profound interrelationship among marriage, sex, and the celibate
The Kingdom, the Resurrection, & Marriage
In chapter 22 of the Gospel of Matthew (see also Mk 12 and Lk 20), the Sadducees, a group of Jews who didn't believe in the resurrection of the dead, came to Jesus with a scenario that they thought would corner him into denying the resurrection as well. A man had a wife and he died. One of his brothers married her to give his deceased brother offspring, but he died too. This happened again and again until seven brothers had all been married to the same woman in succession. The Sadducees then asked Christ whose wife she will be in the resurrection.
Christ responded, "You are wrong because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage..." (v. 29-30).
For many this teaching of Christ strikes a sour note. Why? Because we know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. If we did we would rejoice in these words. Christ's statement is not a devaluation of marriage; rather, it points to the ultimate purpose and meaning of this wonderful sacrament.
Marriage in this life is meant to foreshadow heaven where, for all eternity, we will celebrate the "marriage of the Lamb" (Rev 19:7), the marriage of Christ and the Church. This is the deepest desire of the human heart to live in the eternal bliss of communion with God himself. As wonderful as marriage and marital intimacy can be in this life, it's only a sign, a foretaste, a sacrament of what's to come. Earthly marriage is simply preparation for heavenly marriage.
It's the same with all the sacraments. They prepare us for heaven. There are no sacraments in heaven, not because they are simply done away with, but because they all will have come to fruition. Men and women will no longer need signs to point them to heaven when they're in heaven. Think of it in terms of road signs. If you're headed to Denver, you no longer need a sign to point you to Denver once you've arrived.
Spouses sometimes wonder if this means they won't be together in heaven. Of course they will, if they both accept Christ's marriage proposal and live in fidelity to him in this life. In fact, every member of the human race who accepts the invitation to the heavenly wedding feast will be in the most intimate possible communion with everyone else.
This is what we call the "communion of saints." As the Catechism says, this "will be the final realization of the unity of the human race, which God willed from creation. ...Those who are united with Christ will form the community of the redeemed, 'the holy city' of God, 'the Bride, the wife of the Lamb'" (CCC, n. 1045).
Using the spousal image as an analogy, we can say that God's plan from all eternity is to "marry" us (see Hos 2:19). And this eternal plan was foreshadowed and revealed "from the beginning" by our creation as male and female and our call to become "one flesh." The human body has a "nuptial meaning," according to John Paul, because it proclaims and reveals God's eternal plan of love his plan for nuptial union between man and woman and, analogously speaking, between Christ and the Church.
As St. Paul says quoting from Genesis, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:31, 32).
Christ left his Father in heaven. He left the home of his mother on earth to give up his body for his Bride, so that we might become "one flesh" with him and be taken up into the life of the Trinity for all eternity.
As John Paul says, this means that "marriage and procreation in itself did not determine definitively the original and fundamental meaning of being a body or of being, as a body, male and female. Marriage and procreation merely give a concrete reality to that meaning in the dimensions of history" (TB, Jan 13, 1982). When the "dimensions of history" are fulfilled, so too will the "nuptial meaning of the body" be fulfilled not just in the union of one man and one woman, but in the communion of all men and women united by the vision of God face to face (see TB, Dec 9, 1981).
The Nuptial Meaning of Celibacy
Only by looking towards this heavenly reality can we properly understand the celibate vocation as Christ intends it. Christ doesn't call some of his followers to embrace celibacy for celibacy's sake, but "for the sake of the kingdom." The kingdom is precisely the heavenly marriage. In short, those who choose celibacy are "skipping" the sacrament in anticipation of the real thing.
Celibate men and women step beyond the dimensions of history while still living within the dimensions of history and dramatically declare to the world that the kingdom of God is here (Mt 12:28). Christian celibacy, then, is not a rejection of sexuality and marriage. It's a participation in the ultimate truth and meaning of sexuality and marriage.
Both vocations, in their own particular way, are a fulfillment of the call to "nuptial love" revealed through our bodies. As John Paul II says: "On the basis of the same nuptial meaning of being as a body, male or female, there can be formed the love that commits man to marriage for the whole duration of his life, but there can be formed also the love that commits man to a life of continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (TB, Apr 28, 1982).
We can't escape the call of our sexuality. Every man is called to be both a husband and a father; every woman is called to be both a wife and a mother either through marriage or through the celibate vocation. In a certain sense, celibate men become an "icon" of Christ; their bride is the Church. Celibate women become an "icon" of the Church; their bridegroom is Christ. And both bear many spiritual children.
Thus, the terms bridegroom and bride, father and mother, brother and sister are applicable to marriage and celibacy. Both vocations are indispensable in building the family of God. Each vocation complements the other and demonstrates the other's meaning. Marriage reveals the nuptial character of celibacy, and celibacy reveals that the ultimate purpose of marriage is to prepare us for heaven.
Celibacy: the "Higher" Calling?
History has seen some grave distortions of St. Paul's teaching that he who marries does "well," but he who refrains does "better" (1Co 7:38). It's led some to view marriage as a "second class" vocation for those who can't "handle" celibacy. It's also solidified people's erroneous suspicions that sex is inherently tainted, and only those who abstain can be truly "holy."
Such errors led John Paul II to assert firmly: "The 'superiority' of continence to matrimony in the authentic Tradition of the Church never means disparagement of marriage or belittlement of its essential value. It does not mean any shift whatsoever in a Manichean direction" (TB, Apr 7, 1982). (Manicheanism is an ancient heresy that views bodily things as evil, placing all emphasis on spiritual realities.)
Celibacy is "better" or "higher" than marriage in the sense that heaven is better or higher than earth. Celibacy, unlike marriage, is not a sacrament of the heavenly marriage on earth. Celibacy is a sign of life beyond sacraments when we'll be united with God directly through the "Marriage of the Lamb."
In fact, I think it's somewhat unfortunate that we define this vocation based on what it has "given up" rather than defining it in terms of what it has embraced. It seems a lot of confusion could be avoided if we described the celibate vocation as the "heavenly marriage," for instance.
Of course, few who choose the celibate vocation would claim to experience "heaven on earth" every day of their lives. Celibates forego a great good, and that entails sacrifice. That entails a fruitful suffering "for the sake of the kingdom."
Here it becomes clear that the Church does not hold the celibate vocation in such high regard because she believes sex is somehow tainted. She holds celibacy in such high regard precisely because she holds that which is sacrificed for the sake of God genital sexual expression in such high regard.
If sex were something unclean and unholy, offering it as a gift to God would be an act of sacrilege (we all know that there's no merit in fasting from sin for Lent, right?). But, since sex is one of the most precious treasures God has given humanity, making a gift of it back to God is one of the most genuine expressions of thanksgiving (eucharistia) for such a great gift. The other is receiving it from God's hands and living it as the expression of the marital covenant.
Everyone is called to a life of holiness by responding to the call to "nuptial love" stamped in his body. But not everyone is called in the same way. "Each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another" (1Co 7:7).
Each person should respond to the gift he's been given. If one is called to celibacy, then he shouldn't choose marriage. If one is called to marriage, then he shouldn't choose celibacy. Hence the important need to discern one's vocation prayerfully.
Celibacy: Witness to Freedom
The celibate vocation also provides a much needed witness in our sex-saturated world to the reality of human freedom. Christ's own words, "some make themselves eunuchs," demonstrate the voluntary character of this vocation. It's not something forced on people by the Church. It's a gift freely given by God and freely chosen by some of his followers.
Why do people spay or neuter their pets? Because animals can't say no to their urge to mate. Despite what the typical prime-time sitcom would have us believe, we can.
Herein lies one of the key differences between animals and human beings the gift and responsibility of freedom. We're not bound by instinct. We can determine our own actions. We can say "yes" to a given behavior or we can say "no." If we can't say no, we're not free.
Society has much to say about "sexual freedom." But sexual freedom, in the popular sense, means the license to have sex without ever having to say no. This is not sexual freedom. This is bondage to libido.
The man or woman who chooses to forego genital sexual expression "for the sake of the kingdom" demonstrates that he or she is not bound by an uncontrollable libido but is truly free free to love God and love others in a dramatic and unreserved gift of self. And it should be added that this is a bodily, and in this sense sexual, gift of self.
Angels can't be celibates. They don't have bodies. They're not sexual beings. In fact, according to John Paul II, the very impetus of the celibate vocation, like that of Christian marriage, is a desire to live out the truth of sexuality, redeemed and purified in Christ.
God gave us sexual desire "in the beginning," according to John Paul, to be the very power to love in the image of God through the sincere gift of self. This is why he calls the sexual urge "a vector of aspiration along which [our] whole existence develops and perfects itself from within" (Love & Responsibility p. 46). According to Christian revelation, there are two ways of fulfilling this fundamental call to love: marriage or celibacy (see Familiaris Consortio n. 11).
Of course, due to sin, the sexual urge doesn't simply well up in us as the desire to make the sincere gift of self. Everyone single, married, or consecrated celibate must contend with the manifold disorders and confusions of lust. But what hope we have when we realize, as John Paul stresses, that the heart is deeper than lust, and Christ "reactivate[s] that deeper heritage and give[s] it real power in man's life" (TB, Oct 29, 1980).
This means through an ongoing conversion to Christ we can experience a "real and deep victory" over lust (TB, Oct 22, 1980). If we open ourselves to the work of redemption, the Holy Spirit actually impregnates our sexual desire "with everything that is noble and beautiful," with "the supreme value which is love" (TB, Oct 29, 1980). Through this ongoing process of transformation we rediscover God's original plan for sexual desire and are enabled to put that desire at the service of the marital or the celibate gift of self.
Again and again it must be stressed: The celibate vocation is not a rejection of sexuality. Nor are consecrated celibates meant to condemn themselves to a life of isolation from the opposite sex. If some approach it this way, according to John Paul II, they're not living in accord with Christ's words (see TB, Apr 28, 1982).
"Human life, by its nature, is 'coeducative'" (TB, Oct 8, 1980). By this the Holy Father means that the sexes need one another, and they need to learn to love one another rightly if human life is to maintain its proper dignity and balance. This is just as true for consecrated celibates as it is for married people.
Men and women such as Francis and Clare of Assisi, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, and Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal all had healthy, holy, intimate, and celibate relationships with one another. Yes, it's truly possible. And what a witness to freedom these saints are!
If we think this is impossible if we immediately suspect "monkey business" going on in such relationships then we can count ourselves among those whom John Paul II labels "the masters of suspicion." The masters of suspicion do not believe in the gift and power of redemption. Since bondage to lust is all they know in their own hearts, they project that on to everyone else.
But as the Pope insists, "Man cannot stop at putting the heart in a state of continual and irreversible suspicion due to the manifestations of the lust of the flesh and libido.... Redemption is a truth, a reality, in the name of which man must feel called, and called with efficacy." In fact, he says, "The meaning of life is the antithesis of the interpretation 'of suspicion'" (TB, Oct 29, 1980).<
Celibacy is Supernatural
It is precisely these "masters of suspicion" who contend that celibacy is to blame for the various sexual problems of the clergy writ large in our newspapers. "Celibacy is simply unnatural," they say.
In some sense these people are right to say celibacy isn't natural. As the saying goes, and as Christ reveals, it's supernatural. It's celibacy for the sake of the kingdom. By calling some to renounce the natural call to marriage, Christ established an entirely new way of life, and, by doing so, he demonstrated the power of the Cross to transform lives.
For those who are "stuck" in a fallen view of the sexual urge with no concept of the freedom to which we're called in Christ, the idea of life-long celibacy is complete nonsense. But for those who have experienced the transformation of their sexual desires in Christ, the idea of making a complete gift of one's sexuality to God not only becomes a possibility, it becomes very attractive.
Celibacy is a grace, a gift. A minority of Christ's followers are called to embrace this gift. But, to those who are given this gift, they're also given the grace to be faithful to their vows, just as married people are given the grace to be faithful to their vows.
In both vocations people can and do reject this grace and violate their vows. Certainly there's a need in the typical Catholic diocese for greater openness about sexual woundedness and for development and promotion of ministries that bring Christ's healing to those in need, including priests. But the solution to marital and celibate infidelity is not to concede to human weakness and redefine the nature of the commitments. The solution is to point to the Cross as the font of grace that it is, a font from which we can drink freely and receive real power to live and love as we're called.
Furthermore, the statistical rates of sexual misconduct among celibate priests is no higher than that of married clergy in other Christian denominations. There is simply no evidence that having a married clergy would solve or even alleviate this problem.
There's also a dangerously misguided approach to marriage inherent in the idea that marriage is the solution to the sexual scandal of some priests. Marriage does not provide a "legitimate outlet" for disordered sexual desire. Married people, no less than celibates, must come to experience the redemption of their sexual desires in Christ. Only then can they love each other in God's image. If a man were to enter marriage with deep-seated sexual disorders, he would be condemning his wife to a life of sexual objectification.
Celibacy does not cause sexual disorder. Sin does. Simply getting married does not cure sexual disorder. Christ does. 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.
In a world that has lost sight of heaven, those who are "eunuchs for the kingdom" shine as a bright witness to us all of the ultimate destiny of human life. They witness to what Saint Augustine said so well: "You have made us for yourself, oh God, and our hearts are restless until we rest in you."
As we learn in John Paul II's theology of the body, sexual desire and the nuptial meaning of the body are ultimately fulfilled in the eternal nuptials of heaven. From this perspective it becomes clear that all of the sexual confusion in our world is simply the human desire for heaven gone berserk.
Only by "untwisting" this sexual confusion can we begin to understand God's plan for nuptial union as a revelation and foreshadowing of the beatific vision. Only then can we see that celibacy for the kingdom, far from devaluing sexuality, anticipates and participates in its ultimate fulfillment.
Author's note: I add the following as an aside:
Celibacy Is Not Intrinsic to the Priesthood
Contrary to the opinion of many, celibacy is not essential to a valid priesthood. It's simply a discipline upheld in the Western Church in order to conform more closely to the example of Christ, who himself was celibate.
We often forget in the West that there are many Catholic Churches of the Eastern rite (i.e. Churches of the East in full communion with the Pope) that have married priests. They are no less Catholic priests than priests of the Roman rite which maintains a celibate priesthood. Moreover, in some cases, married priests from other denominations (Anglican, for example) who convert to Catholicism are able to be ordained as married priests in the Roman rite.
Some appeal to the practical benefits of a celibate clergy to explain the Western Church's practice. Many a Protestant pastor or married priest can attest to the difficulties of trying to shepherd his flock and care for his family at the same time. As St. Paul said, the celibate is not "divided" in his service but is able to devote himself entirely to the service of the Church (1Co 7:32-34). Even so, without undermining the practical value of celibacy, there is a deeper, theological reason for the discipline of a celibate clergy in the West.
Christ was not married to one particular woman because he came to marry the whole human race. The Church is his eternal Bride. Ordained priests become a sacrament of Christ. They make the love of the Heavenly Bridegroom efficaciously present to the Church, particularly in the Eucharistic sacrifice. Acting in the person of Christ, priests also "marry" the Church.
This important symbolism is better retained when a priest is not also married to a particular woman. But, again, it isn't essential. The Church could very well change the discipline of the Latin rite at some time in the future and it would not change the essential nature of ordination to the priesthood.
An additional point to be made is that if the Church ever did change the discipline of a celibate clergy in the West, those already ordained could not then marry. The sacrament of Holy Orders imprints an indelible mark on the soul of the man who receives it. This mark consecrates a man in service to Christ and the Church in such a unique way as to take precedence over the consecration of marriage.
A man who is already married can receive the sacrament of Holy Orders (in the Latin rite this is limited to the diaconate), but a single man who has received the sacrament of Holy Orders cannot subsequently marry. Even a married permanent deacon cannot subsequently remarry if his wife dies.
Christopher West is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute.