Just Wondering

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This is just one of those things that I wonder about. Please don't take it to be indicative of anything but probing at the mysteries of God and Church.

If, in Genesis we are told that God told people to be fruitful and multiply and fill all the Earth. And throughout the old testament we are told what a great blessing children are and how they add to the glory of the house and of the family. And Jesus did not come to do away with the law but to fulfill it, and part of that law was that men should marry and with their wives produce families why is it that we so laud virginity and celibacy? Where does that come from? From a single line of Paul--"It is better to marry than to burn." (And one gets the feeling from Paul that perhaps marriage isn't all that far from burning. And as we know little of Paul's life, yet he was one of the leaders of the people in religious discourse, did he have a wife? Perhaps his marital relationship was akin to that of Socrates and Xantippe. All of that is beside the point. I have read elsewhere how greatly exalted a state virginity is and I must wonder why that should be. If everyone at the time of Jesus had pledged virginity there would be no human race to praise God. Virginity is physically fruitless--not that it is bad, nor is it to be denigrated. But is it exalted because celibacy became the rule.

I just wonder. It would seem to me that both states are exalted if they are the state that one is called to. Why is one better than another--both are sealed in sacrament.

I won't go on because other thoughts might prove too disturbing to some out there. But I really have to wonder about this exaltation and obsession with virginity; it suggests to me a certain hidden dualism--that the flesh is somehow not good.

And perhaps there is just something about me that chafes at a preferential treatement for a few. That is according to the idea of vocation, God picks out His favorite children and holds them in exalted state. (A kind of reverse double predestination.) I prefer to think that God's exalted children are those who fulfill his will most completely--married or celibate. And, if all things are equal in terms of fulfillment of vocation, then perhaps the argument that the celibate life is superior holds some merit.

But then, that is my wayward thinking, and from now on I'll just rein it in.

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Consecrated virginity -- which, incidentally, is not sealed in sacrament (nor is celibacy) -- signifies the always-and-ever pure devotion to God. Devotion to God in Himself is a higher good than devotion to God through His creation.

I think, by the way, you are not correct in asserting that the Church's praise of virginity and celibacy comes only from "a single line of Paul." There are the examples of Mary and of St. John, to say nothing of Christ Himself, as well as a number of Gospel passages, all which come to mind without thinking too hard about it.


That wasn't an assertion, it was more a question. As to Paul--do you know for a fact that he was celibate? This isn't a challenge, I just don't know anywhere in his letters or even in tradition where this is pointed out. As to Jesus as an example--I think we need to rethink that example. If Jesus, God incarnate had had children among the sons of men--what chaos? His celibacy may not have endorsed celibacy as a whole, but rather was God's prudence in not producing offspring Jove-lie so that we could have an infinity of DaVinci Codes.

Mary is an example,but that in itself is a problem. Is the virginity the feature or is it Mary who consecrates virginity?

This must be one of those things that as a cradle Catholic are second nature. Us imports tend to see it as a fundamental contradiction in thought. There is a sacrament of marriage, but you really shouldn't partake of it because it is better to adore God in Himself than through creatures. But is it a necessary concomittant of marriage that you do not adore God purely in Himself? Are we suggesting that there are no distractions in the lives on consecrated virgins that might not allow them to focus on God Himself?

You see, I just have tons of questions--they have no real substance and they don't really amount to anything at all except perhaps that I don't quite buy the whole "virginity" is better concept. I still think it smacks of dualism and the Eastern Churches seem to have done just fine without its impostion on their priests. So, I don't know. But your points are well taken--and must be considered as I ponder these points. I just happen to think that married life is a pretty blessed state.



As to Paul--do you know for a fact that he was celibate?

Paul? No. I recently read a critical biography of him which discussed the possibility he was married. I'd have to check, but I think the best guess of historians is that he may well have been married, but was not by the time of Acts.

If you meant to ask about St. John, though, my answer is no, I don't know for a fact, but his virginity is pretty much universally attested in tradition.

As to Jesus as an example--I think we need to rethink that example.

A bit late in the day for that, don't you think?

Are we suggesting that there are no distractions in the lives on consecrated virgins that might not allow them to focus on God Himself?

Precisely! And you said you didn't understand!

Virginity is a sign, not a sacrament. It points to something -- to the single-minded purity with which Christ loves the Father and with which the Church is to love Christ -- but is not the thing it points to.

I still think it smacks of dualism and the Eastern Churches seem to have done just fine without its impostion on their priests.

If you want to understand virginity, better not confuse it with celibacy. And even the Eastern Churches do not permit priests to marry, nor their bishops, monks, and nuns to be married.

What about Matthew 10-12?

[His] disciples said to him, "If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry."
He answered, "Not all can accept [this] word, 8 but only those to whom that is granted.
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."

1 Corinthians 7 indicates quite clearly that Paul was celebate:

1: Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is well for a man not to touch a woman.
2: But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.
3: The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.
4: For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does.
5: Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.
6: I say this by way of concession, not of command.
7: I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
8: To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.

I would caution that the exegesis of that chapter has its subtleties, but Paul certainly seems celibate and considers celibacy a gift.

Dear Steven,

I think that your instincts - particularly your chafing "at a preferential treatment for a few" - are correct. So, then, I wonder what you might make of this article (Maximos Davies, "Celibacy in Context," First Things 128 [2002]):




In the 6th chapter, "The Paradoxes of Christianity", in Orthodoxy (sorry Eve), Chesterton deals with this and many similar issues. At one point he said that "Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious," but a whole reading of it would better flesh out his idea.

However, I do not think that virginity and celibacy are esteemed more than marriage ... at least in the general way of life. I think you are right that whoever fulfills God's will most completely are right ... and He calls people in both states.

Dear Zadok,

Thank you! That does appear to be indicative.

And yes, celibacy is a gift. But my question is should I view it as a greater gift on the word of one who is celibate. Don't we all tend to exalt our own way of life. Surely this is possible with Paul as well.

I do not wish to denigrate the gift of celibacy. My point is that we serve God where we are and it would seem to me that the "exaltedness" of where we are is a matter of how well we are serving in the capacity, not necessarily a matter of the relative positions of celibate and married states. In other words, a person fulfilling the vocation to married life that he was called to is better serving God than the celibate who determined to be that way by himself, or the celibate who breaks vows in some other way.

On the other hand, all other things equal, it may well be that, as the more difficult vocation (viewed from outside at least) the celibate vocation "ranks" higher than the married if both are being filled to the greatest possible capacity by those in the vocations.

Anyway, thank you for the information. Much appreciated.



But my question is should I view it as a greater gift on the word of one who is celibate.

I am not celibate, and you have my word that celibacy is a greater gift.

There you go! No need to thank me.

Dear mcmixix,

Thank you, I shall take a look at it.



Dear Neil,

I suppose it comes as no surprise that I found this passage of interest:

What does this mean in practice? It means that we must no longer divide up the Church in our minds and separate the lay majority who are "allowed" to have sex under certain conditions and the clerical and religious minority who are "not allowed" to have sex at all. The difference is nowhere near so stark. It is merely one of degree. For a legalistic mind, the division between celibate and non–celibate seems vast. For an ascetical mind, however, the difference is negligible. Both the life of marriage and the life of celibacy are directed entirely toward God, and find a common meaning in Him.

Thank you for the reference. I think it eloquently restates the point I was trying to make.



Dear Tom,

But then I would have to accept it on the opinion of one who is non-celibate. I don't know. . .



From a practical point of view, celibates have been a help to me purely as an example. For that reason alone I am grateful for their gift.

Dear TSO,

I would agree, but then so too have a great many married couples, so have ministers who are married. Moreover, some celibates have served as an example in the negative sense--where I do not want to go and do not want to be. I think particularly of the old gentleman giving a lecture in a Catholic hall who pointed at the woman next to me trying to calm a fussy child and said, "Take that brat out of here so I can think straight." With which statement I left the hall with her and about twenty other people.

But you're right--we should be thankful for the gifts of all of those around us. I am thankful for the example of my grandparents, utterly, faithfully, devoted to one another and to Jesus Christ for their entire lives--they showed me what a marriage should be--now I'm just adapting it beyond my Baptist background.



Yes I do see your point and it is a good one. We certainly need models like your grandparents.

But I guess anything raised to idol status - as I believe sex typically is - would cry out for God to send some who tell us with their lives that that thing we think indispensable is, actually, dispensable.

Glad to be your 3,000 & 3,001 commenter. May you have many more.

Am I the only one who finds it odd that Paul never mentions Jesus' celibacy? Surely if Jesus had embraced celibacy as an important part of his mission, Paul would have included "like the Master" when exhorting his followers to be celibate.

Does the Church definitively teach that Jesus was celibate? Based on what? It's certainly not scriptural. Not that it has to be, but I'm just wondering.

I always thought it was one of those things that was just assumed, but never mentioned -- just in case someone discovered otherwise. It is odd that in a Jewish context there is never mentioned why Jesus would choose not to fulfil the first commandment in the Torah (Go forth and multiply), perhaps because the Gospels were written for a Greek audience?

There were Jewish sects that embraced celibacy (like the Essenes) but Jesus certainly didn't have many of their other characteristics (ultra-strict observance of Sabbath laws, rigid purity standards). However its been a long time since I read about any of this -- I just have the remnants of the ideas left in my head. ;)

I've also heard that celibacy was encouraged because the kindgom was at hand - Christ would be back any minute now, there's no TIME to get married and fulfill the commandment to have children.

Just some thoughts.

Dear Steven,

Cardinal Ratzinger in his little book Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church's Marian Belief calls virginity "the fruit and flower of married life."

I mention this because I providentially just happened to be reading that when you posted this, and because in the comments above (that I've only skimmed, alas) I think one thing that's missing is the intimate connection between virginity, celibacy and marriage.

Cheers -


I'm not sure where I got that quote, but it's not what Cardinal Ratzinger wrote (I was feverish and half-asleep when I read it). Here's the real quote, from page 16 of Daughter Zion:

For virginity is most intimately connected to the theological foundation of marriage; it does not stand in opposition to marriage, but rather signifies its fruit and confirmation."

Etc. It's a very good little book.

Cheers -


Christina of "Sancta Sanctis" had a nice post on the subject:

It would be impossible not to mention celibacy at this point. Catholics are famous for celibacy. Jesus and Mary were celibates. The Catholic Church is perhaps the only church that teaches that marriage and virginity have equal value. "Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity," said St. John Chrysostom..."Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be truly good. The most excellent good is something even better than what is admitted to be good." I've already cited the late Fr. Henri Nouwen elsewhere, for pointing out that marriage vows are so closely related to vows of celibacy that a blow to celibacy is a blow to marriage and an attack on marriage is an attack on celibacy. Mark Shea keeps a "Show me a culture that despises virginity . . ." file of articles that range in topic from abortion, pornographic sex ed material, militant gay activism, and you name it. A culture that despises virginity also despises marriage--and therefore despises life.

Don't celibates also despise life? They don't have sex, after all, so they can't be open to life. The answer to this is one of the most beautiful of Catholic paradoxes. Of all religions in the world, only Catholicism teaches that celibacy can be as fruitful as marriage. This is why we call priests "Father": they are our spiritual fathers who give us the fruits of spiritual parenthood. And this is why we can honor a Virgin as the "Mother of all the living."

Hang on a bit.....Mary was not celibate. She was a virgin (according to the Church), but she was not living the celibate life, she was living in a marriage. Even if it was a sexless marriage, doesn't that mean she was NOT celibate?

Did she do without all the physical love? or just without intercourse? Did Joseph not hug her and sleep with her and hold her in his arms to comfort her?

What kind of a "marriage" were they living if it was celibate? As any married person will tell you, there's a lot more to married life than sex. And as most celibates I've spoken to have said - the thing you miss is not the sex, it's the intimacy with another human being.

And why do people say that Jesus is celibate?

*curious minds want to know!*

Dear Talmida,

What suggests that He was not? Jewish tradition certainly suggests it. On the other hand, if we are to understand that He knew who He was, there would certainly be some hesitation on His part in being married and forming offspring half man/half God as in some Greek Myth. Moreover, there is nothing in any of the texts that suggest that He might have been married.

I know it will come as a shock to some, but it wouldn't much matter to me whether or not what you obliquely suggest were true. It just isn't an issue for me. However, I see no reason within the received texts to assume that Jesus was married, and given that the other texts from Nag Hammadi and other "gospels" are somewhat dubious in origin and time, there seems to be no real evidence to suggest anything other than celibacy.

But I really love your point about the Blessed Virgin Mary. By the strict definition of the term she was NOT celibate, even while remaining a virgin. And I love the points you make about being a faithful wife to Joseph. Thank you.



Dear Steven,
As you point out, Jewish tradition suggests that he was not celibate. So the fact that no one explains or mentions it strikes me as odd. Wouldn't Jesus say something? "Leave your family and follow me - I have chosen not to have a family." But if Jesus didn't say anything, then Paul certainly should have when pushing his celibacy ideas. It's the obvious line. Do it because the Boss did. We know celibacy is good because Jesus was celibate. To me it is a glaring omission.

Dear Talmida,

Endo would have it, on the slenderest of evidence (if any at all) that for the "dark" years between the finding in the Temple and the beginning of the ministry, Jesus was part of an Essene community, in fact, the community of Qumran. Now, I think I've seen this suggestion elsewhere, but I don't think there is any evidence of it.

I think the reason most people do not talk about Jesus's celibacy is that they are not really familiar with the unusual nature of Jesus's singleness in the Jewish community. Because it can and does happen today both inside and outside of monastic communities, we take it for granted. But as you have indicated, it was not the norm for a Jewish man of Jesus's age to be living singly. That doesn't mean it didn't ever happen, merely that it was unusual and suggests unusual circumstances. Now, surely knowing that you are the son of God would constitute circumstance irregular enough to justify and encourage such a life.

But in answer to your broader question--it usually takes greater familiarity with Jewish culture for people to even begin to ask the question, much less consider it in any detail.

But thank you for asking such a thought-provoking question. I see less in it than you do, but that may be because I am distant from my original association with the Jewish community.



Dear Steven,
I doubt very much that Jesus was an Essene - their sect was very ascetic, from what I've heard, and Jesus seemed to be a person who understood the value of eating with his friends, and enjoying the wine at a wedding. He certainly wasn't against setting the Sabbath rules aside to do works of mercy, which also seems to be the kind of thing that Essenes were against.

I have also heard that it was not completely unheard of for the occasional wandering rabbi to eschew family life in favour of teaching.

However, being that it was so rare, I would have expected some explanation from Paul.

I find it challenging when I am taught that Jesus was fully God and fully Human, and yet the Human side of the story has so many gaps in it!! I dream sometimes that a final Gospel will be discovered: Jesus, the missing years. ;-)

I've been thinking about this too (as one who is not called to celibacy myself). I found that this issue is parallel to earthly wealth. Wealth, too, is a good thing. We need some degree of prosperity to raise families and achieve good things for society. In fact, if all in Jesus' time gave up all material possessions to preach and beg for alms, as good a spritual gift at the mendicant life may be, the world would starve as well.

Not all are called to give up wealth, but poverty is indeed a higher calling. And so too celibacy, in my opinion.

I had some very useful comments, but your "questionable content" monitor won't let me post anything.

Dear Maureen,

It sometimes doesn't like the strangest things. I don't know if this is our own shield or part of a built-in package. It is chiefly there to prevent the kind of spam-commenting that threw me off the network for the last couple of days. Not your comments but those of advertisers who want to apprise me of new ways to gamble on-line or who are offering various remedies for humanities ills. I apologize for the inconvenience.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 5, 2005 9:39 AM.

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