This is the tenth of a series of blog posts outlining St. John Paul’s thought on embodiment and sexuality. For the previous post in this series, go here.
In a foundational way, the theology of the body is ordered towards properly understanding the vocation of marriage and the family. In exploring the meaning of the human body and sexuality from a theological perspective, we are given the best vantage point from which to appreciate the truth and goodness of marriage and family. Yet, the theology of the body is also about the vocation of celibacy. In a similarly foundational way, the theology of the body aids us in understanding the voluntary acceptance of continence, precisely since taking a theological perspective upon the body and sexuality also has profound significance for appreciating the choice of celibacy. This further meaningfulness of the body, St. John Paul explores in the second part of the third chapter of the theology of the body, where the words of Christ in Matthew nineteen again form the point of departure. In response to the disciples questioning about the utility of marriage given its indissoluble character, Jesus responds,
‘there are eunuchs who were born this way from their mother’s womb; there are some who were made eunuchs by men, and there are others who made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone understand this who can’ (Mt. 19:12).
From these words of Christ, taken in conjunction with the example of His own life and that of His mother, the Christian tradition has discerned a vocational state beyond that of marriage and family. This state of life involves the voluntary renunciation of the good of marriage (and so, ‘celibacy,’ meaning ‘unmarried’) so as to live a life entirely devoted to Christ for the sake of the realisation of His kingdom. Though the married state is an authentic good instituted by God from ‘the beginning,’ and is itself something sacred and religious, the individual who responds to the call of celibacy forgoes the great good of married love and natural parenthood to realise a greater good, that of living in a singular way for Christ and His kingdom. In comparison to the married state, an eminently natural vocation from the beginning, the vocational state of celibacy has ‘a single supernatural finality,’ ‘the kingdom of heaven,’ a supernatural finality that is of decisive significance for the rectitude of the voluntary acceptance of celibacy.1
What is this kingdom? The kingdom is the community of the sons and daughters of God the Father, a kingdom instituted by Jesus Christ through the Mystery of His Incarnation and Redemption. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is the Church, the faithful people of God whom Christ as drawn to Himself through His self-gift upon the cross. The kingdom is realised here and now and yet awaits its perfect fulfilment in the fullness of time in ‘the new heaven and new earth’ (Rev. 21:1). The kingdom is what we are part of as Christian, and what we work towards as Christian—the kingdom is what we pray for in the Lord’s prayer when we daily repeat, ‘Thy Kingdom come.’ Christ Himself lived His earthly life entirely for the sake of this kingdom. The celibate chooses to closely follow the lead of Christ and live entirely for this same kingdom—and so, to participate uniquely in the redemption accomplished by Christ. And though all the baptised are called to participate in the coming of this kingdom, the celibate chooses to participate directly and immediately in the realisation of this kingdom by mirroring the same choice of Christ. In this way, the celibate identifies himself with the Person of Jesus Christ and His chosen state of life.
Given the renunciation of marriage involved in choosing a life of celibacy, does this mean that the celibate state abstracts from the spousal meaning of the body?
No, the Holy Father explains, ‘The nature of the one as well as the other love is “spousal,” that is, expressed through the complete gift of self. The one as well as the other love tends to express that spousal meaning of the body, which has been inscribed “from the beginning” in the personal structure of man and woman.’2 Spousal self-giving, as the name implies, is obviously the basis of the vocation of marriage. Yet, such spousal giving is not restricted to marriage, but likewise explains the vocation of continence for the kingdom. Whereas those who choose marriage choose to live their bodily existence ‘for’ their spouse and children, those who choose celibacy choose to live their bodily existence ‘for’ the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Both vocational states are about living ‘for’ others in a fundamental and decisive way, even while both vocational states realize this being ‘for’ others in manifestly different ways. Therefore, those who chose continence for the sake of the kingdom do not actualize their gift of self abstracted from their body and sexuality, but rather, their choice of celibacy is foundationally conditioned by the body and sexuality according to its spousal meaning. And, indeed, St. John Paul clarifies that the call to continence is ‘formed on the basis of the consciousness of the spousal meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity, and further, as a fruit of such consciousness.’3
This latter point is of particular importance given the emphasis St. John Paul places on consciousness of the spousal meaning of the body. When we consider the ‘meaning’ of anything, we have in mind not only the reality itself, but also our consciousness of that reality. Therefore, it is not only of significance that the body objectively has a spousal meaning, but it is of decisive significance that the human subject becomes ever more conscious of that meaning. Such a consciousness grounds and motivates the choice of a vocational state and is critical for living the freely chosen vocational state, precisely because the chosen vocational state involves self-giving in and through the body according to its spousal meaning. This is true for both marriage and celibacy. Yet, such consciousness has further significance for the call to celibacy since it furnishes the choice of this challenging vocation with a healthy realism. Given that celibacy poses a significant challenge to man’s natural strivings, it is important that the one who chooses celibacy takes seriously these natural strivings and begins to experience something of their sublimation in and through the supernatural orientation of celibacy. All this means that the state of celibacy doesn’t abstract from the spousal meaning of the body, but rather, that a mature awareness of the spousal meaning the body creates the only adequate foundation upon which the natural and earthly living ‘for’ others can be transformed into a supernatural and heavenly living ‘for’ others.
Christ says, ‘Not all can understand it [the call of celibacy], but only those to whom it has been granted… Let anyone understand this who can’ (Mt 19:11). Two features of this statement of Christ are here of importance towards fully appreciating the voluntary choice of the vocation of celibacy: First, the choice of celibacy involves a specific divine gift that is given by God to the individual so as to empower that particular individual to choose this supernatural state of life. The celibate renounces the genuine good of marriage to consecrate himself entirely to God so as to realise the great good of the extension of the kingdom of God. Second, the vocation of celibacy is a gift received by understanding. The choice of celibacy is not determined by necessity, but is a grace given to the rational freedom of the individual, something that requires a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, and a willing acceptance of Christ’s call to this exceptional state of life. It is, therefore, a choice to freely give of oneself in response to Christ’s free gift of Himself. Thus, we can clearly see that the vocation of celibacy is something truly good—a good gift of a specific divine grace—and, indeed, a greater good than the good of marriage. Though ‘marriage possesses its full fittingness and value for the kingdom of heaven, a fundamental, universal, and ordinary value… continence on its part possesses a particular and “exceptional” value for this kingdom.’4 Consequently, the Church has always understood the choice of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom as an objectively superior vocational state.5
Here again we see even more clearly that celibacy is not a mere renunciation, a simple being unmarried, but is a choice fundamentally motivated by love, a love that is particularly sensitive to the spousal gift of Christ for His Bride the Church. In consequence of the great love of Christ, the celibate responds with his own gift of self by choosing to live entirely for the kingdom inaugurated by Christ. In this way, the celibate responds to the personal loving gift of Christ with his own personal gift of self. The celibate then comes to participate in a special way in that same radical love by which Christ loves the Church, and gives himself over to the Bride of Christ to live for the sake of its children, helping each child of God to grow to full human and spiritual maturity. The natural sacrifice of celibacy is then seen in its proper light only when it is understood as a state of life motivated by love, a love that mirrors Christ’s own sacrificial love. St. John Paul II captures this dual aspect of celibacy—its painful renunciation and loving motivation—in the following way, ‘It is a characteristic feature of the human heart to accept even difficult demands in the name of love, for an ideal, and above all in the name of love for a person… love for Christ Himself as the Bridegroom of the Church, Bridegroom of souls.’6 As such, the celibate, already here and now, begins to live the virginal meaning of the body in a seminal fashion, precisely through being devoted to God and the things of God in a singularly complete manner—and in this way, beckons the kingdom of heaven.
Robert McNamara is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, on their European study abroad campus in Gaming, Austria. He was educated at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) and Maynooth (NUIM), where he studied physics and applied science, and philosophy and theological studies, respectively, and at the International Theological Institute, Austria, where he completed a master’s degree in the theology of marriage and family. He is currently engaged in research studies at Liverpool Hope University towards a doctorate in philosophy, and is writing his thesis on the human person as understood by St. Edith Stein in her reading of St. Thomas Aquinas. Robert is an associate member of faculty at Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, U.K., and a founding member of the Aquinas Institute of Ireland, for which he currently holds the position of secretary, and at whose summer and winter schools he tutors. Robert is originally from Galway, Ireland.
1 ToB, 74: 5-6.
2 ToB, 78:4.
3 ToB, 81:5.
4 ToB, 76:2.
5 This is captured most forcefully in the writings of St. Paul when he says, ‘he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do better’ (1 Cor. 7:38). See also, ToB, 77:5-6; 78:2; 101:2; Vita consecrata, 32; Council of Trent, Session 24, Canon X. However, lest we misunderstand what this means, we must remember that ‘the perfection of Christian life is measured by the measure of love’ (ToB, 78:3), such that one can be in the state of perfection (i.e. living the evangelical counsels) and not be perfect and, conversely, be outside the state of perfection and yet be perfect. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IIa IIae, q. 184, a. 4.
6 ToB, 79:9.