Sunday, May 23, 2010

Why is marriage good if celibacy is better?

NOTE: This is one in a series of posts from my moral theology assignments. They are intended to be brief responses. In many cases, the topics could be extensively explored, but that was not the intent of the assignment.

St. Paul recognizes the goodness of celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7:1–2, yet he notes that such restraint is not possible for some who may not be strong enough to resist temptation: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of temptation to immorality, each man should have his wife and each woman her own husband” and later in verse 9, “for it is better to marry than be aflame with passion.” At very least, then, we can acknowledge that Divine Revelation declares marriage to be good, at very least, for preventing immoral passions from being stirred. Celibacy is superior in that one renounces some temporal goods of this world, most namely marriage and the conjugal act, to focus one’s energy on the goods of the world to come. Marriage, though, is the very image of the Church and Christ’s love for us.

The Catechism states that “the entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church” (1617). Marriage itself is “an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church.” The natural good of marriage sustains the Church on earth and puts the sexual appetite at its service to increase the Church. While marriage makes use of this appetite for good ends, it also creates an environment where husbands and wives must learn and practice all of the theological and cardinal virtues (CCC 1638, 1641) in the most basic social setting—the family, often called the Ecclesia domestica or “domestic church” (Lumen Gentium 11, CCC 1656). Ashley notes, too, that part of the sacramental grace is the ability to acquire the virtue of chastity, to which married people are called in a unique way. While unmarried people are called to abstinence, the married couple must practice temperance in their use of the conjugal gift.[i]

Celibacy, however, is a complementary gift to the Church. While marriage allows all to see the temporal goods of the world and how these are experienced as a sacrament (a visible means of God’s efficacious grace instituted by Christ), celibacy shows us how discipline aids us in seeing the greater goods in the next life, and how one can set aside the cares of this world to focus on the glory of eternal, resurrected life in the next,[ii] as St. Paul notes, again, in 1 Corinthians 7:32–34: “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” These two ways of life are not opposed to each other but complementary, the good of one assisting and pointing to the good of the other. The value of celibacy is clearer because of its contrast to the goods in marriage.

i. Benedict Ashley, Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology, (Staten Island: St. Pauls, 1996), 245.
ii. Ibid., 433.
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