Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Some last remarks on marriage and celibacy for the Kingdom

I created a bit of a firestorm over the weekend (13 comments!) when I pointed out the age-old tradition of the Church that although marriage is a very great good, celibacy for God is better, which is also found in the new Catechism. Much has been hashed out in the comments. But I want to address a few misconceptions:

To say that celibacy is better is not to say that marriage is not good. Indeed there were other sects who valued virginity, but for all the wrong reasons. The Manichaeans valued virginity because it was sterile, and they thought bodily life was evil. Moderns value sterility without virginity, but also the single life rather than married, for much the same reason. Christians value virginity not because it is sterile, but because it is fruitful--it allows one to cling ever more closely to the source of life, Christ.

Here's what the commenter Flambeaux wrote: This strikes me as a logical fallacy. If their is an objectively superior good, then we must pursue it. Those who fail to pursue it are worse off for not possessing that good, and it is a sign of spiritual defect to not pursue it. I seem to recall, not by way of accusation, that several heresies found their genesis in the apparent rejection of marriage evident in Scripture.

This presumes that all are capable of reaching it. Jesus makes clear that such a gift must be given by God. You can't rightly complain that you haven't received a gift, since that makes it not a gift, but a right. The celibate life for the kingdom is a gift. It is an objectively superior good that not all can pursue, much like slam-dunking is an objectively superior basketball shot that not all can pursue. Yet by the very fact that it is good, I should see that it is a good thing, even if I can't have it. Cardinal George remarked once that one wants seminarians and priests who would like to be fathers; fatherhood is a Good Thing, and those clergy would have to be weird people not to desire fatherhood. I am arguing the reverse: Fathers ought to want to be monks, since the monastic life is a Good Thing (even, according to Christ, a Better Thing), even if they can't do it.

This is not envy, where you wish others not to have a good that you desire, but a joyful approval of the good that another enjoys. "Yes, that's a good thing. All other things being equal, I would like that good thing as well."

Flambeaux continues in another comment: If X is an objective good, and Y is an objective good, we have two objective goods.
If X is objectively superior to Y, then Y must be objectively inferior to X, though both are still goods.
X and Y are mutually exclusive choices.

If, knowing that X is superior to Y, one chooses Y, rather than X, then one has actively chosen a lesser good at the expense of a superior good.

Is that not the definition of venial sin? Nowhere in the Tradition is marriage equated to venial sin, in so far as I am aware.

How do we measure the goodness of X and Y? We measure by how close they are to the ultimate end of human action. That end or goal is union with God. The celibate contemplative life is objectively closer to that life because it is more like heaven. After all, marriage passes away, as Jesus says to the Sadducees, but the love of God (and neighbor in God) is eternal. Monks get a head-start. They're given a head-start as a witness to us not to get too attached to the temporal goods of this world, which are, after all, temporary.

Also, you are leaving out of your equation the fact that to do X, one must be called to it. There is no sin in not doing what one can't do, or as philosophers put it: "Ought implies can." If you aren't given the grace of celibacy, you can't do it. Therefore you shouldn't.

Of course, if one is given such grace to choose the higher life, and declines, that could in fact be a sin.

One more bit of commentary: Further, this position seems to, unintentionally, cast aspersions on the married clergy of both the Eastern and Western Churches. I'm puzzled by this comment. It is the continual practice in both East and West to choose bishops from the unmarried clergy. In the East, bishops are preferentially chosen from the monks.

I still notice that not one of the people who disagrees with me has attempted to engage the scripture on this. The silence is significant--surely if I am wrong there is a way to read Matthew 19 and the Pauline statements in a way that makes clear that I am wrong?

Finally, look at it practically. If marriage and the celibate contemplative life are Just As Good As Each Other, why should anyone choose the latter, since it is much harder? If being in the Air Force is just as good as being a Marine, why would anyone choose the Marines?

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