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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Priestly Celibacy – Virginal Marriage?

The ritual used for the consecration of virgins praises marriage as a great natural blessing that points to the union of Christ with his bride, the Church. This acknowledgment in such a ceremony might seem strange but it illustrates the sensible attitude that celibacy is not a repudiation of the goodness of marriage. Marriage is a sacrament, a mystery foreshadowing and yet also participating in something unseen and greater than itself. By comparison, is it proper to treat consecrated virginity as something equivalent to a sacrament? Unlike marriage, celibacy is not ranked as a sacrament of the Church, at least not as something that hangs by itself. The woman virgin pledges herself to her groom, Christ. The priest signifies Christ bonded to his spouse, the Church. It is only when connected to holy orders or to consecrated religious life that virginity and/or celibacy seems to take to itself a quasi-sacramental quality. This is actually a core reason why some of us strenuously want to keep the association in priesthood as absolute as possible, with few exceptions.

Is a spiritual marriage in any way a real marriage? It should be noted, that while the formal consecration of virgins has been restored, the ritual was suppressed for some time. The ceremonial for a consecration of virginity resembles a wedding.  One of the difficulties with this institution of virgins (outside of a religious house) was accountability. How does the Church insure their past, present and future virginity.  These women live and work in the word. They take secular jobs and have to pay their own bills. There is no religious community to help sustain them. The Church worried that these women might have settled for virginity because of a lack of opportunity or because a tragedy left them as spinsters. Note that spiritual or moral virginity after violation would not satisfy the requirements for this consecration of virgins. If I recall correctly, the woman must be physically intact, never having had sexual intercourse. Given modern promiscuity, this consecration is very rare today, indeed.  This is where the similarity with priestly celibacy breaks down. Indeed, this material or physical virginity is not mandated for sisters and nuns, either; there is a history of widows entering religious life.  St. Mother Seton would be among these.  She was a wife and mother.  Many convents celebrate a ritual akin to a marital ceremony; the young woman approaches the altar in a bridal dress, makes her promises, is given the habit of the community and her hair is cut.  Some traditional communities will place the cut hair in a wooden box.  I knew parents who cherished one of these cases as a remembrance of their daughter pledging herself to Christ.  Women religious, as I said, need not be physical virgins, although many of them are, and they embrace a life of celibate love and obedience to their religious superior.  While we would hope that our candidates for the priesthood are virgins, such is not mandatory.  They might be widowers.  If they were “bad boys,” they might still be invited into the celibate priesthood, as long as they exhibit repentance and make recourse to the Sacrament of Penance.

I read one authority who suggested that marriage between a man and woman and the spiritual marriage of a consecrated virgin or a female religious or possibly a celibate priest or deacon were varying forms of the sacrament of marriage. I find this argument problematical. The sacrament of marriage overlaps or is transposed over the natural bond. A man and woman witness marriage with their vows and with their bodies. Just as we argue that only a man can marry a woman, rejecting same-sex unions, there is just no getting around the issue of physicality and complementarity. Marriages are consummated, not before a judge or before a priest and altar. They are consummated and made real or permanent in the marriage bed. The chief purpose of marriage has frequently been listed as propagation. This was not to malign the good of fidelity but there has always be a high level of awe connected to human participation in the act of creation. While there is an element of physicality in virginity or celibacy, it is only as negation or in the suppression of this faculty. Spiritual marriage, either to Christ or to the Church, may have all sorts of intangible benefits; but it remains a mystery analogous to matrimony, not materially equivalent. Further, while this analogy is often applied to nuns as brides of Christ and to priests wedded to the Church, the language becomes more strained for religious brothers outside the priesthood. It is true that if the priest is one with the groom Christ, then the congregation (men and women) collectively play the role of bride. This is tolerated of the Church but not of the minister. As a matter of fact, it plays into the argument against women priests or priestesses. As a female she cannot signify Christ the groom, and thus the realization of priestesses would usher forth a kind of sacramental lesbianism.

2 Responses

  1. Father, “Priestly Celibacy – Celibacy in the Holy Family” – was sent to your subscribers on 8/16, but not posted here?

    FATHER JOE: Hum, that is a quirk of the revised blog that I did not foresee. Some of the posts are scheduled for the blog later. That way I do not have to rush to write them. Note that I often revise posts, making corrections that might be otherwise missed. Thanks for the information.

  2. I should qualify that Christian celibacy does function as a sacramental, but not as a sacrament. The difference being, of course, that a sacrament is directly instituted by Christ to give grace. Celibacy is a discipline with doctrinal implications. Almost anything can be made into a sacramental— from making the sign of the cross to holy water. I can well understand why some authorities would emphasize virginity or celibacy as a variant expression of the sacrament of marriage; but it can only offer spiritual life-giving and fidelity— a life lived out in service with its accompanying fruits and fidelity to Christ. Analogies assist understanding but can become erroneous is overly concretized. There is no intimate bonding of bodies and no babies. Indeed, it has been brought to my attention that too great an emphasis upon this maligns the married priests who serve in the Church. It would cast them in the role of bigamists or spiritual adulterers. We hear hints of this when it is argued “absolutely” that a priest cannot be married simultaneously to the Church and to a woman. That conclusion would be very wrong. My argument is simply that it is preferred that a priest remain celibate and unmarried. At present, that is the position of the Holy See and the Roman Catholic Church. One of the reasons why my reflection upon priestly celibacy has been so extended is because of the needed qualifications. Questions and concerns are raised by each insight or opinion. I am hoping to render tightening circles around the topic so as to properly explore its core meaning. This is essentially a personal exercise, which I am sharing with others.

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