For Kingdom’s Sake: Understanding Celibacy through Christ’s Teachings

J.P. Nunez
From the Mar/Apr 2011 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

A friend recounted to me the story of a religious sister who rode in a taxi with a Protestant driver. The driver, intrigued by her habit and her obvious connection to the Catholic Church, decided to ask her about celibacy. He said he believed that the command in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply” meant that God wanted everyone to marry, so why do some Catholics choose to forgo marriage and instead remain celibate their whole lives?

Everyone who has or is considering a vocation to the religious life or the priesthood must deal with this question at some point. If marriage was God’s original intention in creating humanity as man and woman, why would I want to give it up? Am I somehow “unnatural” if I choose celibacy? Those of us who do not choose a life of celibacy have to deal with this as well. The Church teaches that celibacy is a legitimate vocation and that it is superior to
marriage, so how can we affirm this teaching while still affirming that God wants us to “be fruitful and multiply”?

To answer these questions, we have to look to the words of Christ—to His most explicit affirmation of the goodness of marriage.

Summoned for Self-Gift

In Matthew 19, some Pharisees ask Jesus if He condones divorce and remarriage. In response, He points them to the book of Genesis, to God’s original plan for marriage, which did not allow for divorce. At the time, this was a radical point of view because the Law of Moses allowed for divorce, and the Apostles tell Jesus that if He is right, it is better not to marry at all.

In reply, Jesus gives a teaching that remains just as radical today as it was 2,000 years ago:

Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it (Mt. 19:11-12).

In these two verses, Jesus lays the foundation for all of the Catholic Church’s teachings about celibacy.

First, Jesus teaches that celibacy is superior to marriage. Remember, He said this in response to the Apostles’ remark that it is better not to marry, and He did not correct them. Instead, He gives an explanation of how celibacy is superior.

Secondly, He explains that it must be freely chosen “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” By differentiating between those who are eunuchs against their will and those who choose to be so (i.e., celibates), Jesus is teaching us that the special vocation of celibacy is different from simply being unmarried. A person who cannot marry or who just never finds a suitable spouse is not living the vocation of celibacy. To truly live this vocation, one has to freely choose to forgo marriage. Celibates must make a conscious decision to live this way even though they could otherwise marry or eventually find a suitable spouse.

Jesus also teaches us that celibacy must be chosen for a reason. It has to be a sacrifice made “for the kingdom of heaven.” But what does this mean? How can someone be celibate for the kingdom of heaven? This means it has to be chosen as an aid to better serve God. Celibacy must be chosen specifically for the purpose of growing in holiness, not for trivial or non-spiritual reasons (such as fear of commitment or responsibility).

These two aspects of Jesus’ teaching about celibacy allow us to gain an important insight into the nature of its superiority over marriage. Jesus is not saying that simply being unmarried is better; rather, He is saying that the free choice to forgo marriage for the sake of serving God and growing in holiness is better. Thus, someone who cannot marry or who is afraid of the commitment is not living a superior lifestyle. It is only superior if it is
freely chosen for the purpose of growing closer to God.

In marriage, a man and a woman give of themselves in a unique way that demands complete exclusivity. They come to know each other more deeply and completely than anyone else can, and in doing so they reach a deep part of each other’s being that is reserved for them alone. When a person chooses celibacy, they give this up, instead reserving this deep part of their being for God alone.

A third important aspect of Jesus’ teaching on celibacy is that it is not for everyone. He says that only some are called to live this way, implying that those who are not called to this life should not try to live it. This also has important implications for our understanding of the superiority of celibacy. Even though it is superior in itself, it is not better for people who are called to marriage. In other words, for those who are called to marriage,
marriage is the path best suited for their own personal growth in holiness, so celibacy would in fact not be the better option for them.

A Foretaste of Eternity

This also resonates with another teaching of Scripture. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us that in the resurrection of the body, we will no longer marry or be married (Lk. 20:34-35). The reason for this is that in the resurrected state, we will be perfectly united to God in both body and soul, and through God we will also be perfectly united to each other as well. Because of this, we will not need to marry. On earth, we must marry someone in order to experience full union with them (and we can only do this with one other person); but in the resurrection we will transcend this limitation. We will already be perfectly united to God and to all our fellow saints, so we will not need to marry.

When people choose celibacy, their unique self-gift to God is a foretaste of the union we will have with Him in the resurrection. By giving themselves to Him in a unique way, people who choose celibacy can begin to live on earth the life we will all live in the resurrection, which is the ultimate goal of our existence. In other words, people who choose celibacy are already living the life we were ultimately made for.

But the story does not end there. Remember, in the resurrection we will not only have complete union with God, we will also have complete union with all the other saints, and this aspect of the resurrection of the body is also experienced by people who live celibately. In addition to being free to give themselves more completely to God, they are free to give themselves more completely to others as well. Since they do not have families to provide and care for, celibates are free to engage in acts of service and other activities for the good of others. Thus, choosing to forgo marriage and to be celibate allows people to experience a foretaste of both aspects of the resurrection, complete union with God and complete union with all the other saints as well.

Giving Marriage a Bad Rap?

From all this, it may seem like the Catholic Church exalts celibacy at the expense of marriage, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Church’s high view of celibacy actually goes hand-in-hand with a high view of marriage, and the two vocations complement and shed light on each other. We cannot understand the true purpose of marriage without celibacy, and we cannot understand the true meaning of celibacy without marriage.

On the simplest level, celibacy exalts marriage by sacrificing it. When we sacrifice something, we do not do it because the thing is bad. No, we sacrifice things because they are good, but God is better. For example, when we fast, we sacrifice foods we enjoy in order to grow closer to God, but we do not fast from foods we do not like. If we did, it would not be much of a sacrifice. Similarly, when people choose to live celibately, they recognize that marriage is good, but God is better. They choose to forgo the good of marriage for the sake of the greater good of growing closer to God.

In what was hopefully one of the most instructive conversations of his life, that Protestant taxi driver heard a biblical defense of celibacy from the sister who was able to draw from Jesus’ own teaching in support of this vocation. She explained that the celibacy endorsed by Christ allows people to give themselves to God on a deeper level. She showed him how celibacy and marriage complement each other, and that both vocations are necessary for the life of the Church. And although she conversed with the taxi driver on his terms—sola scriptura—undoubtedly her living example of celibacy was powerful proof for this aspect of the Gospel.

J.P. Nunez is a graduate student in theology and philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he also received his bachelor’s degree in both fields. He currently works at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.

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