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States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church/Part 1/Section 1/Article 2/Paragraph 1. Celibacy/Chapter 7

< States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church‎ | Part 1/Section 1


IF, in order to dissuade a person from celibacy, we were to say that marriage is something better than, or merely that it is as perfect as, celibacy, we would sin against faith. For, not only are we forbidden to give utterance to such statements, but we are, besides, not allowed to approve them, or give internal assent to them, short of a grievous sin and ceasing to belong to the Church. "Were it true that virginity or celibacy lies open to some reproaches, we ought, out of respect, abstain," says St. Chrysostom, " from making them known. He who vents contempt and outrage on the heroism that he cannot rival, justly incurs universal hatred, and passes in the eyes of the world for a senseless being and an enemy to virtue." " Woe to you," says the same doctor, in the words of Isaias, " woe to you who call evil good, and good evil; who change darkness into light, and light into darkness, bitterness into sweetness, and sweetness into bitterness. Now, what is there more lovely than virginity ? What is better or more charming ? " [1]

Afterward St. Chrysostom shows the sad consequences that may result from thoughtless and unscrupulous mockery of virginity or celibacy. Let us suppose, says he, that a man who has taken upon himself the severe sacrifices of virginity, should become with impunity the jest of great and small : whose courage, I ask, will not recoil from the prospect of taunts and ridicule ? It is only a soul, superhumanly generous and noble, that could embrace a virtue so loaded with contempt. But allow others, less hardy and less skilled, to receive some mutual assistance from our encouragements.[2] Still, as we have already noticed, while quoting a theologian whose authority is alleged by St. Liguori, parents may, for a good reason, such as the preservation of a family, invite their children to marry.[3] But if such action is permitted them for a serious reason, it would be sinful in these parents to have recourse to force, particularly when the children desire to follow a better career. Let us listen, in this matter, to the weighty authority of St. Thomas: "When a young man wishes to keep continence, his parents must not hinder him. It is written : Do not withhold him from doing good, who is able: if thou art able, do good thyself also. (Prov. iii, 27.) In cases of this nature we must fear to sadden or put out the Holy Ghost. It is a bad, not a good spirit, that guides him who resists the Holy Ghost. . . . When a soul, under the action of grace, has formed some salutary plan, it is a great cruelty to thwart its resolutions. It is malice like that of Herod, it is Babylonian barbarity, to slaughter newly-born infants ; but greater still is the wickedness of men who crush in souls, even before birth, the holy desires which they have formed. Men of this kind seem to me worse than the infernal dragon standing up before the woman about to bring forth, and ready to devour her offspring as soon as it should come into the world."[4] These words of St. Thomas ought to open the eyes of those who might be tempted to act inconsiderately, or through human respect, in the decisions they may be called on to give in reference to a state of life ; but it is proper to enforce this doctrine by a striking example : The youthful Demetrias was the daughter of the Consul Olibrius, surpassing in beauty, heiress to an immense fortune, and, as St. Jerome says, she occupied the first rank in the Roman world. The noblest alliances of the earth were open to her, but she would have no other spouse than the King of heaven. She ceased not to pray to God with many tears, begging of him so to dispose the hearts of her parents, that they would yield to her earnest desires. The time having come to disclose her magnanimous purpose, the young girl one day presented herself before Juliana, her mother, and her grandmother Proba ; and, falling on her knees, besought both of them not to oppose her determination to belong entirely to the Lord. The only wish of Proba and Juliana was to see their dear child irrevocably consecrated to Jesus Christ. Full of the true spirit of the Gospel, these admirable women hastened to raise the young girl from her knees, trembling, as she was, with fear of offending them. They took her affectionately into their arms, covered her with kisses, and bedewed her with their tears. " God bless you, child," said they: "you will raise your family to still higher nobility, by conferring on it the glory of virginity." And that day was, for the house of Olibrius, the most delightful and the most joyous of feasts.[5]

The foregoing remarks will grow clearer by what we shall say later, when we shall treat of the religious state. We must now remove some prejudices against virginity that may take rise in Christian minds. Men indeed change, but the Spirit of lies always spreads the same errors among them. The objections, therefore, against virginity, of a Helvidius, of a Jovinian, and of the Protestants, though a hundred times overthrown by the doctors of the Church, are still upon the lips of some worldlings of our own day. It is important, then, to bring their nothingness fully into light, so as to rescue the faithful from their dangerous influence.

Were all to observe celibacy or virginity, the human race would become extinct! This objection has been urged by the impious Rousseau. St. Jerome refuted it long ago in his controversy with Jovinian : "Have no fear: society will not disappear through excessive zeal for chastity. That virtue is rare, because it is arduous. Many are called to it, but only a few are chosen."[6] Alas ! the Church by the voice of her ministers incessantly preaches the observance of God's commandments : will she ever persuade the greater number of men not to transgress them? Now, if many neglect to practise what is essential for salvation, is there any motive to fear that all will take to observing what is only a counsel? The ruin of society will come from another quarter. It will come from the vice that depopulates families. Multiply virgins, and marriages will be chaste and fruitful. The example of virgins will be an exhortation to the married. Besides, celibacy exacts no dowry : parents will consequently be less in dread of a numerous offspring, when they have the hope that some of their children, by following a life of celibacy, will leave the paternal inheritance whole and entire to their brothers or sisters. In this we only express the thought of SS. Chrysostom and Ambrose. Who ever sought a wife and did not find her? said the latter to his slanderers. And we might add : If there are young women who have not found husbands, is the blame to be laid at the door of perfect chastity ? But rather let us listen to the illustrious prelate of Milan : " Where there is greatest zeal for virginity, there also is the greatest number of men. Every year more virgins are consecrated to God in Africa, and in the churches of the East and of Alexandria, than there are men born in Italy."[7]

A mother may say : I married, and my children must also marry. She is not wrong in speaking thus if her children, of their own free will, choose to embrace the marriage state ; but if they desire to follow a higher call, why should obstacles be thrown in their way? St. Chrysostom cannot understand how parents, who have experience of the coldness and hollowness of earthly pleasures, can still make efforts to thrust their children into them.[8] St. Jerome asks the mother who insists on making her daughter marry because she herself married, why she is so envious of that child. She has, says he, been nourished at your breast, and you grow angry because she refuses the common soldier in order to be the bride of the King himself? Her resolution is an immense glory for you ; through her you will be allied to Jesus Christ.[9]

But we wish to see our children's children! This is an objection which St. Chrysostom puts to himself, and here is his answer: "In the first place, it is not sure that marriage will result in children. Should it bestow any on you, so much the greater will be the annoyances of parents; for the joy which children bring cannot be compared with the anxiety and constant care which they require, and the fears which they excite."[10] When we give up the world, what gain is it that some one should bear our name alter us? said a philosophic pagan mentioned by St. Jerome. What comfort will it be for us in our old age to be obliged to support some one that perhaps will die before us, or will be the torment of our days by his bad conduct ; or, again, may, as he grows up, regret that our life does not come to an earlier end ? Our best and our safest heirs are the friends and parents that we can choose according to our pleasure, and not those we have to bear, and who may turn to every bad use what we acquired by much toil and hardship.[11]

Were any to say that celibacy is barren and without honor, we would reply that the most faithful life is one spent in devotedness and works of self-sacrifice. That was not a barren life which Epaminondas led, who observed celibacy in order to serve his country better, and assured those who advised him to marry, "I leave as heir to my name the victory of Leuctra." It were easy to show, to any one that is willing to open his eyes, celibacy, in the course of Christian ages, sending apostles into the Old and the New World, evangelizing the poor, teaching children, building hospitals, taking care of the sick, and, as a ministering angel in families, ever ready with consolation where there is a tear to be dried, or any holy work to be done. Ever since Christ and his blessed Mother gave it a consecration, celibacy has been a source of confusion to those alone for whom, as Bernard says, confusion is glory.[12] How many lives would have passed away in obscurity, had not celibacy flung its splendors around them ! How many humble maidens, who would have been only little known married women, became, through the self-sacrifice of celibacy, the love and admiration, not of one poor village or town, but of large cities and entire countries ! Look at Joan of Arc who saved France, and is now one of its highest glories !

When the illustrious Demetrias, of whom we have already had occasion to speak, consecrated herself to God, the farthest bounds of the East, says St. Jerome, were astir at this prodigy, and the cities bordering on the Mediterranean took part in this triumph of Christian glory. Was there a mother, O Juliana! who did not proclaim thee blest? Unbelievers look upon future goods as uncertain ; but in fixing thy hopes upon them, thou, O virgin ! hast received more than thou hast given away. As the wife of a man, thou wouldst have been known by one province ; but all the earth has resounded with the fame of the virgin of Christ.[13]

We are well aware that there may be men who are the disgrace of the celibacy which they profess ; but, were we to judge of a state of life by the conduct of those who dishonor it, what condition could we esteem, what state could we embrace? Besides, the shortcomings of those living in Christian celibacy might often pass for virtues, if placed alongside the sins of the worldling. Poor slaves of the world ! the Christian maiden whom you laugh at has no contempt for you ; she sacrifices herself, she weeps and prays earnestly for you. If, at any future day, the pure light of truth should break in upon you, it is to her that you will owe it.


  1. De virginitate, capp. xx, xxi.
  2. Ibid., c. xxii.
  3. St. Lig., Theol. Mor., lib. 6, n. 850.
  4. St. Th., opusc., De eruditions principum, lib. 5, c. xxx.
  5. Ventura, Femme Catholiqiic ; St. Jerome, Episl. ad Demetriad, de servanda virginitate.
  6. Hieron. adv. Jovinian., lib. I, c. i, n. 36.
  7. Chrysost., De virginitate, c. xviii; Amb., De virginitate, c. vii, n. 35.
  8. Adversus oppugnanles vitam monast., c. xv.
  9. Ad Eustoch. , c. xx.
  10. St. Chrysost., lib. 3, c. xvi.
  11. Adv Jovinian., lib. I, c. xlvii.
  12. S. Bern, ad Sophia m Virg., epist. 113.
  13. Hieron., Epist. ad Demetriad. de virginilate servanda, 6.