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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 I. Celibacy/Chapter 1

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

IT is quite true, says Suarez, that, without a gift from God, that is, without the help of his grace, we cannot fully observe perpetual chastity, nor even temporary chastity, for a long time. But it is also equally true that, with the assistance of divine grace, which never fails him, a man has it in his power to obtain this gift from God by prayer and other good works. This assistance is clearly promised in Scripture ; besides, it is evident from experience that many souls receive this favor through the means which we have pointed out, and keep spotless the chastity which they have vowed. This shows that the impossibility asserted by heretics means nothing more than their own evil inclinations and perversity of will. "You cannot," says Tertullian, "because you will not."[1]

From the words of our Lord, " He that can take, let him take " (Matt, xix, 12) the counsel of celibacy, Calvin, one of the chiefs of Protestantism, inferred that men are dissuaded from, rather than invited to, the practice of celibacy.[2] But, as St. Thomas and St. Jerome remark, " these words are the voice of Jesus Christ exhorting his soldiers, and rousing them to merit the rewards of chastity. It is as though he were to say: Let him who can combat, enter the arena ; let him bear off the victory and triumph."[3] "Now," concludes Suarez, " Christ would not incite men to what is impossible."[4] Cornelius a Lapide is still more explicit. " The faithful," he says, "can, by the grace of Christ, practise virginity, or celibacy, an effort that is beyond the power of unbelievers." All do not take this word, namely, the counsel of chastity ; all do not accept or embrace it : they alone do it on whom God has bestowed the great gift of continence. Here we must keep in mind that, though all the faithful have not the gift of continence, so as to actually practise chastity ; as all the just have not the gift of perseverance, so as to actually persevere in justice, however, since all the just have the gift of perseverance so as to be able to continue in justice if they wish it, in like manner, all the faithful possess the gift of continence to the extent of being able to observe chastity in case they wish ; that is to say, if they frequently beg of God strength and grace to practise that virtue, and if they cooperate with God s grace, by watching over their senses, shunning idleness, having recourse to bodily mortification, and the other means of preserving chastity. This is the teaching of St. Chrysostom, Origen, Theophylact, Euthymius, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose and others. It follows, besides, from the very words of the Gospel. Christ therein advises every Christian to keep chastity. But that alone can be counselled which is under the control of free-will, and within the power of man, aided by grace, a grace which God always holds in readiness, and offers to every one that asks him for it. It is not so with the gift of prophecy or miracles. God does not prepare these for, nor offer them to, all. They are for a chosen few only, whom he destines for the general good of the Church.[5]

The learned commentator, in another place, declares it to be the common opinion of the fathers of the Church that celibacy is in our power if we beg it of God, and if, with heroic courage, we endeavor to put it in practice. Every man can, if he wishes, live in that state, however inclined he may be to sin through nature or habit. St. Paul intimates the same plainly enough, when he exhorts all to virginity; and we know that nothing is counselled or ordained save what we can do by the grace of God.[6] This doctrine should console weak and tempted souls. St. Augustine writes in his Confessions : "These trifles of trifles, these vanities of vanities, pulled me by the garment of my flesh, and whispered to me: 'Do you send us away ? What! Shall we never more abide with you? And how now, shall this and that be no longer granted you and forever?' On the side to which I turned, and where I feared to pass, stood Continence, in chaste majesty, inviting me no longer with the smile of the courtesan, but with the purest caresses, to draw near her without fear; she stretched out her holy arms to receive and embrace me, and pointed with her hand to countless bright examples to children, tender maidens, young men above number, persons of every age, venerable widows and virgins with the snows of years on their brows. And the lovely form seemed to say to me with a sweet and cheering voice of irony : 'What ! You cannot do what these children and these weak women have achieved ? Is it, then, of themselves, and not in the Lord God, that such a life has been possible for them? O, cast yourself boldly on him, have no fear ; he will not withdraw, nor allow you to fall.'"[7] St. Augustine followed the advice of Chastity, and was victorious in this contest of the soul.

From what we have just said, it is manifest that, even in the midst of the world, celibacy is not impossible; and, although religious houses offer a secure shelter to chastity, it would be against the experience of all ages, since Christianity came into the world, to say that celibacy cannot be thought of save in a convent. It is well known that in Western Europe many Christian virgins lived in their families. Indeed, in every age and country, numerous virgins have shone out in the world in all the splendor of purity and self-immolation. Besides, the Church imposes celibacy on all her ministers, not excepting even those who live in the world.


  1. Suar., De voto cast., lib. 9, c. i, n. 24.
  2. Ibid., n. 21.
  3. S. Th., opusc. 18, c. viii.
  4. Suar., ibid., n. 25.
  5. Corn. & Lapide in Matt. 19.
  6. Comment, in cap. vii, I ad Cor., ver. 25.
  7. Conf., lib. 8, c. xi.