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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 2

< 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 lawful to keep perpetual virginity and continence. This assertion is of faith," says Suarez. "The reason of it is, that there is no precept binding all men, or every one of them, to spend even a part of their life in marriage."[1] Furthermore, we must remember, according to St. Thomas, that man possesses three sorts of goods, namely : goods external to himself, such as wealth, goods of the body, and goods of the soul. External, or goods opportune, are inferior to those of the body ; and the goods of the body themselves are beneath those of the soul. In the goods of the soul, those having reference to active life are of less importance than what appertains to contemplative life. It is, therefore, a dictate of right reason that we should use riches in so far as they subserve the body ; and the goods of the body, in so far as they are beneficial to the soul. If, then, we forego the possession of certain things that are lawful in themselves, with a view to preserve our health, or give ourselves up to the contemplation of truth, we incur no guilt, and only follow the teachings of reason. The same holds with respect to the pleasures of the body. It is reasonable to abstain from them for the purpose of devoting one's self to the study of truth. Now, this is just what virginity or celibacy does. Therefore, these two modes of living are innocent and praiseworthy.[2]

However, where a person has taken no vow, celibacy is not obligatory, as we proved when we showed that marriage is a holy and lawful state. St. Paul teaches this very plainly where he says (I Cor. vii, 25); "Now, concerning virgins, I have no commandment of the Lord ;" that is, no obligation for them to lead a life of celibacy. "The Lord, who is indulgent, and who knows that the spirit is quick and the flesh weak, did not wish to force virginity on us, but has left it," says St. Chrysostom, "to our own free choice. He passes no sentence of condemnation upon such as do not feel in themselves courage enough to embrace that state, and yet he has opened to others a noble and glorious career."[3] "Had the Lord made virginity imperative, he would have seemed to condemn marriage, and deprive men of the means to keep up their race. He would, likewise, have rendered virgins impossible : for, cut away the root, and where will you gather fruit ? Do not, therefore, be surprised that, in the midst of the revolts of the flesh and the fires of concupiscence, God has contented himself with teaching us, but has not forced on us the life of heavenly spirits."[4]

But does not celibacy fall within the counsels? Not only is it allowed, says Suarez, but it is better to keep virginity ; and for this reason it is counselled, though not commanded, in the Gospel law. This assertion is of faith, because it is expressly affirmed and proved by St. Paul when he says : " Concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give counsel" (I Cor. vii, 25) to live in virginity, as a Lapide explains it. This learned commentator remarks that the counsel is given to all--omnibus consuli.[5] The Apostle of the Gentiles had indeed previously said : " I would that all men were even as my self" (i Cor. vii, 7); that is, led a life of celibacy. We have already cited this passage from the catechism of the Council of Trent : "Virginity is sovereignly recommended in Scripture and counselled to every one, because it is more profitable, and fuller of holiness and perfection, than the marriage state."[6] Yet Suarez remarks that virginity would not be a counsel for one whom some very important public good, or a similar reason, would oblige to marry.[7] But this is an exceptional case. Here is the rule laid down by the Council of Trent : " If any saith that the marriage state is placed above the state of virginity or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity or in celibacy than to be united in matrimony, let him be anathema."[8] Such is the faith of the Church ; and it ought to be the rule of the thoughts, sentiments, and words of every Catholic. To assert that marriage is to be preferred before celibacy, that it is as good and as blessed as celibacy, would be to incur the Tridentine anathema. But we must throw more light on this truth, and speak briefly on the advantages and excellence of a life spent in the practice of perfect chastity.

  1. De voto cast., lib. 9, c. i, nn. 3, 4.
  2. St. Th., 2, 2, q. 152, a. 2.
  3. St. Chrysost., De virginitate, c. ii.
  4. St. Hieron. adv. Jovin., lib. I, 12.
  5. In I Cor. vii, 25.
  6. De matrim., n. 1.
  7. De statu perf., lib. I, c. vii, n. 7.
  8. Sess. 24, can. 10. (Waterworth s trans.)