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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 3

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


To prefer virginity is not, as St. Jerome observes, a depreciation of marriage.[1] Silver does not cease to be silver, because gold is more precious. It is no injury to a tree to have its fruits preferred to its leaves or roots. As a tree bears fruit, so marriage bears celibacy;[2] and the higher our esteem for celibacy, the more should we make of marriage which gives birth to virgins.[3] We need not fear, then, to enumerate, with the holy fathers and doctors of the Church, the privileges and advantages of perfect chastity. Those that marry shall have tribulation of the flesh, says St. Paul. "But I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife ; and he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband." (i Cor. vii.) In commenting on these ends, the fathers and commentators speak, at great length, on the difficulties of married life. St. Jerome, writing to Eustochium, speaks to her of the sufferings of the wife, the annoying cries of children, and of widowhood that often soon follows upon marriage.[4]

SS. Basil and Chrysostom speak still more openly. The latter compares the two spouses to a pair of runaway slaves tightly bound by a single chain. They can take only a few steps, because the stirring of one hinders and inconveniences the other.[5] The practice of virtue in the married state is all the more troublesome, that the care of a wife and anxiety about children are a bar to the soul, and draw it back to the preoccupation of earth.[6] It is therefore true to say that, if man finds in woman some help for a weak and slender form of virtue, she becomes an obstacle for him as soon as he wishes to walk in the path of perfection.[7] When walking along a road that is narrow and hedged with thorns, we can shun the difficulties of the road only by exposing ourselves to be lacerated by the thorns ; so, in the married life, one inconvenience avoided exposes us to incur a still greater.[8]

St. Liguori, addressing virgins, says to them, with all the authority of his knowledge and experience : " Poor mothers of families meet with many bars to holiness ; and the more shining their rank in the world, the more numerous these obstacles become. . . . What leisure, what help, what recollection, can a married woman find to devote herself constantly to God?" . . . Where can she get much time for prayer, since often she has no time for the duties of her house hold ? Her husband wishes to be waited on, and he complains. Servants disturb the peace of the family by their talk and their quarrels. The children, if young, cry, scream, and are forever calling for something ; when they are grown up, they are an endless cause of anxiety and trouble, either on account of the bad company which they keep, or on account of the diseases to which they are so liable. How hard to pray or be recollected amid such turmoil and anguish !

"It is true that the married woman could merit a great deal from the privation of the happiness of prayer, were she patiently to bear with her thralldom. She could merit ; but in the midst of such noise, without prayer or sacraments, it is almost hopeless to expect such resignation. Would to heaven that married women were open to no other blame than that of being hindered in their desire for prayer ! They must look to their rank; they must pay their servants ; they must converse, at least during visits, with every class of persons ; and in their own houses they must receive the relatives, the connections, and the friends of their husbands. How many occasions are there not in all this for losing God ! Young girls do not know all the danger to which they expose themselves in marrying, but women already married have a full knowledge of them."[9] In quoting these words of the illustrious and holy bishop, we have somewhat toned them down, as any one can see for himself by reference to the work from which we have taken this passage.

It would be superfluous to go into greater lengths on this subject. Protestants themselves have acknowledged the superiority of celibacy, in that it frees men efficaciously from the trammels and annoyances of this life. Some of them went so far as to assert that it makes man fitter for the worship of God and the practice of religion.[10] Indeed, this point is clear from the authorities that we have adduced, as well as from experience. How many souls altogether devoted to God and good works before marriage, almost directly after it, not only gave up pious practices, but even the ordinary duties of a Christian life ! Family cares made them lose sight of the claims of their eternal interests. In other cases, piety and devotedness to noble works seek refuge in those hearts which perfect chastity throws open to them.

Were any one to object that the hindrances to virtue of married persons render their state more meritorious than celibacy, we would say no, borrowing the thought of St. Chrysostom ; for they raised up these barriers for themselves, while it was in their power to avoid them. With the same father, we would ask what merit there can be in freely embracing a state in which salvation is more difficult, when something far better could be done. Merit and virtue, asserts the Angelical, consist far more in the good which is their object, than in the difficulties which they present.[11] Hence, then, what is most difficult is not therefore the most meritorious. That which presents more difficulties must also be accompanied by greater good, in order to be of higher merit.[12]


  1. Epist. 22 ad Eustoch., 19. Ed. Migne.
  2. Contra Jovin., lib. I, I.
  3. Ad Eustoch. 20. Ed. Migne., epist. 19.
  4. Epist 22, ad Eustoch.
  5. St. Hieron. ad Eustoch., epist. 22, n. 15.
  6. St. Chrysost., De virginitate, c. xli.
  7. Ibid. c. xiiv.
  8. Ibid., c. xlvi, 52.
  9. St. Lig., "The Religious Sanctified." (First chapter.)
  10. Corn. a Lapide in I Cor. vii, 34.
  11. De virginitate, n. 45.
  12. 2, 2, q. 27, a. 8, ad. 3.