6.3.4 “Two specific ways” of living the human vocation to love
Back to 6.3.3
(ii) Marriage and family as natural; celibacy as eschatological
The second point on which I hope some comments can enable fuller understanding of the reading from FC on the last screen is to do with the relationship between two kinds of community, namely family on one hand and monastic community on the other, and thereby between marriage and singleness.
Do you have experience of any community whose members are living the ‘religious life’, as monks or ‘brothers’, or nuns or ‘sisters’? In what ways are such communities similar to and different from ordinary family life?
It is striking that, at the start of that reading, Pope John Paul reaffirms in plain terms traditional Christian teaching about the “two specific ways of realizing the vocation of the human person… to love”. These are, as he puts it, “marriage and virginity or celibacy”. (It would help slightly if the English translation included a comma after the word marriage. Without one it can seem at first glance as though the alternatives are ‘marriage and virginity’ and ‘celibacy’. Poor punctuation – yet another reason for people to think the Church is just against sex!)
Let us examine what he means by that statement. The word ‘celibacy’ doesn’t mean abstinence from sex. So someone isn’t celibate simply because they don’t have sex for a while. Rather, celibacy refers to a state of life in which someone has freely made a commitment to be single and not to have sex, usually for the long term. Celibacy is something one commits to. This is reflected in the fact that, in the community of the Church, one main context in which people are celibate is the ‘religious life’ to which monks and nuns have made a free commitment.
To understand these “two specific ways of realizing the vocation of the human person… to love”, we need to appreciate two contrasting, big-picture perspectives on human life which Christian faith gives.
The first of these we have become familiar with through study of this unit so far. This is the perspective of the way God has created things to be for human wellbeing in this life, the perspective of natural law. As you know, Catholic teaching sees marriage and family life in this perspective – family is the ‘first natural society’, as the reading in 6.3.1 put it. Again the Catechism makes this especially clear:
“The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws…” The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator. Marriage is not a purely human institution… (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1603, quoting Gaudium et Spes, #48)
The second perspective, which contrasts with this, is ‘eschatological’. This word comes from the Greek eschaton, meaning ‘the last thing’. We see life in an eschatological perspective when we look at things now in light of how Christian faith affirms they will be in the end, when the reign of God of which Jesus spoke (recall Unit 1) will come in its fullness.
Many of the biblical images in which the vision of the final reign of God is portrayed are of a wonderful common good, indeed a great shared celebration. To speak of the reign or kingdom of God itself conveys this. There are also the images of the marriage feast of Christ and the Church (Rev. 19:7-9), and the ‘Holy City, the new Jerusalem’ that comes down out of heaven (Rev. 21:2).
What these put across is the promise that what we shall experience in common in the end will far surpass what we can know in the world as it is now. The vision of the final reign of God speaks of shared blessings that are incomprehensibly better than even the greatest goods we enjoy in this life. Yet, at the same time, Christian teaching continues to insist that the earthly goods which God has given in creation really are great goods that we are to enjoy to the full.
Against this background, the strange phenomena of the monastic tradition and of a range of kinds of ‘religious’ life, in which men and women have committed themselves to celibacy and to sacrificing other worldly goods, makes some sense. While there are different forms of monastic and ‘religious’ life, the basic idea is that the life in common of those who have taken vows represents in the world now a foretaste of the reign or kingdom of God that is promised for eternity. What Pope John Paul says in FC #16 reflects this.
In… celibacy, the human being is awaiting… the eschatological marriage of Christ with the Church, giving himself or herself completely to the Church in the hope that Christ may give Himself to the Church in the full truth of eternal life. The celibate person thus anticipates in his or her flesh the new world of the future resurrection… [C]elibacy, by liberating the human heart in a unique way, “so as to make it burn with greater love for God and all humanity”, bears witness that the Kingdom of God and His justice is that pearl of great price which is preferred to every other value no matter how great. (FC, #16; the internal quotation is from Second Vatican Council, Perfectae Caritatis, #12)
We can sum up the contrast. Catholic teaching understands marriage and family in the perspective of how God has created things to be. It understands celibacy and ‘religious’ community in the perspective of the promise of transcendent blessing, of the “eschatological marriage of Christ and the Church”.
Of course, just as real marriages and families fall short of the natural law ideal, so monastic and other ‘religious’ communities fall short of the eschatological ideal. In fact they are bound to fail to get anywhere near this – they will always fall much shorter than marriages can of the marital ideal. How could they not, when the ideal is the final perfection of human relationships in communion with God? Yet this does not nullify the claim that they can represent to us a common good that does transcend the ordinary goods of this life and does begin to make real that eschatological communion in a way that natural goods cannot.
For a powerful portrayal of this, try to see a French film about a community of monks in Algeria that was released in 2010, called (in its English title), Of Gods and Men. Surprisingly for a film which portrays Christianity in a very direct and unapologetic way, it generally received excellent reviews.
But what I’ve said so far goes only some way towards explaining what John Paul says about the “two ways” of life. What he says about “virginity or celibacy” goes further than the contrast I have drawn between family life and ‘religious’ community.1. Traditionally, Catholic teaching and practice has tended to assume that everyone would either marry or enter the celibate life (as a priest or a member of a religious order). However, a major phenomenon of the past few decades, especially in Western societies, presents a major challenge to that traditional assumption. This is the rapid rise in the numbers of single people, especially those who have not married but who have no sense of vocation to a celibate life. There is also of course the large rise in the number of civilly divorced people. (Cf. 6.1.3, especially tables 1, 2, 5 and 6.)
The Church’s teaching is, as FC makes plain, that those who haven’t married should not be in a full sexual relationship, until they marry if they do – which is why Pope John Paul’s refers to virginity. As he puts it across in this document, the Church’s teaching about celibacy in monastic life applies de facto to other single people, even though they are not expected to make a commitment to celibacy and might be very clear about not wanting to be single. He says that the promise of the Kingdom of God, “the pearl of great price”, gives the reason for why single people in general can, by commitment to virginity outside marriage, witness to that promise, just as celibate people can. Implicitly acknowledging that this presents a very great challenge to people, although not addressing it more than in passing, he says:
These reflections on virginity or celibacy can enlighten and help those who, for reasons independent of their own will, have been unable to marry and have then accepted their situation in a spirit of service. (#16)
Arguably it is major gap in current Catholic teaching about personal relationships that it seems not to have much that is really constructive to say to adult people who are neither married nor called to celibate life. A proportion of these people are gay, although it certainly can be both straight and gay people who find the issue I’m drawing attention to an acute one.
Nevertheless, reflection on the long tradition of ‘religious’ life, with its richness and diversity, could no doubt generate plenty of imaginative and constructive possibilities for forms of community in which single people could live together. Some of these could bring families and single people together, while others could involve single men and women only. Some might model monastic practice more closely. Such kinds of community are called ‘intentional’, because they have certain shared practices, as a matter of deliberate intention, that make them different from a few people happening to live in the same place. Like the monastic tradition, a wide range of forms of ‘intentional community’ could make a significant contribution to enabling people to live life to the full. Moreover they could manifest, in cultures dominated by individualism, something of the promised common good of the great ‘marriage feast’.2
I hope that what I’ve said on this screen helps to explain what FC says about the “two specific ways of realizing the vocation of the human person… to love”.
End of 6.3.4
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In a couple of the quotations earlier on this screen, I left out the word ‘virginity’ – for the simple reason that the difference between the natural law perspective and the eschatological perspective is easier to understand by focusing on the contrast of family with ‘religious’ community. ↩
The understanding I’ve outlined of the background in Christian theology to the Church’s teaching about contrasting ways of living the vocation to love, namely the perspectives given by the doctrine of creation and by eschatology, can cast some light on how same-sex relationships might be seen. It seems likely that if the Catholic Church were to find resources in its tradition that could lead to an affirmation of same-sex relationships, this would be by way of eschatology. As shown above, this enables us to envisage forms of human companionship that transcend those given in creation. In saying this, I am only pointing to a conceivable development, not assuming it’s possible.
Note that this unit was written before the UK government legislated in 2013 for same-sex couples to have a legal right to marry. I have added a comment on this issue as footnote 2 on the next screen. ↩