Friday, April 24, 2009

Singleness and the Christian Vision of Marriage and Family

A question was raised by my post on the Chastity Ethic versus the Promiscuity Ethic. What about singleness? Is celibacy not an important part of the Christian witness? Does not an ethic that exalts marriage inevitably denigrate singleness? (I think this captures the spirit of the question.)

First, single people are part of families. Everyone has a mother and a father and, hopefully, siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents etc. Everyone has been raised in some sort of family and has personally benefited from that family (or in many cases, of course, been harmed). Everyone a single person knows and is in community with is also a product of a family. And single people inevitably will know more married people than single people (unless they live in a monastery or convent). The average local congregation will have many families in it. So, the point is that single people, just like everyone else in society, have a serious interest in the well-being of the family as an institution and how it is doing in contemporary society. (Strong families improve everything from the crime rate to the amount of mental illness in a given society.) And single people will very often have an impact on families as friends, mentors, teachers of children, uncles or aunts etc. We must never think that singles are somehow indifferent to families and the influence (for good or ill) flows both ways. (This is similar to argument that everyone should pay taxes to support public schools, rather than only the parents of children in the schools.)

Second, Luther was wrong to urge the destruction of the monasteries and convents. I believe it was a political move and endeared his version of the Reformation to land greedy princes. Apart from the shoddy politics, however, it was a theological mistake. He thought that most people should marry and that no one should be forced into a life of celibacy. Both points are undoubtedly true, but they do not justify the denigration of the celibate life or the positive contribution celibates have made to the Church down through the centuries. At times, the secular clergy have been so abysmally corrupted and the Church so weak and in need of reform that the Church was literally saved by celibate monks being appointed bishops and sometimes wearing their hair shirts under their colorful robes in the execution of their duties. (Study the history of the island monastery of Lerins, which at one point provided most of the bishops of Gaul.)

Luther was also wrong because the celibate is a living rebuke to the calumny that all must inevitably succumb to the temptation to sin sexually. Of course some celibates have fallen into to sexual temptation, but that many have not is the thing that should cause wonder. And indeed, the world is always gleeful when a priest or monk falls because that provides a rationalization for its sins. But when a celibate lives a chaste life, that is in itself a rebuke to licentiousness.

Luther was also wrong because humans created in the image of God are rational, moral creatures with the power of moral choice. We can, through repeated sinful acts, fall into vice and become sexually addicted. But we can also, with the help of grace, through repeated resistance to temptation, develop the virtue of chastity. Protestantism has, I believe, offered such feeble resistance to the sexual revolution in part because it does not have a monastic movement helping to hold up the virtue of chastity for the Church as a whole.

Third, much of the Christian Tradition, building on Paul's words in I Cor. 7 has viewed the celibate state as the superior one. This is going too far; a balanced view sees both the celibate and the married state as good and virtuous (both being founded alike on the virtue of chastity) but different in the goods that each one embodies. The most important good of the celibate state is not the functional one - i.e. the ability to serve Christ and the world in ways that a married person could not. This is a good, but not the highest good. The highest good of the celibate state is that single persons bear a witness to future eschatological state of the kingdom in which, as Jesus said, there will be no more marrying or giving in marriage. Just as Christian marriage witnesses to the goodness of God's creation and the continuities between creation and redemption (continuities relating to the central importance of love), so Christian celibacy witnesses to the goodness of God's plan of redemption and the goodness of the coming Kingdom (a goodness that has love at its core.)

Love is central both to the married and the celibate state. In both cases there is a need for the mortification (in the sense of the disciplining) of the flesh and the gift of self to the other. The celibate life enables a different (non-sexual but real) gift of the self to others; think of pioneer missionaries who took the Gospel to remote places of the earth and often suffered martyrdom. Celibacy enabled this costly witness. Celibacy can also enable less dramatic, but nevertheless significant ways of giving of the self in ministry and service.

To summarize, then, celibacy is a vocation within the Church and a witness to the Kingdom of God. It is not to be despised, but rather embraced by the Church as a necessary component of the Church's mission in the world. In the Kingdom, we will all be celibate. Yet, in that state, the virtues of marriage will not be left behind, but taken up and transfigured along with the resurrection body and the life in God. And this will be true both for those of us called to marriage in this life and also for those of us called to celibacy in this life. Both celibates and married people are one in the body of Christ. All of us are finally the bride and he is the groom.

1 comment:

Peter Dunn said...

This is a great essay Craig. I am admittedly not really well read in theology, but you are one of the only contemporary witnesses that I've seen to point out that the celibate bears witness to the eschatological kingdom. In my study of the Acts of Paul, my conclusion was that it bears witness to a second-century belief that the celibate begins to live already the future lifestyle of the Kingdom of God in the here and now.

I would only call attention to some small items: in Paul's terminology, marriage or celibacy is a state in which one is called, not the calling itself. Celebacy is understood to be a charisma (gift); Gordon Fee argues that marriage also is a gift, but I prefer Peter Brown's interpretation (in Body and Society) that Paul does not understand marriage as a gift.

I have to say that I've enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you.