Generally speaking, there are two principal vocations in the life of the Catholic Church: marriage on the one hand, and celibate priesthood and religious life on the other. Both are expressions of conjugal love. In the normal calling of marriage, an individual binds himself for life to another human being. In the exceptional calling of priesthood or religious life, an individual binds himself eternally to God.
The fruitful life of the Church has always depended upon a healthy interaction between these two states of life. In truly Catholic periods or cultures, an equilibrium has been established, whereby the family bears children, some of whom are called to religion, and religious life in turn justifies and sanctifies the family. In Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock, a novel about Catholic Quebec in the seventeenth century, a young domestic heroine’s love of order and cleanliness is such that she can’t sleep in a dirty bed. She is balanced in the world of the novel by a beautiful ascetic in a church in Montreal, walled up behind the Blessed Sacrament with a stone for a pillow. Like the French ships that convey to the Canadian colonies “everything to comfort the body and the soul,” the capacious hold of the Church enfolds both vocations. Neither Shaker nor Protestant, the Church affirms both women’s choices, just as the young heroine of the novel is enamored of her alter ego in Montreal, and the recluse, in her turn, prays for her brothers and sisters in the world, night and day.
Still, this mutual dependency and reciprocal respect notwithstanding, in the whole history of the Church the choice for celibacy has always been understood to be objectively higher than the choice for marriage, because the celibate anticipates in his flesh the world of the future resurrection. Rather than pass through the intermediate state of earthly marriage, the priest or religious steps outside the bounds of ordinary life and begins to live, in advance, the nuptial realities of heaven.
Contrary to popular impressions, the documents of Vatican II did not break with this traditional understanding. The same documents that resoundingly affirm marriage continue to assign to celibacy an “eminent” position, one “always . . . held in particular honor in the Church.” In the language of Lumen Gentium, the religious, by his profession, seeks “more abundant fruit” from the grace of his baptism, is “more intimately consecrated to divine service,” and “more fully manifests to all believers the presence of heavenly goods already possessed here below.” In St. John Chrysostom’s formulation, “It is something better than what is admitted to be good that is the most excellent good,” a conclusion echoed by John Paul II. “Virginity, or celibacy, by liberating the human heart in a unique way,” he writes in the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, “bears witness that the Kingdom of God . . . is that pearl of great price which is preferred to every other value no matter how great.”
Put another way, the Catholic view of human life and history is never circular but always teleological, always “straining forward,” in the words of St. Paul, “to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:13). Catholic family life is not ordered to itself, but to what is future and ultimate: life with God and his saints in heaven. Catholic families do not bear children simply so that their children may bear children, and so on. They bear children for God. As Hans Urs von Balthasar explained, for people like St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s parents, Louis and Zélie Martin, all of whose living children ended their lives as religious, “It would be just as senseless and unchristian for a family to be shut in upon itself as for a believer in the Old Testament to reject its fulfillment in the New.”
Few families in the history of the Church have risen to the level of the Martins in this regard. But whether acted upon or not, whether explicit or implicit, there was a consensus in Christendom as to the direction and meaning of human life. When mortality was high and childbearing dangerous, when there was no Viagra or estrogen therapy, there were few illusions about the duration of either sexuality or marriage, and there was a general acknowledgment that, soon enough, everyone would be obedient, celibate, and poor. While the vast majority of people in those days chose marriage in the first place, if they outlived their spouse they were less likely than our contemporaries to choose marriage again. Even before death intervened, a small minority of spouses separated by mutual agreement and entered monasteries. Many more widows and widowers did the same. Marriage was not regarded as a treadmill to be endlessly resumed, but as a passing phase of life, even as everyone, married or not, was passing from earth to heaven, where “they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt. 22:30).
In the view of St. Ignatius, marriage was so provisional a state that it was scarcely deserving of a vow, for “it must be remembered that a vow deals with matters that lead us closer to evangelical perfection. Hence, whatever tends to withdraw one from perfection may not be made the object of a vow, for example, a business career, the married state, and so forth.” If we bristle at this seemingly low view of marriage, we might remember that in Ignatius’s day most marriages lasted until death, suggesting that what holds a marriage together more effectively than a promise or vow is the larger faith tradition in which an individual marriage is embedded.
The great novel of this view of human life is Kristin Lavransdatter, a three-volume saga of medieval Norway by Sigrid Undset. Late in the novel, when the widowed heroine is settled in a monastery after many years in the world, she ponders the sisterhood she has finally joined:
When, after this hour of prayer, Kristin went back through the dormitory and saw the sisters sleeping two and two on sacks of straw in the beds, clad in the habits which they never put off, she thought how much unlike she must be to these women, who from their youth up had done naught but serve their Maker. The world was a master whom ’twas not easy to fly, when once one had yielded to its dominion. Ay, and in sooth she had not fled the world—she had been cast out, as a hard master drives a worn-out servant from his door—and now she had been taken in here, as a merciful lord takes in an old serving-maid and of his mercy gives her a little work, while he shelters and feeds the worn-out, friendless old creature.
Of course, in the view of the human community, intent on its own survival, it is one thing when an old person leaves the world for religion, and quite another when a young person, and someone’s heir, does the same. In the abstract or the case of someone else’s child, Christendom conceded the superiority of celibacy, but when the Franciscans or Dominicans came to town families famously locked up their sons. Humanity is ordered to fecundity, and Nature fights for her rights, “pleads her cause with prodigious eloquence, with a terrible power of seduction.” Like the Israelites in the Old Testament who insisted on a visible king (1 Sam. 8), Nature demands physical intercourse and blood heirs, and fiercely resists any prioritizing of God over human beings or future over earthly goods. Thus even the most saintly celibates, in their youth, met with scandalized resistance and hostility.
It is easy to forget, for example, now that St. Thérèse’s cult is secure, what the neighbors were thinking and saying as, one after another, the Martin girls left their widowed father for the convent. When Thérèse was finally canonized and her family’s dreams realized, Céline, Thérèse’s sister, recalled “the humiliations that had been our lot and that of our dear father: relatives distancing themselves from us, apologizing for being part of our family; friends and acquaintances who said among themselves: ‘What good was his piety?’”
It is easy to forget, too, that hostility to celibacy can also afflict the saint in an interior way. St. Francis was not only stoned in the street, but taunted by internal accusers. We think of him as having made one definitive act of renunciation when he stripped himself in the town square, but a close reading of his life suggests a long struggle, painfully waged. As he said sardonically toward the end of his life, “Don’t canonize me too quickly. I am perfectly capable of fathering a child.”
But once the struggle was over, and the miracles and answered prayers began to appear, the celibate in former times was reclaimed by the human family, because he had proven himself fertile after all. Resistance gave way to acceptance, and acceptance to passionate acclaim. Then everyone wanted a piece of the saint; everyone wanted access to his body and his prayers. Then the one once coldly spurned for choosing heavenly over earthly goods was joyfully embraced for bringing heavenly goods to earth.
In Shadows on the Rock, Cather traces this trajectory in the life of the recluse in Montreal. On the far side of her parents’ anguish, her fiancé’s grief, and her own suffering, the recluse emerges as a binding force in Catholic Canada, a treasure held in common. After angels repair her spinning wheel in her upper room in Montreal, the story travels across country:
By many a fireside the story of Jeanne Le Ber’s spinning-wheel was told and re-told with loving exaggeration during that severe winter. The word of her visit from the angels went abroad over snow-burdened Canada to the remote parishes. Wherever it went, it brought pleasure, as if the recluse herself had sent to all those families whom she did not know some living beauty.
If the vocation of the recluse is extraordinary, the vocation of the priest is ordinary. But one meaning of ordinary is quotidian, and whereas miracles of the recluse’s sort are rare, the priest works his miracles daily. Every day, in the confessional, he forgives sin. Every day, on the altar, he brings God to earth as food. In the character of Bishop Laval—in his height and his great age, his legendary charity and formidable endurance—Cather gives the reader an icon of the dogged, indispensable vocation of the priest. If the recluse in her atelier is literally raised above the common lot, the old bishop in his daily work is literally on the ground with his flock. But his vocation, too, is vertical in its orientation. His vocation, too, reaches to heaven. The recurring image in the novel of the old man at work is the image of him ringing the church bell before dawn, calling the working people to Mass:
Many good people who did not want to go to mass at all, when they heard that hoarse, frosty bell clanging out under the black sky . . . groaned and went to the church. Because they thought of the old Bishop at the end of the bell-rope, and because his will was stronger than theirs.
Both the recluse and the priest, by their sacrifices and prayers, knit together the human family. But it is on the renunciations of the priest, especially, that the spiritual life of the laity depends. In the Catholic view, the life of Christ has passed into his sacraments, and only the priest can effect the sacraments that fully bring Christ’s life to Christ’s body. The spiritual health of Catholic people depends in a fundamental way on certain individuals choosing the vertical orientation of celibate priesthood over the horizontal orientation of marriage. Married life in the Church is never equal to priesthood and religious life but always dependent on them, as the horizontal of the cross hangs on the vertical. Earthly marriage is never an absolute but always an intermediate vocation, ordered to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb as a means to an end. The recluse in her upper room, the old bishop hanging on the bell-rope that disappears over his head—these are examples of individuals who have vowed themselves to God above all, and who then hand down to those below what they receive from above.
We have been speaking of the traditional ordering of the Church’s life, her traditional understanding of the relationship between her lay and religious vocations. Today, has this understanding changed? From the outside, the Church seems as committed to celibacy as ever. Before a non-Catholic knows anything of the Church’s life, before he attends a Mass or sees the inside of a confessional, he is aware of this man or woman, this priest or that nun, whom he perhaps passes in the street, and who then becomes the face of the Church for him.
If he is like most outsiders, he will be wary of this face, or sign, that he connects, correctly, with celibacy. He may be uncomfortable or repelled by the sign, or he may be attracted to it or impressed by it, but in any case, for him the priest or nun will be decisively Catholic. Inside the Church, asked what is most important to Catholicism, the practicing Catholic will probably answer, the Eucharist. But the outsider, without having read a word of theology, is most keenly aware of the priest, who in fact makes the Eucharist possible.
Or our outsider may encounter the Church in so-called Catholic literature, where again the Church’s traditional views will be communicated to him. Either he will read about priests or nuns (The Diary of a Country Priest, In This House of Brede, Morte d’Urban, Mariette in Ecstasy), or he will read about a love between a man and a woman that gives way before a greater love (The End of the Affair, Brideshead Revisited, Kristin Lavransdatter). These latter novels—so different from the novels of Jane Austen!—might well have affixed to their frontispieces as a warning Paul Claudel’s axiom, “God promises by his creatures but only fulfills by himself,” or François Mauriac’s baleful observation, “Today, after so many centuries, [Christ] is still there . . . just as we know him in the Gospels, with his inordinate demands, separating man from woman and woman from man, destroying the human couple to the scandal of many.”
Protestant novels, primarily concerned as they are with familial and social arrangements and the individual’s place in them, ordinarily end with marriage. But the Catholic novel, whose proper subject matter is the relationship of the individual to God, can only be finally consummated outside the bounds of the novel and even of life itself, which explains both why so few Catholic novels are entirely successful, and why so many end with death. The emphasis in Catholic literature is never on social consolidation and earthly marriage. Rather, the true Catholic note is a note of rupture and transcendence, rupture and implied restoration on a higher level, goods for which religious life—real people making real sacrifices with an eye to eternity—stands surety.
Even in non-Catholic, equivocally Catholic, or anti-Catholic literature or films, if the Catholic Church comes into the story, priests and religious represent her, reinforcing for our outsider the Church’s traditional ordering of her internal life. Always it is the exceptional calling of the priest or the nun, or the even more exceptional calling of the priest who is also an exorcist, that stands for the Church, in a kind of metonymy. The author’s attitude to Catholicism may be melodramatic and hostile (Henry James’s The American), sardonic and world-weary (Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory), or conspiracy-minded and debunking of Catholic claims (anything by Dan Brown), but in every case the author’s fascination with Catholic priesthood and religious life is self-evident.
The media, too, turns out to be obsessed with priests and nuns, whether railing against them (Pope Benedict, abusive priests) or fawning over them (Pope Francis, liberal American nuns, Mother Teresa). Even the sexual abuse scandals in the Church, and the media’s preoccupation with them, evince the Church’s traditional claims, testifying as they do to the tremendous importance of the Catholic priesthood, for good or ill.
From all of this evidence, either consciously or unconsciously our outsider will conclude that celibate vocations are the key to the Catholic Church. It follows that if he decides to become a Catholic himself, it will be religious life that has attracted him; otherwise he would be content to become, or remain, a Protestant. Put another way, he desires something more than baptism and marriage, the only sacraments Christendom agrees can be effected without a priest. He may have ideas of becoming a priest or a religious himself. Or he may feel a need for the strengthening that confirmation promises or for the mysterious food of the Eucharist. Perhaps something weighs on his conscience that he has been unable privately to shake off; or he has had experience of evil, experience that has shaken and defiled him, and harbors a hope that a priest may be able to help him.
On the other hand, it may not be a specific sacrament but a whole way of life that attracts him, an attitude to life very different from what he has encountered elsewhere. On the deepest level, a person comes to the Catholic Church because he is disappointed with everything else. Work, family life, other religious communions have not sufficed. Our convert may have been abused in his natural family or betrayed in a marriage, but even if his relationships have been harmonious and his work in the world successful, he begins to feel that the horizon of his life is simply too low. Dimly, he begins to understand that natural affections not ordered to eternal realities are doomed. And so he finds himself attracted to the idealism and higher horizon of Catholic religious life. He hears the silence and the gales of laughter coming from behind convent walls, or he witnesses the serene, life-giving fatherhood of a holy priest, and he wants to be part of a church that has such vocations in its midst. If he is married, he begins to suspect that his marriage cannot stand on its own but needs the bracing vertical of celibate priesthood and religious life to keep it true. If he is single, for whatever reason, he hopes to discover his life’s true meaning in the Church, the Church that has never held up marriage between a man and a woman as the highest good.
In brief, whatever his situation, he wants his life ordered to what is greater. He wants a larger context for his private projects and relationships. And he wants peace, the peace that the world cannot give, and expects to find it in the Church that has always prioritized the contemplative over the active life.
So our outsider becomes a Catholic. And in the Church of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, what does he find? Certainly, the priest is still there, celebrating Mass, baptizing babies, presiding at marriages. If our convert needs to be baptized, a priest will baptize him. If he was previously baptized as a Protestant, a priest will hear his confession, a priest or bishop will confirm him, and he will receive the Eucharist consecrated by the same priest or bishop. And in the reception of the sacraments—in the sacrament of baptism most dramatically, but in the other sacraments as well—the convert will receive, together with an entirely new or reinvigorated life, an indelible impression of the generative power of the Catholic priest. From this point on, he will be able to attest to it from his own experience: The priest, at his ordination, receives potency of a supernatural kind, capable of generating and sustaining new men and women, who live by the power of Christ, who has redeemed them.
Still, however momentous the changes wrought by the sacraments of initiation, and however powerful the convert’s impression of the part played by the priest, soon enough, as he perseveres in his new life, he begins to understand that, in the Church at large, the center of gravity—or at least the perceived center of gravity—has shifted away from the ministerial priesthood. What he previously may have understood in the abstract—that thousands of priests were laicized in the aftermath of Vatican II, seminaries emptied, and monasteries collapsed—he now begins to understand in the concrete, in the plain fact that in many parts of the country there simply aren’t enough priests. And even where there are enough priests, he notices that their sacramental importance has been de-emphasized, and distance introduced between them and their parishioners.
For example, after he consecrates the Eucharist, the priest in many parishes sits to one side while lay people distribute the sacrament to other lay people who, in turn, communicate themselves.
As for the sacrament of confession, in many parts of the country it has all but died out. One hour a week in most parishes is all the time allotted to confession, and even then, there is often nobody there. The consensus seems to be that the general confession in the Mass is sufficient; personal confession to a priest is no longer necessary.
Then, too, because the laity can distribute the Eucharist, they often carry it to the sick, where again, a traditional opportunity for confession—not to mention reception of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick—is lost. And as cremation becomes commonplace and even many Catholics scatter cremains, a growing number of Catholics now dispense with a Funeral Mass altogether, denying the priest even that last, traditional opportunity to exercise his ministry.
As for exorcism—a particular competency of a specially trained priest—many archdioceses no longer have an exorcist on staff. All of which leads one to wonder whether the priesthood is presently de-emphasized because there aren’t enough priests, or if there aren’t enough priests in part because their ministry is increasingly de-emphasized. It should be admitted, too, that there are priests who cooperate in their own marginalization: by refusing to visit the dying at night, for example, or to hear a confession outside the scheduled hour.
Meanwhile the laity, the state to which so many priests and religious reverted in the wake of the council, is everywhere in the ascendant. If the priest’s job description has shrunk, opportunities for the laity have expanded. The year 1987 was explicitly dedicated to the laity, but all the years since Vatican II could properly be called the Era of the Laity, when it has been widely announced that the laity have come into their own. They are the true Church of God, this line of reasoning goes; the ordained ministers are simply the supporting cast. It is the active apostolates that matter; contemplative life is disappearing because it has been outgrown.
Accordingly, the emphasis is no longer on the priesthood per se but on “the priesthood of all believers”; no longer on literal poverty but on “detachment”; no longer on virginity but on “chastity according to one’s station in life.” Marriage especially has been elevated in the Church’s preaching to a point where even well-formed Catholics now believe that it is equivalent to priesthood and religious life. Scriptures that challenge this view are either shrugged off (“Jesus didn’t mean that”) or reinterpreted and then applied in a spiritual or metaphorical sense to the laity.
At the same time, there has been a strong push to identify and canonize more lay and married saints, as if the small number of married saints relative to the number of canonized celibates were a function of prejudice rather than the fruit of an underlying truth. Among young intellectual Catholics, John Paul II’s Theology of the Body continues to be in vogue, at least those parts of it that line up with contemporary pieties. And as marriage and family life have been increasingly romanticized, the question is increasingly asked whether priests shouldn’t be allowed to marry, too, and the physical privileges of marriage universally enjoyed. Everywhere the emphasis in the Church is increasingly on natural rather than supernatural relationships, in a shift that amounts to a kind of supersessionism in reverse, as the natural or blood family, as in Judaism, comes to the fore.
It was in this Church, influenced both by Protestantism and the secular culture and ideologically primed for a final shrugging off of the priest, that the news of the clerical sexual abuse scandals surfaced. It was at this point, at the very end of the century Pope Leo XIII foresaw would be dire for the Church, that we learned that, devastating as was the vast exodus of priests and nuns after the council, the real problem wasn’t those who left but a small percentage of those who stayed, like Judas who stayed with Jesus even when many of Jesus’s other disciples fell away (John 6:60–71) in order to deliver the death blow from within.
In the chaos that followed, as waves of disbelief, fury, and grief swept through the Church, the surrounding culture, smelling blood, moved in for the kill. Now it could be openly expressed: hatred for the Catholic Church and her celibate hierarchy. Now the traditional script in which the celibate is belatedly vindicated by the holy fruits of his life could be torn up and replaced by a script that says that celibacy ends in depravity and asceticism doesn’t have to be affirmed at all.
In this script, celibacy isn’t an ideal but an abomination. It isn’t a harmless anachronism but an occasion and even a cause of sin. No one can be celibate, not even Jesus himself. The sexual fantasies that tempted Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, Dan Brown’s 2003 novel The DaVinci Code treats as historical facts, suspensefully unearthed; and by 2013, in Mark Adamo’s opera The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, sex between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is simply a ho-hum given, with the Magdalene now Jesus’s teacher rather than the other way around (“Rabboni!”), as she initiates him into the mysteries of carnal love.
As for Jesus’s mother, the original celibate and contemplative in the Christian tradition—the one who, standing in the breach, delivered to the world the Christ she conceived from above—she, too, must be pulled down. If celibacy is the problem, Mary especially must be defamed and the Annunciation repudiated, because it was at the Annunciation, the hinge on which history turns, that a new principle of generation entered the world. In the past, when the Church was in disgrace, Mary was given a pass, but no longer. Now the blasphemies enumerated in the First Saturday Devotions from Fatima—Blasphemies against the Immaculate Conception, Blasphemies against [Mary’s] virginity, and so on—take on flesh.
If the blasphemers hesitate to attack Mary directly, indirect methods serve. If she isn’t credible as a villain, perhaps she may be credible as a victim. The Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s strategy, in his 2013 play and novel The Testament of Mary, is to have Mary desacralize herself. In her own words, in her “testimony,” she dismantles both her own reputation and Christianity’s. As she tells it, there was no Virgin Birth or Incarnation. There was no Resurrection. The disciples made it all up, for gain. They pressured and manipulated her, harassed and tormented her. Her contempt for these imaginary disciples is Tóibín’s own contempt for contemporary Irish priests, just as Thomas Cromwell’s attitude to English monks and nuns in Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) is Mantel’s own attitude to Catholic celibacy, expressed through the character of Cromwell.
In these widespread contemporary attacks on the Church, vituperative outrage and blanket condemnations are the rule. In Peter Matthiessen’s 2014 novel In Paradise, it is taken for granted that Pius XII and the Vatican were responsible for the Holocaust. In the 2013 film Philomena, a lay person—Philomena herself, an unwed mother of a gay son—can be holy, but no priest or nun. Celibates by definition are monsters of hypocrisy and enemies of natural life.
Hilary Mantel, being a greater artist, plays a deeper game. In her acclaimed novels about Henry VIII’s England, Thomas More is her villain, as much for his hair shirt as his orthodoxy, and Thomas Cromwell her hero, the man who pulled down England’s monasteries. But outrage and self-righteous indignation are not Cromwell’s style. As Mantel conceives him, Cromwell is the future: the reasonable, practical, thoroughly secular man, the man in whom the religious impulse is finally dead. The passions of religion—the zeal of the reformers, the anguished scruples of More, even the attenuated orthodoxy of the king—leave him cold. Even contempt is too strong a word for his attitude to religion and those still deceived by it. As the revelations of clerical sin in our own day finally cease to shock, and anger and disbelief give way to disgust and contempt, Mantel, as Thomas Cromwell, proposes indifference as the last word, the final nail in the coffin of Catholic Christianity.
And the Church’s response to all of this? Because of the guilt of the few, she has been largely silent before her accusers. As the scandals have unfolded, she has scarcely attempted to defend celibacy. Instead, she has circled the wagons around marriage. Sometimes it seems as if all the idealism formerly attached to priesthood and religious life has now been transferred to marriage and the natural family. In my parish, the pews that emptied after the scandals have gradually filled up with large, homeschooling families. New rituals have appeared: a children’s offering at the offertory, a final blessing for children too young to receive Holy Communion. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day have become red-letter days in the Church, and not only weddings but even some proposals of marriage are undertaken with a pious solemnity formerly reserved for religious professions. And whereas St. Ignatius deemed marriage scarcely deserving of a vow, now, on a regular basis, married couples are invited to stand and renew their marriage vows en masse, in a ritual uncomfortably reminiscent of the mass weddings of Sun Myung Moon.
And still there is virtually no preaching on priesthood or religious life. There is talk of natural family planning more than of Jesus’s supernatural family, “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). In the past, on Holy Thursday, the pastor washed the feet of other priests and lay brothers, witnessing to the truth that Jesus washed the feet of men who had left everything to follow him. Now, on Holy Thursday, he washes the feet of married men.
In the short run, it does no harm and possibly much good to try to strengthen monogamous, lifelong marriage. But to think that this is the answer to the Church’s problems is to think as man thinks rather than as God thinks. In the long run, if the vertical to which the horizontal relationship of marriage is ordered comes down, not only marriage but the Gospel itself will fall. When the Church stresses relationships between creatures more than the relationship of the individual to God—when she treats marriage as an end rather than as a seedbed for vocations—the Gospel message itself is compromised. The hard Paschal truths at the core of Christianity are suppressed: the truth that the natural family is never fully commensurate with Christ’s new family; the truth that a man’s enemies will be members of his own household (Matt. 10:36) and that in order to be Christ’s disciple he must hate not only father and mother, wife and children, but even his own life (Luke 14:26). And in the atmosphere of tribalism, human respect, and sentimentality that ensues, an illusion of human sufficiency creeps in, an illusion that, in our human strength, we can meet one another’s needs.
Recently I heard a sermon preached on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. In Matthew’s parable, ten virgins go with their lamps to meet a bridegroom. The five wise virgins have oil for their lamps; the five foolish have none. When the bridegroom is near, the foolish ask the wise for oil, but the wise refuse them. Looking for oil elsewhere, the foolish are shut out from the feast. When they return and knock, the bridegroom says, “I do not know you” (Matt. 25:1–13).
The meaning of the parable is clear enough. It is about the vertical dimension of the Christian life: the primacy of the individual’s relationship to God and the limitations and final inadequacy of human relationships. The virgins who hold on to their oil are not condemned by Jesus; on the contrary, he calls them wise. The foolish show their foolishness both in their delinquency and in their attempt to get oil from the others. The “oil” that lights our human lamps—our fundamental fuel, if you will—comes from God. Like the oil of chrism in the sacrament of baptism, it signifies sanctifying grace, the gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift of grace we can receive only from God, either directly in prayer or sacramentally through his chosen ministers. We can neither give it to others, nor receive it from them. The high virtue of charity—“willing good to someone,” in Aquinas’s formulation—demands that we tell this truth. To attempt, instead, to do what the foolish demand of us—to try to be “nice,” in other words—or to make foolish demands ourselves, avails nothing. But the preacher, influenced, I dare say, by current trends in the Church, offered his own interpretation. “Here’s what I think,” he said. “They should have shared.”
For Catholics like myself, who at some point in our lives decamped to the Catholic Church from the lower horizon of Protestantism, these are discouraging times. It is disheartening, to say the least, to see the Church so infiltrated by the surrounding culture and so demoralized by the recent scandals that she is in danger of rejecting in her own life what is most decisively Catholic and selling for a mess of pottage her deepest mysteries and highest privileges.
Ideally, in the Church’s life, there is a continual interplay between marriage and celibacy, sensuality and asceticism, like the interplay in the creation between heat and cold, day and night, light and darkness, and so on, all of which rhythmic oppositions, in their alternating times and seasons, bless the Lord (Dan. 3:57–88). Even within marriage itself there were seasons of feasting and fasting, indulgence and abstinence, just as in the Church’s traditional attitude to marriage there was idealism but also a healthy skepticism, romance but also a bracing note of sardonic realism (“better to marry than burn”), that paradoxically served marriage well. In fact, it was by downplaying earthly marriage and ordering it to what was greater and eternal that the Church ensured marriage’s health, tamping down unrealistic expectations and not placing on marriage a weight greater than it was intended to bear.
In our relational lives there is only one absolute good, and that is our relationship to God, a good denied to no one, lay or religious, who seeks it, prioritizes it, sacrifices for it, holds fast to it. Relative goods, on the other hand—including health and success, marriage and children—man cannot demand. God dispenses relative goods as he sees fit, in order to help man find his way to the final good of eternal life with him.
But in our culture, and increasingly in the Church itself, marriage is not regarded as a means but an end. It is not considered a relative but an absolute good, and therefore a right. The usual solution or sequel to widowhood or divorce in our day isn’t a late religious vocation or a salubrious solitude, but more marriage, or more venery in Roger Angell’s phrase in a recent essay in the New Yorker: “More venery. More love; more closeness; more sex and romance. Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are.” In a climate like this—a climate for which the Church bears a certain responsibility, given her abuse of the grace of celibacy and her disproportionate enthusiasm for marriage—what does the Church say to homosexual persons who wish to marry? What does she say, for that matter, to the invalidly remarried who want to receive the Eucharist and are dumbfounded by the suggestion that they forgo sexual relations in order to do so? Should we be surprised that in a culture that so privileges marriage over celibacy, many Catholics now assume that the Eucharist is ordered to marriage rather than the other way around—that the choice for marriage is primary, in other words, and the Eucharist simply a secondary enhancement?
Once marriage is understood to be an absolute good and a right, it becomes very difficult to explain why, in certain circumstances, the goods of marriage have to be set aside. When the Church herself doesn’t value celibacy at its true value, it is all but impossible to recommend celibacy to others. The less robust and exemplary the celibate example in the Church, the more the idea spreads that the choice for God costs nothing. The less celibacy is apprehended and lived as a grace, the more it begins to be thought of as a punishment.
In the long run, undervaluing celibacy is a suicidal path for the Church. But already certain individuals suffer grave harm from the depreciation. For the individual, nothing is more important than the choice of vocation. Nothing is more important than that he find his true path in life, the path that God has marked out for him. When a vocation is correctly discerned, even its most formidable challenges can be met; when mistaken, even its ordinary burdens may prove hard to bear. Accordingly, one of the most important responsibilities of the Church is to help people discern their vocations. But in a time like the present, when at best an equivalency is assumed between marriage and celibacy, and at worst celibacy is implicitly or even explicitly devalued, what happens to the individual who is actually called to celibate priesthood or religious life? How is his capacity to respond to God’s call—especially the call to sacrifice sexual goods—affected by a widespread insinuation that such a sacrifice is unnecessary, that there is no special benefit to celibacy, and as far as sanctity goes, as good a result can be had from marriage?
At this point, we have entered what von Balthasar calls “the zone of the ambivalent,” in which people offer to God things good in themselves, but not the things God has actually asked of them. Such evasions are perennial temptations for the Christian. Indeed, one could paint the whole history of Christianity as “the history of all the things [Christians] offer to God as substitutes in order to escape the act of real faith.” So the question must be asked, whether the Church in our day is enabling and even encouraging such evasions by not telling the whole truth about vocations.
In the past, in Christian cultures, a paradigmatic movement can be traced, in the collective psyche if not across actual terrain, from the world to the monastery. In our time, the paradigmatic movement has been from the monastery to the world. Following the general migration in the Church, various novels and memoirs have followed individuals from religion to lay life: Kathryn Hulme’s 1956 novel The Nun’s Story, for example; or Karen Armstrong’s 1981 memoir Through the Narrow Gate; or Colum McCann’s 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin, in which a male character who has taken religious vows is eventually brought to bed by a woman. On the face of it, these narratives reject the austerities of religion. But on a deeper level they turn out to be spiritual tragedies, their predominant note not one of triumphalism, but of sadness. Even in a culture like our own, in which the propaganda runs all one way, the ideals of religious life, like the virgin martyrs themselves, turn out to be hard to kill.
In the Catholic Church the whole truth abides. All truth has been entrusted to the Church, according to Jesus’s promise (John 16:13). Whether or not a given truth finds expression in a particular time or place is not finally important. What is important is that neglected truths remain in the Church’s treasury, like recessive genes, waiting for favorable conditions or an auspicious hour in which to express themselves.
The wait may be long. Blessed John Henry Newman, in an 1850 sermon on the occasion of the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England, described a wait of three hundred years. But when the three hundred years were over, “the Church came forth not changed in aspect or voice, as calm and keen, as vigorous and as well furnished as when [the prison doors] closed on her.”
In the Church’s treasury, along with other neglected truths, the truth of the preeminence of her celibate vocations is still there. It is there in the relevant Church documents, for anyone and everyone to read. It is there in Catholic literature and in the example and writings of the saints. It is there in the story of Jane de Chantal, who famously stepped over her own son on her way to founding the Visitation Order, or the example of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, who, like many others in the Church’s history, took a vow of celibacy during their marriage. It is there in the sensus fidei, or “supernatural sense of faith” of the whole people of God, who in our day beatified by acclamation (“Santo subito!”) not lay or married people as the Congregation for the Causes of Saints might have preferred, but John Paul II and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a celibate priest and a celibate nun.
Finally and most consistently, the truth about the evangelical counsels is there in certain passages of Scripture, proclaimed in their turn at Mass, as the cycles of readings require. Year after year, whether convenient or inconvenient, whether faithfully expounded or passed over in embarrassment, the relevant Scriptures are read—“Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:22); “It is well . . . to remain single” (1 Cor. 7:8); “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21)—and men and women respond, in diminishing numbers for many years, but now again in greater strength.
Relative to the laity, priests and religious will always be few, even where vocations increase. It is inevitable that they be few, because the demands placed on the celibate are beyond the reach of most men. Yet it is on the example of the few that the rest of the Church depends: for the sacraments, in the case of the priest, but also for a visible witness to the contemplative foundation of every Christian existence. We live in a world where Freudian ideas still hold sway, including the idea that religion is a sublimation of sex. The celibate, by his example, proposes a truth exactly opposite: that every other love, every lesser love, is a sublimated form of the love of God.
In the greatest saints, these sublimated forms fade away into the mysterious, unmediated brightness of God himself. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina was not a philosopher like John Paul II or a lawyer like Thomas More; he was not a teacher like Elizabeth Ann Seton or a subtle theologian like Thérèse of Lisieux. He was a religious and a priest, an alter Christus even to the wounds in his hands, feet, and side. Coarse and unsophisticated as he was, in his person the vertical of the cross—the love of God above all created things—was manifest. Writing to a friend after a visit to San Giovanni Rotondo monastery, Don Giuseppe De Luca, an Italian historian of Christian spirituality, shared his impressions of the wounded friar:
Padre Pio, dear Papini, is a sickly, ignorant Capuchin, very much the crude southerner. And yet (bear in mind that besides making confession to him, I also dined with him and we spent a great deal of time together), and yet—God is with him, that fearful God that we glimpse in revery and which he has in his soul, unbearably hot, and in his flesh, which trembles constantly . . . as if battered by ever more powerful gales. I truly saw the holy there, holiness not of action but of passion, the holiness that God expresses. Although he is a man of very meager intelligence, he offered me two or three words that I have never found on the lips of other men, and not even (and this is harder to admit) in the books of the Church. . . . There is nothing of ordinary spirituality about him, nor is there anything extraordinarily miraculous, stunning, or showy; there is merely intelligentia spiritualis, a free gift from God. And there is a passion, even a human passion, for God, dear Papini, that is so beautiful, so ravishingly sweet that I can’t tell you. The love of woman and the love of ideas are nothing by comparison, they are things that do not go beyond a certain point, whether near or far. While the love of God, how, I do not know, burns, and the more it burns the more it finds to burn. I have the absolutely certain sensation that God and man have met in this person.
Patricia Snow is a writer in New Haven, Connecticut.