Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Consecrated celibacy/virginity (1): a better vocation?

My attention was caught, less by the citation of the anathema from the Council of Trent, than by the account of the dogmatic standing of the teaching expressed in the anathema:
If any one says, that the marriage state is to be 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.  
(Remember that this is de fide teaching which we are bound to believe with the assent of faith. If we find it surprising today, it is our job to ponder how to reconcile our thinking with the teaching of the Church, not to adjust the teaching of the Church to our thinking.)
Fr Tim was actually making a different point, but picked this up in passing. Having a somewhat naive approach to anathema's, I assumed that this one represented in some way a summary answer to a question or discussion occuring earlier in the Council's Decree. If one clicks "previous" at this page of the IntraText copy of the Decree on Matrimony, to move from the anathemas to the preceding exposition, one finds instead that the anathema stands somewhat alone. So exactly what answer(s) does the anathema give, and to which question(s)?

Most immediately, it answers a question being set to the Catholic Church by the reformers at the time. Is it the challenge from the reformers which frames the question, and therefore the answer contained in the anathema, in terms of a comparison of the excellence of the married state to the excellence of the state of virginity/celibacy?

The anathema clearly asserts an excellence to virginity/celibacy that is higher than (the excellence of) marriage - and I am happy to include a reference to the excellence of marriage because of the reference to the way in which Christian marriage "excels in grace, through Christ, the ancient marriages" in the exposition of the Tridentine Decree. One cannot avoid, either, that the assertion of this higher excellence derives from a basis in Scripture and Tradition that preceded the Council - it being received teaching at the time - and a basis in Tradition which has continued since. Even if one quibbles with the dogmatic status of the anathema of the Council of Trent, the force of its assertion of a higher excellence for virginity/celibacy, as Fr Tim indicates, is not something that should be avoided in the life of the Church today.

The anathema is silent as to whether this higher excellence accrues to the person who lives virginity/celibacy simply by their being virgin/celibate in itself.  It does not say anything one way or the other about whether the person who is virgin/celibate is by definition more saintly than the person who is married. It compares instead the "state" of virginity/celibacy to the "state" of marriage, which retains a subtle play between the two as objective institutional states in the Church and as  "offices" (to use a Balthasarian phrase) fulfilled by individuals in the Church.

The anathema is almost totally, but in a most subtle way perhaps not so, about the state of virginity/celibacy as being a state taken up under vows or associated with ordination. Only by referring to the Council Decree On Regulars and Nuns of the next session can we recognise a background assumption that the present anathema might refer to virginity/celibacy lived under vows, or, in the context of the ordained priesthood. The historical context of the Council might well also justify assuming this reference in the intention of the anathema. The Latin verb "manere" translated in the anathema as "remain" has a subtle sense of "continuing to live in" - cf perhaps the sense of the same verb used by Pope John Paul II at the opening of his Apostolic Letter Mane Nobiscum Domine to refer indirectly to Christ's continuing presence with us in the Eucharist. Again, ever so subtly, we might detect an assumption of the state of virginity/celibacy as being a chosen state rather than one occuring accidently by way of absence of a marriage. Though at a first reading the anathema appears to suggest that the accidental virginity/celibacy of the person who simply has not married is better than the married state, it is possible to argue that the real comparison is made to a chosen and dedicated virginity/celibacy.

The anathema - but not attaching common sense and the received teaching of Scripture - is silent about whether or not all people are called to virginity/celibacy rather than to marriage. It is clearly a vocation for some but not for others. This makes acute the question of exactly how the state of virginity/celibacy has a higher excellence than that of marriage, and also raises a question for how vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life are promoted in the Church.

I do think that it is possible to trace in the teaching of the Church at Vatican II and since a development of the essential teaching of this anathema - that of a higher excellence to the vocation of virginity/celibacy - that does not reduce its force and, indeed, develops its essential substance.  [See Consecrated celibacy/virginity (2): development of doctrine - link when I have posted. Consecrated celibacy/virginity (3): theological synthesis, when it follows, is intended to explore how the married and virgin states of life orient one to another.]

But meanwhile, two passing thoughts. One of the quite fascinating things about many of the new movements, many essentially lay in their character, is the existence within them of a core of members living a consecrated life according to the evangelical counsels. Focolare and Communion and Liberation are examples. (Another, perhaps not accidentally, is the presence of a Marian character.) If one leaves aside a certain fashion, now appearing to have passed, for lay communities characterised by short term temporary commitment, there is an interesting witness to consecrated virginity/celibacy to be found among the new movements. The second thought is that a vocational initiative such as Invocation appears to represent a significant move away from presenting all vocations in the Church as of equal excellence (in the sense in which that term is used above). Invocation seems to have the confidence to suggest to young people that the different vocations to priestly and religious life (and in some cases lay life, but lay life characterised by the evangelical counsels and a particular charism) have a an excellence which, while not denying to marriage its own excellence, nevertheless makes a demand on all. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church n.915 suggests, while recognising that not all are called to the consecrated life:
Christ proposes the evangelical counsels, in their great variety, to every disciple.

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