The teaching of the Second Vatican Council does not discuss virginity/celibacy with a direct intention of comparing it as a state to the married state. In that sense, we can see the terms of its teaching as not being set by the same challenge that prompted the anathema of the Council of Trent. Instead, virginity/celibacy are presented in a relation to baptism, in relation to the idea of consecration and therefore of the evangelical counsels seen as a whole, and in relation to the appropriateness of celibacy to the life of the ordained priest. This post wants to suggest that, in presenting its teaching in these different contexts, the Council does nevertheless provide a development of, and an articulation of the essential substance, of the teaching about a "higher excellence" expressed in the earlier anathema.
The first text to turn to is the chapter in Vatican II's Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium dedicated to religious (nn.43-46). The teaching on the evangelical counsels is to be found by reading nn.43-44 in their entirety. I extract below only those parts that are relevant to the consideration of a "greater excellence" of the state of the counsels, and add the italics to draw this out:
The faithful of Christ bind themselves to the three aforesaid counsels either by vows, or by other sacred bonds, which are like vows in their purpose. By such a bond, a person is totally dedicated to God, loved beyond all things. In this way, that person is ordained to the honor and service of God under a new and special title. Indeed through Baptism a person dies to sin and is consecrated to God. However, in order that he may be capable of deriving more abundant fruit from this baptismal grace, he intends, by the profession of the evangelical counsels in the Church, to free himself from those obstacles, which might draw him away from the fervor of charity and the perfection of divine worship. By his profession of the evangelical counsels, then, he is more intimately consecrated to divine service. This consecration will be the more perfect, in as much as the indissoluble bond of the union of Christ and His bride, the Church, is represented by firm and more stable bonds.The second text to turn to is the Decree on the renewal of religious life, Perfectae Caritatis. Again, italics added and not present in the original text.
The evangelical counsels which lead to charity join their followers to the Church and its mystery in a special way.... Christ proposed to His disciples this form of life, which He, as the Son of God, accepted in entering this world to do the will of the Father. This same state of life is accurately exemplified and perpetually made present in the Church.
5. Members of each institute should recall first of all that by professing the evangelical counsels they responded to a divine call so that by being not only dead to sin (cf. Rom. 6:11) but also renouncing the world they may live for God alone. They have dedicated their entire lives to His service. This constitutes a special consecration, which is deeply rooted in that of baptism and expresses it more fully...The word translated from the Latin as "outstanding" here might also be translated as "priceless" or, as in the printed translation to which I have access, "exceptional".
12. The chastity "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:12) which religious profess should be counted an outstanding gift of grace. It frees the heart of man in a unique fashion (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-35) so that it may be more inflamed with love for God and for all men. Thus it not only symbolizes in a singular way the heavenly goods but also the most suitable means by which religious dedicate themselves with undivided heart to the service of God and the works of the apostolate. ...
The last text of the Council to consider is the Decree on the ministry and life of priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis. The question of celibacy in relation to the priesthood is treated in n.16. Italics added, as before.
Through virginity, then, or celibacy observed for the Kingdom of Heaven, priests are consecrated to Christ by a new and exceptional reason. They adhere to him more easily with an undivided heart, they dedicate themselves more freely in him and through him to the service of God and men ...(they) evoke the mysterious marriage established by Christ, and fully to be manifested in the future, in which the Church has Christ as her only Spouse. They give, moreover, a living sign of the world to come, by a faith and charity already made present, in which the children of the resurrection neither marry nor take wives.What can be taken from these several texts of the Council to form a synthesis of the content of the idea of a "higher excellence" of the life of the evangelical counsels, and, in particular, that of virginity/celibacy? I would suggest:
1. There is a clear witness to a specific excellence for the life of the counsels, and of virginity/celibacy.
2. The life of the counsels, and the life of virginity/celibacy, lived under vow has the character of a consecration; that is, the character of being a specific and definitive way of living out by an individual of the (universal) call to holiness received through baptism. In itself, though, this character may not represent an excellence unique to the life of virginity/celibacy. Christians who do not take these vows might well live a consecration of a different form, such as that represented by consecration to the Virgin Mary or by "baptism in the spirit" as it is understood in the Charismatic Renewal. It is noteworthy that both these movements see their consecrations as specific ways of living out the original consecration received in baptism. However, consecration as choice does inform point 3 below.
3. Consecrated virginity/celibacy represents a direct and immediate dedication to love of God, without any mediating form, a dedication to "love of God above all things" or a living for "God alone". This can, of course, only apply to a chosen and consecrated virginity/celibacy, and not to a virginity/celibacy that is an accidental outcome of just not having got married. One might suggest that the un-married person should seek some form of consecration in order to live this element of choice in their virginity/celibacy.
4. Growing out of point 3 is the idea of the consecrated life, and of virginity/celibacy, as being a living sign in this world of the world that is to come, a living sign of our supernatural destiny. It cannot be understood in the terms of earthly existence alone, but only in a relation to the life of the world to come.
5. The life of the evangelical counsels, and therefore of virginity/celibacy, is literally the form of life that Jesus himself lived during his earthly ministry, and this is part of what constitutes its excellence.
6. From points 3 and 5 arises a dedication to the Church, as the Body of Christ, so that there is a particular ecclesial form to the life of virginity/celibacy.
7. And finally, the life of the counsels is a very particular gift, a grace, that is given to the one called to consecrated life. The person who consecrates themselves in virginity/celibacy does so in response to a grace received; it is a state of life to which some are called, but not all.
There is a postscript to the teaching of the Council in Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelica Testificatio of 1971, where consecrated virginity/celibacy is incidentally considered in the light of the married state. In explicitly addressing the question of consecrated chastity (nn.13-15), Pope Paul writes (italics added to draw out some of the links to the synthesis above):
Only the love of God—it must be repeated—calls in a decisive way to religious chastity. This love moreover makes so uncompromising a demand for fraternal charity that the religious will live more profoundly with his contemporaries in the heart of Christ. On this condition, the gift of self, made to God and to others, will be the source of deep peace. Without in any way undervaluing human love and marriage—is not the latter, according to faith, the image and sharing of the union of love joining Christ and the Church?(22)—consecrated chastity evokes this union in a more immediate way and brings that surpassing excellence to which all human love should tend....Chastity is decisively positive, it witnesses to preferential love for the Lord and symbolizes in the most eminent and absolute way the mystery of the union of the Mystical Body with its Head, the union of the Bride with her eternal Bridegroom. Finally, it reaches, transforms and imbues with a mysterious likeness to Christ man's being in its most hidden depths...
... We are in fact dealing here with a precious gift which the Father imparts to certain people....