On the matter of the superiority of the virginal state to the marital state, we begin by quoting Trent:
"Si quis dixerit statum coniugalem anteponendum esse statui virginitatis vel coelibatus et non esse melius ac beatius manere in virginitate aut coelibatu quam iungi matrimonio: a[nathema] s[it]."
"If any one saith, 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."
[ Council of Trent, 24th Session, Canon 10; translation J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848) ]
Next we observe that Our Lord very much distinguished virginity for the kingdom from other kinds:
But he said to them, "Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it." [ Mt 19:11-12 ]
Accordingly, when the fathers of Trent refer to the "state of virginity" (statui virginitatis), they can only mean the state of virginity for the kingdom. However common or even venerable the theories that virginity in itself is more worthy, Our Lord did not say that; in fact, he expressly said that his precept refers to virginity for the kingdom, and distinguished that state from other kinds and manners of virginity.
Next we note that "for the kingdom" cannot refer to any abstract, ideal, or time-less 'kingdom,' let alone a worldly one, but can only refer to the kingdom of God on earth as it is united in history with the eschatological kingdom; that is, 'the kingdom' refers to the historical sacrament and Event of the One Sacrifice; that is, to Calvary and the Eucharist together. In other words, virginity "for the kingdom" means virginity "for the sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist," virginity "for the One Sacrifice represented daily on His Church's altars."
A welter of highly-disputable theological or even merely philosophical assumptions and notions, among them the insistence that the state of virginity in itself is integral; in itself (per impossibile) is a 'naturally' sinless state; in itself is more worthy; have drastically impeded theological reflection on the sacrament of matrimony, so much so that on occasion the magisterium has felt it necessary to suppress movements to do away with marriage entirely; even though from certain points of view, these simply try to live out the altogether logical conclusion to the presumption that virginity in itself is the most worthy state, and therefore, for all to be perfect in holiness, everyone should abjure being married and being given in marriage.
Nor is this impulse moribund. One can readily find earnest traditional Catholic discussion groups on the Internet earnestly discussing the point. Hardly ever does anyone go so far as to wonder out loud if that particular emperor has no clothes, but it does happen. For example, from a discussion group participant clearly not in tune with what politesse dictates that which may or may not be asked, came the question, "If everyone were to be virginal, would that not mean that the human race would end?" To which Father so-and-so actually replied, "Yes, but what a wonderful end that would be!"
The counterpoise to virginity for the kingdom is thus not some 'natural' marital state, but matrimony for the kingdom. Which is to say, 'natural' marriage is 'elevated' to a sacrament only in the sense that bread and wine are 'elevated' to the Body and Blood of Our Lord. There is no prior possibility of such 'elevation'; there is nothing intrinsic to 'natural' marriage that can ever 'elevate' it to a sacrament. It is only as marriage refers to, images, and is caused by the One Sacrifice, by the Eucharist, that it becomes an infallible work of the living Christ in our history -- a sacrament of His Most Holy Catholic Church.
The Eucharist is the cause of the sacrament of matrimony; this simultaneous obviousness and profundity is the fundament of any covenantal theology of matrimony. Marriage for the kingdom infallibly causes grace, is a work of the living Christ; it is as beyond anything we can ever arrange for ourselves as the Body and Blood of the Lord are beyond bread and wine; yet it exists, in history, and infallibly causes grace in our history ex opere operato.
As will be seen shortly, it would be the gravest error to imply, even to hint, that matrimony is the cause of the Eucharist; this is flatly diabolical. The Eucharist is the cause of matrimony; to say the opposite, that matrimony is the cause of the Eucharist, is the work of Satan, well-deserving of every anathema the Church can hurl at any who profess it. For now, we merely note that while the sacrament of matrimony will indeed pass away in heaven, this does not distinguish this sacrament in the least from the other six, all of whom, even the Eucharist, pass away in heaven.
Here it may be appropriate to call to mind Fr. Christian Cochini's careful historical scholarship, first conducted as a dissertation under the supervision of Jean Cardinal Daniélou, S.J. and with the guidance of Fr. Alfons Stickler, who himself had published in 1964 a study on the continence of deacons. Fr. Cochini's work, later expanded to book form, shows that sexual continence, at least that of the higher clergy (those ordained to offer the One Sacrifice), is of apostolic origin. [ Christian Cochini, S.J., The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy. With a Preface by Father Alfons M. Stickler. Translated by Nelly Marans. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990. ]
We should also note that the reaction of more au courant theologians than Fr. Cochini has been incredulity, and attacks on the disinterestedness of his scholarship; and the reaction of the most au courant of them all has been a yawn: even if everything Fr. Cochini says is historically true -- so what? The truly advanced -- grandchildren of the Enlightenment -- have noticed that the 'disinterested' search for Light leads to darkness; that the 'disinterested' quest for foundations leads inexorably to the atomization of all foundations; and since their only god is autonomous rationality -- 'disinterestedness' -- and he is dead, from thence they have concluded that the only Law is Power, if Power sufficiently sweetened for the masses with Sartrean Bad Faith.
It is well to separate and disassociate the profession of the superiority of virginity for the kingdom from the reasons advanced for that superiority -- even those advanced by St. Paul. For St. Paul's rationales amount to an inherently debatable practical wisdom, and a "divided interests" theory that is an implicit repudiation of his own doctrine that the married couple images the One Flesh of Christ and His church.
In brief, we take the various reasons advanced to account for the indisputable superiority of the virginal state for the kingdom over the marital state for the kingdom to be theological, not doctrinal.
Given this, we may more easily notice the role that fasting has always played within the One Sacrifice, as Mathew, Mark, and Luke all recount that Jesus abjured (either or both) food and drink at the Last Supper:
"I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." [Mt 26:29 ]
"Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." [Mk 14:25 ]
And he said to them, "I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." [ Lk 22:15-16 ]
We note that this is a marked innovation on Our Lord's part: fasting was never a part of, or associated with, the Passover meal. The scripture scholar Joachim Jeremias says that the Greek in Luke, above, can take the meaning, "I would gladly have eaten (I have earnestly desired to eat) this passover with you." The point, Jeremias asserts, is to indicate that Jesus fasted before and during the One Sacrifice, first, to express the irrevocability of what He is about to do; second, to underline His dedication to His mission; third, to reinforce His prayer; fourth, as a sign of His intercession as Servant, for the Jews who persecute him. [ The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, New York, Scribners, 1966 (Tr. of Die Abendsmahlworte Jesu, 3rd ed.; 1964) ]
We then simply note that Jesus 'fasted' from all sexual expression throughout His life, and propose that this 'fasting' too was ordered towards His One Sacrifice of Calvary and the Eucharist, and for similar reasons as Jeremias has proposed for why He fasted from food and drink at the Last Supper. This sexual 'fasting', we propose, was done: first, to express the irrevocability of the One Sacrifice which is the cause, both continuing in history and at the eschaton, of the Event of the New Covenant; second, to underline His dedication to His mission; third, to reinforce the offering and prayer of His life and death to bring about the Event of the New Covenant; fourth, as a sign of His intercession as Servant for all sinners.
Thus, we propose that consecrated virginity "for the kingdom" is a 'fasting' associated with the One Sacrifice of Calvary and the Holy Eucharist, a personal sacrifice in close alignment with the 'fasting' of Our Lord in this regard, a discipline and a charity undertaken to underline the irrevocability, infallibility, seriousness, and superabundant charity of the One Sacrifice.
Therefore, the state of virginity for the kingdom is indeed superior to the married state for the kingdom, as a first approximation because the Eucharist is the cause of the sacrament of matrimony, and this 'fasting' is oriented to the Eucharist. The Eucharist can rightly be said to be "better and more blessed" than even the sacrament of matrimony, as cause can be said to be "better and more blessed" than effect. However, a fuller unpacking is necessary.
It cannot be the case that some sort of 'natural' virginity in itself is superior to the married state for the kingdom, for nothing in this world is in any way 'superior' to any of the seven sacraments, however many earnest Catholic Internet discussion groups befuddle themselves to the contrary.
Virginity for the kingdom can have meaning as the 'fasting' of complete sexual continence, a personal sacrifice performed, as a kind of combined charity and stubbornness (really, steadfastness), to emphasize and in alignment with the irrevocability, infallibility, seriousness, and superabundant charity of the One Sacrifice,
Thus virginity for the kingdom can rightly be regarded as 'superior' to the married state for the kingdom; and this not ever in itself, and not only because the Eucharist is the cause of the sacrament of matrimony, but more fundamentally, because His death is the cause of the One Flesh of the Eucharist. And this is the crucial point.
Nor can it be otherwise. There is certainly no necessity to interpret making oneself a eunuch "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" to mean a "fasting" that 'skips over' His death and refers directly to the One Flesh of the kingdom. To the contrary, Our Lord's several modes of "fasting" -- these sacrificial 'little deaths' -- were sacrificial testimonies directly in alignment with His death, and only secondarily can be associated with the One Flesh of the New Covenant, as effect (the One Flesh) is related to cause (His sacrificial death),
And if the marital state, even "for the kingdom," were superior to the virginal state for the kingdom, that would mean not merely that Our Lord Himself chose the lesser path. It would also and far more gravely mean that His death, His Passover, His Last Supper, was irrelevant.
For the presumption that the marital state for the kingdom is superior to, or even on equal terms with, Our Lord's several "fastings," fastings that refer not to the One Flesh but solely to His sacrificial death, would imply that the One Flesh is pre-eminent over His Death.
We have proposed that Our Lord's lifelong 'fasting' of sexual continence points and refers to His sacrificial death, and only indirectly to the One Flesh, which is the effect of His sacrificial death. If what His 'fasting' points to were not "better and more blessed" even than the One Flesh, then the One Flesh is not effect but cause -- the cause of salvation itself -- which is a flatly demonic statement.
It amounts to an encapsulation of all of Satan's lies and empty promises from the beginning of time, for the Father of Lies persuaded Eve that she could have everything that she already had: life and unity, with her husband and with God, without the responsibilities of covenantal existence.
Our Lord's several "fastings" are aligned with His death; they do not refer directly to the One Flesh of the kingdom, which is the effect of His death. How could there be a married state for the kingdom, with no kingdom? There is no kingdom apart from His death, apart from the One Sacrifice.
The One Flesh of the Event of the New Covenant is imaged in the sacrament of matrimony. But the One Flesh itself is the effect of His death. The One Sacrifice causes the One Flesh; and thence the Eucharist causes the sacrament of matrimony, which images the One Flesh; even to imply otherwise is repugnant, diabolical.
Without His death, we have nothing; in His death, we have everything; His death is metaphysically prior even to the ongoing historical One Flesh of the Event of the New Covenant.
It is the priority of His death even to the One Flesh that accounts for our Lord's "fasting," both throughout His life, and at the Last Supper. In a similar way, all the faithful fast from food and drink before receiving the Bread of Life, and both consecrated virgins, who are ordered implicitly to the One Sacrifice, and His ministers explicitly ordered to it, "fast" in both senses with Our Lord, "until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." [ Lk 22:16 ]
His death was the one thing necessary, not His "fasting" in conjunction with it. Only His death causes the One Flesh; his "fasting" was an additional, not strictly necessary, witness, testimony, and charity aligned with it. So also the "fasting" of consecrated virgins and His priests.
We note some recent worthy theological efforts to associate priestly continence with the One Flesh of the Eucharistic sacrifice: the priest, acting in persona Christi in the One Sacrifice, also represents Christ in His union with His Bride; and the continence of His priest thus testifies that the Bridegroom has only one Bride. Some eminent theologians have said that priestly continence shows the "exhaustion" of the sexuality of the priest into the One Flesh.
This is certainly one meaning of virginity "for the kingdom." The principle issue with this explanation is that it takes no notice of the priority of the One Sacrifice even to the One Flesh. It is plain that Jesus associated His Last Supper first and foremost with His death, and only secondarily with the One Flesh of the New Covenant, as effect to cause. Put crudely, He offered His apostles His already-separated Body and Blood; He did not announce and initiate the New Covenant, and then separate His Body and Blood. Our Lord's several "fastings" refer to His death, and only secondarily to the effect of His death, the One Flesh of the New Covenant.
Also, there is no clear path from the "One Flesh" explanation for the sexual continence of the higher clergy, acting in persona Christi to offer the One Sacrifice, to the consecrated virginity of women. For the Church has no power whatever to ordain women to act in persona Christi. (The times being what they are, it should be said that the Head is Christ, who alone can offer His death; and His glory is His Bride, who freely offers her own sacrifice of praise in union with His sacrifice).
Moreover, the "One Flesh" explanation also excludes the virginity of consecrated religious brothers, who also do not act in persona Christi.
Nor does the "One Flesh" explanation account in any obvious way for Trent's profession that virginity is better and more blessed than "to be united in matrimony." To the contrary, the "One Flesh" explanation appears to argue that the priest's virginity exists for the purpose of more fully expressing the union of Christ and His church: virginity's meaning is secondary to, is taken up in, "union." From there, the path to matrimony, which images the union of the One Flesh, is easy; but the path to a virginity that is "better and more blessed" than the union of matrimony, is hard. For all these reasons, the "One Flesh" explanation cannot be a sufficient account of virginity "for the kingdom."
Virginity, even for the kingdom, is not a sacrament, it does not save. And even with an explicit connection to the Eucharist, virginity is so inherently eccentric that if everybody were virginal, that would not 'perfect' the human race, it would end it.
Efforts, however earnest and venerable, to compel the fathers of Trent to submit to inexorable logic, and hence to plainly and clearly admit: that Our Lord intended His words regarding eunuchs for the kingdom to mean that He made participation in one of His sacraments to be objectively less worthy and less blessed and to give less grace, than existence in a state or condition that is not one of His sacraments and has never been regarded as a sacrament; that a believer who validly participates in a sacrament of the Catholic Church (matrimony), by that act and participation, consigns himself to an objectively inferior and less blessed state than the state the believer previously existed in (virginity or celibacy); that Our Lord intended His words regarding eunuchs for the kingdom to mean that a better and more blessed path to salvation and holiness exists outside of and apart from the sacramental economy, and that therefore the sacramental economy instituted by Our Lord is not economic; that objectively it would be better and more blessed if all believers were perpetually virginal and abjured even lawful union in marriage; that objectively it would be better and more blessed if no believer were ever so weakened by lust as to require recourse to the sacrament of matrimony; and to demand that these same fathers pronounce anathemas upon any who take a contrary position -- this may not be the most fruitful theological course.
Surely some, perhaps many, fathers and doctors of the Church, and popes, have at least occasionally theorized vaguely or naively in such wise, and surely a few have edged very close to the line, and even crossed it; and surely many theologians in many ages, including ours, have been more than happy also to edge near that line, and even cross it; but even more surely, neither has the magisterium ever affirmed such a reductio ad absurdum. The "state of virginity, or of celibacy," is "better and more blessed" than "to be united in matrimony." Nonetheless, it is matrimony which is a sacrament, not virginity, and not celibacy.
(And in the 'Excursus', above, we note a recent theological effort to account for virginity "for the kingdom" in a way (it would seem) that at least implicitly tries to avoid a vice that inevitably does harm: inappropriate elaborations or extensions of Trent's indisputable profession by means of a 'logic' seen as superior to the Church herself. A similar vice but much worse in intent is not only exercised but even encouraged within 'dissenting' theologies, whose raison d'etre is to make the Church obey a 'logic' -- a 'logic' available to the dissenters, of course -- that is 'beyond' and proudly superior to the Church herself and to Christ.)
Virginity for the kingdom is a worship, a charity, and a stubbornness/steadfastness in time, in history, that is a personal testimony that even the One Flesh of the Event of the New Covenant is not the first word. His death is metaphysically prior to, it causes, the One Flesh, from which everything wonderful infallibly flows -- including the sacrament of matrimony.
This is the reason why it is truly said that virginity for the kingdom is "better and more blessed" even than matrimony for the kingdom: we are indeed saved only in the One Flesh, but solely by His death. His death is metaphysically prior even to all the other goods and graces of His sacraments, prior even to the One Flesh of the Eucharist, and certainly, His death is metaphysically prior to matrimony, which images the Eucharistic One Flesh.
We say it again: even to hint that all, or any, of the manifold goods and graces flowing from the union of the Bridegroom and His bride, the Catholic Church, even in the Most Holy Eucharist, or from the union of man and woman in the sacrament of matrimony -- even to hint that any of these manifold goods and graces are possible without or apart from His sacrificial death, is to align oneself with the work of the Evil One.
Our Lord's sacrificial death is metaphysically prior to all these goods and graces. His One Sacrifice is One at the Last Supper, at Calvary, at the eschaton, and as continually represented sacramentally in history at every Mass. Our entry into the joys of covenantal existence does not occur without our first personally being baptized into His death, nor without our own free personal acceptance of covenantal moral responsibility. Without His One Sacrifice, apart from His One Sacrifice, we have nothing, and we are nothing.
"We proclaim Your Death, O Lord, and profess Your Resurrection, until You come again." We must ever remain in awe of those in the Church who are called to "fast" in personal witness to this most terrible, holy, and utterly fruitful truth.
Return to The Old Testament in the Heart
of the Catholic Church main page
Return to "Essays Towards a Covenantal Moral Theology"