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Quodlibet 36: What does the celibacy of Christ tell us about the hierarchy of Christian vocations?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012
I pondered this question for a few days over the Christmas break, and in the end decided that I really ought to go and get some expert advice lest my answer be profoundly banal. Our Vice-Regent, Fr. Richard Conrad OP, was unlucky enough to be settling down to a post-Christmas glass of port in the common room when I arrived in search of someone to interrogate. He very kindly offered me his thoughts on celibacy, most of which I have plagiarised below. Any mistakes are entirely my fault.

Fr. Richard pointed out that to talk about celibacy in the abstract is difficult and usually misleading. This is because priests and religious do not choose celibacy for its own sake, as an isolated good in itself. Neither should the vow of celibacy be understood as simply a necessary evil that has to be endured for the sake of a larger goal or vision. On the contrary, celibacy is an integral dimension of a particular pattern of Christian life that is freely and joyfully chosen. The decision to commit to a lifetime of celibacy is therefore a positive choice for something, rather than just a negative renunciation.

The difficulty arises when we try to articulate what exactly it is that we are choosing. If celibacy is freely chosen as part of a recurring pattern of Christian vocation that has been institutionalized in some way, for example in the way of life of a religious order, then we are speaking of a common renunciation that can 'mean' different things according to the context in which the vow or commitment is made. In other words, different patterns of Christian life: Dominican, Benedictine, Jesuit, Secular Priesthood, and so on, will have different patterns of celibacy. This suggests that the 'meaning' of the vow of celibacy in its deepest sense will always evade us, for there will be as many kinds of celibacy as there are celibate vocations. Whilst, therefore, there are many straightforward and simple answers to the question: 'why are monks/nuns/ priests etc celibate?' Some of which will be practical and pragmatic, others spiritual and theological; none can do full justice to the lived experience of the vow.

We can, however, sketch out some common themes and principles which serve to organise these diverse experiences. All Christian vocations find their fulfillment and perfection in Christ, in a sense they re-present an aspect of Christ's ministry to the world, and have His mother Mary as their model. Dominicans, for example, have tended to identify with the celibate Christ who wandered and preached, perhaps a hermit might identify with the celibate Christ that sought out solitude to pray, others still with the celibate Christ that was available and generous to those in need. As for married people, St. Paul makes it clear in his letter to the Ephesians (5: 25) that the sacrament of marriage points to the marriage between Christ and his Church. Yet despite this unity of Christian vocation in Christ, celibate vocations have traditionally been seen as somehow objectively 'higher'.

This elevation of celibacy flows from the high iconic value of religious life and the priesthood. Put simply, the monk, nun, friar, sister, priest is, or ought to be, a more obvious or visible sign of Christ's presence in the world and of the Kingdom of God. The celibate religious or priest ought to be more obviously living the same kind of life that Christ did. It may also be true that some kinds of Christian vocation can only be done, or are best done, by a celibate. This might be for very practical reasons, such as availability or time committments, but it may also be the case that certain kinds of contemplation might only be undertaken by someone who has no one else but Christ. The fact that Jesus' ministry on earth took a particular form, the fact that he was celibate, must tell us something about what the Incarnate Word looks like when projected onto a sinful world, and suggests that celibate vocations in the church are not the optional extra that they are sometimes made out to be.

Having said this, we ought to be cautious about asserting the idea of a hierarchy of vocations too forcefully. Aquinas argues that glory in heaven is completely dependent on our charity on earth and nothing else. St. Paul also warns against being too glib about which vocation is the highest (1 Corinthians 12: 22-26). Mary is Queen of Heaven because her vocation to be Mother of God required more charity of her, not because she is a virgin. Indeed, Mary had so much charity that as Virgin, Mother and Wife she is able to be the model of all Christian vocations. Similarly, the privileged positions of the Apostles and John the Baptist in the hierarchy of saints stems from their great love of God and neighbour, not from the privilege of being an apostle or the forerunner per se.

It is crucial, then, that individuals find the context in which they can love most effectively and generously, that they find the pattern of Christian life that is best for them, rather than best in some abstract sense. For some the demands of married life and raising children will provide the best environment for them to grow in love, and thus grow in holiness and conformity to Christ. For others, the context in which they can love most perfectly will be a religious order, or the secular priesthood. Those that are particuarly fortunate and blessed by God are given the gift of a Dominican vocation! In all these instances we share in the love of Christ, and become an instrument through which Christ can reach out to others.

Nicholas Crowe OP

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