As Mark Shea has so pithily put it: "Show me a culture that despises virginity and I’ll show you a culture that despises children because all children are virgins." In our culture, the devil’s propaganda machine works overtime to accomplish making virginity despised and making children dead and the two things are certainly joined at the hip. While we necessarily give much attention to the defense of the lives of children, we generally do not hear virginity extolled. Perhaps that needs to change.
The Devil Hates Virginity
The devil’s hatred of children we can perhaps understand as part of his general antagonism that makes all human beings his prey. But why does he especially target virgins? For one thing, it is because the Queen of Virgins is his mortal enemy and a train of virgins follow her — all participating in her crushing the head of the Old Serpent (Ps 45: 13-14). But there is even more to it than this. God sends every person into this world as a gift and virginity is how the gift is wrapped. God has provided a sacred way to unwrap and give this gift away to another human being in marriage. But those who instead present this gift to God Himself by perpetual continence, who enter the life of the world to come still "new, in original packaging," are rewarded by distinct honors, even in heaven — especially in heaven, I should say.
For the female saints, our martyrology even notes their virginity. Alice von Hilderbrand explained:
The woman is in a very particular way the guardian of purity and in the world in which we live, the world of sexual perversions and disaster, maybe it can be said this is because women have failed in their mission to stand for purity.
And why do I say she stands for purity and for virginity?
There’s something very interesting. If you look at the liturgy there are special Masses for popes, for apostles, martyrs, non-martyrs, confessors, non-confessors and when you turn to women, you have only two categories, virgin/non-virgin, martyr/non-martyr. This is something extremely interesting. There is no Mass for celibates [i.e. male virgins], none, but there is a Mass for [female] virgins.
This indicates very plainly that there is something extraordinarily great and mysterious about femininity. And why do I say it is so great and so mysterious? Because you all know that every little girl that is born, is born with a seal, so to speak, protecting the mystery of her femininity, which is the womb. There is a seal and if you understand, a seal always indicates something which is sacred. The seal, which doesn’t exist in the male body, is profoundly symbolic and says this belongs to God in a special way. This is a sphere which is so beautiful and so profound that it cannot be touched upon, except with God’s permission, in a Catholic marriage.
The unique preciousness of virginity was observed by Jerome in his twenty-second Epistle to St. Eustochium, n. 5 (P.L., XXII, 397): "[T]hough God is almighty, He cannot restore a virginity that has been lost."
When we understand the preciousness of virginity, we understand that the Blessed Virgin could not have been otherwise than a consecrated virgin, intending never, as she put it to the angelic messenger, to "have relations with a man." The very intention or desire to have relations would in and of itself been a mark that she was less than perfect. This may be hard for us to grasp. We consider the orientation of a person toward sex and marriage to be so good and natural that it is easy to forget that the human soul rightly ordered is orientated toward God as her greatest good, that those who choose the reality of union with God over the sign of that reality (marriage), have chosen what is better. This is something that the early Church fathers understood so well. They recognized that an attack on the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity was an attack on her sanctity. They understood that virginity had an exalted place in heaven and that the Queen of Heaven must be a virgin, not merely at the time of Jesus’ birth, but even in intention before the Annunciation and in both intention and in fact for life.
Another reason this idea has become foreign to us is because we moderns tend to seek a kind of radical egalitarianism that does not easily square up with the understanding that in heaven some will be rewarded with greater glory than others. But it is so. Heaven is a place of radical reality and truth. And the reality — the truth — is that we are not all equal, other than in dignity. Our human dignity is equal, but our holiness is not equal. We are all not equally filled with grace. The Blessed Virgin was full of grace and cooperated fully and perfectly with grace. We others are given grace in various degrees and we respond to it with various degrees of docility and effort, all of which in some mysterious way affect the glory with which we will shine in heaven.
The physical creation gives us both an earthly icon and a celestial icon of this. St. Thérèse called the flowers to witness that every one was beautiful, each in its own way, but some smaller and less showy, while others were striking and impressive. St. Paul points us to the stars in the sky: "There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor 15:41-42 RSV).
To desire that glory in heaven that is the special crown of virgins is a good and holy desire. To desire that our children should be thus crowned is a good and holy desire. Yet, how many of us ever even tell our children that such a great reward exists? How many of us have heard a homily preached that held this reward up as a worthy goal for which to strive?
The clerical abuse scandal has dealt its own particular blow to virginity. How many priests have managed in recent years to weave mention of their pre-seminary "girlfriend/s" into a homily — prompting a sense almost of relief in the congregation? How different from the beloved West Georgia Monsignor who died a few years back and let his joy be known to his friends that he was going to God a virgin. Looking at the manly vigor with which St. Thomas Aquinas defended his own virginity and the great reward of wisdom and clarity of thought it brought him, should we not prefer that our priests be virgins, that is to say, life-long celibates, than that they confirm their "orientation"? Where are the priests who will say, "By grace, I am a virgin" or "It has been my great blessing to be a life-long celibate"? because our fond hope should be that most can say it.
To some extent neglect of this topic is understandable as a reaction to the multiple fronts on which marriage is under attack. We go to great lengths to extol the good of marriage, encouraging our children to save themselves for marriage. The more marriage is denigrated, the more we uphold it as a holy and desirable state. The response to our sex-saturated culture has been to preach the Theology of the Body and affirm the sanctity of sex within marriage. The more that our culture sees children, the fruit of marriage, as an STD to be eliminated medically, the more we affirm that children are gifts from God and that motherhood is blessed. So concentrated have we been on this line of defense that we have neglected to defend virginity in and of itself, not merely as a desirable state in which to enter marriage, but as a holy and elevated state — worthy, in God’s sight, of special honor – in which to live one’s entire life in God’s service.
Perhaps we need to question whether the tack we have taken is counter-productive. I want to suggest that we can never defend marriage and motherhood without defending lifelong virginity. Virginity does not oppose motherhood — certainly the Blessed Virgin teaches us that! Alice von Hildebrand again:
Because of her humility, Mary is granted the privilege of being both mother and virgin. She teaches us that virginity — far from being a renunciation of motherhood — the glory of women — is a higher form of motherhood. The true virgin is not giving up this female privilege: by freely choosing to be only fecundate by God’s grace, she can become the mother of innumerable souls. Lapa, St. Catherine of Siena’s mother, bore twenty-four children. The consecrated virgin finds this too little: she wants to open her maternal heart to the whole world. St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta cannot possibly count the number of children that she has had; it is legion.
Marriage needs virginity, not just as the best preparation for marriage, but because the successful ordering of a society that supports marriage cannot be accomplished without a large number of people who live in voluntary continence and spend their lives in service. We can illustrate this with two examples: healthcare and education.
Healthcare and Education Need Virgins
Affordable quality healthcare is needed by families — and the more children they have the more they need it. Providing healthcare to others, caring for the sick and dying, are preeminent roles in society of those who live consecrated, celibate lives.
The entire establishment of the Catholic healthcare system would have been unthinkable without the service of previous generations of dedicated, consecrated, virgin nurses and celibate doctors. They are still desperately needed. The corporal work of mercy that is caring for the sick is something that we all are called to do among our families and friends. But the formation and maintenance of institutions — hospitals and clinics — needs people for whom giving this care is a life’s work. While this work can be done — and is being done — by men and women who are also raising families, the salary demands of those workers who are supporting a family add to the cost of healthcare. If we want to make healthcare more affordable, it needs to be uncoupled to the greatest extent possible from the burden of supporting the families of healthcare workers.
The same thing is true of education. Institutes of education that are staffed by consecrated celibate people have an economic advantage over institutions of learning that must pay a salary to teachers and administrators who are supporting families. They are thus in a better position to serve those most in need of the economic stepping stone that education can be.
Having virgin educators imparts another advantage, though. It allows children and youths the opportunity to get to know people whose lives are an eschatological sign pointing to the joy of heaven. It provides practical examples in the one area in which parents by definition cannot be examples — in living as chaste virgins and life-long celibates among a faithless and perverse generation.
Healthcare and education costs have always provided the impetus and the justification for increasing taxation and limiting freedom — and ever more so as the role of consecrated celibates has been reduced in those areas. A society of free families living the Catholic faith, with husbands and wives open to life, is unimaginable without the support structure provided by faithful virgins who give of themselves to all with the devotion that spouses give of themselves to one. We can hardly see our way past the strangling coils of the Leviathan state anymore and if we ever do untangle ourselves it will be because virgins lead us to freedom.