The Catholic Church teaches that celibacy is superior to marriage. Pope John Paul II said that “the Church, throughout her history, has always defended the superiority of this charism [celibacy] to that of marriage” (Familiaris Consortio 16), and for many in our oversexed world, this is simply nonsensical.
It is difficult enough to understand why anybody would freely give up all sexual activity, but the idea that it is actually better to do so is just too much. What could possibly motivate such a teaching? How could it possibly be better to give up something as great as marriage and sex?
Some might assume that this is just another way the Catholic faith disparages sex and marriage, much like they think our beliefs about sexual morality do. However, as with many difficult Catholic teachings, if we look a bit deeper at the Church’s understanding of celibacy, we can see that the opposite is true.
As paradoxical as it may seem, the Church actually exalts marriage by holding celibacy to be the superior state of life. Consequently, there has to be something more to our beliefs about the value of celibacy than just a denigration marriage. This teaching has to be based on more than just a low view of human sexuality.
Good and Better
To understand why the Church values celibacy so highly, let’s begin by thinking back to that quote I gave from John Paul II. I only quoted a fragment of a sentence, and that fragment comes from a lengthy work that gives us some valuable insights into this difficult teaching. For instance, John Paul begins this section of the document by explaining that the Church’s exaltation of celibacy does not disparage marriage. He writes:
“When marriage is not esteemed, neither can consecrated virginity or celibacy exist; when human sexuality is not regarded as a great value given by the Creator, the renunciation of it for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven loses its meaning.
Rightly indeed does St. John Chrysostom say: ‘Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be particularly good. It is something better than what is admitted to be good that is the most excellent good.’” (Familiaris Consortio 16)
To understand this point better, consider an analogy. Imagine that I enjoy playing basketball, and you want to know just how much I enjoy it. You ask me, and in response, I tell you that I like it more than I like watching paint dry. Does that answer convey a great love of basketball on my part? Of course not! Nobody likes watching paint dry, so by saying that I enjoy basketball more than something I don’t like at all, I am not expressing much of an affinity for it.
However, if I say that I like playing basketball more than I enjoy eating my favorite foods and listening to my favorite songs, that is a different story. Those are clearly things that I enjoy very much, so saying that I like basketball even more than them means that I must really love it. Similarly, when the Church says that celibacy is superior to marriage, that is meaningful only if marriage is a good thing. If it were bad or even neutral, the elevation of celibacy over it would not mean much. Consequently, when the Church says that celibacy is superior to marriage, her purpose is not to denigrate marriage; rather, it is to show just how good celibacy is. We value it so highly because it is even better than marriage, which is good in its own right.
The Kingdom of God
Once we understand that, it should lead us to another question: if marriage is such a good thing, what makes celibacy better? John Paul II answers this for us. He says that the Church believes celibacy to be superior because of “the wholly singular link which it has with the Kingdom of God” (Familiaris Consortio 16). This point is key. The pope is saying that celibacy is not intrinsically superior to marriage; simply being unmarried is not inherently better than being married. Rather, celibacy is valuable only if it is freely chosen for the sake of the kingdom, if it is chosen as a means to grow in holiness. If, however, someone simply doesn’t find a spouse or if they are just not interested in getting married, then that state is not better than marriage.
And how does celibacy help people grow in holiness? On the simplest level, it frees them from the obligations of married life and allows them to serve God unhindered (1 Corinthians 7:32-34). On a deeper level, it allows people to reserve themselves for God in a unique way. In marriage, a man and a woman give themselves to each other in a way that demands complete exclusivity. They come to know each other more deeply and more completely than anybody else, and in doing so they reach a deep part of each other’s being that is reserved for them alone. However, when people choose celibacy, they give this up. They give up the possibility of having anybody know them this thoroughly, and instead, they reserve this deep part of their being for God alone. Consequently, celibacy doesn’t just give people more time for God; it also allows them to give themselves to him in a radical and unique way.
Moreover, the choice to live celibately is a witness to the world that there is something greater than even the greatest earthly good. When we see people who have made this choice, it should remind us of that. Celibacy sticks out like a sore thumb in our world, and that’s not an accident. It is supposed to be weird and different precisely in order to teach us that Christians live for more than just earthly things, no matter how great those earthly things may be.
Now, none of this is to say that we should all renounce marriage and choose celibacy. No, as Jesus tells us in the Gospels, the gift of celibacy is only for “those to whom it is given” (Matthew 19:11), so not everyone is called to this life. Most people are called to marriage, and that is the life they should choose. Even though celibacy is objectively superior, it’s not the best choice for every single person. When we move from the level of general principles to that of individual people, it is always better to choose the life that God wants for us, regardless of whether or not that life is objectively the best in itself.
Understanding the Nuances
All in all, the Church’s attitude towards celibacy has a few nuances that we need to grasp if we are to understand it correctly. If we ignore those nuances, we are inevitably going to misunderstand why the Church values celibacy so highly. We need to recognize that it is so valuable precisely because it involves the sacrifice of a great good (marriage) for the sake of something better (growth in holiness) and that it does not have much value in itself if it is not freely chosen as a means to grow closer to God. Once we grasp those points, we can see that the Church’s teaching that celibacy is superior to marriage actually makes a lot of sense.
Sacrificing something good for the sake of something better is a noble act, and the choice to remain celibate is no different. For those who are called to it, giving up the great good of marriage allows them to give themselves to God in a radical way and to make their very existence a witness to the Gospel in a manner that is simply impossible for married people.