The Vocation of Marriage
Is marriage only for the weak? Are only those called to marriage who don't have a strong enough will to give themselves totally to Christ and his Church in virginity or celibacy? It could certainly seem so from St. Paul: "If his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry — it is no sin…. he who refrains from marriage will do better" (1 Cor 7:37-38).
Following a classic procedure, I will first give arguments in favor of this position, then my response to the question.
The saints on marriage and celibacy
In the first place, it seems that the authority of the saints indicates that marriage is only for those who are too weak to persevere in continence for the kingdom of heaven, while virginity or celibacy is for all those who have the strength of will to take it.
Marriage is attributed to weakness
Those of us who have wives we advise, with all our power, that they dare not judge of those holy fathers after their own weakness (St. Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, n. 34)
Has the apostle, think you, both shown sufficiently to the strong what is highest, and permitted to the weaker what is next best? Not to touch a woman he shows is highest when he says, "I would that all men were even as I myself." But next to this highest is conjugal chastity, that man may not be the prey of fornication. (St. Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church, ch. 35)
If under the Gospel it is permitted to have children, it is one thing to make a concession to weakness, another to hold out rewards to virtue. (St. Jerome, Against Jovianius I, n. 37).
The one sins not if she marries; if the other does not marry, it is for eternity. In the former is seen the remedy for weakness, in the latter the glory of chastity. The former is not reproved, the latter is praised. (St. Ambrose, Concerning Virgins I, ch. 6)
"To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry" (1 Cor 7:8-9). You can see Paul's common sense here. He says that continence is better, but does not force a person who cannot attain it, fearing that defeat may result. "For it is better to marry than to be burn" (v. 9); here he shows how great a tyranny the passions exercise over us. What he means is something like this: if you suffer with violent, burning passion, then relieve your pain and sweat through marriage, before you utterly collapse. (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 19 on 1 Cor.)
These are the two purposes for which marriage was instituted: to make us chaste, and to make us parents… The purpose of chastity takes precedence… If you desire children, you can get much better children now, a nobler childbirth and better help in your old age, if you give birth by spiritual labor. So there remains only one reason for marriage, to avoid fornication, and the remedy is offered for this purpose (St. John Chrysostom, Sermon on Marriage).
In order to avoid an unbalanced impression of St. John's Chrysostom view of marriage, I also quote another text of his describing a holy marriage:
Some wise man in the list of blessings sets many things, and also sets this in the list of blessing: "And a wife," he says, "in harmony with her husband." And again elsewhere he puts this among the blessings, "the wife being in agreement with her husband." And from the beginning God appears to have made providence for this union, and has spoken of the two as one… There is no relationship between men as great as that of a wife to her husband, if they are coupled as they ought to be… Indeed the household is a little Church. Thus by becoming good husbands and wives, it is possible to surpass all others. (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 20 on Ephesians, PG 62, 135 & 143)Furnish your house neatly and soberly… Remove from your lives shameful, immodest, and Satanic music, and don't associate with people who enjoy such profligate entertainment… Pray together at home and go to Church… Remind one another that nothing in life is to be feared, except offending God. If your marriage is like this, your perfection will rival the holiest of monks. (Ibid.)
Alphonsus de Liguori is also quite as strong on this point as St. Jerome, Origen, or Tertullian.
The married state I cannot recommend to you, because St. Paul does not counsel it to any one, except there be a necessity for it, arising out of habitual incontinence, which necessity, I hold for certain, does not exist in your case. (St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Reply to a youth considering which state he should choose)
… But if you resolve not to become a religious, I cannot advise you to enter the married state, for St. Paul does not counsel that state to any one, except in case of necessity, which I hope does not exist for you. (St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Advice to a woman in doubt as to what state she should choose)
Virginity or celibacy is for those of strong will
Many texts of the Fathers and saints also seem to show that virginity or celibacy is for those who have the strength of will to take it, which seems to imply, conversely, that marriage is for those who are weak-willed.
Virginity is something supernaturally great, wonderful, and glorious… Chastity with men is a very rare thing, and difficult of attainment, and in proportion to its supreme excellence and magnificence is thre greatness of its dangers.
For this reason, it requires strong and generous natures, such as, vaulting over the stream of pleasure, direct the chariot of the soul upwards from the earth, not turning aside from their aim, until having, by swiftness of thought, lightly bounded above the world, and taken their stand truly upon the vault of heaven, they purely contemplate immortality itself as it springs forth from the undefiled bosom of the Almighty. (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 6, discourse 1, p. 310)
The Master of the Christian race offers the reward, invites candidates to the course, holds in His hand the prize of virginity, points to the fountain of purity, and cries aloud "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink." "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." (Against Jovinianus, St. Jerome, in NPNF 2nd series, Volume VI, p. 355)
"He who can receive this, let him receive it." What is this? If natural ability is meant, no one is able, while if supernatural ability is meant, all are able. I say that 'can' includes the power of the will. For some have a firm will, while others do not. And it is manifest that he who has a firm will does not fear many impulses, while he who does not, falls by a slight impulse. Whence it is as though one were to say, he who is able by firmness of will, not from nature but from God, let him receive it. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Matthew, Lecture 19, n. 1572).
This recommendation for which the Pope takes the whole responsibility is a very paternal word which is inspired solely by the good of religious communities. It is this: "Be rigorous."…
By these words his Holiness wished to allude not only to the severity of discipline in general, but above all and in a very special manner, to the severity which is necessary when accepting postulants. Someone may say that they are already too severe; the Pope authorizes the answer that it is he who wishes it to be so… If, in fact, we desire to preserve the splendor of religious life, we must be severe above all where vocations are concerned, because divine grace helps, but does not destroy human nature, and therefore it remains necessary to struggle, a necessity which is even more grace in religious life. It is for that reason that we cannot run the risk of unsuitable elements infiltrating a religious community, for these elements not only will not be useful for anything, they will be on the contrary so many obstacles, so many stumbling-blocks; they will constitute so much cockle among the wheat.
It is not exaggeration, but experience, which tells us that in human collectivities, even restricted ones, almost inevitably deficiencies are produced. A religious family need not, for all that, reduce the number of its members; on the contrary, they must be increased; but it must so act that all its members will be chosen souls, elite, soldiers. A difficult thing, a difficult task, but necessary. In fact, when many men gather together, the good qualities, especially the highest ones, do not add up to a sum total; each one keeps his own; on the contrary, the deficiencies, the bad qualities, join one another and fuse. (Pope Pius XII, Allocution to the Friars Minor Capuchins, July 10, 1938)
To worldly gaze, which does not penetrate beneath the surface, religious life may appear more especially as a refuge from the tempest, a spiritual repose in a peaceful retreat, a desert where weaker souls seek a refuge far from the perils and worries of the world. But the world is blind. For a firm heart, intrepid before earthly trials, like that of your Blessed Mother Foundress, religious life is religion lived before God and man, and if it is a retreat, it is at the same time an arena of abnegation and prayer, of action and labor, from which one comes forth more firm and more eager, ready for greater sacrifices and for greater activity in the service of God and souls, totally under the sway of a charity more intense, bolder, even impassible in the face of death. (Pius XII, Allocution to the pilgrims at the beatification of Magdalene of Canossa, December 9, 1941, in States of Perfection, p. 326)
Superiority of celibacy
Secondly, it seems to follow, if virginity or celibacy is superior to marriage as a way of living and growing in love of God and neighbor, as the Church teaches, and if it is open to all, then the only reason for someone not to embrace virginity or celibacy would be that they are do weak to do so.
Now the Church does clearly teach that virginity or celibacy is superior to marriage as a way of expressing and growing in love of God.
"If anyone says that the married state is to be preferred to the state of virginity or celibacy, and that it is not better and happier to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in matrimony, let him be anathema" (Council of Trent, Canons on the Sacrament of Matrimony, Can. 10).32. This doctrine of the excellence of virginity and of celibacy and of their superiority over the married state was, as We have already said, revealed by our Divine Redeemer and by the Apostle of the Gentiles; so too, it was solemnly defined as a dogma of divine faith by the holy council of Trent , and explained in the same way by all the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Finally, We and Our Predecessors have often expounded it and earnestly advocated it whenever occasion offered (Encyclical Letter Sacra Virginitas, Pius XII, March 25, 1954).
The second way to perfection, by which a man may be more free to devote himself to God, and to cling more perfectly to him, is the observance of perpetual chastity… The way of continence is most necessary for attaining perfection… Abraham had so great spiritual perfection in virtue, that his spirit did not fall short of perfect love for God on account either of temporal possessions or of married life. But if another man who does not have the same spiritual virtue, strives to attain perfection, while retaining riches and entering into marriage, his error in presuming to treat Our Lord's words as of small account will soon be demonstrated. (St. Thomas Aquinas, On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, Ch. 9)
Again, the Church teaches that a person is free to decide for marriage or for celibacy.
In choosing a state of life there is no doubt but that it is in the power and discretion of each one to prefer one or the other: either to embrace the counsel of virginity given by Jesus Christ, or to bind himself in the bonds of matrimony. (Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii. The pope is here quoting Rerum Novarum.)4… no one may prevent those who are canonically suitable from entering religion, since the religious state by its very nature lies open to all the faithful and is to be held in honor by all. "Let no one, who is unwilling, be driven to this kind of consecrated life; but, if one wishes it, let there be no one who will dissuade him, much less prevent him from undertaking it." (The General Statutes annexed to the Apostolic Constitution Sedes Sapientiae, The Sacred Congregation of Religious, 1957, Art. 32)
Young people, entering into themselves and at the same time entering into conversation with Christ in prayer, desire as it were to read the eternal thought which God the Creator and Father has in their regard. They then become convinced that the task assigned to them by God is left completely to their own freedom. (Pope John Paul II, Dilecti Amici, n. 10)
The fundamental vocation of all is the vocation to love. "Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being" (Familiaris Consortio, n. 11; also cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1604). The vocation to a particular way of life is a determination of this common vocation to love. "The word 'vocation' indicates that there exists for every person a proper direction of his development through commitment of his entire life in the service of certain values… And therefore a vocation always means some principal direction of love that a particular person has" (Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility).
The choice of the concrete way in which to fulfill, live out, and grow in the vocation to love is generally left up to the choice of the individual person (though in some cases God intervenes to call someone in a particularly special way, as he did with Abraham). Nevertheless the way in which one may best live out the vocation to love depends on both external and interior factors. Pope John Paul II says:
Young people, entering into themselves and at the same time entering into conversation with Christ in prayer, desire as it were to read the eternal thought which God the Creator and Father has in their regard. They then become convinced that the task assigned to them by God is left completely to their own freedom, and at the same time is determined by various circumstances of an interior and exterior nature. Examining these circumstances, the young person, boy or girl, constructs his or her plan of life and at the same time recognizes this plan as the vocation to which God is calling him or her. (Dilecti Amici, n. 9)
Generally, however, the primacy belongs to the interior factors, to the capacity, readiness, and commitment to pursue a particular path as an expression of and means to love. The devotion with which one pursues a particular way of life (supposing that it is a good and holy way of life) is more important than its mere objective superiority, or lack thereof. The Pope states:
According to the consistent teaching and practice of the Church, virginity realized as a deliberately chosen life-vocation, based on a vow of chastity, and in combination with the two other vows of poverty and obedience, creates particularly favorable conditions for attaining evangelical perfection. The combination of conditions that results from applying the evangelical counsels in the lives of particular men, and especially in communal life, is called the state of perfection. The "state of perfection," however, is not the same as perfection itself, which is realized by every man through striving in the manner proper to his vocation to fulfill the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor. It may happen that a a man who is outside the "state of perfection," is, by observing this greatest commandment, effectively more perfect than someone who chose that state. In the light of the Gospel, every man solves the problem of his vocation in practice above all by adopting a conscious personal attitude towards the supreme demand contained in the commandment of love. This attitude is above all a function of a person, the state (marriage, celibacy, even virginity understood only as the "state" or an element of the state) plays in it a secondary role. (Love and Responsibility)
A person who chooses celibacy without a strong inner commitment to it as a way of love (which realistically can be absent in someone who chooses it simply because it is the "higher state"), which generally goes along with an inner peace, may not in fact really attain the proper goal of celibacy, may be himself troubled by the dividedness of heart that St. Paul ascribes to married persons in general. St. Thomas Aquinas says that "[the evangelical] counsels, considered in themselves, are advantageous for all; but due to some people being poorly disposed, it happens that some of them are not advantageous, because their heart [affectus] is not inclined to them" (ST I-II 108:4). And Pope John Paul II explains:
Paul observes that the man who is bound by the marriage bond "finds himself divided" (1 Cor 7:34) because of his family duties (see 1 Cor 7:34). From this observation, it seems thus to follow that the unmarried person should be characterized by an inner integration, by a unification that would allow him to devote himself completely to the service of the kingdom of God in all its dimensions. This attitude presupposes abstention from marriage, exclusively "for the kingdom of God," and a life directed uniquely to this goal. Otherwise "division" can secretly enter also the life of an unmarried person, who, being deprived, on the one hand, of married life and, on the other hand, of a clear goal for which he should renounce marriage, could find himself faced with a certain emptiness. (Pope John Paul II, General Audience, July 7, 1982)
Understanding of celibacy
This single-heartedness, this strong commitment to celibacy as a way of love, presupposes on the one hand a particular light and understanding, which is a gift of grace (though it certainly need not be experienced as a inspiration, in contrast to so-called ordinary Christian faith and prudence).
Christ speaks about an understanding ("Not all can understand it, but only those to whom it has been granted," Mt 19:11); and it is not a question of an "understanding" in the abstract, but an understanding that influences the decision, the personal choice in which the "gift," that is, the grace, must find an adequate resonance in the human will. (Pope John Paul II, General Audience of March 31, 1982)
Jesus calls attention to the gift of divine light necessary to "understand" the way of voluntary celibacy. Not all can understand it, in the sense that not all are "able" to grasp its meaning, to accept it, to put it into practice. This gift of light and decision is only granted to some. It is a privilege granted them for the sake of a greater love. We should not be surprised then if many, not understanding the value of consecrated celibacy, are not attracted to it, and often are not even able to appreciate it. This means that there is a diversity of ways, charisms, and functions, as Saint Paul recognized, who spontaneously wished to share his ideal of virginal life with all. Indeed he wrote: "I wish that all were as I myself am. But each," he adds, "has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another" (1 Cor 7:7). (Pope John Paul II, General Audience, November 16, 1994)
Love of celibacy
The firm choice of celibacy presupposes also a certain love of celibacy, deriving from a love of Christ, a desire for a greater freedom for service of others, or similar causes. This does not mean that a person feels no desire for marriage, but that the love of celibacy outweighs it, so to speak, so that the person is capable of devoting themselves wholeheartedly to the love of God and neighbor in celibacy.
Since it is a question of comparison of one desire with another, the sufficiency of a person's will or desire for celibacy depends both upon that will, and upon the desire for marriage. The fact that a person's love seeks expression in marriage rather than in celibacy could be attributed to a "lack" of or "less" appreciation of celibacy as a concrete possibility for onself, arising either from neglect, ignorance, or from God's not giving that "charism"; but it could also be attributed to a "greater" desire for a holy marriage, to raise children for Christ.
The determination of the direction a particular person's love takes depends partly upon natural factors, which make a person more inclined to one way of life than another. This natural difference in a certain way redounds to charity itself, inasmuch as "charity is firmer when it is founded on nature" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, ch. 4, lec. 2). The determination of love depends also upon divine providence (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles III, ch. 134, and Contra Impugnantes II, ch. 4, ad 1), and simply upon the will of God, of which charity is a participation. We do not possess charity as something totally of our own; it is essentially a share in God's own love, and God is the one to direct it. From charity springs a connatural judgment of what is in accordance with God's will, a judgment that is not altogether reducible to human reasoning, though human reasoning may be somehow involved in it. St. Francis de Sales describes this autonomy of charity in his Treatise on the Love of God:
When charity draws some to poverty and withdraws others from it, when she impels some to marriage and others to continence, when she shuts one up in a cloister and makes another leave it, she has no need to give an account to any one: for she has the plenitude of power in the Christian law, as it is written: charity can do all things (Cf. 1 Cor 13:7); she has the fullness of prudence, as it is said: charity does nothing in vain. And if any would contest, and demand of her why she does so, she will boldly answer: The Lord has need of it. All is made for charity, and charity for God. (Treatise on the Love of God, book 8, ch. 6)
This focus on the direction of love as an inner principle does not exclude other motives for marriage: St. Francis also gives the example of one who is required to marry for the sake of the common good: "You are perhaps a prince, by whose posterity the subjects of your crown are to be preserved in peace, and assured against tyranny, sedition, civil wars: the effecting, therefore, of so great a good, obliges you to beget lawful successors in a holy marriage." (Ibid.) But in most cases, such external considerations are not of themselves sufficient for a choice.
In answer to the original question, then, it should be said that the vocation of marriage is not only for those who are too weak to embrace the vocation of celibacy, but for those who, according to circumstances of natural disposition, providence, and the interior movement of charity, find marriage the fullest way of expressing and growing in this charity.
Reply to objections:
To the first set of objections, that marriage is a concession to weakness, for those who cannot otherwise be chaste, it should be said that the saints are addressing their own situation, and that in fact practically all persons marrying were not doing so from a rightly based conviction that marriage was the best means for living the divine love, but out of a desire for offspring, for economic reasons, for convenience, pleasure, or other such motives. For a long time there was a kind of self-reinforcing cycle in this matter. To the degree that little emphasis was put on marriage as a means to holiness, persons tended not to choose marriage in order to become holy–those who were intent on holiness tended to seek to remain single. The result of this was that persons had few examples of marriage as a means to holiness, which led to their not seeing marriage as a means to holiness, which led to persons seeking holiness not getting married, etc. St. Augustine points out: "[There are some marriages in which the spouses are not divided in heart, but completely devoted to God.] But they are very rare: who denies this? And being rare, nearly all the persons who are such, were not joined together in order to be such, but being already joined together became such (On the Good of Marriage, n. 14). That is, where there are few examples of holy marriages, people will not enter marriage seeking or expecting to become holy.
The second set of objections, that celibacy is for those with a strong will, should be granted inasmuch as Christian celibacy, in order to be Christian celibacy, more strictly requires a firm intention of living for God alone than marriage does, which is also a natural way of life. Yet we should note that the strength required is the strength spoken of by St. Paul: "I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me… for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 12:9-10); "I can do all things in him who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13). It is the strength of those who recognize their complete weakness, and rely on God alone.
To the objection based on the superiority of celibacy over marriage, the reply is clear from what was said. The choice of marriage as a vocation normally presupposes a relative inability to choose or live celibacy with a whole-heartedness as a divine calling and way of love, but this formal comparison does not necessarily imply an absolute weakness.