Why is Consecrated Virginity Not a Sacrament

Marriage and religious life are two fundamental ways to fulfill the fundamental vocation of every human being to love. Why is marriage a sacrament and consecrated virginity or celibacy is not?

Since Christ certainly could have made consecrated virginity a sacrament, any answer can only be based on arguments of appropriateness. Both marriage and virginity are signs of the union between Christ and the Church. Is there a difference in the way in which they are signs of this union, such that marriage is fittingly a sacrament, and consecrated virginity is not?

Marriage signifies the union of Christ and the Church inasmuch as the very union of the two humans spouses derives from, participates in, and is a likeness of the perfect union of Christ with the Church. Nevertheless this union of the spouses remains distinct from this spousal union of Christ and the Church. The spouses do not give themselves directly to Christ, but to each other.

Consecrated virginity signifies the union of Christ and the Church inasmuch as the virgin is devoted, by her own will and by the Church, to the very union that constitutes the Church, to the fulfillment of the union with Christ begun in baptism. Thus it bears less the character of a sign, and more that of the reality itself.

We might tentatively say, then, that it would be less fitting for consecrated virginity or religious life to be a sacrament, a sacred sign that confers grace, because it is above all reality, a deepening of the baptismal grace, the spousal union with Christ the Bridegroom. It is a sign of the future kingdom, but it is a sign of it inasmuch as it already anticipates it in this life.

Another, complementary way to explain this looks at the different ways marriage and religious life relate to time and history. Marriage pertains above all to the working out of God's plan for man in time. Those who rise from the dead “neither marry nor are given in marriage”; human marriage ceases with death, even though some aspects of marriage, e.g., the love between the spouses, endures beyond death. The virgin's spousal union with Christ, however, does not cease with her death, but is consummated—she becomes even more perfectly that which she began to be on earth through baptism and through her vows: the bride of Christ. Since all of the sacraments pertain to the dispensation of God's grace in time and history, it is thus more fitting for marriage to be a sacrament than for consecrated virginity to be one.

Generous or severe interpretation

In the book Paths of Love the question is touched upon about how to interpret the Fathers when they seem negative towards marriage. Here is another example of how we may interpret a theologian in two quite different ways, one positive and the other negative.

St. Alphonsus de Liguori, writing to a woman deliberating about whether or not to become a religious, gives a very stark response :

Live Jesus, Mary, Joseph

Arienzo, September 27, 1769.

I answer your letter.
A young person can save her soul by remaining in the world; but it cannot be denied, that in the world, especially at the present time, there are many more dangers of committing sin and losing one’s soul.
The rule then to follow is this. If any person loves chastity, she ought to choose what is more perfect, that is, she should consecrate her virginity to Jesus Christ. By acting thus, she will be much less exposed to damn herself; and this is the counsel that I give you…

Alfonso Maria,
Bishop of Sant’ Agata.

Advice like this is sometimes rejected out of hand, on the grounds that the reason St. Alphonsus thinks like this, is that he almost sees marriage as the lesser of two evils (being less bad than fornication), and doesn't appreciate the goodness of marriage.

But whatever true there is in the claim that St. Alphonsus doesn't appreciate the goodness of marriage (as indeed there is some truth to it), it is somewhat simplistic, and ultimately incorrect to suppose that his position derives from this lack of appreciation. Rather, he is doing nothing other than trying to express what Christ himself expresses, when speaking about voluntary and perpetual celibacy, he says "Him who can take it, let him take it!" And again St. Paul, saying, "Whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control," and resolves to remain single for the sake of the kingdom of God, "he will do well" (1 Cor 7:37).

Naturally when a theologian speaks about the superiority of celibacy or virginity to marriage, if he does have any kind of negative view of marriage, this view will probably become manifest. But it is erroneous to therefore think that his positive position, argument, or claim is based upon this negative view.

In all cases we should be inclined to a generous interpretation, rather than a critical one. It is not only more charitable, but also usually more accurate. This applies above all when it comes to the saints; when it is possible to interpret what they say so as to be true and good, we should generally do so.

Read more texts of St. Alphonsus – more balanced texts on vocation.