Celibacy was a radical idea from the moment it first appeared in our religious tradition. The setting was the 6th-century B.C. The prophet Jeremiah and his community were facing the devastating exile to Babylon, which included the loss of home, city, king, and Temple. In the midst of total upheaval, God asked Jeremiah not to marry or have children. That was a prophetic sign that the world as Israel knew it had no future. In a culture that valued the posterity of heirs so highly, Jeremiah’s celibacy was an outrageous choice.
The radical sign of celibacy, what the church calls the memento mori in Latin (“the reminder of death”) remains central to the practice of celibacy in ministry today. The affairs of this world are passing, while the realities of the reign of God are everlasting. The celibate lifestyle is a walking testimony to this belief. Jesus taught that when he told the disciples, “Some . . . have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Matthew 19:12). The church points to the example of both Jesus and his Virgin Mother as eloquent witnesses to the single-minded dedication to God’s reign that is possible without other primary commitments.
Saint Paul also extolled celibacy (his own life is Exhibit A in his argument) but did not mandate it.. Paul believed that, all things being equal, the virgin and the celibate were free from preoccupation with family matters and can therefore be more attentive to the Lord, especially because he thought the end of the world was near. Theologians rush to add that all things are frequently not equal: a married person may certainly be more attentive to God than a given celibate.
What is clear from these discussions is that the point of celibacy is not refraining from sexual activity (the typical secular assumption) but simplifying and clarifying one’s life for single-hearted service. Celibacy remains a radical incarnation of Christian freedom to move as God wills.
Jeremiah 16:1-2; Matthew 19:10-12; 1 Corinthians 7:1-40
“Celibacy for the Kingdom & the Fulfillment of Human Sexuality” by Christopher West
“Celibacy” in The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. (Liturgical Press)
Celibacy, Ministry, Church by Joseph Blenkinsopp (Herder and Herder)
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