"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Holy Thursday: God or the Girl?

Thanks to the good offices of a friend, I've previewed the A & E "reality" miniseries God or the Girl, which premieres this Easter Sunday. While better than most media productions that touch on the topic of priesthood and celibacy, it is all too typical of the world's reaction to the interest of some young men in becoming Catholic priests: Why on earth would you want to be celibate? Have you gone off your meds and out of therapy? As somebody remarked over at Amy Welborn's blog, Barbara Walters and her producers can't quite close their gaping mouths on that subject. Alas, neither can the masses of nominal and not-so-nominal Catholics. It's time for that to change.

The show isn't bad as such things go. It is respectful even if barely comprehending. That is why it provides an ideal opportunity for the hard core of Catholics to explain to young people, women as well as men, why consecrated celibacy's value is as great as its rarity. Toward that end, I have two points to make as a man who wanted to be a priest in youth and has taught as an adjunct in three seminaries—one of which had refused to admit me as a student. (Irony du jour, that.)

First, "the world"—which here includes nominal and not-so-nominal Catholics—doesn't get the celibacy thing for one simple reason: it does not grasp that one can respond to Christ's love with a loving gift of one's whole being, so that the opportunity to serve him by giving oneself to directly to the whole Church turns celibacy into a positive vehicle for precisely such a self-gift. Thus the self-gift entailed by celibacy "consecrates" as a space for grace and service what would otherwise be a mere absence, a hole in one's being. Men with a true vocation involving celibacy experience the sacrificial part of it as a mystical participation in the life of their Lord, and are accordingly nourished by it. Unless one is a well-formed and utterly committed Catholic, one cannot understand this. If one is, then one does—and one laments only its too-great rarity these days.

Second, and as the series' title suggests, it must be admitted that the Church has been doing a lousy job of presenting both consecrated celibacy and marriage as vocations. For devout Latin-Rite Catholic men, the real choice is not "God or the girl" but rather that between "giving oneself completely to God by giving oneself completely to the Bride of Christ, His Mystical Body, the Church" and "giving oneself completely to God by giving oneself completely to a particular woman belonging to that Body." The difference between those two ways of living the baptismal vocation is simply one of scope. But a further distinction is in order.

Priesthood is not, of itself, a spiritually higher state than marriage. Both are ways for men to represent, by living, the headship of Christ. Nevertheless, (consecrated) celibacy is in a sense "better" than marriage even though the latter is one of the "seven" sacraments and the former is not. Thus the Council of Trent defined:

"If anyone says that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity or celibacy, and/or (atque) denies that it is better and more blessed to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be united in matrimony: let him be anathema" (Session 24, Decree on Matrimony, Canon 10 [1563]).

How can that be, if marriage is a sacrament and celibacy is not? Simple: by affording wider scope in the Church for one's gift of self, consecrated celibacy (assuming one is called to it) is of clearer and greater evangelical signficance than marriage. The latter can and often does makes sense in secular terms; celibacy does not. Its witness to the Kingdom that is already and not yet, if faithfully maintained, is more effective than that of marriage.

Perhaps some adults who watch and discuss the show will get this across to a few young people. God knows the Church needs more of that to happen.
blog comments powered by Disqus