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Catholic Life | Tag Archive | Celibate Marriage
Tag Archives: Celibate Marriage

Saintly Marriage: Why it Matters

The ideal of celibate marriage is not one that should be accepted by most couples in the form of renunciation of conjugal intercourse. Instead it should properly be understood as a challenge to examine one’s love for one’s spouse in comparison to one’s love for God.

Sexual activity isn’t what really matters. Love is. What is the honest answer to the question of whom one loves? It should be God. And then when someone asks about one’s love for one’s spouse or children, the answer should be a declaration that obviously one loves them appropriately since one loves God. Yet in comparison to one’s love for God, one’s love for one’s spouse must look like hatred.

The greatest challenge of marriage for me so far has been to learn to love my husband more than myself, and yet still less than I love God.

This week has been a great reminder of how very far I am from that. On Monday night I set the alarm so that I could get up in time to go to Mass before work. On Tuesday morning I turned the alarm off and stayed in bed for another half hour. It was lovely to be there listening to my husband’s breathing. Prior to getting married I could make myself get out of a cozy bed while it was still dark in order to go to Mass. But now the hard floor is too wonderful to leave when my husband is there beside me.

Thankfully God loves me more than I love God and I got the unexpected opportunity to go to Mass later in the day. But there could not have been a clearer indication that my love for Josh won out over my love for God. Yes, there are times in marriage when one needs to put service of spouse above spiritual practice, but it was not as if my sleeping husband cared whether I was there beside him. It was all about me.

Today I walked into a Mass that had started two minutes early. As I checked to insure that my cell phone was silenced I noticed that I had new voicemail from three missed calls. I did not check to see whose calls I had missed even though it was unusual to have new voicemail from the morning.

Then suddenly during consecration I realized that it could have been that something was wrong with Josh. I hadn’t seen him online in the morning. I had assumed that meant that he had closed Gmail in order to work without interruption, but it also could have been a sign of something wrong. Perhaps he was locked out of the apartment and his only way of contacting me was the cell phone which I ignore while at work.

I realized that I was being silly. I also realized that the priest had finished the prayer while I had been thinking about Josh rather than God. Unlike earlier in the week, I had not consciously chosen Josh over God, but Saint Paul might as well have been standing beside me with an “I told you so” look.

Marriage is a great gift and beautiful path of salvation. But it is also one of the most alluring temptations of damnation. Women in particular are especially vulnerable to spiritual damage in marriage because many of us are naturally inclined–and all of us our taught–to pour ourselves entirely into marriage. And the harder we work on our relationships, the more we give ourselves to our spouses, and the better our marriages are, the less we are drawn to the Triune God. For our energy is directed to our spouses and we are satisfied with something wonderful; something dreadfully less than God alone.

One obvious help for many married women Saints was wretched husbands who drove their wives constantly back to the arms of God for solace. That is not exactly the sort of aid to salvation that I desire!

And yet as I look at my life it is clear that I am constantly in danger of damning myself through “love” of my spouse! I am not worthy to be the disciple of Jesus Christ. Yes, I continually pray “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word…” but so often I am not really aware of how unworthy I am. For I am too busy loving my husband to notice that I hate my God.

This is why I must look to the ideal example of Our Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph and all the Saints who followed after them in the most perfect of marriages. It is not that sexual intercourse is bad, but rather that forgoing it for the glory of God is emblematic of the pure devotion to God which characterizes all the Saints. And the great love for God which makes spousal love seem like hatred by comparison is precisely what I lack.

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Wedding Nights

I will admit that I started posting about celibate marriage now because I thought that others were disputing the traditional nature of something which seemed indisputable to me. I enjoy the abstract consideration of just about every theological topic and find that blogging not only allows me to clarify my understanding, it also gives others the opportunity to point to what I am missing.

But I have been working on draft posts about celibate marriage for much longer because I think that the misunderstanding surrounding the Church’s teaching on marriage causes very real harm in very real, very normal marriages.

One of the most common errors that I have seen embraced by Catholics is the idea that a marriage must be consummated in order to be valid. I do not regularly talk with people in real life about their sexual relationships, but many times when the topic of natural family planning comes up for newlyweds,  someone will say something about how the couple must engage in sexual intercourse on their wedding night in order to consummate the marriage and make it valid.

This is a theological error which is deplorable due to its consequences in real life.

It is certainly good for a newly married couple to consummate their marriage at whatever appropriate time they so desire. But it is quite bad for them to be pressured into a poorly timed first sexual encounter due to the mistaken idea that they are not really married until they consummate their marriage!

The spiritual benefit of not rushing consummation should be obvious from the readings offered for the wedding liturgy. There is a reason that the Church suggests a reading from the book of Tobit where the couple spend the first three nights of marriage in prayer rather than in “their own wedlock.” In fact, the Douay-Rheims offers this translation:

Then Tobias exhorted the virgin, and said to her: Sara, arise, and let us pray to God today, and tomorrow, and the next day: because for these three nights we are joined to God: and when the third night is over, we will be in our own wedlock. For we are the children of saints, and we must not be joined together like heathens that know not God.

Sure, Tobias had to be more than a little scared in order to make such a point of honoring God rather than lust, but the point is simply that every Catholic should see the goodness of offering oneself to God prior to giving oneself to one’s spouse sexually!

The practical reason for not rushing consummation is, if anything, more obvious. Most couples in our culture go through elaborate wedding rituals which leave them to start married life in a state of pure exhaustion. While exhausted sex may be fine later in marriage, a couple who has engaged in an entirely chaste courtship should be only vaguely familiar with each other in terms of physical intimacy. I am convinced that “betrothed love” allows for greater physical intimacy than that which is otherwise appropriate, but there remains a large distance between what the newly married couple should be familiar with and consummation.

It is nothing short of a tragedy that so many couples who deeply desired to love each other well are led to hurt each other and their marriage by exhaustedly hurrying through what should be a long delightful process, and in the name of making sure that they are really married!

There are, of course, couples for whom consummating the marriage immediately is appropriate for many reasons. But I have heard so many stories of young women who look back on their wedding nights as one of the worst parts of their marriages. And many of them were under the impression that this misery was actually required by the Church!

Stepping back to take a look at what the Church actually teaches about marriage should enable us to correct this problem and appropriately encourage soon-to-be-married couples to do exactly what is appropriate for them to most fully express their married love. For many that would mean not consummating their marriages on their wedding nights.

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Celibate Marriage: Augustine

Augustine is a challenge when it comes to marriage. He is a doctor of the Church, so we cannot simply dismiss him as a confused bishop who liked to write a lot. And yet at first glance he seems so anti-marriage, even in his work on the good of marriage.

I had studied a bit about celibate marriage by the time I took a class on Augustine, but I was still shocked to read his perspective. He was such a supporter of celibate marriage that he insisted that a vow of celibacy was binding once made, even if the husband had only agreed to the vow because he was coerced by his wife!

This simply did not match with my modern notions of freedom of choice,1 loving marriage, and self-giving in marriage. And yet, while Augustine’s pastoral directives are not directly applicable to our lives today, the underlying doctrine which he conveys is too valuable to ignore.

Believers in Christ are taught not to think carnal connection the chief thing in marriage, as if without this they could not be man and wife, but to imitate in Christian wedlock  as closely as possible the parents of Christ, that so they may have the more intimate union with the members of Christ.

Is it possible that couples married in the Church today are not taught this? It is well worth our time to impress upon young couples the reasons behind the Church’s teachings on sexual intercourse and children, but some efforts to accomplish this good goal inadvertently undermine the essential Christian truth that sex, even when perfectly open to life,  is not the chief thing in marriage.

But however let such as are continent, either men,  who, on the death of their wives, or, women, who, on the  death of their husbands, or both, who, with mutual consent, have vowed continence unto God, know that to them  indeed there is due a greater recompense than marriage chastity demands.

I am actually glad that this sort of thing is not included in marriage preparation classes as I think that it would take weeks to convey the essential truth without denigrating the good Christian marriages in which couples join with God in creating new little Christians.

But God forbid that the nuptial bond should be  regarded as broken between those who have by mutual consent  agreed to observe a perpetual abstinence from the  use of carnal concupiscence. Nay, it will be only a  firmer one, whereby they have exchanged pledges together, which will  have to be kept by a special endearment and concord—not  by the voluptuous links of bodies, but by the voluntary affections of souls. For it was not deceitfully that the angel said to Joseph: Fear not to take unto you Mary your wife. Matthew 1:20 She is called his wife because of her first troth of betrothal,  although he had had no carnal knowledge of her,  nor was destined to have. The designation of wife  was neither destroyed nor made untrue, where there  never had been, nor was meant to be, any carnal connection.

One thing that concerns me greatly about comments that I have heard whenever the topic of celibate marriage is raised, is the idea that Mary and Joseph can be dismissed as some super-Saints whose marriage is not the ideal to which all Christian marriages must aspire. It is highly unlikely that any of us will ever achieve the holiness of Saint Joseph, let alone that of the only woman freed entirely from sin. But Catholic marriage by its very nature must hold Mary and Joseph’s marriage as the highest ideal. Considering Catholic marriage apart from Joseph and Mary is akin to contemplating Christian sacrifice apart from Jesus Christ. It simply does not work.

1. This is an Augustine joke. Please laugh. You are predestined to. Thank you.

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Celibate Marriage: Why I Should Stop Blogging

I blog because it is good for me. So it does not really matter whether it is useful for anyone else. And honestly, it is a good thing that I am not one who sees it as “an apostolate” or some such thing because I would collapse under the burden of my own failure.

Remember the other day when I rambled on and on about why Periodic Abstinence For All of Marriage could be okay for some couples? I used lots of words and convinced no one. Instead I simply should have given Allison a quote:

Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called “indications,” may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. -Pius XII

Yeah, the first dude to actually say that NFP was okay (Pius XI only half counts) said that if it is okay it can be okay for all of marriage. Okay? Pope wins. I should let him do the talking. So why on earth didn’t I? It isn’t like I was pulling stuff out of a hat, so why not just send you all back to the sources? Silly me.

And then I somehow felt the need to stop trying to come up with a good post on celibate marriage and just post basics. And I went back through my sources, you know, Augustine, the Church Councils, JPII, but I did not bother to check if anything had been posted online since the last time I checked, almost a year ago.

So, of course, once I do start to post others not only chime in and say things better, but Josh finds a post that includes almost all of the older stuff (1930s-now is new) I had been re-reading. I still intend to post some quotes, but really, it would have been much more effective to simply send you all over here: check it out.

Would you find it useful if I posted more quotes and less of my own rambling?

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Saintly Marriage

Whenever I read about married Saints I seem to uncover the fact that they did not have “normal” marriages. Since many of my readers are under the impression that celibate marriage is not good, I assume that you must know of married Saints who had “normal” sexual relationships. I have never read the books on married Saints, so I would love your help in finding them.

“Normal” Married Saints

I’ll start the list off with Elizabeth of Hungary. We know that she had children, and that she sought to detach herself interiorly from her husband, but that he would not agree to celibacy so they had a “normal” marital relationship (if you call her staying up all night praying normal) until God conveniently killed him off his death in the crusades. She then embraced celibacy.

Then there is Saint Gianna who had four children in five years and died for the sake of the last.

Thomas More was married twice and I know of no evidence that he was ever celibate in marriage.

Elizabeth of Portugal had children and appears to have had as normal of a marriage as one can have with a jealous licentious husband.

Rita of Cascia is somewhat similar in having two sons with her abusive husband and joyfully embracing celibacy after his death.

Margaret of Scotland is said to have at first refused marriage due to desire to remain a virgin, but eventually consented and bore eight children.

Bridget of Sweden also had eight children, and embraced celibacy only after her husband’s death.

Stephen of Hungary had a son, but I don’t know much else about him other than that he lived in a context where celibacy was not taken seriously by anyone, even priests/bishops.

Something that stands out to me in this list is that it seems that most either suffered a heroic death/martyrdom or else had a less-than-holy spouse who probably was not up for the challenge of chastity, let alone celibacy.

Not so “Normal”

Catherine of Genoa
Francis of Rome
Edward the Confessor
Cecilia
Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini
Henry II
Louis Martin and Marie Guerin (we are all glad renounced their celibacy, but it would be silly to ignore it)
Catherine of Sweden

Elizabeth Ann Seton, Jane Francis de Chantal etc. don’t count because it is highly unlikely that they would have been canonized if their husbands hadn’t died and freed them to embrace, guess what, a celibate life.

What other Saints can you think of who we know were married and never embraced celibacy in marriage?

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Celibate Marriage: Validity and Consummation

When thinking about celibate marriages it is essential to differentiate between a valid marriage and a consummated marriage. All real consummated marriages are by definition valid, but not all valid marriages are consummated. In fact, every valid marriage is for a time valid and not consummated.

Of course there are many celibate marriages which are consummated since one only needs to engage in conjugal intercourse once in order to consummate a marriage. In the same way that some priests are celibate but not virgins, so a couple could engage in conjugal relations prior to choosing celibacy. This is the case with many Saint couples, and we know it because they had children prior to renouncing conjugal relations.

But what about those who choose a pure Josephite marriage? What about virgins who marry with the intent of never consummating the marriage? The status of their valid marriages is clear under canon law.

When is a couple really married? When they give consent during the wedding: “The consent of the parties, legitimately manifested between persons quali-fied by law, makes marriage.” When vows are exchanged a couple is married. They are not in some state of limbo prior to consumation, they really are married.

What are the fancy Latin names for unconsummated and consummated marriages? “A valid marriage between the baptized is called ratum tantum if it has not been consummated; it is called ratum et consummatum if the spouses have performed between themselves in a human fashion a conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh.”

Is consummation assumed by the Church? “After a marriage has been celebrated, if the spouses have lived together consummation is presumed until the contrary is proven.”

Can we just assume that those crazy enough to not consummate their marriages must not have been validly married in the first place? “Marriage possesses the favor of law; therefore, in a case of doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.”

But what about if a marriage is not consummated and one wishes to marry someone else? “A person bound by the bond of a prior marriage, even if it was not consummated, invalidly attempts marriage.”

But what about the fact that the Pope can dissolve unconsummated marriages, even if he does not do so? The whole point is that dissolution is necessary to free spouses from marriage because the marriage is valid, even though not consummated. If that were not the case then they could simply get a decree of nullity.

But I have never met someone in a celibate marriage. It can’t be real! Thankfully, experiencing something personally or knowing someone who has is not necessary for something to be real.

But this doesn’t make sense. Have you considered that perhaps you should do more reading about Catholic marriage?

Why would anyone do this? Because they were called to.

But what would the point be in marriage without sex or children? Celibate marriage does not necessarily without children. The couple may have children prior to taking vows of celibacy, or they may adopt. And the “point” is the same as it always should be with vows of celibacy: to follow God in the way that one is called. Ask yourself what point there is, besides carnal desire, in any marriage where the couple is either infertile or avoiding children. And you will have something of your answer.

Maybe there was a point in celibate marriage back in the early days of Christianity, or maybe the Middle Ages but it should not be allowed now! Take it up with your local Ordinary.

So, what was your point with all of this? Simply that consummation is not necessary for validity, and that if married couples mutually choose to never engage in conjugal relations they violate nothing in Church law.

What other protestations do you think I should add to my list?

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Celibacy and Utilitarianism

The odd thing about conservative Catholics and celibate marriage is that they so quickly dismiss it for reasons that are eerily similar to those that “liberals” and non-Catholics give when criticizing the celibacy of priests and religious. The complaint is that the point of marriage is to have sex and children, so it would be just wrong for a couple to choose to give their lives to Christ in a way that excludes conjugal intercourse.

This complaint is the result of the same utilitarian misunderstanding that causes people to suggest that the important thing is to do good for others, and it there is no point in being good unless it accomplishes something. Conservative Catholics can then support priestly celibacy because they understand it from a skewed utilitarian perspective: married priests couldn’t give themselves over to the Church completely, and the Church requires 100% of their energy. The celibacy of active religious is also appreciated, since it allows them to do great work- after all, can you imagine a married Mother Teresa?

But we completely miss the point of giving oneself entirely to Christ. And so we view cloistered religious life as quaintly lovely–though certainly not a vocation for our daughters or friends! And celibate marriage is completely nonsensical. It does not matter what its status is in Canon law and Tradition! It does not serve an obvious utilitarian purpose, so it cannot be right.

The problem is, of course, that Christianity is not utilitarian.


You must break the alabaster jar of your life.

But it could have been sold and the money given to the poor! That would clearly be so much more virtuous!

And they could have conceived children! That would clearly have been so much more godly! It simply is the way that things are supposed to be!

But Jesus is not the LORD of Utilitarianism. And following Christ just does not work that way.

Many are called but few are chosen. There is no shame in not being chosen, but there is shame in castigating others simply because we do not understand their calling. So please respond to upcoming posts on celibate marriage and certainly let me know if you think that I am wrong about something. But please also take great care in your comments to not insult those who have chosen to embrace Christ differently than you.

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