I expect many angry responses to the heading, no doubt. It is my intention here not to portray the holy sacrament of marriage as something evil–for it is not–but to make the case for abstaining from marriage for the sake of something better.
In some contemporary Roman Catholic circles, marriage is idolized and idealized–all out of proportion to reality. Some even go so far as to commit the falsehood and heresy of Jovinian and claim that marriage and celibacy/virginity are equal in dignity. Assuredly this overvaluation is in part an understandable reaction against secularism’s desacralization of marriage, considered both as a natural contract and as a sacrament; but it is also an assault on the virtue of continence, which surpasses conjugal chastity in its excellence. It’s time that we temper our valuation of marriage in the light of sound Catholic principles and encourage continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. To this end I will present evidence from Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, and this briefly.
We begin with holy Scripture. In the gospel of St. Matthew we find the following: “His disciples say unto him [Christ]: If the case of a man with his wife be so, it is not expedient to marry. Who said to them: All men take not this word, but they to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs, who were born so from their mother’s womb: and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take, let him take it” (19:10-12). A footnote in the Douay-Rheims reads, “This text is not to be taken in the literal sense; but means, that there are such, who have taken a firm and commendable resolution of leading a single and chaste life, in order to serve God in a more perfect state than those who marry: as St. Paul clearly shews.”
Let us move on to St. Paul then. In 1 Corinthians we find the following: ”Art thou bound to a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife. But if thou take a wife, thou hast not sinned. And if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned: nevertheless, such shall have tribulation of the flesh. But I spare you” (7:27-28). Again, “I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your profit: not to cast a snare upon you; but for that which is decent, and which may give you power to attend upon the Lord, without impediment” (7:32-25). And again, “But more blessed shall she be, if she so remain [a virgin], according to my counsel; and I think that I also have the spirit of God” (7:40).
Earlier in the chapter St. Paul explains how marriage is a buffet against sins of the flesh: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman. But for fear of fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render the debt to his wife, and the wife also in like manner to the husband.” (7:1-3), where the footnote reads, “Have his own wife: That is, keep to his wife, which he hath. His meaning is not to exhort the unmarried to marry: on the contrary, he would have them rather continue as they are. (Ver. 7: 8.) But he speaks here to them that are already married; who must not depart from one another, but live together as they ought to do in the marriage state.” Continuing: “But I speak this by indulgence, not by commandment. For I would that all men were even as myself: but every one hath his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that. But I say to the unmarried, and to the widows: It is good for them if they so continue, even as I. But if they do not contain themselves, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to be burnt” (7:6-9). Footnotes: “By indulgence: That is, by a condescension to your weakness” and “If they do not contain: This is spoken of such as are free, and not of such as, by vow, have given their first faith to God; to whom if they will use proper means to obtain it, God will never refuse the gift of continency. Some translators have corrupted this text, by rendering it, if they cannot contain.
Dr. Ludwig Ott in his classic textbook The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma therefore determined, according to the Code of Canon Law then current, “The primary purpose of Marriage is the generation and bringing-up of offspring. The secondary purpose is mutual help and the morally regulated satisfaction of the sex urge” (462).
So says the Scripture. Tradition has much more to say on the subject, only some of which I will be able to cover. I will begin with St. Alphonsus Liguori, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, patron of confessors and moralists. So confident is the Church in St. Alphonsus’ judgment that Catholic Encyclopedia references that Decree of July 22, 1831, ”which allows confessors to follow any of St. Alphonsus’s own opinions without weighing the reasons on which they were based” (“St. Alphonsus Liguori” on newadvent.org).
Now in his answer to a young man who asks counsel on the choice of a state of life, St. Alphonsus writes, “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” (The Great Means of Salvation and of Perfection, 470).
Concerning those spiritual acts requisite for salvation St. Alphonsus writes, “Now, it is difficult, not to say impossible, to practice all this in the midst of the world; for family affairs, the necessities of the house, the complaints of parents, the quarrels and persecutions with which the world is so full, will keep your mind so occupied by cares and fears that you will barely be able in the evening to recommend yourself to God, and even this will be done with many distractions…Your life will thus be always unquiet, and your death more unquiet still” (466).
Now on to Venerable Louis of Granada, O.P., widely known as “the Layman’s Theologian” and praised by the likes of Sts. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Francis de Sales–all Doctors of the Church–as well as given direct papal approbation by then-Pope Gregory XIII. In his Sinner’s Guide, Ven. Louis sets out to show the futility of seeking happiness in the world. He writes, “It is the nature of worldly things to present themselves under a bright and smiling exterior which promises much joy. But experience soon dissipates our illusions; we feel the sting of the hook almost as soon as we take the bait. Take, for example, the happiness of a newly married couple. In many cases how brief it is! How soon it is interrupted by troubles and anxieties; by the cares of children; by sickness; by absence; by jealousy; by misfortunes; by grief; and sometimes by death itself, which suddenly changes it for one or the other into a desolate widowhood! How smilingly the bride goes to the altar, seeing only the exterior of what is before her! Were it given to her see the weight of responsibility which she takes upon her that day, tears would replace her smiles. Eagerly as Rebecca desired children, when they were given her, and fought for mastery over each other, she exclaimed, ‘Why was my desire granted me?’ How many have uttered the same cry when they found the realization of their hopes so far below what they promised!” (241).
I will conclude the part on Tradition, working back in time, with St. Thomas Aquinas, “the Common Doctor.” In the context of a discussion on whether perpetual continence is required for religious perfection, St. Thomas writes in his Summa Theologiae, “The religious state requires the removal of whatever hinders man from devoting himself entirely to God’s service. Now the use of sexual union hinders the mind from giving itself wholly to the service of God, and this for two reasons. First, on account of its vehement delectation, which by frequent repetition increases concupiscence, as also the Philosopher observes (Ethic. iii, 12): and hence it is that the use of venery withdraws the mind from that perfect intentness on tending to God. Augustine expresses this when he says (Solil. i, 10): ‘I consider that nothing so casts down the manly mind from its height as the fondling of women, and those bodily contacts which belong to the married state.’ Secondly, because it involves man in solicitude for the control of his wife, his children, and his temporalities which serve for their upkeep. Hence the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 7:32,33): ‘He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God: but he that is with a wife is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife.’ Therefore perpetual continence, as well as voluntary poverty, is requisite for religious perfection. Wherefore just as Vigilantius was condemned for equaling riches to poverty, so was Jovinian condemned for equaling marriage to virginity” (II-II, Q. 186, Art. 4).
Thus are the teachings of the Church’s chief moralist in St. Alphonsus, the par excellence theologian of the laity in Ven. Louis, and the Church’s supreme theologian in St. Thomas Aquinas–a representative sampling of what we find on this subject throughout the Church’s Tradition.
Finally, we come to the Magisterium. A good example of magisterial teaching on this particular subject is the holy Council of Trent. This Council taught a high view of the sacrament of marriage, as against the protestant reformers who denied its sacramentality. Yet it maintained the teaching of the scriptures and declared dogmatically in session 24, Canon 10: ”If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.”
We find in the Catechism of the Council of Trent in its section on the sacrament of marriage the following: “As it is the duty of the pastor to seek the holiness and perfection of the faithful, his earnest desires must be in full accordance with those expressed by the Apostle when writing to the Corinthians: I would that all men were even as myself, that is, that all should embrace the virtue of continence. No greater happiness can befall the faithful in this life than to have their souls distracted by no worldly cares, the unruly desires of the flesh tranquillised and restrained, and the mind fixed on the practice of piety and the contemplation of heavenly things. But as, according to the same Apostle, every one hath his proper gift from God, one after this manner, and another after that; and as marriage is gifted with great and divine blessings, so much so as truly and properly to hold a place among the other Sacraments of the Catholic Church, and as its celebration was honoured by the presence of our Lord Himself, it is clear that this subject should be explained.”
Thus the Council fathers found a happy medium between the error of Jovinian on the one hand and those who would deny the sacramental nature of marriage on the other.
Confirming also that subsidiary purpose of marriage so often forgotten by moderns, the Catechism of the Council of Trent also states, “On account of the loss of original innocence the passions began to rise in rebellion against right reason; and man, conscious of his own frailty and unwilling to fight the battles of the flesh, is supplied by marriage with an antidote by which to avoid sins of lust. For fear of fornication, says the Apostle, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband; and a little after, having recommended to married persons a temporary abstinence from the marriage debt, to give themselves to prayer, he adds: Return together again, lest Satan tempt you for your incontinency.”
I say in conclusion, if you don’t wish to battle and conquer the passion of concupiscence by vow and the other means of living a continent life, then by all means: get married. For it is better to marry than to be burnt. And marriage is a sacrament blessed by God. But if you have a gift for continence, if you have the facility to remain chaste for long periods of time, then for heaven’s sake, don’t get married!
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