Summer 2002

Christian Community and the States of Life: A Reflection on the Anthropological Significance of Virginity and Marriage

David S. Crawford

"If the counsels and marriage disclose the authentic structure of creaturehood, as well as the meaning of the community creaturehood implies, then they also are called to 'reconfigure' the world . . . by simply being 'what they are' in the world."

Any discussion of “Christian community” should begin by grappling with the issue of how that community is grounded. Certainly it is true that the sacraments of initiation—Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist—are the primitive source of ecclesial communion, and hence “Christian community.”1 But what is the role of the Christian alternatives of marriage and virginity or celibacy? The fact of the matter is that their importance and centrality are often downplayed. This is despite the fact that the Church’s Magisterium has generally reinforced the significance of marriage and virginity for Christian life, particularly in the pontificate of John Paul II. The human person is a bodily creature, and this means that the question of how he bestows himself necessarily involves his self-gift precisely as a bodily creature.2 Thus, “Christian revelation recognizes two specific ways of realizing the vocation of the human person, in its entirety, to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy. Either one is, in its own proper form, an actuation of the most profound truth of man, of his being ‘created in the image of God’” (FC, 11), that is to say, in the image of the triune God who is both love and communion. Consecrated virginity, as “superior,”3 constitutes a direct gift to God of one’s whole personal being. Marriage sacramentally “signifies and participates [significant atque participant]” in the mutual self-gift of Christ and his bride.4 But isn’t this being a gift both to and from God, and the resultant human “vocation” to love, the foundation of all Christian community?

There are many reasons, no doubt, to downplay the states of life.5 With respect to marriage, the growing acceptance both legally and culturally of liberalized divorce, the drift toward an estrangement of marriage from procreation, the “mainstreaming” of nonmarital “cohabitation” have all contributed to a diminution of marriage’s identity and mission. On the other hand, we often hear of the “vocations crisis” and the concomitant “graying” of many religious orders. And then, of course, there are the repeated demands to “rethink” the Roman Catholic discipline of priestly celibacy. With all of these difficulties, it might seem safest to anchor our discussion of Christian community on simple membership in the Church and allow the “states of life” to serve more generally as “contexts” in which Christians live out that membership, according to their predilections and sense of calling.6


. . . . . . . . . .
To read this article in its entirety, please download the free PDF, buy this issue, or become a Communio subscriber!

1. See Perfectae Caritatis, 5; Redemptionis Donum, 7 (1984) (=RD); Vita Consecrata, 14 (1996) (=VC).

2. Cf., for example, John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 11 (1981) (=FC), and John Paul’s development of the “nuptial meaning of the body,” in The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1997), 60-71.

3. Ecumenical Council of Trent, Session XXIV (11 November 1563), Canon 10 (DS, 1810); Pius XII, Sacra Virginitas (1954); VC, 32 (1996) and FC, 16.

4. Lumen Gentium, 11. Cf. FC, 13 and Letter to Families, 19 (1994) (=LF).

5. The term “state of life” is, of course, not univocal. On the one hand, the basic Christian “state of life” refers to simple membership in the Church. The phrase “states of life” (plural), on the other hand, generally refers either to the clerical and lay states or to the married state and “consecration” in the evangelical counsels. (See, generally, Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian State of Life, trans. Mary Frances McCarthy [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983].) For present purposes, the term “states of life” refers to this latter pair. In this context, “Christian states of life” (singular) may refer either to marriage or consecration. In fact, of course, there are other variations, as well: e.g., simple consecrated virginity (without the other two vows). Likewise, the question arises as to how the secular priesthood (with its obedience to the bishop and discipline of celibacy) fits into this latter pair. For purposes of this essay, these variations may be treated as falling, by way of participation, within the general ambit of the counsels. What is important, however, is that marriage and the various forms of consecration are “states of life,” within the meaning intended in this essay, only because they are founded in vows or promises. There is no alternative “single state of life,” that is to say, a “state of life” that is neither marriage or consecration. As Balthasar persuasively argues, no such “third” state of life is possible, since a state of life can only be founded on irrevocable vows according to which the entire person gives himself away: “If . . . a ‘third state’ were actually recognized as valid, it would seriously endanger the Christian radicalism of both the Christian married state and the Christian state of election . . . . No third form on which a state of life could be based is conceivable besides these two forms of genuine self-giving, nor does revelation envisage any such third form” (Balthasar, The Christian State of Life, 235-238, here, 238). See also FC, 11, and Mulieris Dignitatem, 20 (1988) (=MD). Of course, Balthasar’s point is carefully qualified. He does not mean to say that those who never enter either state are somehow less holy and mature as Christians. Indeed, there are many reasons why it would be impossible, even wrong, for a given individual to enter either state (The Christian State of Life, 236-237). What we are speaking of here is the objective form of the two possibilities, marriage and virginity (particularly when this latter is combined with the other two counsels), and this objective form can only arise through permanent vows.

For obvious reasons, this essay will focus on virginity’s analogous relationship with Christian marriage, although parts 1 and 2 will situate virginity within the broader context of the other two counsels. However, as we shall see, the relationship between virginity and the other counsels is “circumincessive,” that is to say, each contains, implies, and supports the other two. Thus, where comparison is made between virginity and marriage, by extension marriage’s relationship with the other counsels is implied.

6. This tendency would seem to be evident, for example, in the following statement of Edward Schillebeeckx in his 1985 jubilee address: “Only a living relationship to God in Jesus Christ gives a religious significance both to marriage (and to other interpersonal human relations) and to celibacy willingly adopted or forced on one by circumstances. I resolutely dispute that they have this religious significance in and of themselves. I therefore challenge both the twentieth century religious mystification of marriage and the age-old Western Greek-Christian mystification of celibacy. In themselves, both marriage and celibacy are religiously neutral, in the sense that both can be part of meaningful human existence even without belief in God” (“For the Sake of the Kingdom of God,” in For the Sake of the Gospel, trans. John Bowden [New York: Crossroad, 1990], 167). While we might agree, at least as a preliminary point, that “a living relationship to God in Jesus Christ” gives the possibilities of marriage and virginity or celibacy their “religious significance,” we might still want to question what is suggested by the assertion that they do not have this “significance in and of themselves” or that they are “religiously neutral,” or that it is (therefore) necessary to “challenge” their “mystification.” For reasons that should become clear in the remainder of this essay, it seems to me that passages such as this fail adequately to thematize the full significance of marriage and virginity and are, therefore, ambiguous and misleading. The tendency of this passage is to view the two states in terms of “Christian motivation” (see, for example, Schillebeeckx’s discussion of “marriage in the Lord” in Marriage: Human Reality and Saving Mystery [London: Sheed & Ward, 1965], 174). The present essay argues, on the other hand, that the states contain the interior structure of the creaturely relationship with God, however distorted and defaced their anthropological significance may at times be. Hence, marriage and virginity are objectively a response to the question “Why be a human person—and how?” (RD,  5).