I simply could not believe it. A young French woman, daughter of a Catholic publisher in France whom I know, told me that she had never met a nun. I could not believe what she was saying because of the wonderful, indeed miraculous history of French Catholic women religious in her own national history.
This history has enriched the Church in the United States enormously: the Daughters of Charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, dozens of other communities, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who was responsible for devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, a Doctor of the Church. The list is very long.
This young woman’s remark, however, is not surprising. The number of women religious in France has plummeted in the last 50 years, just as it has in this country. Her grandparents, and modern Catholic grandparents in the United States, lived their youth and formed their values surrounded by nuns. Essential to the nuns’ identity was their lifelong commitment to absolute virginity.
This commitment was reinforced by seeing the priests, dedicated, as they still are, to perpetual chastity. People saw the admonition of Jesus in action. Catholics were taught that the Lord never imposed lifelong virginity as a rule, recognizing that some people very faithful to God legitimately prefer to be married, but perpetual virginity clearly was an ideal.
Times changed. Things happened. The sexual revolution occurred in Western civilization, convincing many people that physical intimacy is a need for anybody, certainly a requirement for emotional health. We are bombarded with sexual imagery. The clergy sex abuse crisis mightily ignited questions. Searching for excuses, good Catholics said priestly celibacy exists to give priests more time for their work for the Church. This argument, however, did not make sense given the dedication of many lay spouses to apostolic works, or for that matter the commendable efforts of married Protestant ministers and rabbis.
Speaking of Protestant clergy, a former Protestant minister who converted to Catholicism says that one reason behind his conversion was his investigation into the New Testament’s elevation of constant virginity. Reading Pope Pius XII’s 1954 encyclical on virginity, Sacra Virginitas, so heavy with biblical references and Church history, prompted him to ask if the Reformation threw this teaching out the window, what else did it discard? Too much, he finally decided, so he converted.
Pope Pius simply stated that everyone is called to chastity, even spouses, but the New Testament specifically states that denying oneself the right to be married, if it is for the sake of giving everything to God, is the ideal. The pope cited these passages in particular: Matthew 19:5, 10; 12:33; 13:6; 25:35-46, 1 Corinthians 7:32-40, Galatians 5:17, Revelation 14:4.
He also noted that nothing has been more precious to Christian tradition than lifelong virginity.
I have never heard a sermon on the subject. How many classes in religious education mention it, much less explain it? How many Catholic parents tell their children that this is the ideal, even while urging them to respect Christian marriage, insisting that marriage is a sacrament, by which a man and a woman live their Christianity more intently and become saints, because being saints is the ultimate Christian ideal?
We are too timid, and we do not know what to say. Get back to the basics. Study the matter. Pius XII’s encyclical is online. So is Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, the 1967 encyclical of Blessed Pope Paul VI. Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI spoke so persuasively. Read the Bible.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.