The virtue of virginity

A while ago, I served as my diocese’s ecumenical director, and in the process I met many Protestant clergy. I learned that being the spouse of a Protestant minister is no easy life. It is no wonder.

If his (or her) congregation is large, the minister is as busy as any Catholic pastor under similar circumstances. He has just as many people with troubles to discuss with him. He has just as many sick people. He has a staff to direct. He has a budget to meet. He has youth to train. He has few free evenings. He is at everyone’s beck and call. Still, he has responsibilities for a family.

It is no wonder that many Catholics, realizing what family life demands, think that priestly celibacy is a good idea, because not being a spouse and parent frees a priest to work for God.

The essential reason that priests do not marry, and modern seminarians are imbued with this notion and choose celibacy as a religious commitment, less often the case in my day, is that Jesus taught that virginity is the ideal way to sanctity — for persons who can accept it (cf. Mt 19). Because of this teaching, the Catholic Church has treasured lifelong virginity from its very beginnings.

Monks often are ordained priests, and they are celibate but not because it permits them more time to serve parishioners. Nuns are celibate. (Oddly, no opponent of priestly celibacy ever says, “I think nuns should have the right to marry.”)

In 1954, Pope Pius XII wrote a magnificent, enlightening encyclical on perpetual virginity as a way to achieve holiness, Sacra Virginitas (“Holy Virginity”). Some months ago, while watching EWTN one evening, I heard theologian Scott Hahn describe how much a gift to the Church was this encyclical. Yet, no one talks about it.

Possibly one reason is that today, by overwhelming numbers, Catholics are married, and frankly so many marriages have problems. Pastors have to give their attention to promoting and sustaining happy and constructive marriages.

Still, I have come to believe, if we more directly spoke of virginity as Church tradition — a goal that humans truly can achieve — in our religious education classrooms, from our pulpits and in ordinary conversations among Catholics, we might set a useful tone amid all that we see in this present culture that is contrary to Christian morality.

Sex has become recreational, and the assumption reigns supreme that anyone not sexually active at best is out of step, at worst emotionally impaired. Once, almost everyone presumed sexual fidelity in marriage. Gradually, but relentlessly, marriage, with any binding sense of obligation, is fading away.

As each day passes, the entire culture is changing its attitudes. In 2008, for example, every candidate for the American Presidency, including Illinois Senator Barack Obama, spoke against legalizing same-sex marriage. In this past election, not many candidates who ran for major office oppose same-sex marriage, and if they do, they know that they are swimming against the tide. But winning candidates reflect voters’ opinions.

The rate of births outside wedlock is surging upward. Abortions each year are numbered in the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands. The number of marriages, sacramental or otherwise, is declining. More and more people live together outside marriage, with the intimacy of marriage, but have no children, thanks to contraception.

These trends are not reversing.

Sacra Virginitas — holy virginity. We Catholics, and our world, would be better if we thought about it and gave it a chance.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.