Is the consecrated life "superior" to marriage?
The Catholic Church’s answer to this question might surprise you.
I’ve never forgotten a strange conversation I had about 15 years ago with a Catholic seminarian in Baltimore. He had been tasked with retrieving me from the airport and driving me to the venue where I would be speaking that weekend. Along the way, as we were discussing his course of seminary formation, he said something to the effect that the consecrated life was no better than the married life.
I thought maybe I had misunderstood him and that he was just trying to be thoughtful in not giving me, a married man, the impression that he looked down on marriage. So I asked him to explain more clearly what he meant, and that led to the strangeness.
Turns out he was adamant that the consecrated life was not a higher state, and when I told him that that’s not what the Church teaches, his adamancy became pique. He strongly disagreed with that view and I found it strange that he was so vehement in his position. Was this what he had been taught in the seminary? Most probably (remember, this was the mid-90s), although perhaps there was some other reason for his sensitivity to this subject.
In any case, I flashed back to that seminarian and that odd conversation, last Thursday, when, on my “Open Line” radio show, I took a call from a non-Catholic (most likely a Protestant) who wanted to express his reasons for disagreeing with something Pope John Paul II said about the consecrated life being “superior” to the married life. Click the picture or click here to hear the call.
(Also, here are some helpful references for consideration)
St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 7:
“It is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman. Indeed, I wish that everyone were like I am. I should like you to be free from anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord; how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world; how he may please his wife, and he is divided. Are you free of a wife? Then do not look for a wife. If you marry, however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that” (c.f., Mark 12:18-27; Matt. 19:10-12; 2 Timothy 2:3).
Pope John Paul II , Vita Consecrata, 32:
“As a way of showing forth the Church’s holiness, it is to be recognized that the consecrated life, which mirrors Christ’s own way of life, has an objective superiority. Precisely for this reason, it is an especially rich manifestation of gospel values and a more complete expression of the Church’s purpose, which is the sanctification of humanity. The consecrated life proclaims and in a certain way anticipates the future age, when the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven, already present in its first fruits and in mystery, will be achieved and when the children of the resurrection will take neither wife nor husband, but will be like the angels of God (c.f., Matt. 22:30).”
Pope Pius XII, Sacra Virginitas, 32:
“This doctrine of the excellence of virginity and of celibacy and of their superiority over the married state was, as we have already said, revealed by our divine Redeemer and by the Apostle of the Gentiles; so too, it was solemnly defined as a dogma of divine faith by the holy Council of Trent, and explained in the same way by all the holy Fathers and doctors of the Church.”
Council of Trent:
“If anyone saith that the marriage state is to be preferred before the state of virginity, let him be anathema.” [...] “writing to the Corinthians, [Paul] says: I would that all men were even as myself; that is, that all embrace the virtue of continence…A life of continence is to be desired by all.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 916
“The state of the consecrated life is thus one way of experiencing a “more intimate” consecration, rooted in Baptism and dedicated totally to God. In the consecrated life, Christ’s faithful, moved by the Holy Spirit, propose to follow Christ more nearly, to give themselves to God who is loved above all and, pursuing the perfection of charity in the service of the Kingdom, to signify and proclaim in the Church the glory of the world to come.”