May 5, 2016

Amoris laetitia: Celibacy

Amoris laetitia is a document on the family, but it also has something to say about the celibate vocation in the Church. For example:
Whereas virginity is an “eschatological” sign of the risen Christ, marriage is a “historical” sign for us living in this world, a sign of the earthly Christ who chose to become one with us and gave himself up for us even to shedding his blood. (161)
This is true, so long as we don't push it too far. Christian married people, of course, like all Christians, participate in the eschatological character of the Church, and those consecrated to celibacy still have a foot in history.

Nevertheless, the truth of this statement has been pushing on me especially since one of my brothers got married and started to have children. This new blessing shows me more clearly that it is he and his wife who have taken up the joy and the task of passing on the life that God breathed into Adam and that has wound its way through the generations down to each of us. They are the ones, as I think Sandra Schneiders puts it (I don't have the book here), who have 'built' themselves into history. This challenges me to the eschatological character of my own celibacy with a new sharpness.
"The unsophisticated and unrealistic way in which Francis tried to make the Sermon on the Mount the rule of his 'new People' is not understood properly if we designate it as 'idealism' is understandable only as ... eschatological confidence." 
(Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, trans. Zachary Hayes, 40)
Religious life, that is to say the vocation whose most distinguishing mark is consecrated celibacy, is not properly understood as a worldly idealism. It is rather a giving oneself to the utter confidence that the 'life of the world to come' is already here. Sin and death, though their effects still linger, are already defeated. "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!" (Revelation 18:2)

Pope Francis goes on to point out the dangers of a celibacy that is not lived in this way:
Celibacy can risk becoming a comfortable single life that provides the freedom to be independent, to move from one residence, work or option to another, to spend money as one sees fit and to spend time with others as one wants. (162)
This is the constant danger to religious, individually and as communities; to become the cliche of the worldly religious, more concerned with the things the Holy Father mentions than with being an eschatological sign of the world to come. This is especially dangerous for those of us who, for all kinds of reasons, might not have found the possibility of marriage and family very attractive, and thus for whom the choice of celibacy didn't seem like much of a sacrifice.

I suppose this is why the glory of the history of religious life is in its reforms. We all still suffer from the injuries of sin, and we tend to draw each other down into mediocrity. For this reason the great reforms of religious life always restore and encourage the same things: simplicity, poverty, prayer, penance, those things which serve to detach us from the world so that we can find again our eschatological identity as consecrated celibates.

It's a risky proposition. I am convinced that religious life, and Franciscan religious life in particular, is a good and suitable way for me to become a saint, and that's why I'm here. But I am also fairly sure that if I became a worse person on account on religious life, I will be much worse than I would have been without it. So it's risking a worse outcome for the chance at a more glorious one.

As Bernard of Clairvaux puts it:
If only those who are incapable of remaining continent would fear to profess perfection rashly and to assume the title of would without doubt have been better to marry than to burn (1 Cor 7:9), to be saved in the humble ranks of the faithful than to live less worthily in the lofty ranks of the clergy and be more severely judged...They abstain from from the remedy afforded by marriage and give themselves up to all forms of vice. 
(On Conversion, a Sermon to Clerics, trans. Bernard Saïd, OSB)

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