For years, a friend of mine wrestled with his vocation. Should I be a priest? Should I get married? Which one, Lord, are you calling me to? One roadblock stood in his way. Surprisingly, celibacy was not holding him back; rather, it was the Church’s teaching on the superiority of celibacy over marriage.
Like my friend, many Catholics have pondered this teaching when discerning God’s will. And many have concluded that since celibacy is the higher calling, then surely, I ought to become a priest or religious, for anything less would be inferior.
Sadly, many Protestants and even Catholics scoff at celibacy. They focus solely on the kingdom of Earth and not the kingdom of Heaven when they ask the question: why renounce such a good thing as the marital act, a wife, and children? But Our Lord, St. Paul, and St. Thomas Aquinas were clear on the objective superiority of celibacy over marriage. The Angelic Doctor once declared, “Virginity is more excellent than marriage, which can be seen by both faith and reason. Faith sees virginity as imitating the example of Christ and the counsel of St. Paul. Reason sees virginity as righty ordering goods, preferring a Divine good to human goods, the good of the soul to the good of the body, and the good of the contemplative life to that of the active life.” Moreover, the Council of Trent declared, “If anyone saith that the marriage state is to be preferred before the state of virginity, let him be anathema. … [W]riting 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.”
Why does the Church esteem celibacy greater than marriage? Most notably, celibacy allows individuals to follow Our Lord more closely and begin to live Heaven now, “for in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven” (Mt. 22:30). Moreover, the celibate priest, religious, and consecrated lay person can dedicate themselves entirely to the things of God — namely, prayer and service to others — unlike the married person, who is worried about pleasing his spouse and is more attached to “worldly affairs” (1 Cor. 7:33–34).
Desiring the closest union with God and likely due to the Church’s teaching on the superiority of celibacy, many married saints like Thomas More and Louis and Zélie Martin sought to enter religious life at one point. In fact, St. Zélie was in tears on her wedding night because she still dreamed of being a nun and giving God an undivided heart. Years after having her children, St. Zélie had temptations to doubt her true vocation. But one look at her children made Zélie realize that surrendering to God’s will is the best recipe for peace and sanctity. And one look at her saintly husband ought to have stirred in Zélie’s heart the Reverend Mother’s timeless words to Maria in The Sound of Music: “My daughter, if you love this man, it doesn’t mean you love God less.”
Had St. Zélie become a nun, the Church would have been deprived of at least one saint, her daughter, St. Thérèse. Perhaps Ss. Louis and Zélie Martin would never have been saints had they joined religious life. Maybe if St. Thomas More had become a Carthusian monk, he would never have earned the crown of martyrdom.
Even though all five of their daughters became nuns, neither St. Louis nor St. Zélie steered them in that direction. In other words, they did not try to live vicariously through their children by having them enter religious life because they had failed to do so. Surprisingly, the only reason St. Zélie worked was to secure her daughters’ dowry; although they prayed that their children would be religious, Ss. Louis and Zelie thought most of them would get married.
Clearly, Ss. Louis and Zélie were prudent and wise when it came to their children’s vocations. The same could be said of Venerable Fulton Sheen’s parents. His parents prayed daily that he would be a priest, but they never pressured or even told him until the young Fulton revealed his vocation.
Unlike St. Thérèse’s and Ven. Fulton Sheen’s parents, some couples misinterpret the Church’s teaching on celibacy’s superiority over marriage as it pertains to their children’s vocations, even their very own. As a result, some parents pressure their children into entering the seminary and religious life or express disappointment after they leave, as if their children have failed them. For instance, St. Maximillian Kolbe’s mother always wanted Maximilian’s older brother, Francis, to be a priest. When Francis left the seminary and eventually married, she never came to terms with his vocation — how tragic!
In some difficult marriages, especially when one spouse questions the “holiness” of the other, that spouse could mistakenly tell his children, “Become a priest or religious so you don’t have to experience this cross.” Or, like St. Zélie, some devout parents might occasionally daydream about the priesthood or religious life, especially when their prayer life “suffers” due to their children and work. Unfortunately, they might believe the lie, “If only I were a priest or nun, then I could be a saint.”
The inferiority of marriage to celibacy leads some parents to favor their children’s priestly and religious vocations over their married children. When asked about their children, a father and mother can be quick to say, “I have one son who is a priest or one daughter who is a nun” without mentioning the other children who live holy marriages. I knew one family with two sons — one was a priest and the other married. The married son felt jealous because the mother preferred his priestly brother. Consequently, the married son saw his marriage as second-rate compared to his brother’s priesthood. Perhaps some parents think — or even worse, tell their married children, “I wish you were as holy as your brother who is a priest” or “your sister who is a nun.”
Certainly, having a religious vocation in the family is one of the greatest blessings God can bestow upon any married couple, which should only lead to humility for such an undeserved gift. But the truth is that both celibacy and marriage are paths to sanctity, even with celibacy being the higher good. As St. Ambrose said on virginity, “I am comparing good things with good things, that it may be clear which is more excellent.” The Catechism also states, “Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it [marriage] makes virginity more admirable and resplendent.”
My friend, whom I alluded to earlier, ended up getting married. God has entrusted parents like him with the awesome responsibility to be both the primary educators and first vocation directors of their children. Hence, parents’ rich prayer life, sacrificial witness, joy, and great respect for celibacy and marriage are the “good soil” that will allow their children to bear much fruit in their future vocations (Mt. 13:23). In this way, they, like my friend, can be models for openness to God’s will.
The fact that the Church teaches that celibacy is superior to marriage must never lessen the sacrament of matrimony’s great mission in God’s eyes and in the Church. For our path to sanctity is the vocation God calls us to, not necessarily the superior one. When parents look down upon their married children’s calling as not “being good enough,” they no longer see eye to eye with God, who sees marriage as a great mystery pointing us to Christ and His Church, according to St. Paul (Eph. 5:32). Tragically, these parents have lost touch with the splendor of their own vocation.
It takes great courage to enter the seminary or convent. It also takes great courage to leave if God is in fact calling you to marriage, keeping in mind that the cross cannot be avoided if we wish to reach Heaven. In either case, the Church more than ever needs parents to follow the parents of the saints’ heroic example, who were “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” by lovingly guiding their children to God’s plan and not their own (Matt. 10:16). Herein lies the vocational wisdom that formed numerous saints.
Patrick O’Hearn is a husband and father. He has co-authored the book Nursery of Heaven: Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Infant Loss in the Lives of the Saints and Today’s Parents and authored the soon to be released book Parents of the Saints: The Hidden Heroes behind Our Favorite Saints.