Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Church and Mission 4: In praise of virginity

Cath News is at it yet again this week, with another destructive blog post which starts: ‘There is too much emphasis on virginity’, and continues with an attack on Marian devotion as devaluing married life.

It’s a standard line of the so-called “theology of the laity”, which suggests that much traditional spirituality, especially that inspired by the monastic tradition, is at best inappropriate and at worst positively dangerous to the laity, and therefore has no part to play in the revitalization of Catholic life.

So I thought I'd post another in my occasional series on Church and Mission, based on my Masters thesis, this time focusing on just why I think that the ideal of virginity actually needs to be one of the foundations of any genuine theology of the lay state.

Towards a new 'theology of the laity'

The idea that the traditional emphasis on virginity is problematic is one of the standard lines of the so-called “theology of the laity” that has developed over the last fifty years or so (and of course for the claim that priests should be allowed to marry). 

There is nothing inherently wrong of course, and indeed much positive value potentially at least, in the idea of developing a greater theological understanding of the nature of the lay state. The problem comes when those who take up this cause insist on rejecting all of tradition in the process.

And much of the work associated with the theology of the laity is premised on claims that most traditional spirituality is at best inappropriate and at worst positively dangerous to the laity, and therefore has no part to play in the revitalization of Catholic life.

Proponents of this school, from Yves Congar onward argue that the emphasis on traditional ideals such as virginity denigrate the secular aspects of life that are the particular domain of the laity such as marriage, work and the world.

In another post I’ll talk about why I think their claim that for much of the Church’s history the laity have been excluded from taking an active role in the Church’s affairs and were second class citizens is wrong.

But in this post, I want to talk about the ideal of virginity.

The starting point for all Christians is the imitation of Christ

It is one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity that we are called to imitate Christ as best we can. Our Lord provides the perfect model of what lived Christianity looks like. That is not to say that it is either possible or desirable for us to live exactly as he lived: the time and place are different, and our individual callings are not identicial with his mission.  Nonetheless, his life provides us with a model to aspire to.  Similarly, Our Lady and the Holy Family as a whole are presented to us as ideals to look up to and imitate.

One of the greatest problems of modern theology in my view is its selective blindness to important aspects of Our Lord’s life. Is God’s decision to become human as a male significant, or just a random choice for example? Radical feminists argue the latter, or paint is as a political decision needed to deal with societal norms at the time of the Incarnation. Traditionalists see it as a deliberate part of God’s plan.

Similarly, in relation to virginity, the traditional view, as Paul VI noted, is that "that manner of virginal and humble life which Christ the Lord elected for Himself, and which His Virgin Mother also chose… presents us with this privileged witness of a constant seeking for God, of an undivided love for Christ alone, and of an absolute dedication to the growth of His kingdom.”

Pope John Paul II went a step further, in the context of an extensive presentation on the model of virginity and celibacy presented by Our Lord and his mother as the new Adam and new Eve, and imitated most closely by those in consecrated life.

He explained that while the Old Testament gave a privileged status to marriage, the New Testament reversed this, teaching that continence for the sake of the Kingdom is to be preferred as “an especially effective and privileged way”.

The virginity of Our Lord and Our Lady, then is important, a reference point for all people no matter what their state in life.

It is only by understanding and incorporating the ideal of virginity as a reference point that we can really understand Our Lord’s actions in insisting that marriage be a lifelong commitment, and raising it to the status of a sacrament.

Does the idealization of virginity denigrate marriage?

In the years after Vatican II, Marian devotion and the exaltation of traditional religious life was often seen as an implicit or explicit denigration of marriage. Respected author Fr. Jordan Aumann SJ for example worried that the exaltation of the celibate and contemplative life resulted in marriage and the active life being held in contempt and low esteem.

Pope John Paul II however rejected explicitly the idea that the objective superiority of virginity and celibacy in any way denigrates marriage:

“Virginity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God not only does not contradict the dignity of marriage but presupposes it and confirms it. Marriage and virginity or celibacy are two ways of expressing and living the one mystery of the covenant of God with His people... In virginity or celibacy, the human being is awaiting, also in a bodily way, the eschatological marriage of Christ with the Church, giving himself or herself completely to the Church in the hope that Christ may give Himself to the Church in the full truth of eternal life. The celibate person thus anticipates in his or her flesh the new world of the future resurrection. By virtue of this witness, virginity or celibacy keeps alive in the Church a consciousness of the mystery of marriage and defends it from any reduction and impoverishment.”

If we want to save the family as the basis of our society, if we want to recover from the wounds of sexual predation that have afflicted both our society as a whole and the Church, we need to recover the ideal of virginity, for which we must pray to Our Lady.

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