Celibate Marriage

Recently I’ve had a great amount of discussion via twitter and emails about the nature of Marriage and Celibacy. The talks have been held between myself, Father Christian, Rae Jericho and A. Lindsey Nelson.

Today’s post is from Father Christian and is part of a new wing here on “A Journey with the Holy Father” which i have aptly dubbed “seminar saturday.” These Saturday posts are going to be loosely connected around the topic of the interrelation of marriage and celibacy. This first post and all the others will be filed under the category “Seminar Saturday” when we move on to other topics they will be called Seminar Saturday 2 and so on. Hopefully these will be more prone to dialogue than our regular wednesday posts and invite more participation and insight and comments. Let’s get back to our post.

Rae has posted the following article on the topic of saintly marriages, and discovered a trend on the nature of marriage among the saints. However, what I really want to focus on today is the nature of what the Church affirms as Josephite or Celibate Marriage.

This is the first of what will be a more or less regular discussion on marriage and the family that will hopefully regularly feature guest bloggers, and various perspectives. Saturdays will be our breakout day, Wednesdays will still continue the regular Theology of the Body discussions. Stay tuned for any future projects, and email me if you would like to offer a post on the blog. Thanks for reading.

The Following is copied with permission from Father Christian’s blog ATTENTION: Please post all comments and thoughts or questions that specifically concern Father Christian on the original post, so that we can further the discussion in a central location. However, I did want to offer his thoughts on the role of celibate marriage in the broader Christian life.

Father Christian writes as follows:

One of my favorite parts of blogging is that it brings me into many conversations with others that cause me to stretch my understanding of the Christian faith and to wrestle with topics that alone I would most likely not consider. One such recent conversation began with an invitation by my fellow blogger Rae at her home over at There Is No Wealth But Life. The question to her readers centers around the idea of a celibate marriage and why, though rare, this is not more widely accepted by Christians as being a legitimate practice. Her original post,Celibacy and Utilitarianism, calls Catholics to see our faith as something that goes beyond having simply a pragmatic purpose. In this thought, I am in complete agreement with Rae and believe that we desperately need to move away from simply seeing our faith in utilitarian terms. With regards to what is often referred to as a “Josephite Marriage”, meaning a marriage where both spouses agree to abstain from sexual intercourse from the very beginning of the marriage, I will admit to having some personal struggles in understanding those who choose to enter into a marriage of this type.

It is certainly one of the grey areas of Church law, but since being challenged by Rae do some more exploration on the subject, I have to admit that it is something the Church allows while I am still not all that certain that it is something to which the Church would give widespread encouragement. I will agree, however, that there are many points within the debate over celibacy, or perhaps a better word would be abstinence, both in the context of marriage and outside of it that our modern culture would do well to explore with more seriousness.

I have hesitated in writing this post, as it is never my intent to foster uncharitable debates that so often surround topics such as this one. My experience of Rae, however, has always been one where civilized discourse and conversation are central. So while I expect and hope that she and others will respond to this post with comments of their own, I would remind those who wish to add their own thoughts to do so always in a spirit of charity.

Perhaps a good place to begin is with the definition of the word celibacy. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines celibacy this way:


1: the state of not being married

2: a) abstention from sexual intercourse; b) abstention by vow from marriage

The English word has its origin from the Latin caelibatus which means “the state of being unmarried”. The reason I want to start with this definition is that there has been a long tradition in the Church, beginning with Christ that would encourage those who can to remain celibate, but also that this would almost universally be defined as remaining unmarried.

Let’s take a look at some of the points from canon law that were presented in Rae’s blogpost. Both Church law and Church tradition would show us that a couple is married when they have freely given their consent to one another. I always make a point to stress to couples that I am preparing for marriage that it is the couple themselves that administer the sacrament to each other and that I am simply there as an official witness. One of my best memories at a wedding was when the bride looked over at me after exchanging vows with her husband and whispered, “We’re married!” Rae is absolutely correct in pointing out that the Church does not claim a couple is not married until they have consummated their marriage. The church even gives two definitions for those who have entered into marriage.

A valid marriage between the baptized is called ratum tantum if it has not been consummated; it is called ratum et consummatum if the spouses have performed between themselves in a human fashion a conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh.

One thing to note, however, in this canon is the implication that there would normally be a sexual union between spouses due to the fact that the very nature of marriage is ordered toward this end and that this is the traditional way by which “two become one flesh”. Certainly marital union is and should not be limited to the physical union, but I would argue that there is physical dimension to every sacrament that is necessary because of the Incarnation of Christ. But more on that later.

One thing that is clear to me after ten years of working with couples who are seeking an annulment is that the Church always presumes there is a valid marriage, unless proven otherwise. There is also another presumption that is stated in canon law this way:

After a marriage has been celebrated, if the spouses have lived together consummation is presumed until the contrary is proven.

This once again, seems to point to the fact that the Church understands the physical aspects of marriage to be at the heart of its definition of the sacrament.

One thing that should be noted with regards to canon law is that a marriage that has not been consummated is not able to be nullified, but rather it is dissolved. Dissolution implies that there really was a marriage, where an annulment means that there was something wrong with the consent at the time of marriage. This is a point that Rae has made very clear in her posts and it is entirely valid. My first experience of working with someone seeking to remarry in the Church ended with the granting of a dissolution of their marriage by the Petrine Privilege. This type of case involves someone who was married to a non-Christian and chooses to marry another Christian. In this case, the Church dissolves the first marriage in favor of granting a sacramental marriage to another Christian. The Church acknowledges that there was a natural marriage but gives “favoritism” to the Christian marriage. I wonder, and I should stress the word wonder,  if this might have a parallel in the case of marriages dissolved due to the fact that they were not consummated. Does this mean the Church favors those that follow the more common practice of marital relations? I don’t have a good answer to this.

Where Rae and I are in total agreement is her point regarding utilitarianism. Richard Sipe once wrote, “Religious celibacy is a love affair, or it is nothing”.  I couldn’t agree more. In the best sense that it is lived out, celibacy has little to do with the pragmatic dimension that it frees a priest or religious to be more available for ministry. What I hear Rae to be saying is that while marriage is ordered toward procreation and unity between spouses, the deeper meaning contains much more than simply the pragmatic goal of giving birth to and raising children. The sacrament of marriage is the embodiment of the marriage between Christ and His Church. It represents the love that exists between God and His people.

I would still like to get back to the Incarnation as the central part of our Christian faith. There are two core beliefs of the Christian faith that have to guide us in all that we do. Our faith can be summed up in the Incarnation and the Trinity. I’m not going to comment on the Trinity in this post in order to keep an already long post from becoming longer. Perhaps there could be a future post that looks at that aspect of our faith as it applies to marriage. I am a strong believer in the fact that every sacrament has its origin in the Incarnation of Christ. This means we can’t separate the physical from the spiritual as they are one. Just as Christ is both human and divine, but is one person, we too share in this reality as we have been created in the image and likeness of God. There is a reason that the Church acknowledges the benefit of spiritual communion when one cannot physically receive the Body and Blood of Christ during Mass due to the effects of sin, but the Church would always have as its goal that we frequently receive the Eucharist. In every sacrament there is a physical element and this is not accidental. This is one of the main things that troubles me personally with the idea of a marriage where the physical union is absent. Much of our tradition speaks of the marriage bed as the altar of the sacrament of marriage. In my opinion, it would be only in rare cases that one would exclude this aspect of the married life.

But what about the connection between abstinence and asceticism? Here is a topic that I would like to explore further. There is a clear connection between the discipline of celibacy and other ascetic practices in the Church. I am a firm believer that the reason behind the lack of understanding of celibacy lies in a lack of understanding, appreciation and embrace of fasting and asceticism in the modern Christian understanding of things. Celibacy is an ascetic practice that can only be understood and supported when the entire Christian community is engaged in asceticism. But perhaps this subject is better saved for another day.

This post is unusual both in its subject matter and in its length. I hope that the readers of this blog will take some time to reflect upon it and as always to post your opinions in the comments section. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Remember that the original post is where you should direct comments and questions for Father Christian. All other comments to myself or Rae may be made here if you’d like, but I’d really appreciate all posts being redirected to Father Christian’s site.


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