The change of mindset that is at the heart of Amoris Lætitia, in terms of how we are to journey together with and towards God, also has implications on a variety of more specific questions and Pope Francis even spells some of them out in the text itself. One of the most beautiful of these, to my mind, is a re-presentation of the value of virginity and marriage and of their mutual relationship.
If we look back at the development of how virginity and marriage have been understood throughout the history of the Church, we can trace the roots of a long-standing preference for virginity to the words of St. Paul: “[B]ecause of cases of immorality every man should have his own wife, and every woman her own husband. [… But] I wish everyone to be as I am [celibate]” (1 Corinthians 7:2,7) and to Jesus’ words in the Gospels: “When they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but they are like the angels in heaven.” (Mark 12:25).
St. Thomas Aquinas then supplements these passages with rational grounds for a higher value being attached to virginity:
“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 rightly 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.” (ST II-II.152.4)
At the council of Trent (1545–1563), a claim to the opposite is declared as punishable by excommunication: “If anyone saith that the marriage state is to be preferred before the state of virginity, let him be anathema,” which was re-affirmed as recently as 1954 by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Sacra Virginitas:
“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. Finally, We and Our Predecessors have often expounded it and earnestly advocated it whenever occasion offered. But recent attacks on this traditional doctrine of the Church, the danger they constitute, and the harm they do to the souls of the faithful lead Us, in fulfillment of the duties of Our charge, to take up the matter once again in this Encyclical Letter, and to reprove these errors which are so often propounded under a specious appearance of truth.” (§32)
Now, there have also been examples of a more egalitarian perspective on marriage and virginity, including in the early centuries of the Church, such as the Synod of Gangra in 340 AD:
“Canon 1: If any one shall condemn marriage, or abominate and condemn a woman who is a believer and devout, and sleeps with her own husband, as though she could not enter the Kingdom [of heaven] let him be anathema.
Canon 9: If any one shall remain virgin, or observe continence, abstaining from marriage because he abhors it, and not on account of the beauty and holiness of virginity itself, let him be anathema.
Canon 10: If any one of those who are living a virgin life for the Lord’s sake shall treat arrogantly the married, let him be anathema.”
And the current, 1993 Catechism also speaks about the two states in a balanced way:
“Both the sacrament of Matrimony and virginity for the Kingdom of God come from the Lord himself. It is he who gives them meaning and grants them the grace which is indispensable for living them out in conformity with his will. Esteem of virginity for the sake of the kingdom and the Christian understanding of marriage are inseparable, and they reinforce each other.” (§1620)
Yet, even here there are remnants of a superiority being attributed to virginity:
“Virginity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is an unfolding of baptismal grace, a powerful sign of the supremacy of the bond with Christ and of the ardent expectation of his return, a sign which also recalls that marriage is a reality of this present age which is passing away.” (§1619)
It is against this backdrop that paragraphs 159-162 of Amoris Lætitia are so important in that they dispel lingering feelings of disparity that even the post-conciliar Catechism contains.
Pope Francis starts off by associating virginity with love and pointing to the Scriptural roots of its value:
Virginity is a form of love. As a sign, it speaks to us of the coming of the Kingdom and the need for complete devotion to the cause of the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor 7:32). It is also a reflection of the fullness of heaven, where “they neither marry not are given in marriage” (Mt 22:30).
He then provides context and nuance, especially with regard to St. Paul’s words:
Saint Paul recommended virginity because he expected Jesus’ imminent return and he wanted everyone to concentrate only on spreading the Gospel: “the appointed time has grown very short” (1 Cor 7:29). Nonetheless, he made it clear that this was his personal opinion and preference (cf. 1 Cor 7:6-9), not something demanded by Christ: “I have no command in the Lord” (1 Cor 7:25). All the same, he recognized the value of the different callings: “Each has his or her own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor 7:7).
So, already Paul’s preference for virginity can be read in a personal context and against a background of a recognition of other paths to God, which leads Pope Francis to making the following declaration - again quoting St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, as he does profusely throughout AL:
Reflecting on this, Saint John Paul II noted that the biblical texts “give no reason to assert the ‘inferiority’ of marriage, nor the ‘superiority’ of virginity or celibacy” based on sexual abstinence. Rather than speak absolutely of the superiority of virginity, it should be enough to point out that the different states of life complement one another, and consequently that some can be more perfect in one way and others in another.
To counter-balance the well-known and historically-dominant presentation of virginity being more perfect than marriage, Francis next points to the 13th century English theologian, Alexander of Hales, who:
stated that in one sense marriage may be considered superior to the other sacraments, inasmuch as it symbolizes the great reality of “Christ’s union with the Church, or the union of his divine and human natures”.
Therefore, and here Francis passes the word to St. John Paul II again:
“it is not a matter of diminishing the value of matrimony in favour of continence”.“There is no basis for playing one off against the other... If, following a certain theological tradition, one speaks of a ‘state of perfection’ (status perfectionis), this has to do not with continence in itself, but with the entirety of a life based on the evangelical counsels”. A married person can experience the highest degree of charity and thus “reach the perfection which flows from charity, through fidelity to the spirit of those counsels. Such perfection is possible and accessible to every man and woman”.
What John Paul II does here masterfully is not reject virginity’s claim to perfection, but, by going to its root, which is “a life based on the evangelical counsels” he argues that such perfection - the perfection previously though to be exclusively that of virginity - “is possible and accessible to every man and woman”. Instead of a downgrading of virginity, this is a recognition of the potential virginity - as a putting into practice of the evangelical counsels - of all.
Next follows Pope Francis’ presentation of what virginity and marriage are and how they complement each other:
The value of virginity lies in its symbolizing a love that has no need to possess the other; in this way it reflects the freedom of the Kingdom of Heaven. Virginity encourages married couples to live their own conjugal love against the backdrop of Christ’s definitive love, journeying together towards the fullness of the Kingdom. For its part, conjugal love symbolizes other values. On the one hand, it is a particular reflection of that full unity in distinction found in the Trinity. The family is also a sign of Christ. It manifests the closeness of God who is a part of every human life, since he became one with us through his incarnation, death and resurrection. Each spouse becomes “one flesh” with the other as a sign of willingness to share everything with him or her until death.
After pointing to how married couples can benefit from the witness of virgins, who remind them of “Christ’s definite love”, Francis elaborates the mirror image of this advice by spelling out how virgins can be enriched and encouraged by the witness of married couples:
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. In such cases, the witness of married people becomes especially eloquent. Those called to virginity can encounter in some marriages a clear sign of God’s generous and steadfast fidelity to his covenant, and this can move them to a more concrete and generous availability to others. Many married couples remain faithful when one of them has become physically unattractive, or fails to satisfy the other’s needs, despite the voices in our society that might encourage them to be unfaithful or to leave the other. A wife can care for her sick husband and thus, in drawing near to the Cross, renew her commitment to love unto death. In such love, the dignity of the true lover shines forth, inasmuch as it is more proper to charity to love than to be loved. We could also point to the presence in many families of a capacity for selfless and loving service when children prove troublesome and even ungrateful. This makes those parents a sign of the free and selfless love of Jesus. Cases like these encourage celibate persons to live their commitment to the Kingdom with greater generosity and openness. Today, secularization has obscured the value of a life-long union and the beauty of the vocation to marriage. For this reason, it is “necessary to deepen an understanding of the positive aspects of conjugal love”.
To sum up Francis’ position, virginity and marriage can be seen as reflecting different aspects of the one reality of Christ: virginity its definitive fullness, marriage its trinitarian incarnation and universal closeness. In fact, Francis distills their complementarity in the following words:
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. Virginity and marriage are, and must be, different ways of loving. For “man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him” (St. John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 1979).
When I read the above, it made me think of how its opposite mirrors some of the Christological heresies of the Early Church. In some sense, a valuing of virginity over marriage can be thought of as a form of gnostic docetism that emphasizes Jesus’ divinity and denies the truth of his incarnation, while a preference for marriage, at the expense of virginity, would be aligned with an Arianism that denies the divinity of Jesus and his unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. To my mind, Pope Francis’ words present virginity and marriage in a truly Trinitarian way, where their diversity expresses the richness and personal nature of God’s love and where their unity is a witness to its all-encompassing universality. It is only when both virginity and marriage are recognized as “different ways of loving” - both made perfect insofar as they are love - that we see the God who is Love, who is Trinity and who is fullness of life (cf. John 10:10).