Monday, October 19, 2015

Can Catholics Learn Today from the Continent Marriage of Joseph and Mary?

If you have not read my article from last week, it would make the most sense to start there, and then come back to this one.

In the mind of believers reflecting on the Holy Family, an obvious question ought to arise: Are we supposed to learn from the celibate marriage of Mary and Joseph a lesson that is actually applicable to married laypeople? Put differently, could their “Josephite marriage” have anything to say to us here and now?

St. Thomas answers in the affirmative: “By this example [of Mary and Joseph] the faithful are taught that if after marriage they remain continent by mutual consent, their union is still marriage and is rightly called such, even without intercourse of the sexes.”[1] Peter Lombard goes further: “without carnal commingling, marriage is holier, as is said in the text [of the Sentences].”[2] In two places Aquinas even formulates the view in his own words, albeit buried in objections as premises to which he does not take exception: “It is even better for spouses to restrain themselves than to make use of marriage”[3]; again, “those marriages are more perfect that are accompanied by a vow of continence (pari voto continentium).”[4] It is hard to know the extent to which Aquinas personally endorses this opinion, but there are many reasons to think he could not have rejected it altogether, and may even favor it.

This being so, we are left with matter for reflection. If, as occurred fairly often in former centuries, a Catholic couple today felt drawn by the Lord to a deeper life of prayer and contemplative intimacy with Him and were convinced that He had given them the desire and strength to remain perpetually continent, would we, as a friend or spiritual director, counsel them in favor of this choice or against it? Would we view it as a case of confused vocational identity, of mistaking for superior virtue what is in reality a retreat from the demands placed on Christians living in the world? A too-quick answer about “medieval Manichaeism” or “contempt of God’s good creation” or “staying in line with one’s state in life” might well bring to light a superficial spirituality that does not respect the divine initiative and the Spirit’s free giving of gifts, not to mention a failure to comprehend a rare but defensible application of ascetical-mystical doctrine.

The saints are given to the faithful as luminous exemplars of Christian life, practitioners of heroic virtue worthy of our prudent imitation. Now, it is well known that many saints in all periods of history have lived perpetual continence either for the whole of their married life or for a notable part of it.[5] We are bound, therefore, by our very trust in the Church’s recognition of sanctity, to see in this (admittedly atypical) path a genuine “vocation within a vocation,” a different mode of nuptial love to which the Lord has called and will continue to call some Christians.[6]

We could understand a Josephite relationship in this way: as Christian marriage, with its divinely graced bodily-spiritual intimacy, is the privileged earthly sign of that heavenly reality of which religious life is the superior anticipation and realization, so a Josephite marriage is the mutual and voluntary surrender or sacrifice of spousal rights in order that the spouses — precisely as representing the perpetual gift of self, total yet non-sexual, that subsists between the Bridegroom Christ and His bridal Church — may become for each other more transparent signs of the ineffable intimacy awaiting them in their final beatific destiny, an intimacy with God and with one another in Him that is more lofty and profound than any earthly communion they might enjoy. It would be, then, the renunciation and offering up of a way of life that is rooted in the sanctified and sanctifying but necessarily transitory and imperfect communion of man and wife, in order to achieve another kind of communion of brother and sister in the Spirit; and this for no other reason than that both may strive more wholeheartedly to attain, in their common life, an ever-fuller participation in the divine holiness and beatitude that knows neither beginning nor end.[7]

Such was indubitably the calling of Joseph and Mary and of certain saints who followed in their footsteps. We could not dare, for fear of sinning against Love, to state categorically that such a vocation is no longer possible or no longer given. The parents of St. Thérèse, Louis and Zelie Martin, are sometimes ridiculed for the vow of continence they made at the start of their marriage. But their very openness to renunciation, together with an ongoing discernment, was a crucial part of their sanctity, and when they came to see that it was God’s will for them to have children, they embraced that vocation without demur, giving to the Church the gift of five daughters who entered religious life, one of whom became the greatest saint of modern times.

In the midst of synodal confusion and chaos, this topic is more pertinent than ever, due to the flawed reasoning of certain leaders in the Church who seem to take for granted that chastity and continence within marriage are simply impossible, off the table.[8] If we adopt a broader perspective, we can see that history furnishes us with more than a few examples of the reality of such unions, which can be a solution for couples in adulterous unions who wish to be fully reconciled with God and the Church and thus able to receive our Lord in the Most Holy Eucharist.


[1] Summa theologiae III, q. 29, a. 2, sc (quoting Augustine with approval).

[2] In IV Sent. d. 26, q. 2, a. 4, sc 2.

[3] In IV Sent. d. 32, a. 2, arg. 2.

[4] In IV Sent. d. 34, a. 2, arg. 1.

[5] See, for abundant examples, Ferdinand Holböck, Married Saints and Blesseds Through the Centuries, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002).

[6] Indeed, in any marriage that lasts over many decades, there will be a phase of it to which this description can and should apply.

[7] For the metaphysical and theological principles underlying this claim, see Peter Kwasniewski, “On the Ideal Basis and Fruition of Marriage,” Second Spring 12 (2010): 43–53.

[8] See Benedict Constable, "Chastity is Impossible: The Kernel of the Kasperite Position," published on September 23, 2015, at Rorate Caeli.

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