Monday, August 17, 2015

For the Sake of the Kingdom

Today's Gospel reading at Mass (Matthew 19:16-22) recounted the sad story of the rich young man, who initially approached Jesus with enthusiasm, but who, after being invited by Jesus to go beyond the ordinary path to salvation and to follow Jesus in an extraordinary life of evangelical poverty, went away sad, for he had many possessions. This part of the story is traditionally sometimes seen as suggesting the special vocation in the Church of religious life according to the evangelical counsels

That reminded me that one week from today will be the 34th anniversary of my own reception into the Paulist Novitiate, then located at beautiful, semi-rural Mount Paul in Oak Ridge, NJ (photo). We were a class of eight, which at that time (1981) still seemed somewhat small. Of the eight of us, while all made 1st Profession and began theological study in Washington, DC, only four of us went on to final profession in 1986. One of the other four was ordained a diocesan priest later that year and is still serving faithfully in that ministry. Of the four who made Final Profession as Paulists, three of us were eventually ordained, and two of us are still serving as priests, but I am the only one still a Paulist. I mention that not to toot my own horn but to call attention to the tragic pattern of attrition which exemplifies what seems to be religious life's contemporary vocations crisis.

Just recently, I came across an interesting article calling for a renewed emphasis in the Church on the celibate vocation - Patricia Snow, "Dismantling the Cross, First Things 252 (April 2015) - 

First Things is, of course, a conservative publication, founded by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus that purports to oppose the reigning ideology of contemporary secular liberalism, from a politically and socially conservative perspective. However, given that the exaltation of (faithful, monogamous, heteronormative) marriage has now become such a centerpiece of American traditionalist thinking, encountering such a strongly made argument in that publication seemed to me not quite but almost as striking as finding it in, say, the Sunday New York Times Magazine might be!

Put simply, the article's argument starts from a traditional Catholic contention, very much rooted in certain New Testament treatments of the issue, that the celibate vocation (not just singleness but celibacy for the sake of the kingdom) has a privileged position because it anticipates "the world of the future resurrection," that the Church has historically "depended upon a healthy interaction" between "the normal calling of marriage" and "the exceptional calling of priesthood or religious life," and that the contemporary failure to present this traditional teaching adequately is resulting in an increased emphasis "on natural rather than supernatural relationships" - and a consequent decline in religious vocations.

Although this is a case that clearly deserves to be made, my first reaction to the article was that certain elements of the argument are somewhat overstated. For example, I wonder whether the contention that people in earlier periods were less likely than people today to remarry after the death of a spouse may be historically sustainable - or is it an unusual reading of past experience that fits in with a certain theological scheme of argument. I think that, until only very recently, for most people in most societies of most of human history, marriage was the normal state of life. Accordingly my guess is that second (and third) marriages of widows and widowers (if only to provide for adequate care of children and management of households) must have been actually quite common.

That said, however, the article's questionable overstatements notwithstanding, its core contention still compels consideration - in keeping with the clear sense of the New Testament and the Church's consistent tradition. 

Until the end of the world, marriage, which perpetuates the human race and produces new members for the Church, is essential for the Church's life. It is, as the Anglicans say in their beautiful liturgical language, "an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency," which "Christ adorned and beautified with his presence," and which "is commended by Saint Paul to be honourable among all." But, because maintaining human community and continuing the human race from generation to generation in this world isn't humanity's exclusive end, celibate religious life, which anticipates the eschatological future, when they neither marry nor are given in marriage (Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35) is also essential for the Church's life. So it needs to be valued and promoted accordingly.

The people of God have no lasting city here below, but look forward to one that is to come. Since this is so, the religious state, whose purpose is to free its members from earthly cares, more fully manifests to all believers the presence of heavenly goods already possessed here below. Furthermore, it not only witnesses to the fact of a new and eternal life acquired by the redemption of Christ, but it foretells the future resurrection and the glory of the heavenly kingdom. Christ proposed to His disciples this form of life, which He, as the Son of God, accepted in entering this world to do the will of the Father. This same state of life is accurately exemplified and perpetually made present in the Church. The religious state clearly manifests that the Kingdom of God and its needs, in a very special way, are raised above all earthly considerations. Finally it clearly shows all men both the unsurpassed breadth of the strength of Christ the King and the infinite power of the Holy Spirit marvelously working in the Church. (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 44)

To be continued.

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