Marriage and the Celibate State

Today’s Gospel passage is a very important one for our day and age, in which our Lord defends and reinstates in the original order of creation in which the marriage bond is indissoluble. These words of our Lord, “from the beginning it was not so,” inspired the teaching of St. John Paul II on marriage and family, in which the saintly pope addressed much of his attention to the order of creation written into our own bodies, which speak of the deep and lasting unity between a husband and a wife.

That this passage should be the source of no little controversy should not be surprising to us since even the Lord’s disciples admit here that it is a difficult teaching. Our Lord says, “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” The phrase “unless the marriage is unlawful” is frequently subject to debate. Many protestant scholars have claimed that the Greek word here translated as “unlawful” could mean “adultery,” and thus many protestant sects have allowed divorce on the basis of the commission of adultery. However, the Greek word literally means ‘impurity,’ and the translation here at ‘unlawful’ is an accurate one. Our Lord is not giving an exception to His teaching on marriage, but is rather saying that some unions that appear to be marriages and not valid unions at all. This is the basis on which the Catholic Church exercises the canonical process for the declaration of nullity of a marriage, known as an annulment.

Even while upholding the great dignity of the Sacrament of Marriage, Our Lord also points out that there is something even greater: renunciation of marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. Here we call to mind those many religious and priests who have foregone marriage in order to give a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth by their embracing of the celibate state. In heaven, marriage no longer exists and all those who are privileged to arrive there are devoted entirely to God. Thus, the religious and priests who live in the celibate state give a sign of that heavenly life here on earth. Our Lord even says, “Whoever can accept this ought to accept it”! The invitation to the celibate life, a life of great joy and union with Christ, is offered to many, even if the Lord’s invitation is not frequently accepted.

This Gospel passage should remind us of the importance of our prayers for all married couples who have entered into the sacrament of marriage, that they might be faithful to their marriage covenant, as well as for the many young men and women being called to embrace the celibate state for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, that they might have the courage to answer the Lord’s call.

Originally written for the radio show “Readings and Reflections” on Redeemer Radio. Originally aired on August 14, 2015.