The Inferiority of Marriage to Celibacy in Roman Catholic Theology

Kingdon and Witte’s summary of medieval views on marriage and celibacy. This follows a paragraph where they describe how the Roman Catholics viewed marriage as natural and on some level good. All punctuation is theirs.

Many medieval writers, however,-following St. Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 7-subordinated the duty of propagation to that of celibate contemplation, the natural drive for sexual union to the spiritual drive for beatitude. For, as Peter Lombard put it: “The first institution [of marriage in Paradise] was commanded, the second permitted…to the human race for the purpose of preventing fornication. But this permission, because it does not select better things, is a remedy not a reward; if anyone rejects it, he will deserve judgment of death. An act which is allowed by permission, however, is voluntary, not necessary.” After the fall into sin, marriage remained a duty, but only for those tempted by sexual sin. For those not so tempted, marriage was an inferior option. It was better and more virtuous to pursue the spiritual life of celibacy and contemplation than the temporal life of marriage and family. For marriage was regarded as an institution of the natural sphere, not the supernatural sphere. Though ordained by God and good, it served primarily for the protection of the human community, not for the perfection of the individual. Participation in it merely kept a person free from sin and vice. It did not contribute directly to his or her virtue. The celibate, contemplative life, by contrast, was a calling to the supernatural sphere. Participation in it increased a person’s virtue and aided in the pursuit of beatitude. To this pursuit, Thomas Aquinas put it, “marriage is a very great obstacle, ” for it forces the person to dwell on the carnal and natural rather than the spiritual and supernatural aspects of life. (p. 29-30)

Marriage was seen as settling for something less than the best. This view would have been reinforced by the celibate priesthood.