“And Adam called his wife’s name Eve;

because she was the mother of all living.”

—Genesis 3:20

The first time I ever visited Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, it was in the company of a pretty Irish-American girl from Massachusetts named Evelyn.  Her father was some kind of Democratic politician back home.  She and I were just beginning a semester abroad.  She was art history; I was classics.  We were both only 19.  All the way over, as we walked down on a sweltering August afternoon from Monteverde Vecchio through the Janiculum park, she had been arguing with me about contraception and population control and not wanting children.  Her ideas were definitely not papal.  As we were about to enter the vestibule, I told her that I really would rather not hear her contradicting our Faith just here, and to wait till we were in a bar.  She laughed agreeably and said that it seemed a little sacrilegious to her, too.  Silently, then, we walked up toward the confessio.  When I went over to kiss the foot of Saint Peter’s image, she said, “I guess you would like to be alone; I’ll meet you on the roof.”  It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him (Genesis 2:18).

When we met later, we stood side by side, admiring the view of the City.  She opened her canvas bag and brought out an apple and offered it to me with an ironic little smile.  Mercifully, I caught the joke in time and gave it back to her, as I quipped, “This son of Adam is not going to take an apple from a girl named Evelyn.”  She was duly charmed and said “touché.”  The rest of the semester she kept up the debate, made all the more urgent when she found out that I wanted to be a priest.

In December, we were all invited to the house of some nice Italian Jewish kids, who were also classics students, for a party.  The house had a kind of lurid basement disco complete with black-velvet walls and a strobe light.  As the song “Upside Down (You Turn Me)” was booming, she told me, “Someday I hope you have some little children of your own just like you.”  Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth (Genesis 1:28).  My confessor, a wily, witty, and sometimes severe Franciscan, chuckled when he heard the story of the sweet girl’s circumstantial conversion to procreation and added, “I guess contraception and population control are trumped for the young lady by celibacy.  Perhaps she is making some slow spiritual progress.  At least she now sees the good of nature.”

Why is it that Christian culture has always promoted with equal zeal fruitful families and vowed virginity?  And what does this tell us about the politicians and their barren offspring who worked first for contraception (such as Prescott Bush, first treasurer of Planned Parenthood), and then no-fault divorce (such as Ronald Reagan, as governor of California), and now “civil unions”?  The answers to these questions take us back to the essence of our existence, to concerns that are more primal than political, more final than fiscal.

Aquinas, in his lesser Summa contra Gentiles, points out, following Aristotle, that corruptible things, beings that wear out and die, that pass away, can exist forever only by generation, by reproducing their kind.  Perpetual existence is the purpose of human procreation, the union of man and woman.  Saint Thomas points out that, at present, this perpetuity is threefold: perpetuitas speciei, the continuation of our kind; perpetuitas populi, the continuation of a people in a state; and perpetuitas ecclesiae, the continuation of the society of the faithful.  In this way, matrimony fulfills a duty of nature, of polity, and of grace.  Thus, the family precedes the state as its foundation, constitutes the state as its subject, and transcends it as a living sign of union with God, an espousal which does not end in death.

Adam and Evelyn on their outings, created from the beginning male and female, inhabitants of eternal Rome, Christians willingly or unwillingly, are a cautionary parable of these three perpetuities.  I have never been to Las Vegas, except to change planes at the airport, but I could imagine—but not too vividly, of course—a contrary parable (perhaps taking place at Caesar’s Palace) of three merely temporary arrangements: fruitless sex by the hour, monitored by the health department; weddings dissolvable at will with the next day’s hangover; and all payable in chips symbolic of very fleeting fortune—and all of this brought to you by the “laws” of the “state” of Nevada.  What do these symbolize in less garish terms?  Contraception, divorce, and economic materialism endorsed and promoted by government.

These are equivocal uses of words, lying paradoxes, clean contrary to their real meanings, doublespeak: “sex” that has nothing to do with being male or female; “marriage” and “family” impermanent and indifferent of offspring; “happiness” in corruptible things; and a “republic” that promotes not the common good but only individual economic empowerment to obtain all these.  Here is the hermeneutic of Humpty Dumpty, as our own Queen Mother Barbara told the Grand Old Party in 1992: “Family means to us whatever it means to you.”  Votes, not vows, are what constitute such a society.

It is too late to do much with such a state as ours (although it is hard to fault the good people who try); it will follow its inevitable course toward complete corruption.  Perpetual nature remains, and the perpetual Church remains.  What, then, shall we noble savages and Christians do?  In answer, allow me to tell another autobiographical parable.  Some years ago, I was invited with my mother to the wedding of the son of some old family friends.  It was to be a civil ceremony in the garden of the bride’s sister.  I went along, willingly enough.  The officiant was a famous judge later impeached and removed from office by the variable ire of the citizens of California.  She read from Solomon’s Canticle, and a gospel choir sang “Tell Me What Love Is.”  After the contract was duly witnessed, the bride’s father came over to me and said, “Father, I’m so glad you’re here; it means so much to my wife and me that a religious was present,” and, he sheepishly added, “After all, this is her third.”  Later, I asked my mother why she hadn’t informed me of this detail, and, admitting the cunning of Eve, she said in her soft Southern tones, “If I had told you, you wouldn’t have come to the ceremony, and the reception is in the same place, so you wouldn’t have come to anything.”

The churches have always recognized the state’s interest in marriage and family.  When modern states introduced civil marriage, they barely objected, as long as her children were married with a cleric’s blessing, and, often enough, not even this was required.  In the case of Catholics in the United States, for example, outside of the former French and Spanish possessions, a church wedding was not canonically obligatory until 1907.  A marriage valid in civil law was reckoned as juridically equivalent to marriage witnessed by an ecclesiastic.  At present in our own country, and in many others, ministers of the Gospel are also licensed officers of the state for the purposes of witnessing marriage vows.  This arrangement was gladly accepted at least as a remaining element of a sound social order in which the state and the Church cooperated with a common interest in the goods of marriage and family life.  Take as an example of this shared concern a Christian couple I know of who were denied a divorce in the late 1930’s and remained together for over 50 years.  They were everlastingly grateful to the judge, who told them that they had made promises before God and that they had not been married long enough to show any reasonable grounds for a dissolution.

As they say, “That was then, this is now.”  At the point when the state stopped showing an interest in the stability of marriage—that is, with the legalization of contraception and the granting of divorces at will—it should have been clear that the Church’s ministers were no longer witnessing the same thing as before, at least from the state’s point of view.  What the state calls marriage has not been, for some time now, anything of the kind.  If anyone were inclined to dispute this illation, the looming possibility and actuality in some places of “marriage” between persons of the same sex render it incontrovertible.

I offer a pastoral solution which would edify and instruct the faithful.  I base it on my parabolic reflections on the consolation my mere presence in Roman collar offered the poor parents of the thrice-wedded California politico (-ca?).  In every state where these unions are ratified, the hierarchy of those churches still professing the truth about marriage and family could voluntarily renounce the status of their ministers as officers of the state in witnessing marriages.  The faithful would still have to have their marriages blessed by the Church, but we could stop dealing in marriage licenses altogether, and tell the couple to have a civil ceremony to protect their legal rights and those of their offspring as they need to, but make it clear that the two unions are at present entirely different, because of the abdication by the state of its duty toward marriage.  Let Christians in Vermont, for example, know that the Church’s ministers refuse to be equated with the magistrates of the Decapolis.  Clerical complacency at the legal equivalence of Christian marriage (and I’m sure Orthodox rabbis would agree with me as well) with civil unions reminds one of Lot offering his daughters to the citizens of Sodom to protect his angelic guests.  Justify it if you need to, but it will not stop the city from burning.  This may well be a privilege the Church can do without.  As a man under authority myself, I offer this suggestion salvo meliori iudicio and with all due respect.  It is at least helpful to contemplate such a possible and prophetic line of action, since some action is needful in any case.

“But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none” (1 Corinthians 7:29).  There is a line of action more radical than the one just described, but easier to realize, since it is already in place, requiring no change in laws civil or ecclesiastical.  Remember, it was the Pauline challenge of celibacy that moved dear Evelyn to see the value of offspring, if only in the case of the present writer.  This challenge is eschatological—that is, it has to do with the imminent consummation of all things into the eternal Kingdom of God, the lux perpetua beyond the bodily corruption that procreation overcomes in time but is not able to conquer in eternity.  These last and everlasting things are, for the believer in the world of the Bible, and to a certain extent even for the pagan if he is a metaphysician, always upon us; they direct our world of generation and corruption to an incorruptible and eternal society of the blessed, “for in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).

It is easy to forget, because we may never have learned it, that Henry’s divorce coincided with the dissolution of the monasteries, that the secular marriage of the sans-culottes went along with abrogation of the civil effects of monastic vows and then the suppression and spoliation of religious orders.  Our Constitution, far more just than that of the Tudors or the Jacobins, has never claimed any jurisdiction over the vows of religion.  They do not interest it.  And why?  Because our state is at best agnostic about our final destiny in the world to come, while the motivation for celibacy is the coming of that Kingdom which “will have no end.”

In Christian civilization, well-populated monasteries have always inspired both large families and persecution by the worldly.  This is the wholesome paradox of the Gospel, so unlike the poisonous paradoxes of contemporary consumer culture.  The Lord promised it (Mark 10:29-30):


Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.


A deep harmony of human sentiment underlies the apparent paradox: Both marriage and celibacy are an assertion of the desire for the perpetual.  Marriage, as has been said, offers temporal perpetuity to nature, to states, and to religion.  Celibacy is a sign of the eternal perpetuity of happiness beyond time.

Pope Innocent V, who worked so hard to reconcile Guelf and Ghibelline, asserts the ultimate unity of marriage and monasticism in his elegant exegesis (so elegant, in fact, that it was long attributed to Aquinas) of Saint Paul’s exhortation given above—“the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none.”  In response to the objection that the Apostle’s counsel seems to contradict the command to “be fruitful and multiply” of Genesis, he replies, “What is the final purpose of marriage, if not the completion of the number of the elect, which would the more swiftly be fulfilled were all to practice continence?”  Sub specie aeternitatis marriage and celibacy serve the same end, and that under the same aspect; no paradox here at all, but an underlying identity.

I would never encourage imitation of the sans-culottism of the “red republicans” of France described above, but something of a moral peasants’ revolt—English, not German—is in order, seeking not earthly redress in time but the possession and protection of things permanent and perpetual.  This is a revolt that is nonviolent in the purest Aristotelian sense, because it is wholly in accord with the natural, whether created or Uncreated.  Our secular lords at the hustings and in the media may promise us some consideration, but we cannot trust them to follow through any more than Richard II did—quite the contrary.  Nature and nature’s God are what remain to us.  As “the time is short,” let us foster chaste marriage and virginity.  We need not fear the powerful, for the things we love are signs of incorruption and eternity, of certain and everlasting triumph.  Ours can be, but with complete justice this time, John Ball’s rhyme taken from the mystic celibate Richard Rolle with which the resistance began in 1381:

When Adam delved and Eve span,


who was then the gentleman?