Friday, October 17, 2008

How to be a saint, though married

Want to be a saint? Your best bet is to become a priest or a nun. It also helps if somebody kills you violently. If you're married, however, you might as well forget about sainthood, though you raise your chances if (1) you give up sex and/or (2) all your children are celibate.

This weekend the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux will be beatified. (Beatification is the church's recognition that you are in heaven; canonization, which requires an additional miracle, recognizes you as a saint. You have to be beatified in order to be canonized.) Thérèse's parents, Louis Martin and Zélie Guérin, had hoped to be monastics. After their wedding, says James Martin, SJ, in "His Wife's a Saint, So Is Her Husband" (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 17, 2008), they "refrained from sex for 10 months.... Eventually, a frustrated Zélie escorted her husband to a local priest, who assured them that raising children was a sacred activity."

During the remaining 18 years of their marriage, Zélie gave birth to nine children. Four died; the other five all became nuns. Even the fiercely ascetic St. Jerome would have approved. He's the tortured translator who wrote this in a long letter to a female friend:
I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins. I gather the rose from the thorns, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the shell.

Jerome would also have approved of the first married couple in history to be beatified together--Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi, who were beatified only seven years ago. According to an article in the National Catholic Reporter, the Quattrocchis had four children. Three joined religious orders, and the fourth never married. As for Luigi and Maria, for over half of their 46 years of marriage they lived sexlessly as brother and sister.

These beatifications happened several years after former Newsweek religion writer Kenneth L.Woodward published Making Saints: How The Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes A Saint, Who Doesn't, And Why. In a fascinating chapter called "Sanctity and Sexuality," he tells about the 1987 World Synod of Bishops, convened "to discuss the role of the laity in the church and in the world" (340). At the synod, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints presented a list of lay possibilities for sainthood. Woodward summarizes what happened:

The congregation, I observed, had nearly three years to come up with appropriate candidates to beatify or canonize during a synod devoted exclusively to the laity. And in the end, the congregation delivered two virginal rape victims, another young martyr who never got the chance to marry, a lifelong bachelor, and a man who left his wife and children behind to go to the missions.

"The message couldn't be more obvious," I said [to a consultant to the congregation]. "When it comes to sanctity, sex is still something to be avoided and celibacy is preferable to marriage. What good is all the talk about the sanctity of marriage if the congregation cannot come up with even one example of a holy and happily married saint?" (343)

Well, now we have our examples. The Quattrocchis and the Martins aren't saints yet, but they're on the way. And someday even you might be a married saint. Just give up sex, and be sure your children do too.


Agnieszka Tennant said...

This hypocrisy on part of the Catholic Church is infuriating.

Having said that, I'm probably just angry because I'm married, and therefore deficient in self-discipline.

Anonymous said...

No. I'm single and it annoys me too.

One of the reason the Church proclaims saints is to hold them up as models for us. What does it say that they struggle so hard to find ordinary married people who have sex, raise children, and spoil grandchildren, yet live lives of extraordinary holiness.