The 24th session of the Council of Trent, in 1563, duly defined in the canons on the sacrament of matrimony (canon 10) that
If any one says, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.(Remember that this is de fide teaching which we are bound to believe with the assent of faith. If we find it surprising today, it is our job to ponder how to reconcile our thinking with the teaching of the Church, not to adjust the teaching of the Church to our thinking.)
It got me wondering if I am afterall a heretic and or a liberal. My friend would probably enjoy the accolade "anathema sit", I'm not so sure I do. I'm like a dog with a bone when it comes to stressing the value and dignity of marriage, it is perhaps something widows understand better than most. I also find the Catechism of the Council of Trent really rather beautiful about the Sacrament of Matrimony, so why should canon 10 cited above cause me to scratch my head and wonder where I've gone wrong?
Here are some of my musings.
I think it very hard to deny that the Sacrament of Marriage is the only sacrament explicitly given to man before the fall, therefore it has the highest of value. Since the fall, having lost our preternatural gifts (in particular our control over our passions) it may very well be that marriage too has fallen with us.
It may also be pertinent to state that canon 10 is NOT referring to the sacraments but to the states of marriage, virginity and celibacy. All three states involve sacrifice of some sort and all three states are blessed. However a celibate person is not necessarily more blessed than a married person. Some people find celibacy very easy, it involves little or no sacrifice for them, they are the natural born eunuchs of the Gospel (Matt 19:12). How can this be of greater value than the marrried couple fully living out Catholic teaching and struggling with their appetites to remain faithful to that teaching and fully continent and chaste in their sexual relationship, that they rightly and naturally thoroughly enjoy?
I feel the whole canon hinges around the words "better and more blessed". A married couple really only have the duty to sanctify each other, not even to sanctify their children though they must strive to bring them up in a holy and loving environment. In not marrying and remaining celibate and a virgin (the only other real option for Catholics, in an ideal world), there is much more of an expectation that you are called to do "better and more" work for the Kingdom of God and save more souls. The very fact that the natural companionship and the most natural bond in the world (between a man and a woman) is to be denied in this virginal state, works against nature for a higher grace, but only provided it is done for the love of God. This to me is the essence of canon 10, and is the only way I can prevent myself being anathema.
Now, as a widow, the only state of life where celibacy is forced upon an individual (all vocations involve free consent), perhaps I have a clearer understanding of the "better and more blessed". A great sacrifice has been made and celibacy, chastity and control of passions help bring about greater, more far-reaching love. God knows what He is doing and He's not scratching his beard over canon 10.