From the archives:

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Meaning of Celibacy. Communio 3 (pdf, 1976).

From the text:

Christian celibacy is often spoken of as “an eschatological sign.”  This is well and good, except for the article “an.” Actually it is “the” sign and as such it becomes indispensable. . . . . If celibacy is lived as it is meant to be lived, in Christian joy, poverty, self-giving, and openness to God and men, it comprehends all that is human. (We can see this plainly in the person of a good pastor or a good religious.)

Lastly, the celibate priest today has to be stronger than his predecessor. He is placed in a sexualized environment and, generally, is deprived of the external guards of the post-tridentine seminary and protected rectory. He is exposed, while the witness of his life is rejected or is met with indifference by non-Christians. He does not get anywhere with it, it does not communicate anything to the people around him. The mighty effort of his witness seems to vanish into emptiness. Hence, he feels frustrated.

But the history of Christian virginity does not begin with Trent. It begins in Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome, to mention only three of the most licentious cities of antiquity. Exactly there, where sin flowered most lushly – and the letters of the Apocalypse show us other telling examples – has Christian virginity its beginning. Not in cloisters, not in closed Christian communities, but in a diaspora where Christians lived scattered, often in pagan households. It had to be and it came to be.

Christian virgins did not live in closed communities, but like members of secular institutes today, they lived dispersed in households and families. It is there that they gave witness, and were perhaps a more fruitful leaven than the later, structured cenobitic communities of Pachomius and Benedict. They understood that their witness has a purpose in itself: it radiates love. It is not something useful, a means, even though it frees the unmarried for the Lord, to be “concerned about the things of the Lord” (I Cor 7: 34), and thus also frees him for diaconal and presbyterial tasks of the Church.

And if the virgins of earlier periods were respected while the celibates of today are ignored or scorned, let us once more point out that virginity and the cross, and hence disgrace, are closely related. . .

Read the full text.