A Reply to Frank Bruni’s “The Wages of Celibacy”


Cambridge, MA.—Dutiful readers of In All Things will know that I am in the midst of a Lenten series of meditations on the Second Chapter of the Yoga Sutras, the “Yoga of Practice.” I am just up to the part where I will begin to discuss the “restraints” (yama: non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy, and non-grasping) and “observances” (niyama: purity, contentment, austerity, one’s own study, and dedication to the Lord). Celibacy will be discussed briefly in this context. Reading the Yoga Sutras on such matters is interesting, since it shows us how asceticism and celibacy have been thought of outside the West and in a different religion, many centuries ago. How far can one go in the discipline and transformation of bodily energies — and in ways that intensify and enhance human possibilities rather than destroying what is human? We are not the only culture to be thinking about the body, its powers, and its limits.


But today’s (February 26) Op Ed piece in the New York Times by Frank Bruni — “The Wages of Celibacy” — prompts me to write something of a response to him, now. Prompted by the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland under a cloud, Mr. Bruni rightly states that we ought have no tolerance of predatory priests who have abused minors, or of leaders who say one thing and do another themselves. He goes on to talk about the rule of celibacy in the Church today. Criminal acts and negligence aside, we must still look deeper, he says, to find the root cause of the Church’s woes: and it turns out that celibacy itself is an underlying problem. It is “a purity that [the Church’s] own clerics can’t maintain;” it dooms many or most priests to loneliness, for it runs “counter to human nature. It asks too much.” It seems to consign the cleric to “a single, unmarried, ostensibly sexless life.” He thus echoes the Book of Genesis: “It is not good for man to live alone.” Celibacy, this bad idea, has further “painful consequences.” It sharply reduces the number of those who would consider the priesthood, thus contributing to a shortage of priests. It also influences which men pursue ordination by falsely promising some "a refuge from sexual desires that worry them… In a world that has often convinced these men that they’ll be outcasts, the all-male priesthood can seem like a safe haven, and the vow of celibacy an opportunity to tuck one’s sexuality away on a shelf.” But even more: “no matter what a person’s sexual orientation,” the celibate culture “runs the risk of stunting its development and turning sexual impulses into furtive, tortured gestures. It downplays a fundamental and maybe irresistible human connection.”

Mr. Bruni is a thoughtful and often astute commentator, and it is not surprising that he makes points worth affirming. Yes, let's be against arrogance, oppression, bad law with demonstrably dire results, and self-inflicted wounds. Let’s agree that celibacy has no intrinsic connection to Catholic priesthood, and that mandatory celibacy for priests may be a really bad idea. Let's stand against a culture of enforced celibacy, imposed on many who simply wish to serve as priests and suffer their celibacy as a required adjunct of a ministry they might otherwise pursue as married persons. Let's be against hypocrisy in the upper reaches of the Church and let's not be silent before a hierarchy that seems unable to hear, much less listen.

But he seems also to have gone too far this time, writing without necessary nuance. He appears to leave no room for celibacy as a possible and good way of life that does not destroy those who commit themselves to it. Those of us in religious orders such as the Jesuits (or Trappists or Dominicans or Carmelites or many others) are not celibate merely because of a Church rule, but by vow. (So too, I am sure, many a diocesan priest, who chooses celibacy as a spiritual path.) We choose our way of life, we are consecrated to it, and we would not abandon it even if the Church’s rules were to change. We are not merely victims of the Church, after all. I know the options; I know what I am choosing and choosing not to choose. I doubt if Mr. Bruni’s world is any more complex or varied or subtle or real than my own. I do not live in a clerical sub-culture - in a Harvard sub-culture, perhaps, but not in a clerical cave where we cannot imagine a healthy sex life or life unburdened by celibacy. My Harvard colleagues are mostly not Catholic, and are mostly married; many of my students are married. This is Massachusetts, and some of my dear friends are in gay marriages. I know what it means to be something of an outsider in this context, the odd celibate at the great secular university. But being the Harvard professor and also a Catholic priest who is celibate is possible, and for me — and others, men and women, ordained and religious  — it is our singular good and humane path.

But why? To be married is good, and sexual intimacy and intercourse are good. But they are not goods that are absolutely necessary if one is to live a good human life. It is instructive then that even as Mr. Bruni writes at length about the Catholic Church, nowhere in the op-ed piece does he mention God, or Christ. This is odd, since few Christian celibates I know would talk of their celibacy merely as a matter of Church policy, merely to please the Vatican, or merely to gain clerical advantage. Celibacy can be and very often is also about vocation, God, and how Christ affects certain people’s lives. For most of those who have chosen to be celibate and who would not abandon this way of life even were the rules to change, it is about a particular and very intense kind of dedication to God, a choice bearing with it a certain deep passion: a love of and for God that takes up that space one might have just as well sought to fill by marriage to a person one loves.

It is not that loving God to this extreme is not touched by loneliness, or does not bear with it deep challenges when one is young and still when one is getting old. (I’m 62). The dividing lines between community, aloneness, and loneliness are ever blurred. But it is a kind of necessity, of a real love that in some cases takes all of you. It is not that being a celibate is better or purer. But it is a human choice that is not to be ruled out or explained away without so much as a mention of the intense love for God, for Christ, that makes it possible for some people. (Just as other deep spiritual drives make it possible for a Hindu renunciant or Buddhist monk to be celibate.) It is a deep human good to marry; but it is also a deep good, if one believes in love, to hearken to the words, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12.30) Yes, a married person can love God entirely; but loving God entirely can also draw one to a permanent, celibate love that is not stunted or tortured or doomed to the ruin of one’s life. Mr. Bruni sees the fate of the celibate to be "sexless," but closer to the truth is the way Paul Berman puts it in a recent review of Les Mis in The New Republic (March 11): "celibacy... entails a certain kind of erotically inflected sadness." Sadness? Yes; on this, one can ponder Peter's question to Jesus, without piously or glibly rushing to its answer: "Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" (Matthew 19.27)

But enough on this, for now; more soon on how the Yoga Sutras, far from the Catholic Church, view such disciplines.


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Jim McCrea
6 years ago
Not being one participating in this discipline, I can only opine that voluntary celibacy is a freely chosen charism. Mandatory celibacy is an imposition on many who find out that they made a mistake through immaturity, a lack of information, or wishful thinking.
John Holl
6 years ago

I read Bruni's column and the thoughtful reply of Francis X. Clooney. I believe that Fr. Clooney, and many other priests, live the celibate life and experience the "good human life." I wonder however if far too many of our priests cannot achieve his level of peace and contentment and are dragged into failure of their vows. Should we be considering a celibacy-optional priesthood?

David Pasinski
6 years ago
Frank Bruni is a worthwhile writer, but in this case he is sorely out of his league. I write this as someone who "left" a very satisfying and fulfilling life as a priest of 15 years (and I still have a "vocation" though I cannot exercise it canonically- and would if I could) to marry 20 years ago-- and have been very grateful for my wife and children to ground me in humility in ways that a "successful" priesthood didnt touch. Neverthelesss, I know many fine priests and surely appreciate the history of many others (and what of religious women???!!!) whose option not to marry in witness or in freedom of service, have led them to truly human and holy lives. Bruni simplifies this dynamic and overly exalts the non-celibate state with such little appreciation. It is a thinly disguised bias that equates sexual love with intimacy and commitment and is an error that-- even though I firmly believe that celibacy should not be demanded for priestly ministy - reject as short-sighted and truly ignornant.
michael iwanowicz
6 years ago
Let me offer a different perspective on my experience of marriage (1963- 1991), widower (1991 – present), ministry as a deacon (ordained in 1976). When my wife and I (with four young children) considered applying for admission to the program for ordination to the Permanent Diaconate, we thought carefully about the impact of ordination on our family life. A particularly critical issue was that of the possibility of my wife dying and leaving me widowed with a small, young family. Health was not the issue – we were both in good medical condition. But, realizing that as a widowed deacon I would not have option of marriage, should that be a prospect, we pondered that vision with great prayer. We found peace in the decision to be open to the call to serve and experience the circumstances as they arise. Now, after service in church ministry as a widowed deacon for more than 21 years, I continue to be at peace with this history of decisions and challenges that have arisen and will continue.
David Pasinski
6 years ago
Michael's remarks are very helpful and credible and I am gad for him to have joy in his ministry and peace in his decision. In our diocese, I am aware of two deacons who had unexpectedly expereinced the deaths of their wives at at a younger age and subsequently, at some point, sought permission/laicization (?) to allow them again to marry , thus not able to function as deacons (thugh one continued doing the ministry without sacramental expressions). I know of two others who continued as Michael in fruitful ministry. While an ancient tradition, it is only that and making the promise not to marry should death occur seems more like a cultic practice or discipline rather a constructive expression of Christian love.
Vincent Gaitley
6 years ago
Those religious who desire celibacy may have it, and be consecrated to it; those who desire marriage should have it, and be consecrated to it. We need an Order of Cana, a place for married priests whose vocation is to the family--the struggling Christian, especially Catholic, family. This would help renew the Church and the Family. Let the celibate tend to the celibate. That way of life is dying, and be in no doubt about that.
Patricia Raube
6 years ago
Fr. Clooney offers here a gentle and clarifying response to Mr. Bruni (whose writing I also admire). I comment as a former Roman Catholic to whom holy orders were never available by virtue of my sex. Now I am a Presbyterian minister, divorced with two adult children, and happily partnered again. My question is this: how does a vow of celibacy enhance the priestly ministry to all God's people, given that it puts those who keep it (the vow) at a remove from some of the central human experiences (birth, marriage, intimate sexual expression)? I believe there are many whose lives are, no doubt, enriched by this vow with its attendant "erotically inflected sadness" (what a beautiful phrase). Still, there is a part of me that wonders at Fr. Clooney's confidence that all his brother priests and sister religious would affirm that they have freely "chosen [their] way of life, are consecrated to it, and... would not abandon it even if the Church’s rules were to change." I wonder.
ed gleason
6 years ago
Then of course is the idea of sublimation for a higher good. Even those of us married for a half century and more know that sexual expression has an end game too. ... an end game that out culture believes is a curse to be cured. . .
David Pasinski
6 years ago
While I continue to believe that Bruni's remarks are generally ignorant and I previously posted that I thought celibacy should not be necesssary for priesthood and that I would be a "canonical priest" yet if that were not so, that last sttement is not truly what I meant. We are all caught in this celibacy/marriage dichotomy which leaves out the larger questions of "priesthood" as raised so imperfectly by Garry Wills and much more cogently by Mary Hunt. Celibacy or no, "priesthood" itself needs a re-visiting of theology and renewal in practice that optional celibacy- if done in isolation - would only obscure.


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