Are priestly celibacy and religious chastity healthy?
Yes. With God's grace.
Here's something I wrote for Our Sunday Visitor in light of the sexual abuse crisis, during which many in the media are wondering again if you can be healthy and celibate? The irony, of course, is that some of history’s most loving and generous persons — those that even nonbelievers admire — were chaste. Think of St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa. Would anyone say that they were not loving? Or somehow sick? Better yet, think of Jesus of Nazareth who, most serious Scripture scholars agree, never married. Does anyone doubt that Jesus was not a loving person? Was he sick?
Whenever I hear that stereotype of the cold, bitter or unhealthy celibate priest or religious, I wish that I could introduce people to all the loving priests, brothers and sisters that I’ve known, men and women who led lives of loving chastity, and who simply radiate love. (Technically, celibacy is the restriction on priests marrying; chastity, which we’re all called to, is the proper use of one’s sexuality. But here I’ll refer to chastity in the way it’s normally understood — as a religious commitment that includes refraining from sexual intimacy.)
So I’d love you to meet my friend Bob, who, despite some serious medical problems, worked for many years at a hardscrabble Native American reservation in South Dakota, and now works as a spiritual director and art therapist in Boston. Few Jesuits are more loving or more beloved. Bob is small in stature with an outsized laugh: when you’re in a movie theater with him watching a comedy, his booming laugh turns every head in the audience.
Bob is one of the best listeners I’ve ever met. People naturally feel comfortable talking with Bob, perhaps because they sense, through his physical limitations, that he understands what it means to suffer and still find joy in life. Several times when I’ve come up against a problem, Bob has listened intently, completely focused on my words. This is a form of chaste love.
I wish you could meet Maddy, a woman religious who works at the Jesuit retreat house in Gloucester, Mass. We first met when we were both working in East Africa — me in Kenya, her in Tanzania. Maddy, a practical and hardworking sister with a quick smile and short-cropped hair, worked with two other American sisters in a remote part of Tanzania, and ran a girls’ school in a remote village.
For their vacations, the sisters would come to our Jesuit community in Nairobi. Maddy is a terrific cook who would relax by preparing colossal Italian meals for our community — so everyone involved looked forward to her vacation.
Since then, Maddy and I have directed many retreats together. Because of some physical limitations, Maddy has a difficult time navigating the sprawling grounds of the retreat house, but her joyful spirits are undimmed and her laughter unabated. A few years ago I signed up for a retreat at Gloucester and discovered that she was my director. Having a friend as a director, I thought, would be odd. “Well, I’m going to treat you like I would treat any other director,” I told her. She laughed her hearty laugh: “And I’m going to treat you like any other retreatant!”
Maddy proved to be an astute director, who helped me through a difficult period in my life. Maddy’s hard work for her students in Tanzania and her patient listening to those at the retreat house is a form of chaste love.
Bob and Maddy, and many other friends who vow chastity, show love in a variety of ways. Each reminds me of one of St. Ignatius Loyola’s sayings: “Love ought to manifest itself more by deeds than by words.”
One of the main goals of chastity is to love as many people as possible as deeply as possible. That may seem strange to those used to defining celibacy negatively — that is, as not having sex. But this has long been the tradition of the Church. Chastity is another way to love, and, as such, has a great deal to teach everyone.