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.
For what it's worth, I just wanted to say that I'm a 27-year-old Catholic who greatly appreciates priestly celibacy - while some may argue that there would be advantages to ordaining married people as well (as we do in the Eastern rite and in certain exceptions, etc.), I think there would be many disadvantages too. Losing priestly celibacy would be a sad and great loss for the Church. At Georgetown, I always felt (and still feel) that the celibacy of the Jesuits and the fact, the fact that they live in a ''dorm'' so to speak like we did... it made me feel closer to them; it was comforting having them right there. I remember sometimes, walking past the old Jesuit residence, I would briefly sort of brush my hand against the bricks of the wall, as if it were a sacramental of sorts. Anyway, in the midst of all this mess where the truth just doesn't seem to matter anymore to much of the media (yes, the Vatican, Benedict XVI, etc. are to be blamed for many things, but the media is in so many cases reporting things in a distorted way and out of context), I just wanted to give you, other Jesuits, and all priests in general some encouragement, support, and expressions of gratitude and love. Thank you for all that you do, thank you for who you are, thank you for embracing celibacy, and thank you so very much for being a Jesuit priest.
-Brendan McGrath (product of 8 years of Jesuit education - Saint Joseph's Prep '01, Georgetown University '05. And when I got my Master of Theological Studies at Notre Dame ('08), I found Jesuits there too!)
Mandatory, maybe but history doesn't vindicate that very much.
I appreciate and honor your choice of vocation, Father Martin. I respectfully suggest that we wouldn't discount your sacrifice if we enlarged the clerical franchise by making celibacy optional. Consider that while Paul, Jesus, Francis, and Mother Theresa were celibate, Peter and many other clergy through the 11th century had spouses.
One of the biggest differences between today and 100 years ago is that people live longer, mature slower, and have a great many more options in life. It used to be quite normal for young women to marry at 16. Today it is illegal in many places. It used to be normal for young men have a priestly vocation before they were 20. Today, most will not have had sufficient life experience to make such a decision on their own. College is an artificial world and not adequate experience for life. So by the time a person is in a position to make a mature decision about the priesthood, their life history already makes them inelligible.
Some people do everything right from the beginning but most probably do not. St. Augustine did not even try. Myself, I did try to do what was right but things did not work out. In all cases, it is not the purity of the person that makes a good priest, but the transparency of that person to Christ working through him. The requirement for celibacy has nothing to do with that and, arguably, inhibits it.
On the train ride to NY last weekend, I finished former Jesuit Scholastic Gary Wills book on St. Augustine. He has some interesting comments on celibacy and St. Augustine, who has gotten a bad rap and was not likely as bad as others of his age. The problem is, the fourth century views of some in the Church about sexuality and chastity have proven the poison tree in the life of the Church.
We now know a lot more about the biology of sex than we ever have. Celibacy and chastity should not be used as an excuse for vincible ignorance in sexual morality, especially regarding developmental sexuality, the unitive importance of sexuality in marriage and how that relates to birth control and homosexuality in stable relationships. I even find some who discourage the reception of Communion among sacramentally married Catholics after sex - which is a motivation for continence in the Church (including some in the East) - but I personally find a perverse doctrine that some still hold to.
There is much good in Catholic sexual teaching - however much needs re-examination - not because of the sexual abuse crisis but because we now know more about healthy sexuality.
Again, I am all for celibacy and chastity in the religious life for those who are called to this charism. What is disturbing is using this as a basis for judging the sexuality of others. Mutual respect dictates that we will stay out of your bedrooms if you stay out of ours.
Call me crazy, call me out-of-touch with who I am as a sexual being, but I see sex as a purely selfish act that not only draws us away from God, but also motivates us to do things that we would otherwise rationally decide not to do.
Oh, we rationalize the act as somehow important for sharing with or giving to others (indeed, the Church has conjured up some important unitive aspect to it in marriage), but's what's really going on is either both parties are just getting off, or one is getting off and the other is acquiescing to allow the other to get off. I fail to see the goodness in it, with the exception that the completion of the act ends the urge and makes the absence of sex easier to tolerate.
Don't get me wrong, I like sex and I'd like to have more of it in my marriage; but it's certainly not essential to my marriage and not essential to me as a human being. I think society's extreme treatment of sex, whether it is glorifying it (as in modern society) or burying it in puritan fashion, facilitates an obsession that would be less extreme if we just viewed it as what it is: a means for procreation that feels good, doesn't accomplish much else, and often ends up putting people in bad situations, be it unwanted pregnancies, adultery, STDs, etc.... Most recently we've bought into the 1960s' perspective that sex is all good, and look at the state of marriage, the number of unwanted pregnancies, the spread of AIDS, and, yes, the number of priestly abuses.
Imagine what kind of world we would live in if we took all the energy invested in promoting and obtaining sex, and invested it in doing good works, in seeking the deeper love that Father Martin speaks of.
I do think that we always need to sift carefully through the writings of Church Fathers such as St. Augustine, St. Jerome, etc., sorting out the 95% that is good and valuable from the 5% that needs to be discarded (e.g., anti-body or anti-sex attitudes, etc.). However, I find myself equally annoyed by bias/prejudice against celibacy as I am by bias/prejudice against (married) sexual activity. On a related note, I think we need to be wary not just of clericalism, but of what seems to be a sort of emerging ''laicism'' or ''lai-centrism'' (or whatever; not sure how to form the words).
Not quite related, but a line comes to mind that I find humorous: ''Lay people say the darndest things.'' ;)
Well, I certainly think a case has been made (successfully) against the Catholic position on the indissolubility of marriage. When the divorce rate is so high, it raises good questions about how divorce and remarriage can reasonably be prohibited.
Also, it should be noted that Sipe phrases his estimate about the celibacy of priests by saying that only about 50% are celibate "at any one time." That leaves open the possibility that far more than 50% of priests at some point in their careers don't practice celibacy. Also, one has to take into account the number of priests who request to be laicized in order to be married, or the number of priests who simply walk away.
One of my points is that when celibacy is discussed and defended, it is rare for anyone to ask how many people are actually practicing it. We have a reasonably good idea about the frequency of adultery and child abuse, and we have very good statistics about divorce. So we are not in the dark when discussing marriage in the light of those issues. But defenses of mandatory celibacy in the priesthood are generally made without even bringing up the issue of how much or how little celibacy is actually practiced by priests.
We are all calld to live the virtue of chastity. Those who never fail in living this virtue should have compassion on those who fail, repent, and keep on trying.
And, for everyone's reflection, let me note that there are more and more married, Roman Catholic priests in the USA. They are former protestant ministers who come into the church and are ordained as Roman Catholic priests.
I was in a parish in Camden, NJ, a few weeks ago, filling in for the local priest. The deacon and I were chatting, and he asked me about the front page story in the local diocesan paper celebrating the transitional diaconate ordination of a Presbyterian minister, a celebration attended by his wife, children and grandchildren. He will be ordained a priest in a few months. The deacon asked, "Now why can't I be ordained a priest? Just because I'm married and have been a Catholic all my life?" Good questions.
I'm not quite sure that follows - just because the divorce rate is high, why would that mean that divorce and remarriage can't reasonably be prohibited? The rate of thefts, murders, assaults, etc. may be high, but that doesn't mean the Church can't prohibit them. The rate of teasing/ridicule among children may be high, but that doesn't mean the Church can't or shouldn't prohibit such unkindness.
Let me just add, though, that I would like to see the Church take another look at the issue of divorced and remarried persons receiving Communion. But as for the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, I certainly accept that, though of course I also accept the teaching on annulments, etc. (It affects me somewhat personally; my parents got divorced and got an annulment when I was two - I don't want things to be different, but at the same time, I think I do have some "baggage" still from it.)
With regard to the analogy I made between celibacy and marriage - just because people may deviate from their vows of marriage/celibacy, I don't think that should detract from the value of such vows, or the value of marriage and celibacy themselves.
I would say that the requirement for priests not to marry, the requirement for Catholic married couples not to divorce and remarry, and the the requirement for people not to murder each other are in three separate categories. Celibacy is a discipline, the indissolubility of marriage is a Catholic interpretation of the Bible, and the prohibition against murder is (although I have some quarrels with the concept) a matter of "natural law."
Priestly celibacy can be made optional (or done away with altogether) if Rome decides the costs outweigh the benefits. There is no way that the Church can do away with marriage or relax the prohibition against murder. Marriage, one might argue, is far from ideal, but it's the only thing we've got. That can't be said about mandatory celibacy for priests.
Regarding annulment, it's my understanding that (in the United States, at least), almost everyone who seeks an annulment eventually gets one. (The figure I have seen is 97%, although I don't know how reliable.) For all practical purposes, if the annulment rate really is that high, it's the equivalent of divorce.