Late in 1608, St. Francis de Sales, the bishop of Geneva, published a little book that was in some ways a revolutionary treatment of the Christian life. Addressed to a laywoman, Philothea (a literary artifice, meaning “lover of God”), Francis’ Introduction to the Devout Life is still in print. Francis was keen to demonstrate that “devotion” (read: holiness) was not the interest or domain of the spiritual elite or privileged few, but the obligation incumbent upon all the baptized, regardless of their station in life. He opened the door, so to speak, for ordinary Christians to see that sanctity was not only asked of them but also accessible to them within and through the mundane and often ordinary fabric of their daily life. In a book addressed principally to lay people, he reminded them that holiness was not solely the provenance of the cloistered.
Three and a half centuries later, a few years before the Second Vatican Council, the convert and Oratorian priest Louis Bouyer wrote The Meaning of the Monastic Life (1955). Despite its title, the book was in fact an invitation for all the baptized to see in the monastic life the essence of the Christian vocation. The subtext of the book is as important as the text itself. As he put it rather cheekily, vowed monastics should not view their vocation as “special”; rather, they embody the fundamental vocation of every Christian, though embraced in a particularly focused and intense way. In fact, Father Bouyer was actually inviting all the baptized to a more serious, thoughtful and deeply evangelical life of holiness, to what he called an “eschatological humanism.” In a book addressed to monastics, he was seeking to raise the bar, inviting Christians of all states of life to see their high call in baptism.
The Savoyard bishop and the French priest, both deeply attuned to the living tradition of the church, were elucidating what the language of Vatican II would canonize as the universal call to holiness of life. The council was being radical, but only in the sense that it was recapturing a central imperative rooted in the Gospel itself, one that in the course of the church’s long history has at times been forgotten or overlooked.
More Than Renunciation
Discussions of clerical celibacy or vowed chastity quite reasonably and understandably reflect on difference and distinction; that is, celibacy is more often than not viewed in terms of its foil, married life. The differences are obvious, but that can too easily be reduced to the dimension of genital expression: married people have sex; priests and religious do not. In order to reflect more deeply on clerical celibacy, in the spirit of St. Francis de Sales and Louis Bouyer, it might be helpful to bridge the gap, so to speak, and to reflect on the mystery at the heart of both Christian marriage and clerical celibacy—namely, the paschal love of Christ.
At baptism, Christians are made by being plunged into the dying and rising of Jesus. To be a Christian means, as St. Paul told the Corinthians, that we somehow carry about in our bodies the very dying of the Lord. The dying and rising of Jesus are not mere historical events of the past, carried about in our heart or imagination alone, but realities in which, right here and right now, we who are baptized participate and are called to reveal. The manifestation of that mystery in the life of the baptized is expressed by an agapic love, a love willing to give itself wholly and without reserve, a love so free that, forgetting itself, it gives itself away. Christ, betrayed, beaten, bloodied and pinned to the cross, is the living (and dying) icon of the freest person who ever lived. This crucified love is the essence of every Christian life—single, married, ordained, vowed, divorced or widowed. Regardless of the particular form it takes, the life of the Christian is to become one of ever greater self-gift after the pattern of Christ crucified.
The fact is, I am continually learning the full meaning of my celibacy from the witness of married men and women I know, the families I serve, those entrusted to my care as well as those among my friends and peers, not by juxtaposing my celibate life to their married life, but by seeing in their vocation what is and should be also at the heart of mine: self-donation, crucified love, agape. And I hope that married persons can somehow see in the life of happy celibates the same mystery that is to animate their life and vocation as well: a generosity of spirit and gift of self that not only imitates but actually participates in the paschal love of Jesus.
The danger for those who are celibate is to assume that the essence of their commitment is simply a negative, merely a renunciation. It can be embraced, often without any technical infidelity, with teeth gritted, as a kind of sacrifice. It is indeed a sacrifice, yet if this commitment remains detached from the paschal mystery, it cannot become something that gives life, either to the priest or to those he serves. Such a cleric can look at those around him who are married, wistfully imagining his life were more like theirs, bereft of any real understanding of the sacrifices that married couples and parents make almost constantly and sometimes heroically in their daily lives.
The prophets of the Old Testament preached the spousal relationship that God had established with the people of Israel as his beloved. Israel’s chronic and serial infidelity was met by God’s faithfulness, a prodigal and seemingly reckless mercy offered to them again and again despite their numerous failures. The fullness of this spousal love, adumbrated throughout the Old Testament, is revealed in the paschal mystery, Christ’s total self-gift on behalf of his beloved, and experienced liturgically by believers in sacrament. The Song of Songs, the surprisingly erotic poem that sings the intimacy, tenderness and vulnerability of conjugal love, was included in the Scriptures and elevated in the tradition as a window through which to contemplate this dynamic of God’s love for Israel, Christ’s love for the church, the eternal yearning of the Logos for union with each soul.
Married couples are a living sacrament of that spousal love: a walking, talking, mortgage-paying, diaper-changing, carting-the-kids-to-soccer-practice-and-then-to-piano, daily (sometimes hourly) dying-to-self sign and vehicle of grace for one another and for those whose lives they touch. It is precisely in their conjugal life, their daily gift of self, that they become an efficacious sign of that divine love, their mutual self-gift echoing and participating in Christ’s self-gift on behalf of his beloved, the church.
The commitment of celibacy or vowed chastity has meaning and value only when understood in the context of the dignity and beauty of the vocation of marriage. Celibacy, as an eschatological sign, can make sense only if we first grasp and appreciate fully the union between Christ and his bride signified and somehow realized (even if imperfectly) in the sacrament of married love. It is against this horizon that the witness value of celibacy is most clear. What conjugal love quite literally embodies signifies the very union that celibacy seeks to anticipate—the deep, intimate union with God to which each of us is invited. This union is what married love realizes sacramentally and what celibacy anticipates eschatologically.
The distinct gift that the celibate person offers to the church is the witness of a deep evangelical freedom enabled precisely by a renunciation, a dying to self, a paschal love. The ordination rite instructs ordinands that their celibate commitment will be “a sign of pastoral charity and an inspiration to it, as well as a source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world.” Freedom, an equivocal term often culturally invoked in the promotion of self, is liturgically subverted by a still deeper and richer freedom, a life made fruitful in direct proportion to its willingness to let the self go. Freedom becomes the condition not for self-assertion but for self-gift, an availability in service to the other; and this involves more than simple temporal availability or ease of scheduling. It is a kind of ontological availability, an entire being, a complete life, made available and given in love for Christ and his body, the church.
Celibate clerics should always remember that the priesthood and celibacy are graces, and as such they are never given to the priest for himself, as a reason for preening, an occasion of pride. Like all divine gifts, they are given only in order to be given away. He becomes a man distinctly forothers, analogous to husbands and wives, whose mutual self-gift makes them more and more available to each other and to their family, the domestic church. That same kind of availability, for the celibate, is extended to his spouse, his flock, his community. Even his own prayer is not his own possession, but is to be oriented radically for his spouse: ordinands are instructed to pray the Liturgy of the Hours not as a form of private devotion but precisely for the church and the world.
In conversations with young men discerning about a vocation to the priesthood, I used to think it was enough to ask the rather basic question, “Do you think you could live the life?” I soon realized that this question is insufficient. It is not enough just to live the life, to go through the motions and do what is asked. The celibate life must be embraced and lived with joy. Unhappy, disgruntled or edgy clerics are hardly a draw, and it is unsurprising that a young person may be less inclined even to consider such a life on the basis of encounters with such sullen celibates. At the same time, those considering marriage see how many marital relationships struggle or are fractured, and this no doubt has some influence on their apprehensions about entering marriage. As we worry about the declining numbers of priests and religious in the past several decades (a trend that may indeed be changing) and the challenges facing marriage as an institution, we should recognize that both married life and priestly life suffer from the same cultural malady: the fear of sustained commitments. The crisis (if indeed it is such) is not principally a matter of the “burden” celibacy imposes any more than it is about the “demands” of marriage and children. In short, both require self-emptying love, and it is precisely the permanence of that commitment—marriage or celibacy—that is so intimidating. On the one hand, seminaries and novitiates today encounter some who might be characterized as hyper-intentional, seemingly professional “discerners”—those who stew and ponder, moving from one community or diocese to another, apparently awaiting a kind of clarity simply not possible this side of the veil and who freight every decision with almost cosmic significance, paralyzed atop the fence of ambivalence. On the other hand, there is the pastoral challenge facing the church of the significant number of couples cohabiting prior to marriage (a phenomenon better understood as evidence of fear than simply a capitulation to concupiscence). Both are symptoms of a cultural aversion to commitment and reveal the genuine vulnerabilities at the heart of any meaningful gift of self, the former veiled as piety and the latter as, well, practice.
Insofar as solipsism can be the occupational hazard of us celibates, who can drift unaware into the center of our own lives, married women and men have the power to remind us celibates that our life can only flourish if we are willing to give ourselves entirely, to live a life of crucified love, to surrender our own will, through a life poured out for the glory of God and the service of the people of God. And the celibate witness is a living reminder that there is a part of each of us, regardless of our state of life and no matter how much our lives are filled with human love, that is made only for God and that no created person, no matter how beloved, can fill or replace.