Shared Sacrifice: The witness of marriage and celibacy

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.

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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.

Spousal Love

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.

Joyful Commitments

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.

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David Pasinski
3 years 8 months ago
Athoughtful and thorough meditation whihc seems to appreciate the witness of both of these lifestyles. What remains a challenge however, is presenting such a thorough appreciation of the single life... the life of later marriage -childless or not- in which daily caregiving by one spouse dominates much else...of a widow/er... or of that gay person in or not in a committed relationship that still is negated by our currrent theology and canon law. Msgr. Heintz waxes eloquently, but I am suspicious when we get into the ontological factors too easily. Still, I appreciate much about this essay in attempt to appreciate the complementarity of life- styles with some reserves about Louis Bouyer whose works I admire, but I think still reflect a clerical mentality.
CAROL STANTON
3 years 7 months ago
Hello David, your point is well taken. We rarely venture outside that traditional family model, Having , so far in my life, been a nun, single and married, I see that the drift to the center of our own life (self absorption) is not exclusive to any state of life. Lately, I have come to see that all of us by virtue of our baptism are called to be people for others, whatever our life circumstance. That has given me the best orientation in my changing life! Still, I appreciate Fr. Heintz's attempt to make more complementary two states of life so often put in opposition to one another.
John Feehily
3 years 7 months ago
This article is a very illuminating one that will be appreciated by many of its readers in America. It's concepts and vocabulary, however, place it well beyond the grasp of the ordinary folks I serve in my parish. If someone could break this down into words more people could understand that could be of great benefit.
Rick Sherman
3 years 7 months ago
Wow! Could we be on the verge of having honest and indepth conversations about sexualtiy....even among the clergy? Thank you Msgr. Heintz. I suspect this is the spirit of Pope Francis' early appeal to assess the Church's state of teaching on marriage and sexuality. There is much good writing on this spousal motif that runs throughout our biblical and sacramental experience. Without understanding the sacramental meaning of our bodies which are not disconnected from our souls, most of our Catholic efforts are futile. Perhaps even more scary is the possibility of ruffling the babyboomers who are some of our biggest dissenters, but also our biggest underwriters. Last fall I submitted the following article to a couple of national Catholic weeklies, but it did not quite make the cut; certainly not as polished and eloquent as the above article. I submit my reflection in good faith in hopes of moving the conversation forward. Neutered and Contracepted How American Catholics Passed Up the Mystical Age and Embraced a Culture of Impotence “If by the end of the 20th Century Christians do not become mystics, they will cease to be Christians.” This often paraphrased comment from Jesuit theologian, Fr. Karl Rahner, might be one of the more insightful observations of our time, which is often referred to as the post Christian age. The personal writings of such prominent Catholic mystics as St. Theresa of Avilla and St. John of the Cross reveal an obvious connection between the erotic/sexual dimensions and the mystical dimensions of human nature and experience. These eros/mystical encounters with the Divine flowed into mature lives already devoted to deep prayer, purification, and serious community building based on their Christian belief in God; a Lover God who pursues a spousal relationship with those made in His image and likeness. Their spiritual depth provided the capacity for spiritual and emotional levels of intimacy with God and others that eclipsed the physical experience that seems to be the more common human default. This Eros energy, which is the drive toward all this is good, true and beautiful, also provides the creative inspiration for building a truly just world and sustainable peace. The well ordered lifestyles of these mystics were designed to minimize the superficial, sensate and material distractions which often tend to impede true spiritual depth. The hours of each day were deliberately consecrated to God. It’s not difficult to see the contrast between the priorities of the mystics and those common in the everyday life of contemporary America. Our modern obsession with competition and materialism, along with an inordinately physical, base and pornographic sense of sexuality, are real elements in our spiritual impotence. If a lead indicator of spiritual impotence is a failure to spawn or sire the next generation of religious leadership (especially priests and committed religious), we may do well to look at the mystical deficit and its erotic corollary. In my experience of 58 years as a Catholic and 13 years as a priest, I perceive a significant deficit in effective formation even attempted in the area of sexual and spiritual integration. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Catholics feel called to the sacrament of matrimony, which is valid finally at the point of consummation, we don’t seem to be able to make the spiritual/sacramental/sexual connection. The wide use of artificial contraception among Catholics indicates the belief that it is simply not possible to avoid intercourse for several days per month. Could it be that those made in the image and likeness of God aren’t really all that different than the large animals and wild beasts created earlier on the sixth day? What an incredible breakdown in Catholic teaching and lived experience! Similarly, if heterosexuals can’t possibly refrain from sexual intercourse even several days per month, then how could we expect homosexuals to refrain from sexual contact FOREVER? And if we don’t expect that any people can redirect their Eros energy into spiritual channels, then of course we need legalized abortion because unwanted babies just happen beyond anyone’s control. A Church which cannot effectively teach to the modern world is a neutered Church. A neutered Church is a developmentally arrested Church. What is the nature of that arrested development? This of course is a huge question and cannot be answered in a short article or essay, but I think some basic premises can be made. Consider this point: The vast majority of men are inclined toward exploring the mainstream world and engaging the culture to make a living and risk getting knocked back on their heels by the combative and competitive nature of our species. The vast majority of men are also naturally driven to pursue the love of a woman and risk being rejected or of having to adjust to the many allurements and peculiarities of this mysterious ‘other’. These are both critical elements in the developmental maturity of men. If done with some wisdom and temperance, men are strengthened, sensitized and empowered. Contrast that with the early formative process of most of our senior clergy. It would be interesting to know how many have ever had a developed dating relationship with an adult woman. Likely their first inclinations as young men (or boys) were to withdraw from the mainstream world and to study philosophy and theology with a group of boys and young men. This lifestyle difference is not in and of itself bad, of course, but the question arises as to how the aforementioned critical developmental steps in male maturity ever get negotiated. How does seminary training and subsequent priestly life prepare a person to have an affinity with the vast majority of men whose basic tendencies are so profoundly different? Instead of willingly facing the dangers of ‘the big deep’, seminarians can just learn how to negotiate the enormous emotional complexities of the ‘hatchery’ environment of a seminary and take their highly complex interior lives into their church work. The result might be a highly domesticated, convoluted energy that seldom translates into real kingdom building ministries (Catholic social teaching) that extend beyond the sanctuary or parish hall. Also, it is often speculated that the percentage of gay men in the priesthood is much higher than the percentage of gay men in the male population at large. I do not know of any reliable statistics in this area, but my intuition and friendships with priests lead me to suspect that this is likely the case. The larger question points to the gay priests’ ability to have a real affinity with the vast majority of men having such a profoundly different orientation to life and relationships. It was always presumed, I think, that the spiritual training of a priest, their ontological change, as well as the graces of ordination somehow prepared them to transcend gender and sexuality. They could then effectively connect on the deepest and most profound human and mystical levels with each other as well as with the laity. That clearly doesn’t seem to be the case in modern America. In fact, the opposite is true. Most American Catholics are progressively more aligned with the contemporary mores of our secular and carnal worldview. The astronomical divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates in America point to a sociological catastrophe of biblical proportion, especially if we consider the family as the basic cell of civilized society. What is the likelihood that this group of highly domesticated and neutered men (there are exceptions, of course) will ever find the type of empathy and tenacity to challenge and support the relational and spiritual needs of those who live in the ‘big deep’ with spouses and children? Or who sire children without spouses and families? How can we expect to attract enough young, intellectually curious, heterosexual men with a healthy libido to the priesthood? Will they find reciprocal/spousal/mystical energy in the Church to compensate for the lack of wife and family? Will they have to become ‘eunuchs made so by men‘? (As an aside, it might also be interesting to consider how most of the laity would bear up under the relentless microscopic scrutiny which is part of daily seminary life, complete with weekly meetings and annual reviews with people not of their choosing). Catholics should make it incumbent on senior clergy (especially their bishops) to address this developmentally arrested state of our ordained and lay leadership. The ‘New Evangelization’ applies also to our leaders as I suspect Pope Francis would strongly attest. We cannot just leap frog over the human condition and plop down safely in front of the monstrance in Eucharistic adoration… as essential as that holy practice may be. Even the WORD became flesh and experienced all things human except sin. Will we risk ruffling the neutered clergy and the contracepted laity in order to serve our grandchildren? Will we wrestle their future world from the clutches of pop culture, consumer culture, and ‘who’s not meeting my needs now?’ culture? Will we risk the glares, pursed lips, raised eyebrows and rolled eyes of our families and neighbors in order to shape the grandchildren’s world with some well tested Catholic wisdom? We simply cannot endure or survive another generation of spiritual impotence. The coming generations deserve and yearn for the type of transcended, ecstatic union that our Lover God intends for us. The good news is that state of the age formation methods are known to us and user friendly teachings and instructional materials are available and affordable. (Try browsing the websites of Catholic Publishers). The only question is: Do we Catholics really have the passion to endure a serious conversion and rise to the charge of our mystical age? Fr. Rick Sherman is a priest of the Diocese of Salt Lake City
David Pasinski
3 years 7 months ago
Some interesting thoughts, Fr. Sherman.. some I agree with... others I think are far off the mark... thanks for sharing.

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