Saturday, February 4, 2012

Celibacy: A Gift to the Church

Homily for the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, 2012

I should like you to be free of anxieties, St. Paul tells us in the letter to the Corinthians.
And I don’t imagine there are many of us here that would not say amen to that!
So what is his advice?  Don’t get married!  Well, it might seem that way from a quick reading of the passage that we hear today.  If it weren’t for your spouse, you could just worry about pleasing God, not about the things of this world.  Goodbye anxiety.  Not quite.

In order to understand the passage that we hear today, we really have to delve into the whole of chapter 7 of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  And the chapter is not particularly easy to interpret. 
St. Paul is working to address the concerns about marriage and about virginity in the Corinthian community.  It seems that they had posed to him some form of this question: since time is running short and we know not when Christ will return, what are we to do?  Should we still get married, given how tenuous each day is as we wait in eager expectation?

And St. Paul speaks to them as a pastor, in very practical terms.  First, he writes eloquently about the importance of husbands and wives not separating or neglecting the duties of their marriages under a misguided notion that their faith calls them to leave earthly things behind.  No, he tells them, be faithful to your promises.  As for those who are not married, he writes, there is not a commandment of the Lord, but his own suggestion is that he would encourage those who are living a celibate life to consider remaining celibate, unless they do not possess the ability or feel called to marriage.  He sees great value in the life that he has embraced, a life entirely dedicated to service of the Church, or as he puts it, to the Lord’s work.  So that is the context for this passage we hear today, in which he speaks of the what he sees as the gift of celibacy.

Celibacy is a gift, he tells them, because it removes a certain kind of anxiety from ministry.
A spouse who is working to provide for a household is anxious about providing for the household, the things of this world.  Children and community and livelihood.  And St. Paul seems to be saying that this is necessary and important – he is not disparaging marriage.  He believes that husbands and wives must be preoccupied with such things.  But, St. Paul says, the person who is single, who is celibate, is anxious about the things of the Lord – how he may please the Lord.  His attention need not be divided between putting bread and butter on the table and service to the church.

Now in those days, virginity was a positive thing, something to be aspired to.  It was seen as an honorable and good way of life – for a man or woman to be consecrated to a celibate way of life so as to be entirely dedicated to Christ and his body, the Church.  Celibacy was seen as a positive and healthy way of life, an enrichment in the life of the Church, a blessing to her.  The early church understood that when the married life and consecrated life are lived out in harmony in the Church they are complimentary vocations that serve to build up the Kingdom of God.

Today we live in the shadow of Sigmund Freud.  Freud taught that underneath whatever ideals or moral aspirations we may have, we are really governed by base animal instincts.  Psychosis happens, Freud taught, when we don’t express these natural urges, and instead suppress them.  And so in our culture, which his heavily influenced by Freud’s thinking, celibacy is often portrayed as an unnatural restriction that is unhealthy and that priests are forced to obey because of some medieval notion of purity and holiness.  Sometimes it is even insinuated that those who are celibate cannot have healthy relationships or intimate relationships, and after the scandals I have even heard people say that they think those who are celibate are more prone to acting out in disordered ways.  In short, the discipline of celibacy in the priesthood as lived out in the West, in the Roman Catholic Church, is often viewed as a negative – even, I have found, by many Catholics.  People sometimes will come up to me and it’s almost as if they were offering their condolences…  “Sorry about that….” 

And so I think it is important today to take a moment and try to regain the positive Catholic perspective on celibacy and marriage with St. Paul as our guide. 

He is very practical.  He is not saying black or white: that everyone must be celibate or that everyone must be married.  He doesn’t elevate his celibate state in life, saying that it is better, and nor does he elevate the married state.  But particularly in the passage that we hear today, I think St. Paul really illustrates the beauty of a celibate clergy, showing us why a celibate clergy is a gift.

Certainly we all know that celibacy does not make people holier.  It does not bring them closer to God, necessarily.  But let’s be clear today: being celibate is not unhealthy.  Most people live vast periods of their lives in a quasi-celibate state, even when they are married.  There are many, many people who have found great joy in a celibate life – and not because they are different from everyone else, as if there were some kind of celibacy gene - but because it was the life they had been called to and they found meaning in the vocation they were living.  Celibacy is a discipline, a spiritual discipline that is undertaken by the clergy in our tradition for a purpose: to unite them more closely to Christ who was also celibate and consecrated to his heavenly Father, and to give our priests greater freedom to minister to the needs of the Church. 

And I thank God that the priests I have known over the years were celibate.
I did not have to worry when we spent long hours talking about God whether they were neglecting their wives.  They were able to be over at my family’s home for dinner on a weekday night without missing the baseball game of one of their kids. They went and visited my ailing grandparents at all hours of the night without waking up a spouse.  They were able to go to the places where the bishop needed their ministry quickly, without fear that their families would resent the Church for making them move.

And as a priest I thank God all the time that I don’t have a family.  I mean, I know that sounds weird to say.  And, trust me, it’s not that I don’t value or think that families are beautiful - in fact, it is the opposite: it is because I value the family so much that I know I would not want to split my life between the parish family and a family of my own..  I understand what St. Paul is saying:  he was happy to be able to give the Church all that he could and not worry that he was neglecting anyone.  He was able to preach the Gospel – sometimes when it was not popular and caused him to endure incredible hardship – think of how many towns ran him out, how many times he was whipped and beaten – but at least he did not have to worry about a wife and children being hurt.

Would he have preached so vehemently, would he have been able to give so much as a married man?  Probably not.  St. Paul’s celibacy was a gift to the Church – a gift that he gave freely and that every Roman Catholic priest gives freely.

Certainly celibacy doesn’t ensure that their ministry is free from anxiety or challenges  –  St. Paul’s life is a case in point.  Nor does it mean that you have to be celibate in order to minister in the Church.  But I think we must be clear: celibacy does allow for a certain single-minded-ness of purpose and availability that is beautiful and good and is a gift to the Church.  It is a vocation that has existed in the Church from the beginning – dating back to Christ himself and to many of the first disciples.  And it is a vocation that will always be a part of the Christian faith – whether it is lived out in the priesthood or in religious life or those who are called to the single life.  Not everyone is called to find happiness and fulfillment in marriage.  Saint Paul reminds us of this for our own benefit, he says, not to impose a restraint upon us.  We have been called by Christ to seek first the kingdom of God.  This great apostle teaches us that we will be blessed and be a blessing to the Church when are faithful to the vocation that God has given to us, whether that be marriage or the consecrated life.

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