This month, the New York Times has hosted a debate in its opinion section on whether the discipline of celibacy should be dropped for Catholic priests. There have been various debates going back and forth on the issue, the pros and the cons. In one of the pieces, the author argues “how so many Roman Catholic priests often spend a great deal of time and energy dealing with the negative psychological effects of not having true intimacy in their lives; not being able to live out the fullness of the human experience, which includes committed loving relationships and not ignoring your sexuality by totally repressing it.”
This is a common objection to the discipline of celibacy. I have often found that once someone becomes comfortable talking with me (i.e. realizes that there is a human being behind the collar) it is the first question they ask, in one way or another. Even the question “What made you want to be a priest?” often has the undertones of a deeper question: “Why would you (who seem like a rational and fairly well-balanced person) voluntarily choose a life deprived of healthy intimacy and shackled to sexual repression?” In today’s world, the celibate priest is a walking enigma.
Celibacy is only comprehensible in a culture that values and lives chastity. In fact, I would say that celibate men and women function as a kind of barometer for the psycho-sexual health of a culture. When a culture has a healthy psycho-sexual outlook, the embrace of celibacy by certain men and women is understood and appreciated. When, on the other hand, the culture is unhealthy, hedonistic, and driven by lust, celibacy is not only scorned and ridiculed, it becomes incomprehensible. And this is because the men and women of this unhealthy culture can only understand intimacy and sexual expression within the context of the genital and sensual – they have become slaves of the flesh, suspicious of anyone who claims to be able to live without the shackles they have embraced.
This is a reality that I have encountered personally time and again. I have found that often those who protest the loudest about the impossibility of a healthy celibate life are those who have a difficult time living chastely. This makes perfect sense. If you have no desire or ability to live chastely, a happy and healthy celibate man or woman is salt in the wound – his or her freedom in the flesh is proof that you need not be a slave to yours. This is hard for someone to hear if they have reconciled themselves to the idea that their flesh must be indulged in order for them be happy. Slaves do not usually like being told that they are responsible for their own bondage.
Now, obviously this is not to say that every celibate man or woman is chaste! Far from it! Celibate men and women often struggle mightily to live chastely, especially in our sexualized culture. But they do so within a context that, by and large, encourages and expects them to persevere in this struggle. And by and large they are quite successful. Since priests and religious have given themselves to Christ, their fidelity is directed to his body, the Church. And though she certainly has her sins and failings, the Church tends to be a great help to the priest or religious in living a healthy chaste life. While it is true that from time to time pastoral situations arise in which the priest or religious might be tempted, for the most part, the people of God expect and support chastity and purity in their priests and religious. In fact, priests and religious live a chaste intimacy with those they minister to that is hard to imagine outside of the pastoral context. The priest or religious is continually being invited into contexts of intense non-sensual intimacy, drawn into the very heart of families during moments of struggle or joy, and into the very depths of souls in need of counsel. The beauty of the Church, of the people of God, is that within this context of great intimacy she confirms and supports the chastity and purity of her priests, who are to her other Christs.
On the other hand, it is much easier for a married person to live as a slave to the flesh and to rationalize his or her slavery. Couples are often unprepared to live chastely, many times having lived promiscuously and lustfully for years. Even couples that have strong Christian convictions and wait until they are married before engaging in sexual activity are often under the mistaken notion that they will not need to struggle to live chastely after their wedding day. On every corner they find reinforced again and again the notion that a happy and healthy marriage will satisfy their every sexual desire. The acquiescence of a sexual partner is the only criteria that society requires in order to condone sexual activity, as if mutual objectification or the willingness of a partner to be objectified somehow makes everything okay. With the advent of modern forms of contraception, the problem is accentuated. The natural pace of a woman’s reproductive cycle no longer moderates sexual activity, forcing the couple to find other ways to express their affection for one another. Widespread access to pornography and social networking sites further compounds the challenges, as spouses are tempted to turn to the virtual world in order to satiate their desires, rather embrace the sacrificial nature of married love. This is more tenacious temptation for a married person, because they often have the notion that their marriage somehow gives them the right to have their sexual and emotional needs met. How many times in the confessional a priest will hear a confession of sins against chastity that begins with “Well, my wife and I have not been intimate for years…”
A couple that is striving to live their sexual intimacy authentically and generously is never able to passively sit back or coast. They are continually being called upon to restrain their passions or to enflame them according to the needs of their spouse and children. Gradually, through much sacrifice and effort, a couple becomes more and more chaste in the sexual expression of their love for one another. If they persevere, they do not experience the lack of sexual activity that characterizes the last stages of marriage to be a burden, but instead a natural progression and opportunity to deepen the intimate harmony of their lives. In fact, these last, celibate years are often the years when their love is most pure and their intimacy most profound.
How is all of this related to discernment of one’s vocation? It is critical for the young man who is discerning to recognize that the struggle to live a chaste life is a requirement of any path forward, and that in many ways chastity is more difficult for the married man than for a celibate man, not less. It is also important for him to appreciate the deep intimacy that a priest is privileged to experience in non-sexual ways. In other words, to see the utter ridiculousness of the notion that celibacy requires an unhealthy suppression of one’s sexuality and the giving up of true intimacy. The life of a priest is the life of a man called into an intimate relationship of love with the Church, who offers him her chaste love in return. In order to authentically live in love, we must all battle to control our sexual desires, whether married or celibate, so that we can be vessels of the chaste, free, and beautiful love of Christ.