Some recent high-profile priest scandals have put celibacy back in the limelight as a topic for the pagan world to rage about, but rarely will you hear what the Catholic Church actually teaches about it. I hope that the following insights will be a short course in the dynamics of a marvelous life of grace: namely, celibate chastity. The world needs to hear “the other side” of the story.
Number One: Celibacy is a gift to the world, not a rule imposed by the Church on a few seemingly-abnormal men. Celibacy initiates men into a life of spiritual fatherhood in a strikingly positive way for others. We are called “father” for a reason: we bring spiritual life to our people through the sacred mysteries which we handle, and they are drawn into a spiritual family thereby. A truly dedicated priest has thousands of spiritual children who sometimes make immense demands on him — I often wish I had only seven children like my father! In an age where men have massively renounced their sacred duty to generate, protect and nurture families, there are myriads of selfless, celibate men sacrificing themselves in a truly manly way for the sake of God’s family and, indeed, even for the sake of many individual families. The fact that some priests fail at it does not make the gift of celibacy anything less than a true blessing; in fact, its failures force us to reflect more deeply on its quiet successes. It’s hypocritical to think that we should throw away the gift of celibacy (i.e., make it “optional”) based upon a minuscule percentage of failures of its practitioners. We don’t say the same thing about the much higher percentage of failures in marriage. Should we allow polygamy just because some married men can’t stick to one woman? This is the time to reaffirm the genuine beauty and value of celibacy, not change this immense gift to us.
Number two: Celibacy is the personal renunciation of the legitimate goods of marriage and family as a fruitful sacrifice for the kingdom of God. The astonishment of this generation that a perfectly normal, red-blooded male could make that particular sacrifice is exactly the point of celibacy. The world needs to know that there are some men walking around who are not bound either by the expectations of society or by the terms of our fleshly human nature. They are bound by only one concern; that of a kingdom that is not of this world, and they are willing to sacrifice everything for it. The presence in society of men who make this sacrifice is profoundly challenging to a culture that wants to reduce everything in life to the pleasure principle. Such a total renunciation is truly counter cultural: it’s like choosing to live with a permanent wound in the heart that never heals but out of which flow “rivers of living water” (Jn 7:38) that heal countless others. Celibacy is not easy for anyone to live, in fact, it is a constant death to self; but it is enormously life-giving to others, and the Church has not lost sight of that for two thousand years.
Number three: vows are vows. Married men make vows and so do priests. A vow is a promise before God of fidelity to a particular person or state in life. From a spiritual point of view a vow in marriage has the same significance as a vow of celibate chastity: it is permanently binding on the individual and requires total fidelity. We all know that vows are broken by weak and fallible men, but we also know and have seen that vows can be repaired, sins repented of, amends made and forgiveness granted to those who have offended others. Who of us does not depend in some way on the Mercy of God and those we have hurt when we have fallen? The return to fidelity breaks our pride and chastens our passions. What we must never do is make excuses or justify our compromises with pop cultural moral relativism. For example, the fact of “falling in love” with someone is no more an excuse to abandon the celibate priesthood than it is to abandon a wife and family for another woman. I have known many married men who have had that experience and then, in a more rational moment, picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and returned to fidelity — sometimes at a great cost. Thankfully God gave us a rational will, in addition to our lower passions, so that we have something other than whimsical feelings to govern our actions. Fidelity is always possible for those who desire to return to their deepest commitments.
Well, although a short article on celibacy is not enough to explain such a beautiful mystery, it is just enough to witness to a very dynamic way of life whose adherents have given life to millions throughout the centuries. In this time of great secular challenge to our faith, let us pray for the celibate men and women who have served us so well in this life and especially for those who are still trying to return to fidelity.