A priest friend of mine gave a talk on celibate chastity entitled, “Never, not ever.” He began by relating an anecdote from a summer experience while in the seminary during the 1970s. He was working in a warehouse for the summer, when after the first couple of days one of his co-workers asked him about his future plans. My friend took a deep breath before revealing that he was in the seminary studying for the Catholic priesthood. This is not the usual conversation starter. Sure enough, there was a long lull in the conversation. His co-worker then posed another question: “So…you mean you’re never, not ever going to…you know?”
After beginning his talk with this story, my friend went on to explain how startled he was by the follow-up question. He had been raised and nurtured in a strong Catholic family environment. When he began aspiring to the priesthood, he understood celibacy was part of the package. The curious inquiry during summer employment felt more like a challenge and sparked his own self-examination. Celibate chastity seemed incomprehensible to his co-worker. The incredulous question of the co-worker made my friend ponder his own comprehension of this priestly promise. The clergy sexual abuse scandal has many people wondering today about “never, not ever.” Catholic clergy and faithful both are being challenged to reexamine our comprehension of this ancient priestly promise.
The promise of celibacy is made during the ordination rite for a transitional deacon studying for the priesthood. (This is different from those men whose call is to serve the church as permanent deacons, most of whom are married.) As part of the formal inquiry before the people of God, the bishop presents the candidate for the transitional diaconate the following explanation and question:
By your own free choice you seek to enter the order of deacons. You shall exercise this ministry in the celibate state for celibacy is both a sign and a motive of pastoral charity, and a special source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world. By living in this state with total dedication, moved by a sincere love for Christ the Lord, you are consecrated to him in a new and special way. By this consecration you will adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart; you will be more freely at the service of God and mankind, and you will be more untrammeled in the ministry of Christian conversion and rebirth. By your life and character you will give witness to your brothers and sisters in faith that God must be loved above all else, and that it is he whom you serve in others. Therefore, I ask you:
In the presence of God and the Church, are you resolved as a sign of your interior dedication to Christ, to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind?
The words of the ordination ritual present a way of living in the world to which the candidate responds, “I do.” The response is personal and willful. The response is not a simple yes. By saying “I do” the candidate makes a personal claim to do what the promise proposes.
Pay attention to the explanation given. The language intentionally affirms lifelong celibate chastity for the sake of the kingdom and service to God and humanity. Celibacy is not defined by a “no” to marriage and any sexual activity outside of marriage. It is primarily lived for the sake of the kingdom and evangelical service. Saying yes to this promise is what defines the “no” to marriage and sexual activity. (Let me add here that any sexual activity outside of marriage is always immoral and unchaste.)
Celibate chastity is a prophetic, an emphatic “I do” to the coming of the kingdom of God. The “never, not ever” inquiry in the warehouse missed the point of priestly celibacy: living now in the “always and forever” for the love of Jesus.
The scandal of sexual abuse of children by clergy has unsettled the church and casts a dark cloud of doubt on the commitment of bishops and priests to celibate chastity. Men have failed to keep their promise, their “I do” to live solely for the sake of the kingdom. Their perverse actions have deeply wounded innocent victims and afflicted all the faithful. This evil has also betrayed the hope of the kingdom, promised by Jesus, the hope for which celibate chastity is intended as a persuasive sign.
The damage inflicted by abuse has mangled the meaning of celibacy. The only way to restore its integrity is for bishops and priests to renew the fundamentally generous spirit of the celibate state, not just as “never, not ever,” but even more fundamentally as a personal “I do” that is always and forever. Celibate lives are intended to make the kingdom of Jesus present and real, both for the priest as well as the people to whom he has promised himself “with an undivided heart.”
Celibacy is not a form of “spiritual bachelorhood.” The celibate is called to find the fullness of love in a chaste celibate state. He does not deny himself the possibility of love. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded us in his beautiful encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), that everyone is created to love and be loved. “Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift.” (DCE, No. 7)
The priest chooses to love and be loved in the celibate state. His whole being, body and soul, gives love and receives love with a singular desire to grow in the personal holiness of Jesus and then reflect that holiness to others. If there is any sense of denial, it is only as an asceticism, a discipline that helps the priest purify the nature of his love for others and for Christ. It is not a denial of love. It is the denial of certain expressions of love so his celibate love can be a more effective sign of the charity of Jesus.
In the highly sexualized culture, celibate love appears incomprehensible. Sexual love is seen as the best if not the only expression of love. This is not true. Common sense should teach us this but the prevailing cultural logic is hard to shake. This cultural dictum has made many dimensions of the church’s teaching on sexuality hard to comprehend. As a consequence, we are lost in a fog of sexual ambiguity that tolerates a plethora of sexual alternatives under the false premise that only sex is love.
The sexual union of a man and woman is one expression, a powerful expression of creative love, but it is not the only expression of deep personal love and devotion. Celibate love can be a potent, prophetic sign of love that gives joy to the priest who embraces it and hope to the church who embraces him. Celibate love leads the priest to a deep communion of love that will nourish him and enrich the church.
While the current dark moment has cast a dubious shadow over the priesthood and the church, the majority of men who have said “I do” to the priestly promise of celibacy continue to provide a vivid, hopeful testimony to the power of Christ’s love for the church. I admire their fidelity. Their chaste, generous zeal continues to encourage in me in my own priestly calling.
Benedict XVI, in speaking of the nature of love, explained that Christian love moves us from ecstasy to exodus. “Love is indeed ‘ecstasy,’ not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.” This is what I have discovered in my own personal journey as a celibate priest.
The discipline of celibacy has been a good teacher for me, revealing day by day the true nature of the love of Jesus. I am grateful for the affectionate love of family, the love of my brother priests and bishops, and the kind, faithful love of dear friends.
The ministry of the confessional has helped me discover the patience and mercy of Christ. Sick calls instructed me on the beauty of companionship in suffering. Presiding at marriages renewed in me the thrill of Christ’s love for his church. Funerals demonstrate a power of love even greater than death. The new life of baptisms always surprises me. Every approach to the altar for the Eucharist still makes me tremble. The patient fidelity of the people of God despite my own weaknesses moves me to gratitude. It compels me to work each day to deserve your trust. All this convinces me of the response I made 37 years ago and the good fortune of celibacy. It was never about “never, not ever.” Since saying “I do,” I have always been surprised by the joy of Christ’s love for me.