In light of the recent explosive news of sexual abuse by priests in Europe, many in the media are wondering again if celibacy leads to abuse. Can you be healthy and celibate?

The irony is that some of history’s most loving and generous persons — those that even nonbelievers admire — were chaste. Think of St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa. Would anyone say that they were not loving? Or somehow sick?

Better yet, think of Jesus of Nazareth who, most serious Scripture scholars agree, never married. Does anyone doubt that Jesus was not a loving person? Was he sick? 

Loving examples

Whenever I hear that stereotype of the cold, bitter or unhealthy celibate priest or religious, I wish that I could introduce people to all the loving priests, brothers and sisters that I’ve known, men and women who led lives of loving chastity, and who simply radiate love. (Technically, celibacy is the restriction on priests marrying; chastity, which we’re all called to, is the proper use of one’s sexuality. But here I’ll refer to chastity in the way it’s normally understood — as a religious commitment that includes refraining from sex- ual intimacy.)

So I’d love you to meet my friend Bob, who, despite some serious medical problems, worked for many years at a hardscrabble Native American reservation in South Dakota, and now works as a spiritual director and art therapist in Boston. Few Jesuits are more loving or more beloved. Bob is small in stature with an outsized laugh: when you’re in a movie theater with him watching a comedy, his booming laugh turns every head in the audience.

Bob is one of the best listeners I’ve ever met. People naturally feel comfortable talking with Bob, perhaps because they sense, through his physical limitations, that he understands what it means to suffer and still find joy in life. Several times when I’ve come up against a problem, Bob has listened intently, completely focused on my words. This is a form of chaste love.

I wish you could meet Maddy, a woman religious who works at the Jesuit retreat house in Gloucester, Mass. We first met when we were both working in East Africa — me in Kenya, her in Tanzania. Maddy, a practical and hardworking sister with a quick smile and short-cropped hair, worked with two other American sisters in a remote part of Tanzania, and ran a girls’ school in a remote village.

For their vacations, the sisters would come to our Jesuit community in Nairobi. Maddy is a terrific cook who would relax by preparing colossal Italian meals for our community — so everyone involved looked forward to her vacation.

Since then, Maddy and I have directed many retreats together. Because of some physical limitations, Maddy has a difficult time navigating the sprawling grounds of the retreat house, but her joyful spirits are undimmed and her laughter unabated. A few years ago I signed up for a retreat at Gloucester and discovered that she was my director. Having a friend as a director, I thought, would be odd. “Well, I’m going to treat you like I would treat any other director,” I told her. She laughed her hearty laugh: “And I’m going to treat you like any other retreatant!”

Maddy proved to be an astute director, who helped me through a difficult period in my life. Maddy’s hard work for her students in Tanzania and her patient listening to those at the retreat house is a form of chaste love.

Bob and Maddy, and many other friends who vow chastity, show love in a variety of ways. Each reminds me of one of St. Ignatius Loyola’s sayings: “Love ought to manifest itself more by deeds than by words.”

Freedom to serve

One of the main goals of chastity is to love as many people as possible as deeply as possible. That may seem strange to those used to defining celibacy negatively — that is, as not having sex. But this has long been the tradition of the Church. Chastity is another way to love, and, as such, has a great deal to teach everyone.

Chastity also frees you to serve people more readily. We’re not attached to one person or to a family, so it’s easier for us to move to another assignment. As the Jesuit constitutions say, chastity is “essentially apostolic.” It is supposed to help us become better “apostles.” Chastity, like all the vows, helps Jesuits to be “available,” as St. Ignatius would say. So chastity is about both love and freedom.

Obviously, most people are called to romantic love, marriage, sexual intimacy, children and family life. Their primary way of loving is through their spouses and children. It is a more focused, more exclusive way of loving. That is not to say that married couples and parents do not love others outside their families. Rather, the main focus of their love is God and their family.

For the person in a religious order, the situation is the opposite. You vow chastity to offer yourself to love God and make yourself available to love as many others as possible.

Chastity is a reminder that it is possible to love well without being in an exclusive relationship and without being sexually active. In this way, the chaste person can serve as a signpost in our hypersexualized culture, where loving someone may be confused with hopping into bed. Thus chastity can help us to refocus our priorities: The goal of life, whether single, married or religious, is to love.

By the way, chastity doesn’t lead to unhealthy behavior. The sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church was more about — among other things — a small percentage of psychologically unhealthy men who should have never been admitted into seminaries or religious orders in the first place, a closed clerical culture that fostered secrecy, and some bishops who should have never shuttled them from one parish to another, than it was about chastity per se. Chastity doesn’t lead to pedophilia, any more than marriage does. (Most abuse, after all takes place in families.)

Selfless giving, receiving

Chastity also helps other people feel safe. People know that you’ve made a commitment to love them in a way that precludes using them, or manipulating them, or spending time with them simply as a means to an end. It gives people a space to relax. As a result, people can be freer with their own love.

A few years ago, for example, I worked with an acting troupe in New York City that was developing an off-Broadway play on Jesus and Judas.

For many hours we sat around a huge table in an off-Broadway theater talking about the Gospels, about Jesus and about sin, grace, despair and hope. These spirited conversations were different from those that I have with Catholics, who often feel that Catholics have all the answers.

Here was a group of people inhabiting a world foreign to my own: the theater. When we began, they didn’t know me at all, so I wondered how they would react to a priest. But since they knew that I was a priest, they also knew I was celibate, and so knew I wasn’t there for any other reason than to help them. Probably as a result, some felt comfortable sharing some intimate details of their lives with me, opening up during times of sorrow, and celebrating at times of joy.

Their trust was a gift that helped me, in a sense, fall in love with all of them. When- ever I entered the dressing room, I was usually surrounded by smiling faces and plenty of hugs.

As in other situations, I realized that I was there not just to give love but to receive it. When the show closed I also remembered that I was also called not to hold onto their love. While I hoped that some of us would remain friends afterward (and we have), I knew that I couldn’t “possess” anyone’s love. It had to be freely given and freely received. That’s another lesson of chastity: love cannot be owned. As Jesus said after the Resurrection, “Do not hold on to me.”

This may be one of the greatest gifts that the chaste person can offer. Not only to serve as a reminder that there are many ways to love, but to show that loving a person freely is a gift to both the lover and the beloved. Often we are tempted to think that loving someone means clinging to them, which is a form of ownership. But love means embracing the poverty of not owning the other.

The chaste person can be a reminder that love needs to be given and accepted freely. So, in the end, healthy chastity might be able to teach the world about a free way to love and a loving way to be free. 

Father James Martin, S.J., is culture editor of America. This essay is excerpted from his new book, “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” (HarperOne, $26.99 ), a New York Times best-seller.