Last month I went to Washington, D.C., for the March for Life. This event, so sadly underreported by the commercial media, has become for me a meeting place. I see so many people, strongly pro-life and willing to stand up and be counted, whom I know.
This time I made some new friends. Stopping in a Starbucks for a latte to ward off the cold, I saw three young men in Roman collars. Two were seminarians, one anticipating priestly ordination this spring, the other in two years. The third was a priest from their diocese who has been ordained for three years.
We sat down together to chat as we drank our coffee. The seminarians were there as part of a large delegation from a prominent American seminary, from which the priest had been ordained.
Since my seminary days are long in the past, I asked, what was a modern seminary like? One thing led to another. Before long, we were talking about priestly life these days in this country, and then someone mentioned celibacy.
I could not help but remember my time in the seminary, when celibacy was rarely mentioned. It simply was a given.
Seminaries these days very directly address the subject. It is no wonder. The Church learned the hard way that celibacy can be too much, so many priests withdrew from the ministry. Seminary faculties also know that the cultural pressure against any lifestyle that does not include active sexuality is enormous.
These seminarians and priest talked about their willingness to be celibate. It had nothing to do with pragmatism, with the argument that unmarried priests have more time to devote to their ministries.
Instead, each of them spoke of celibacy in terms of its being a sign of, result of, and aid in, complete gift of self to Christ. This is what seminaries now stress when it comes to celibacy. They see commitment to celibacy, and an affirmative answer to what they perceive to be a call from Christ in their vocation, as integral to their overall gift of everything in their lives to God.
Actually, this approach to celibacy is very traditional in the Church. For example, Jesus extolled those who forsake marriage for “the kingdom of heaven,” if called by God to this choice. “Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Mt 19:10-12). St. Paul lauded those who are celibate for spiritual reasons, “… the one who marries his virgin does well; the one who does not marry her will do better” (1 Cor 7:38).
In 1954, Pope Pius XII wrote an entire encyclical, Sacra Virginitas (“On Consecrated Virginity”), on the subject, and while stressing that the call to celibacy, if a spiritual value, must be in the context of a total gift of self to God, and a call not addressed to all people, he stated that virginity is a higher state in life than marriage.
Blunt words, but they were thoroughly consistent with Church tradition.
His teaching in this regard was no theological flash in the pan, no sudden innovation, but they are not often quoted these days. As society assumes that sexual relationships are a must, and anything else is unnatural, this ancient Catholic teaching may seem simply too much today.
Also, priests may hesitate about preaching this tradition lest it be assumed that they are demeaning marriage, precisely in the face of the Church’s anxiety about the present condition of marriage.
In any case, the next generation of priests may not be so cautious. The seminarians and young priest whom I met in Washington spoke of celibacy in the way that Jesus and the saints throughout the ages spoke of it. It is a vocation, but it is part of a wider picture of absolutely offering everything to God.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.