Thoughts About Celibacy

How do we priests understand our celibacy, and how do we live it? How do we integrate it into our ministry and into our relationships with God and others? Celibacy is a promise made before ordination. Therefore, priestly celibacy is a way to be faithful, for example, a reason to be celibate is because one promised to be celibate. It’s a circular argument, and it may suffice for a while. But it may be insufficient in times of temptation or profound loneliness. How else might we understand and grow in celibacy? Here’s a collection of ideas about celibacy intended to promote conversations among priests.

The Pragmatic Effects of Celibacy

Celibacy means a priest has more time available, more freedom; celibacy permits a priest to devote more time to his ministry. Its motivation may be pastoral charity, or even service to humanity. Conversations refer to freedom from the responsibilities of marriage and a family; therefore celibacy can be interpreted by parishioners as “available to serve us 24/7.”

The time of a celibate is undiluted; his attention is undistracted. He is more able to notice graced moments as they occur, and in particular, to notice the powerful effects of the sacraments.

Celibacy allows a priest to re-direct his (sexual) energy to other activities. Relationally, he is more available to love and serve others (or his parish, or his community) because that love or service does not conflict with a particular commitment to a spouse or children.

A celibate priest is in a position to love others in a non-exclusive way. Celibacy can be a way to love within a community rather than in a sexual relationship. It can be a path to fruitfulness (generation and enhancement of life) as he nurtures many others rather than devoting himself to a particular partner. This may be articulated as “spiritual fatherhood,” or being a “shepherd” or a “physician of the soul.”

Celibacy as a Means

For some priests, celibacy is an expression of a Gospel call to simplicity of life. R. Rolheiser suggests that celibacy can assist a priest in his identification and solidarity with the poor. He says that to “sleep alone” is to be in solidarity with all others who, for a variety of reasons and circumstances, also “sleep alone.” To sleep alone means to feel that sting of being poor, stigmatized, and outside the norm of human intimacy.

Celibacy is a way to exercise the spiritual discipline of detachment, by prioritizing one’s choices about the use time and resources. It’s a means of limiting human cravings in order to achieve the greater desire of union with God. It may be experienced as self-discipline or a white-knuckling exercise of will power. More than mere abstinence, a priest sets aside his desire for romantic love and expression of his genitality. 

Celibacy provides more opportunities for solitude, to create a “space” in one’s life. The potential is time available for reflective living. The loneliness of solitude can be a spiritual experience that points and leads to God, and allows radical honesty, nakedness, and poverty in the presence of God. It is an opportunity to be cared for and nurtured by God.

Problematic Choices

For some, celibacy is presumed to be a “higher” state of life, more pure and holy. It’s chosen by some people as a means of avoidance, a “last-ditch remedy for concupiscence.” They may believe genital activity is dirty and in sex is evil; and that avoiding genital behavior is the way to escape the messiness and pain of human relationships, love, and sexual acts and desires. (These thoughts may not be fully conscious, but the priest’s emotions may reveal more than his words).

Some men choose celibacy only because it is a requirement for ordination to priesthood in the Latin Rite. These priests may live a life of sexual abstinence; but their celibacy will be difficult if it never develops further.

Some men follow a social pressure in response to their homosexual orientation. Priesthood, then, is a socially acceptable way of life that can effectively hide their orientation from pressure and well-meant questions, such as “Why isn’t a good man like you married yet?”

Most appalling are those few men who choose celibate priesthood as a way to fulfill their immature or disordered sexuality, using it as a safe role by which they can pursue sinful desires with people who are entrusted to their care.

The Goal and Purpose of Celibacy

On a more positive note, celibacy witnesses to the reign of God, pointing to a reality beyond this life. Celibacy testifies that God is with us; its choice suggests something more valuable than a natural desire to “be fruitful and multiply.” As an eschatological sign of the future, celibacy challenges our culture’s values with a reminder that a time will come when there are no spouses or sexual relations.

Celibacy witnesses to the role or importance of sexuality, for example, that sex isn’t as important as people think. When a celibate priest foregoes the genital expression of his sexuality, he’s in a position to love others in a non-exclusive, non-romantic, non-genital way. If his example manifests a healthy and satisfying life, he may serve as a challenging sign of contradiction within a society confused and even obsessed with sex.

Some people choose celibacy because it fits. They discover that celibacy corresponds to their lifestyle, their temperament, and their spirituality — they say “it feels right.”

For some priests, celibacy is very personal and often described as a vocation, as a response to an invitation from God. It’s a way of life in order to be all that God intends him to be. There is a sense of mystery, which makes it difficult to describe this intensely personal encounter with God. Often this comes as a sense of gift or grace, for example, celibacy is not something sought, but received; as such, it is not within the priest’s control. It’s perceived as a charism — a personal strength or ability given by the Holy Spirit. Its purpose goes beyond a priest’s personal growth and exists for the sake of others.

Celibacy unites priests with the Paschal Mystery of Christ, identifying and relating their lives to Christ’s life. They experience a self-emptying (kenosis) and an acceptance of the cross as they choose to die to themselves by living celibately. They experience Christ’s passion in their suffering and grief for the loss of human intimacy and its sexual expression. And they experience resurrection and new life in their relationships lived within the context of celibacy. Their experience of the Paschal Mystery enhances their understanding and celebration of the Eucharist.

Some priests describe celibacy as essentially relational — not in terms of loving and serving people, but as a relationship with God. Celibacy is a bond or a commitment to God or the Trinity, “holding fast to God with an undivided heart.” This wholehearted and profoundly intimate relationship serves as a reminder that there is a bond (relationship) after human death.

Some priests use sexual imagery to describe their radical attachment to Jesus the Christ. They speak of their betrothal to Christ, or use the image of a spousal relation with the Beloved. Celibacy becomes a passionate way of loving and living, and the loved one is Christ. Christ the Lover has a passionate desire and love for the celibate priest. Christ creates, opens, and stretches the celibate’s capacity to embrace and be embraced by his Beloved. In this relational experience, celibacy is a sign of where the priest’s life is anchored.

A ‘Hothouse’ for Spiritual Development

A friend suggested that celibacy is a “hothouse” for spiritual development — a greenhouse wherein the sunlight is intensified, fertilizers are used to support growth, and attentive weeding clears away what is potentially harmful. Or we could say that celibacy is our “monastery,” a place that allows us to focus on our spiritual growth.

Celibacy is one of the ways of life in which priests can develop holy discipline; explore their feelings; shave away ego; mature in sexuality; and rid themselves of attachments and addictive behaviors. It’s an entrance into a profound emptiness wherein a priest can encounter God, and become an icon of the Christ.

Discussion Questions

1. How do I talk about celibacy? What images are helpful to me? How do I describe or explain celibacy to myself, and to others?

2. How do I recognize and deal with the negative/downside/dangers of celibacy?

3. What are the skills necessary to live a healthy celibate life? What do I do when I feel sexually aroused, when I feel a deeper or long-term attraction to someone, when I experience chronic loneliness, when I suddenly feel an intense emptiness, when I recognize that I have a habit or addiction that I use to avoid other feelings?

4. How might healthy priests talk about their experience of celibacy and teach the next generation?  

Father Schmidt, a priest of the Diocese of Kalamazoo, is pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Student Parish in Kalamazoo, Mich.