Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

17 April 2014

Reflections on Clerical Celibacy

Patient Reader:
Following is a reprint of an article of mine that was printed last month by the A.D. Times, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Allentown.

In early 2002 the clergy sexual abuse scandals first broke out in the Archdiocese of Boston, sending shockwaves through parishes and seminaries across the nation. The failures of some clergy revealed gaps in priestly formation, insufficient monitoring and support, and diseased attitudes about sexuality and power. Providentially, those failures also prompted a fresh discussion of the meaning and observance of celibate chastity.

The mainstream media usually remind us that celibacy is not an immutable dogma, but a retractable discipline (for future candidates, not for those already ordained). Invariably we hear, “It can change. Perhaps the next Pope…” and so forth. True, but not likely. Nor do I think making celibacy optional would result in a lasting increase in vocations, if the situation of our Eastern Catholic*, Orthodox, and Protestant brethren adds any insight.

People have considered facets of Catholicism to be perplexing, or downright objectionable, since the Church’s infancy: “Many of [Jesus’] disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’” (John 6:60) They were referring, of course, to Jesus’ Self-designation as the “Bread of Life” and the accompanying condition, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6:53). It seems the prevailing human tendency is toward the exact opposites of childlike trust and honest inquiry!

Even though celibacy does not pertain to the essence of the priesthood, and vowed chastity is a voluntary counsel, their observance bears special significance and power for the Church, and is therefore worth the consideration of every Catholic.

A non-Catholic friend of mine apparently finds celibacy worth considering, too. He is happily married, but he respects the celibate life choice so much that he once suggested to one of our mutual friends, a priest: “You guys should talk to each other about celibacy more often.” How dare he recommend something to us? I’ll tell you how: he cares about us and about the people we serve. It’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard!

We priests should talk about what it means to us, about how to live as faithful (i.e. not just “non-violating,” but “peaceful, engaging, and fruitful”) celibates, just as married individuals and couples should talk about marriage.

In the seminary I remember one priest warning us about the danger of a “comfortable bachelorhood,” devoid of marital and family responsibilities (embodied by the uxorial epithet “Ol’ Ball-and-Chain”). While every human being ought to have hobbies and diversions, it’s rather possible for priests to attend more to such things than to their parish or family, or to charitable pursuits. I’ve become more conscious of this since returning in earnest to running a few years ago, and I don’t claim to be perfectly balanced at any given moment!

The premise in bachelorhood is, “I am accountable to nobody for the expenditure of my resources.” Celibates can give the impression that we are “free,” and gladly so, when we are in fact called to a comparable or greater level of investment in our priestly people. To live this way can be a scandal to God’s flock—not nearly as perverse as sexual abuse, but no less diminishing of our people’s respect and trust.

In order to be a better steward of God’s many gifts, I enlist a handful of priests and lay friends as friendly watchdogs. We priests ought to be vulnerable enough to amass such a cadre of honest folks, and to be numbered among others’ privy cabinets. Nobody can afford to live in an echo chamber that reflects nothing but the pleasant sounds we like to hear!

Then there are the misdeeds common to all daughters and sons of Adam, against the sixth and ninth commandments—violations more of chastity (sexual integrity) and continence (self-control) than of celibacy per se. They may be motivated more by weakness than malice, but they affect everyone from the parties directly involved to the entire Mystical Body of Christ. An unmarried person’s failures are serious enough; but those of a married, ordained, or vowed person are compounded by the solemn, public promises that they have made.

Without being an actual party to the conversation my priest friend had with our mutual friend, I surmise that the subject matter they had in mind was not the temptation to materialism inherent in “comfortable bachelorhood,” but rather the misdirection of sexual and romantic desires. The mutual friend knew well that one might consciously and freely forgo these human, God-given drives only for worthy motives and with gainful alternatives.

Recently I substituted for the 5th grade teacher in our Public School Religious Education. I was speaking about the Eucharist as sacrifice, memorial, and banquet, and mentioned that the priest spoke the words of consecration personally, offering his life for the Church in union with the Lord Jesus. Out of nowhere (where the Holy Spirit always seems to operate), a child asked me, “Is it a sacrifice not to have a wife and children?”

Immediately I thought of a quote from the Swiss priest and theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar: “When God demands of us something difficult, we often seek to be aided in our compliance by motives that rob the action of its whole value. For instance, we try to convince ourselves that what is sacrificed—friends, a comfortable life, and so on—at bottom means little to us. What if God should give us only what no longer has any value for him?” (The Grain of Wheat: Aphorisms. Ignatius Press, 1995).

So yes, I answered, it is a real sacrifice not to have a wife and children. But I also said that I frequently consider how that sacrifice has resulted in my being right where I am today: at Holy Guardian Angels Parish, speaking with these children who call me “Father” because they have become my children. Now none of that small group of children came home with me after PREP was over, but perhaps they left appreciating how Father was there for them. What is just as important, Father himself knew that.

By our very existence in our parishes, communities, and families, chaste celibates affirm the primacy of the Kingdom of God and the baptized person’s calling to seek it “first” (Mt 6:33). That’s supposed to turn heads and raise eyebrows. But if people—especially celibates themselves—do not look through the elements being renounced in favor of the blessings being received, they will continue to consider celibacy inhuman and try to bypass it however possible.

Like anyone else in the world, celibates are occasionally going to feel lonely and incomplete. This is certainly to be expected, and not to be ignored or downplayed. Here as always, the question is, “What am I to do about it?” For God’s sake and for our own, celibates have to do something—especially in light of a celibate’s intention to point to the ultimate fulfillment of heaven.

But let’s be clear: at first the lonely celibate will probably set aside any otherworldly dimension of loneliness; to suggest otherwise is na├»ve. After all, loneliness is a human emotion crying out for redress—or rather a question seeking a response. Without enlisting a reliable network of monitoring and support (and, alas, sometimes even with it), there is no wonder how people resort to all manner of unhealthy diversions. Hence the interest of seminaries and other houses of formation to train fundamentally sound people in human and spiritual, intellectual and pastoral virtues. Imagine how potential spouses might fare with such attention to discipleship!

Most people reading this essay either have been married or are at least open to marriage. As an intentional celibate—and as a human being—I have profound respect for the marital vocation. One of the most effective ways I can show that respect is to live joyfully as a celibate. Thus I will also be an example of humanity and holiness.

To that end I need help from fellow celibates and married couples alike. That help takes the form of friendship, accountability, compassion, and encouragement; for my part I should be equally willing to extend the same to others. Then there are everyday things that I myself must do: pray, fast, give alms, and be vigilant. These spiritual disciplines are the heritage of every baptized Christian. Priests and religious were not intended to be exempt from them; in fact, our troubles arise from the exemptions we’ve made!


By the generous embrace of their joys and sacrifices, may celibates and married persons help each other to discover the value of their respective vocations in human society and God’s Kingdom.

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*After the initial publication of the article, I decided to include "Eastern Catholic" in this sentence upon further reflection and consultation with an Orthodox friend and deacon.

It has been the ancient tradition of Orthodox Christianity, and it had been the custom of most Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, to permit clergy to be married before being ordained to the diaconate, whether "permanent" or "transitional." Bishops, however, are chosen from the unmarried and monastic clergy.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Eastern Catholics in the diaspora, especially in the United States, experienced considerable ignorance and persecution, prompting the Vatican to mandate celibacy in territories to which Eastern Catholics had migrated. The Second Vatican Council later urged Catholics of the Eastern Rites to return to traditions such as the ordination of married clergy, but U.S. Eparchies have not implemented such reforms uniformly. (reference).

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A devoted reader also sent a link to the Chrism Mass homily of Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan (here is the Facebook link). The Archbishop's reflection is worth reading for his candid assessment of the pitfalls to which celibate priests are regularly exposed, as well as their remedies.

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