CELIBACY: LIVING AND DYING

Of all a Christian's conflicts, the most difficult combats are those of chastity;

wherein the fight is a daily one,  

but victory rare.   -  St. Augustine

Is celibacy is a living, life giving, viable way of life and service? Or is celibacy the greatest sexual perversion—a defiance of scriptural directive? Is it the source of sanctity or is it hypocrisy in the service of power and control?

 
The answer to all those questions is clearly, Yes.
 

Paradoxes and ambiguity have always surrounded religious celibacy—no more so at any time than today. It has been extolled in grandiloquent terms such as a state of perfection and mystagogical—a mystical reality unreasonable, unnatural and excessive angelic and unexplainable.

The ideal to be “like Christ” who was thought to be celibate (based on tradition not biblical evidence) is an unquestionably noble goal. Celibacy can be lived in the service of humanity—in being persons for others.  Some men and women from the time of the Fathers of the Desert to the present have pursued the practice of celibacy with remarkable productive results.

Celibate men and women (in a number of religious traditions) have inspired many including me to live as fully as possible because they live fully. They serve unstintingly in parishes, missions, and schools as teachers, scholars, artists, scientists, and spiritual leaders pointing the way to spiritual realities and a righteous, reasonable life.

Celibacy has also served as an empty moniker bespeaking a status and power that covers a deceptive sexual life from understandable missteps to wanton relationships and criminal assaults. The history of celibate violation and pretense is as old as the ideal and practice itself.

I would much prefer to spend my energy in tracing the histories of successful and dedicated celibates like those that C. Colt Anderson describes—those who have contributed to building spiritual, physical, personal, and cultural monuments of eternal value—than to explore the failures, betrayals, and hypocrisies perpetrated by some clergy who only posed as celibates. Even the histories of this latter group create a challenge since their service can have survived in spite of corruption, contamination, duplicity, and hypocrisy, as we shall see.

I have a vocation. In many ways it is a biblical commission. I went where I wanted as a young man, but as I grew up another bound me where and led me where I was reluctant to go.* So be it. I have looked around for models. St. Benedict was a natural candidate. I spent 24 years and more living in his tradition. It is a magnificent heritage and a great and lasting ideal. I experience it now it is corrupt and in need of reform. But it is a beacon of hope because it has led the church to so many reforms before.

Luther occurred to me. A confessor once said I was like him. I was anxious, troubled, and humiliated when he said it, but now I mark it as a badge of worth. But I have settled on Peter Damian as my spiritual mentor. Our times and his are so similar concerning sexual problems of the clergy. And the crisis that he spoke to resonate in the halls of power. He held men in authority responsible for the behavior (and education) of the offending clergy. That is not something that even Pope Benedict XVI is yet willing to speak to or intervene.

I have had to console my self with the thought that I have to be like a cardiologist. As much as he would like to extol the wonders of the heart—even its symbolism and its prominence in poetry spend all of his time to promote healthy heart education—he can do so only if he also masters the dysfunctions of the organ in all its variations.  The heart is critical to a human life; it can have many defects and some impaired function and still avoid death for a time. But a malfunctioning heart with affect the whole body.

This is the situation in the Catholic Church today. Celibacy is at the heart of religious life and the priesthood (as it is established today). And that heart is in distress. Will a married priesthood cure what ails the heart of ministry? I will not enter that discussion; but the dysfunctional Body of Christ is more compromised than any administrative declaration can cure. Father Michael Crosby, one of the wisest commentators on the health of the church, has delivered his prognosis decades ago.

Like it or not, celibacy is the measure of the health or illness of the clerical body of Christ. Fundamental distinctions about celibacy demand recognition and discourse.

FIRST: Celibacy is a vocation in and of itself

Celibacy has been so wedded to Catholic priesthood especially in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation that some think that it is identical with the clerical state. Even some sophisticated Catholics identify priest with celibate. True that each priest is publicly presented as bound to strict sexual abstinence.  Not so in practice. Celibacy is a prior vocation that the Vatican has decreed must be pledged and embraced if a man presents himself for ordination to the priesthood.

There are experienced voices within the clergy like Fr. Michael Crosby7 and Fr. Donald Cozzens8 that argue powerfully against mandatory celibacy for Catholic priests. Their arguments are rational and strong—and in contradiction of Popes who have said that even they are not capable of reversing that requirment.9 The people of God—and Popes— have not heard the last of this critical debate. 

Pope Paul VI referred to celibacy as a “brilliant jewel whose value remains undiminished.”10 There is truth in this statement. Celibacy is one of those “pearls of great price” of which Jesus speaks. But few priests—and the church itself—have not been willing to anti up to fully invest in it.

I have sympathy for the cause of a married priesthood and great empathy for those clergy and lay people who advocate, agitate, and demonstrate for the abrogation of mandated celibacy, and who crusade for the ordination of women and married men. These are praiseworthy undertakings. But I have never felt it was my primary calling to be a campaigner for these timely causes. My training predisposed me to try and understand the reality that currently prevails—priests who are bound by celibacy. My efforts have been directed to aid them in their pursuits, relieve their suffering where possible, and help them remove impediments to their celibate striving and counteract the adverse consequences of failed attempts. All my labors have been invested in understanding every aspect of religious celibacy. I am struck by the absence, inadequate, or faulty training for celibacy men undergo in seminaries and religious houses.

The church is reprehensible in demanding this prior vocation as a requirement for ordination to the priesthood without giving adequate consideration and training to celibacy. Notwithstanding protestations to the contrary that run the gambit from “the system of seminary structure with prayer, confessors and spiritual direction teaches celibacy” (by Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk 1986) to the more current justification, “seminarians do go through an intense instruction on celibacy in classroom and retreats…months before they are ordained, these men put themselves through some intense scrutiny” (by a theology professor 2008) no seminary or religious house yet has introduced a sequence of training to meet the real need that the practice deserves.

Second: There are several approaches to the task of understanding religious celibacy.

Third: The problem of “Dirty Laundry.”

Fourth: The clerical system is sick.

Fifth: An indictment of good clergy.

Sixth: The solutions at hand.

More to follow.......