[NOTE: This is the first of a four-part series on “The Joyful Truth of Celibacy.” The next three posts will elaborate on the main themes of this post and will be excerpted from Christopher’s book Theology of the Body for Beginners: Rediscovering the Meaning of Life, Love, Sex, & Gender (Wellspring 2018). Click here to order bulk copies of this book for your parish at just $3/copy or get your first copy for free using the checkout discount code DESIRE.]
In light of the recent revelations of yet more heinous sexual misconduct by some clergy in the Catholic Church, we are hearing once again that “ending the ban on marriage” for Catholic priests is the easiest fix to the problem. To think otherwise, it would seem, is to play ostrich and bury one’s head in the sand.
It’s true that the practice in the Latin rite of reserving priestly ordination to celibate men could change. The Catholic Churches of the East have valid married priests, and some married priests of other denominations who convert to Catholicism can be ordained as valid priests even in the Latin rite.
So, if someone asks, “Why can’t priests be married?” the real answer is, they can be. However, with good reason, priests in the West are normally chosen from among men who have discerned celibacy as their vocation.
The witness of a healthy celibate life has a supreme value for the current sexual crisis that seems entirely lost in the heat of the conversation. Put simply, it’s the witness of authentic sexual freedom. Sexual freedom, as the Catholic Church has always understood, is not the liberty to indulge one’s compulsions; it’s liberation from the compulsion to indulge. Only one who is free in the latter sense is able to love, whether in marriage or in the celibate gift of self. Whenever we are bound to our urges, others are disregarded as subjects (as persons) and become mere objects of our own gratification.
The average parish, Catholic school, and seminary have done a lousy job guiding those in its care toward authentic sexual freedom and how that is to be expressed in whatever one’s state or vocation in life. In turn, the faulty understanding of sexual freedom has seeped into the minds of many people within the Church, including her clergy, which is why both marriage and celibacy are in a state of profound crisis. Without a vibrant call to authentic sexual freedom, both Christian marriage and Christian celibacy become radically misunderstood and mis-lived: the former as a “legitimate outlet” for one’s compulsive urges and the latter as a life of hopeless repression.
This is why the idea that marriage is the solution to the sexual scandal of priests is so seriously misguided. Simply getting married does not cure sexual disorder. If a priest, or any other man, were to enter marriage with deep-seated sexual disorders, he would be condemning his wife to a life of sexual objectification. The only way the scandal of sexual sin (whether committed by priests or others) will end is if people learn how to open their sexual brokenness to the power of redemption flowing from the death and resurrection of Christ as the way to an authentic sexual freedom.
Christian celibacy and Christian marriage are much more related than most people think. In fact, in order to understand the value of celibacy, we must first understand the value of marriage. Why? Because the Church bases the value of any sacrifice on the value of that which it sacrifices. For example, it would be meaningless for me to give up smoking for Lent. Smoking holds zero value for me.
The Church places such a high value on celibacy precisely because she places such a high value on that which it sacrifices – the union of the sexes. In the Catholic view of things, the joining of man and woman in “one flesh” is a sacred foreshadowing of the eternal union that awaits us in heaven (see Eph 5:31-32). God gave us sexual desire, I like to say, to be like the fuel of a rocket that’s meant to launch us toward the stars and beyond, to the eternal mystery of Christ’s union with the Church.
But what would happen if those rocket engines became inverted, no longer pointing us heavenward, but pointing us back upon ourselves? Welcome to the fallout of the sexual revolution. The union of the sexes serves as an icon, a sign of our ultimate fulfillment, but it is the beginning of our demise when we worship sex itself. A culture that worships sex has surely lost sight of the divine.
Jesus says we will no longer be given in marriage in heaven (see Mt 22:30). Why? Because we no longer need signs to point us to heaven, when we’re in heaven. The “marriage of the Lamb” (Rev 19:7) – the union of love that alone can satisfy – will be eternally consummated.
In turn, Jesus calls some to remain celibate not for celibacy’s sake, but “for the sake of the kingdom” (Mt 19:12) – that is, as a living witness to the union that awaits us in heaven. Authentically lived, a celibate’s life proclaims that, as beautiful and wonderful as the union of the sexes is, there is a greater love, a greater union worth “selling everything” for.
It is entirely fitting that priests would be called to this level of sacrifice. In a world that’s bound by its sexual impulses and, in turn, idolizes sex, we desperately need the courageous witness of priestly celibacy lived in the liberating current of authentic sexual freedom. For, when it is lived in this way, it very effectively reorients our rocket engines toward the heavens.
Perhaps the Church’s call of priestly celibacy isn’t a sign that she has her head in the sand, but that she’s looking toward the stars and inviting the whole world – whether married, celibate, or single – to do the same.
Does this definition of celibacy synch with your understanding? Why do so many people — including many Catholics — have such a disconnect between the celibate and married vocations? Share your thoughts on this post’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
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