Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Challenge of Celibacy- let's NOT talk about sex

The past few days around here have been interesting, to say the least. I still believe what I wrote 2 days ago, and I pray that Rome directly answers the questions raised by canon lawyer Ed Peters about Western Canon 277. In any case...what is so challenging about celibacy and- therefore- continence?

Is it the lack of marital contact? Is the most challenging aspect of celibacy loneliness? I can't give a theological or psychological opinion- just a practical and personal one. I was celibate and continent until I was 27. Being a virgin was no problem (maybe because I am a female?) and any loneliness I felt was lessened by time with friends and family.

My major challenge as a single person was a tendency to selfishness.

When one is celibate and- therefore- continent, it is a major challenge to be self-giving. It takes heroic virtue not to be selfish. During high school, university and four years after graduation, this was my life: the beautiful, independent single life where I would serve others to a point. I could fool myself into thinking I was a giver. I lived at home during college, taking classes full-time and working various jobs about 35 hours a week to pay for tuition. I was really busy. I was a 'giver'- leading music at the 7:30 Mass and joining my family for the 9:00. I was involved in the Newman Center and did the dishes at home. But I would go to the movies during a break in the school day and watch the latest tearjerker (Steel Magnolias, anyone?). After college, I was teaching English in Slovakia for $100 a month plus rent- how is that selfish?! But, I could take a train to Rome without calling anyone, walk around for 12 hours, and then get on the next train north. Being poor, I debated between spending my money on green leather mittens or lunch in Krakow. Being married, sometimes a mom has to choose between lunch for herself or the kids. And she chooses the kids.

When I was single, I never had to always think of another person. If a younger sister was visiting, of course I would buy her favorite flavor of party pizza and make brownies while we watched Labyrinth. But that was an aberration. Normally, I went into a store and bought my favorite things, took a shower when it was convenient for me, watched only the movies that I preferred, and even prayed when it was a good time for me. The food was cooked to my liking, the music was at the volume I preferred, the thermostat temperature was perfect for me. The furniture could be just where I wanted it, I could work the hours I wanted, I could go on retreat and not be beholden to anyone. Are any of these things sinful? Not really, but living alone makes it very easy to think of oneself- in the same way that having only one child makes it easy to cook just the foods that child prefers. Why not? It is easy, but it is not very virtuous.

We all know amazing celibate priests who are always thinking of the other person. He might golf on Monday morning as a hobby, but his cell phone is open to calls and he doesn't allow a gate keeper secretary to be a barrier to contact with his parishioners. Celibacy and continence are challenges, but Roman-rite priests know what they are getting into and, I suspect, focus on protecting themselves from sin in these serious matters. Selfishness is a much smaller sin, but it tends to creep in and make itself at home. A selfish person who is also a giver- like I was- work, work, working for God but then ignoring that call that they know is a hospital call. A selfish person insists on his hamburger super-rare (just pass it over a lit candle) even when the waitress says the health board won't let her sell it rare. A selfish person needs, even while complaining of burn-out, to choose all the music selections and flower arrangements so that things will be perfect (for him/her).

Marriage and children force us sinners to constantly think of others. We might intentionally decide to buy sharp cheddar or listen to opera even though our spouse prefers something different. We don't always have to choose what the other wants, but we always have to consider it. Marriage is a great aid to man's natural tendencies to selfishness. It seems (please note my qualification!) that the glories of celibacy and continence are emphasized as a gift for the kingdom of Heaven, but celibate priests are only warned to not be alone with people and are not trained in anticipation of other problems. Perhaps the monastic tradition (again, in only my little opinion) is the best way to live a life of celibacy and continence. The monk lives in community and is supported in living a selfless life. With his vows (not promises) of poverty, chastity and obedience, he is given tools to faithfully live a life of celibacy and perfect continence.


  1. Excellent. The risk of a celibate diocesan priest growing into the "old bachelor" mode rather than the ascetic mode is profound. I agree with you that living in community is a corrective to that.

  2. Excellent! Every vocation has its risks - risks that tempt us to turn from letting Christ live within us fully. Married life certainly does. As does the celibate priesthood - I think you have hit the nail on the head (and I hope before people start yelling at you they remember all the blog discussions about frustrations about inaccessible priests...). The temptation for a celibate priest to grow into a "bachelor mode" of living rather than ascetic/gracious/open-hearted one must be profound. Living in community certainly would seem to help.


  3. My Dear Sweet One,Thank you for responding.The Lord knows I have been wanting all of Him.A continued deep abiding in Him.I am so open to learn from you.How Catholics believe is important to me so I can lose generations of my family's judging and fear of Catholics.The fear comes due to any of the children marrying Catholics and then not grasping what they were taught was the Truth and judging would just be sin handed down(That we are right and they are wrong type thing)But one thing I know with all my heart, in eternity there will be all christians.That fact makes it alittle sad to me that there are ANY separations of Christ lovers now.Please never feel obligated to publish anything I write to you.I just like reading your stuff and learning from you,anyway my spelling is too bad to publish.The Lord was speaking to my spirit during the last post in a whisper.He was saying "Dont offend her,Be careful".I don't really know what I said back to Him.Love in Christ Denise

  4. Denise- It's an awful thing when there is the challenge of a 'mixed-marriage' and they don't know their faith!

    -first- the Bible is first and foremost
    -next- the Catechism of the Catholic Church
    google "Word on Fire" with Fr Barron- he is working on videos on the life of Christ

    You might encourage the sort-of-Catholics in your family to look at these resources. Peace!

  5. I pretty much agree with you, priest's wife, especially on your last comment "Perhaps the monastic tradition is the best way to live a life of celibacy and continence. The monk lives in community and is supported in living a selfless life". It's not the same to be the only celibate clergyman in a parish than to be supported by a community of people that are struggling just like you and can support, help and encourage you. Many priests are alone in an isolated parish in an isolated area and while they have a community of faithful believers, they do not have a community of people LIKE THEM to rely on. They have no fellow celibate clergyman or religious friends, or if they have, they don't live nearby. It's sad, but it's true.
    This issue has become bigger than it actually is. There is no real problem with allowing married clergymen - eastern or roman - to have sex with their WIVES. There is no serious argument to support such ludicrous "rule" and I don't think - or don't want to think - that the Vatican is mad enough to ask all married clergymen to be continent.

  6. I like how your posts are getting really open, honest and challenging. Keep it up!

  7. My understanding, from studying medieval history, is that the discipline of celibacy was made mandatory after the massive abuses of priests of that time treating parish property as private property, handing down a parish living to their sons, etc. Basically treating the church and its attached rents as a lord's fiefdom. At least in part. And then there's just the whole idea of more perfectly imaging Christ, a celibate and unmarried man. Singleness does not always equal selfishness.

  8. LeeAnn- YES- singleness does not always equal selfishness- nor does marriage automatically make us non-selfish. I just think that selfishness is a natural risk when one is single

  9. Perhaps the risk of selfishness is more of a self-selecting one - if one is predisposed to being selfish, then particular forms of life, for example marriage or religious life, will not appeal or not be sustainable.

    In my experience married people are often very selfish and use their marriage or the difficulties of married life as excuse for not fulfilling obligations, or to avoid responsibilities.

    Every vocation has its temptations, but some temptations are common to all of humanity. The form of the temptation and the expression of temptation will vary across states of life: there is always a sick spouse/child, a necessary appointment &c.

    Moreover, it is not as though unmarried/single people are born from stone eggs, having no family. Many of us have siblings with children, and somehow cope with requests such as "Can you take the children... for a week".

  10. I love this blog! I am also Byzantine (Greek) Catholic, despite being raised Latin, although I switched churches before meeting my husband. I found this post to be very well thought out. I believe you hit the 'nail on the head', one of this things that always made more sense to me about the Eastern traditions was that traditionally married priests were parish priests and celibates lived in monasteries. Actually that is how it was in both Eastern and Western traditions for the first couple hundred years. Everyone needs a sense of community, I imagine especially if one is trying to live out the ascetic lifestyle of celibacy, you need support. Vocations are to help us all grow towards God, the process of theosis, so they all present their own challenges and their own temptations, without doubt. But I agree, without a community, either monastic or a family, I do find it much easier to only look out for ourselves.

    I also wanted to comment on a remark I saw you leave on another blog - you know - covering heads IS part of the Byzantine tradition (just look at pictures of any Orthodox-not in communion with Rome- church!) What I have heard varying is whether all women should cover (which I saw when I attended vespers at a ROCOR parish - even young children with heads in scarves) to whether women should cover when they get married. I am not sure of your husband's country of origin - I can only speak to my husband's and personal experience, but I know some of the EC churches around here have women and children with head coverings. So I say, if your husband approves then go for it!

  11. anonymous- in the old country, coverings one's head is for widows or any woman in the country depending on the region. and here- I really have never seen it at an Eastern Catholic church-

    I might start with the floppy beret-style hat Girl #2 crocheted for me. Although it is really only 'my business' about covering, since I am (sort of) an authority, I wouldn't want 'people' to have a problem...I am still processing this...

  12. I suppose it must really be a regional thing, in my husband's old country, head coverings are extremely common. I remember being in one church where I didn't have a head covering and one woman handed me one out of a pile of extras! Perhaps wearing something that doesn't stand out, such as if you have winter (not sure where you are), wear a scarf wrapped lightly around your head, and just don't take it off with your coat until people get used to it?
    You sounds like a wonderful priest's wife, maybe speak wtih your husband, he might be able to offer some advice. Also, congragations often expect priests' wives to be wonderful example of Christian piety (no pressure though :) ) and so wearing a discreet head covering could be seen as an extention of that, food for thought!
    Good luck with your dilema!

  13. priest's wife: Fr. Tim Finigan at The Hermeneutics of Continuity suggested that, due to the priest shortage, priests—especially those that oversee more than one parish—should live in community, not so much in colleges as in deaneries. That way, they can be more supportive of each other in their vocation.

    The tendency to selfishness precedes the choice of vocation. In fact, too often selfishness makes a wreck out of a marriage; neither priestly vows nor marriage vows can prevent selfishness from distorting the vocation if the person making them doesn't understand or accept the obligations entailed. Being accidentally celibate myself, I understand exactly where you're coming from. Just sayin' that marriage of itself doesn't cure selfishness ... only Christ can do that, and only if we cooperate.


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