Friday, December 30, 2011

A Favorite Post from 2011

The Challenge of Celibacy

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. I read this article both times you posted it and was insulted for my Church. Perhaps you do not mean it this way, but what you seem to be saying is that mandatory celibacy as the Latin Church requires it is a proximate occasion of sin for all secular priests.

    In the West, we believe that God will only give a man a vocation to the priesthood if He also gives him a vocation to celibacy. (Yes, there are exceptions in the West, but they are very rare.) Certainly there are selfish priests; however, to pin it on celibacy is a stretch since many people find ways to fall into selfishness in their marriages as well. At least the selfishness that you describe of yourself before marriage was not mortally sinful, while selfishness in marriage often is.

    God called you to work out your salvation in marriage, so He planted the virtues of a married woman in your heart. Despite wanting to be a husband and father very much, my pastor was not called to marriage, but rather, the priesthood and by dying to this natural desire, he started on the path of selflessness. His mother wanted nothing more than to become a religious sister; however, through her selfless choice to follow God's plan for her, she became the mother of a priest.

    A wise sister once told a few of us girls who were dealing with vocation angst that God teaches patience and selflessness to some people through the priesthood or the religious life. He teaches some people patience and selflessness through a vocation to marriage and parenthood. The virtues are the same, but the learning styles are different. If your virtue learning style is marriage, wonderful! It's mine too! Just please, do not assume that our learning style is superior. It's just not nice.

  2. Alice- thanks for your thoughful comment- I'm sorry this post hurt you- but I do think that I made it clear that I was not writing about all celibate priests- I just said that selfishness might be a special challenge for them- many, many priests triumph over this challenge on a daily basis. Some don't. And selfishness can happen in any vocation situation, I just think that an unmarried person has more of an 'opportunity' to be selfish

  3. Apology accepted.

    Perhaps I am a bit touchy because I have personal experience with the monastic priesthood idea that you seem to be considering best in your final paragraph. In my experience, those who would push for it want priests as distant from their flocks as absolutely possible. This is exactly (in my opinion as a lay woman) the opposite of what we need.

  4. Alice- I have a different experience with monks- although the ones I know live apart from the world, they are very open to guests and retreats and such; I find 'my' monks very social.

    I've heard of new rectories being built so that if multiple priests live in a single dwelling, they will have entrances to their personal apartments that the other priests won't see coming and going. More 'privacy' and more professional- I think that is weird...

  5. My experiences with monks have been pleasant enough, but I don't think priests need to live in rectory "monasteries" and then commute to their parishes, as was being suggested a while back. It might work in an urban environment, but in a rural diocese, it means that Father is no longer a regular fixture in the one restaurant in town and his parishioners are no longer able to knock on his door in times of crisis because he's 30 -40 minutes away.

  6. I love this, and I agree with you. I love your paragraph about how marriage forces you to not be selfish.
    I agree wholeheartedly that selfishness is avoided by living in community. When my parents were young, every parish had 3 or 4 priests - they lived in the rectory in community.
    Now, at least back home, parishes are lucky to have one priest. And you're right, it might not be best.

    I officially love your blog.

  7. Imperfect Kate- it must be REALLY hard for those priests living alone- they are in my prayers!


thanks for commenting! (comments on old posts are moderated)