On Celibacy in the Priesthood, part I

All Roman rite seminarians must grapple with celibacy.  At the moment, the Church only calls celibate men to the priesthood, with a few exceptions.  The minimalist’s point of view is that we are required to give up marriage because the Church requires it; a more theological interpretation (and in my mind the better one)  is that priests give up marriage because we are marrying the Church.  We give up an exclusive love for a universal love, conforming ourselves to God in a way that is difficult to do in the married vocation.

Interestingly enough, the topic of our group formation meeting last night was celibacy.  We were given a worksheet of different statements regarding celibacy, and we rated them based on how highly we agreed with the statements.  Then, we discussed several statements small groups before recollecting for a large group discussion. 

In this post, I give some of my reflections on celibacy in the priesthood.  Before I start, however, I need to make something clear:  I am completely in favor of a celibate priesthood.  I see many benefits in the discipline.  However, I want to be honest with myself, and I want to know what celibacy entails so that I can give full consent to the sacrifice, should I be called to make it.  With that said…

My small group had some pretty interesting things to say.  However, I found myself disagreeing with the rest of the group on one substantial point.  We were asked to respond to the following statement:

Celibacy personally enables me to love others better and more meaningfully than other states of life would.

In itself, I have no problem with the question (I answered a 3/5; I don’t know what my call is at the moment).  However, the rest of the group seemed to be arguing that, universally speaking, celibacy allows us to love others better and in a more meaningful way.  I took great exception to that.  Priests are asked to love in a different way, an uncommon way, and a unique way; however, does celibacy inherently allow us to love “better” and “more meaningfully”?

The other day, my Contemporary philosophy professor was illustrating a point, and she brought up a story of a time when a car was spinning out of control right at her children.  She said that she remembers what happened in great detail, and her memory of this incident is still clear in her mind decades later.  This story made me pause for a second:  as a priest, will I love my flock in such a way that I love and care for others like a father loves his children?  

It seems like there are two ways to love:  to love universally and to love deeply.  These categories are not mutually exclusive:  the saints are exemplars of people who did both well.  However, the priesthood as a vocation seems to map onto the former more easily:  He is, by virtue of his celibacy, able to give his entire life to his people.  However, it is much more difficult for a priest to love many strangers deeply, as a man loves his child or his wife.  Marriage seems to map onto the latter option:  most of the father’s love and energy is directed primarily towards his family.  While it is not impossible for priests to love deeply or married people to love universally, each vocation seems to emphasize different aspects of love.

After telling this story to my small group, one of the people in my group gave an objection that seems absurd to me.  He made a distinction between love and psychological attachment.  He said that the reason it is so hard to watch a family member die is that we are psychologically attached; it is not an indicator of how much we love them.  Priests don’t cry at funerals, but that is not because they necessarily love the person less than his family does.  

But can such a distinction be so clearly drawn?  God loves perfectly:  He loves universally, and He loves everyone more deeply than a human can love his spouse.  I don’t think the fullest sense of Christian love is possible without “psychological attachment”.  Unlike modern accounts of love, love is not reducible to an emotion; love’s perfect action is sacrifice.  I am worried that my brother seminarian is degrading love by saying it finds its perfect fulfillment without “psychological attachment.”  Pope Benedict XVI writes otherwise in Deus Caritas Est:

Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude which our whole being yearns for. (4)

It is part of love’s growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense:  both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in a sense of being “for ever”.  6

Note what Benedict does not say in the first paragraph:  he never says that eros is superfluous or non-essential to the act of Christian love.  On the contrary, Benedict rebuts Nietzsche, who argues that Christians have destroyed eros.  That intense “feeling” for others is not just mere psychological activity, but it is transformed and brought to fulfillment by the Gospel.  Eros and agape complement each other and bring each other into fulfillment.  The second quotation further demonstrates my point:  we are called to love others in an exclusive way.  God loves us each personally, in a unique way.  God’s love for me is not dependent upon God’s love for James or Sarah, but He loves me for who I am.  He died for everyone, but He did not die for an abstract humanity, but for each and every individual who He loved to the point of death.    

If there is a distinction between loving our children and having a psychological attachment to them, then in what way do we say that the love of parents for their children, or spouses for spouses, can be the most powerful and intimate examples of love?  If the empirical indicator of love is self-sacrifice, then a parent’s psychological attachment to their child seems like it makes him more willing to sacrifice for him.  This does not mean that love is reducible to that feeling, or that there is no such thing as love without that feeling.  But Christian love finds its fulfillment in part through the exclusivity of love.  How can the strong psychological attachment be removed if we love so deeply?   

It may be impossible for a priest to love his flock in the same way that a parent loves his child.  But the Church didn’t choose the familial bond to describe relationships within the Church for no reason, either.  A priest is called to be a father to his flock.  If all Christians are called to love as Christ loves, then the priest has no choice but to strive to love so deeply that it hurts:  when his loved ones rejoice he rejoices; when they suffer, he suffers.  Impossible?  Probably.  We are limited by our humanity, such that we cannot love as God loves.  But priests cannot fulfill the commands of Christ by merely loving universally.  He must love deeply as well.    

I haven’t yet touched upon my own discernment, and I don’t have the time at the moment to go into it in great depth.  However, I have been told by many people that I would make a great priest because they see in me the ability to love others universally.  However, my biggest concern is that I am unable, at the moment, to love deeply.  I have a genuine concern for other people’s problems, and yet I am not ready to sacrifice myself for that love.  I contemplate love and speak about love in very deep ways, but I have yet to demonstrate any ability to practice that love. 

We shouldn’t pick our vocations merely because we are good at certain things, although our talents could be indicators of what that vocation should be.  We enter certain vocations because God calls us.   We freely answer that call for the salvation of our own soul and for the greater glory of God.  Even if I may make a great priest, if I need to improve my ability to love deeply, then marriage may be what I need to grow in holiness.  I am not God, so I do not know what His plan is for me.  Right now, I am taking my discernment year by year.  I do know this, however:  at the moment, I am called to be a Catholic seminarian, and so I am going to be the best seminarian I can be, so help me God.

I will continue writing about celibacy in future posts, but I have no idea exactly what the next post will be about. 

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One Comment on “On Celibacy in the Priesthood, part I”

  1. Joel Says:

    Paul,
    I really enjoy your posts. Your journey of faith and observations of love are nice to read about. I hope what I am about to say does not sound like a lecture. I only mean to offer support and encouragement. Two years ago I attended an Orthodox Easter Vigil. It was not my first Orthodox Divine Liturgy because my closest friends were Orthodox Christian, and I even attended Eastern Liturgies before becoming so close with them. It has long bothered me that our Churches are divided, but nothing like that night. While none of the Easter joy was lacking and it was a completely magnificent Liturgy (Eastern liturgies are truly Divine), there was a particular and unrelenting pain in my heart. It was torn in two. Sometimes it seemed that I could even see the two halves separated by inches! I was acutely aware of the Church’s division and no sorrow I ever felt before or since ever compared. The only comparison I could ever make that comes close is: Who is Adam without Eve? I share this to illustrate that you might be surprised at your ability to love, who you love and how deeply you love.
    Blessings, Joel


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