Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Problem with Celibacy

As the Catholic Church prepares to close its special Year for Priests, which focused on the gift and call of the priesthood, a disturbing story has surfaced on NPR (as if we haven't heard enough disturbing stories about the priesthood from NPR, and everyone else for that matter).

The gist of it is that a group of 40 Italian women have written an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI revealing their various affairs with some Italian priests (allegedly, it's common in Italy to hear of priests who have mistresses - women who passed as maids or relatives). In their letter, the women announce that "ours is a voice that can no longer continue to be ignored." They are calling for the removal of what they call "the tattered shroud of mandatory celibacy." A priest they say "needs to live with his fellow human beings, experience feelings, love and be loved."

Now aside from the fact that this was akin to adultery, the breaking of a vow, involves great deception and is completely inappropriate, the idea of priests being allowed to marry is one hot button issue. Some say it should be a choice, others say it would solve the sex abuse scandals (crimes, really). If we're honest and open, even the most orthodox of Catholics might have the thought slip in, whispering "hmm, wouldn't it be nice if Father was married, because then he could better relate to what we're going through. He'd have a better understanding of the 'real' world if he had a wife and children."

Isn't it true, after all, that a celibate needs "to live with his fellow human beings, experience feelings, love and be loved." In fact, take a look at this stunningly beautiful quote about love!

“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it..."

Amen to that! The funny thing is though, this quote was written by Pope John Paul II, who was a celibate priest. And much to the dismay of his opponents, he staunchly defended and articulated just why celibacy is a beautiful and vital vocation, intimately linked to the priesthood.

I guess the deeper question is, and this comes from my own experience as a married man, is sex the "be all and end all" of human existence? Is this the golden crown that everyone must have in order to be fully and truly happy? Is there anything more to life than sex? For those who are married, ask yourself, as beautiful as this kind of intimacy is, does it complete you? Or does Love complete you? And don't you love people you don't have sex with? The assumption seems to be that to experience love you must experience sexual intimacy. But what is your personal experience? Where has love been "revealed", "encountered", "experienced" and "made your own..." in your life?

For those living promiscuous lives, those locked in various sexual addictions like porn, is it sexual contact that brings you deep down, soul shaking joy? Is it the answer? Or does it seem to be pointing to Something Else? Something Eternal, something that you know runs right into your very core as a person? Don't you feel you are made for a bigger communion than even that of two bodies joined in "one flesh"?

For a moment I'd like to look at what this group of Italian women, God bless them, and any advocates of dispensing with celibacy are actually assuming; namely, that those who are celibate (men and women, right?) are 

1. not "living with their fellow human beings," 
2. not "experiencing feelings," 
3. and not "loving and being loved."

Their assumption is rather clear; if you are not sexually active and sexually intimate with someone, you are not really living. You are chained up, wearing a "tattered shroud," and what a poor miserable man you are! But look around! Who is truly happy? Who is truly free? 

Whenever sin raises its ugly head in the priesthood or (more often) in the people they serve, be it alleged or actually true, my heart breaks. We are a messed up people, and some of us messed up people are in messed up marriages, and some of those married to the Church, and messing it up. That's a sad fact. But even "sadder" is the complete misunderstanding of what celibacy (and sex for that matter) is really all about; from the priests to the people, mind you.

It seems far too many do not have a clue as to what celibacy is truly supposed to signify (literally "be a sign of"). It's a coming attraction, a teaser trailer, glimpsing the Bigger Picture of what Heaven will be; A Marriage Feast! Those who are celibate are not called to be somehow asexual, neutered, or repressive regarding their sexuality. They are actually more fully realizing their masculinity or femininity by giving it completely to God, the Divine Love our hearts were made for! Passionately in love with God and His Bride the Church, their love cannot be contained, but arcs out in an heroic embrace of all men and women. They skip the sacramental sign of earthly marriage to one spouse, as beautiful and grace-filled as it can be, in anticipation of the Wedding Feast with the Divine Spouse that is to come. They remind us in their celibate love that sexual intimacy is a temporal sign, and such a beautiful one, of God's intimate and passionate desire to "marry us!"

"For this reason, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cling to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I mean it in reference to Christ and the Church." (St. Paul, Ephesians 5)

The "problem" with celibacy is that it challenges our views, our assumptions, maybe even our addictions regarding sex and the body. It lifts up our eyes from a false idolatry of the body and even perhaps of marriage, towards a new light streaming through the body - seeing it as an icon of the heavenly marriage! In this light, we are invited to a whole new appreciation of not only chastity for the Kingdom but reverence for the gift of sex within marriage here and now. The key is always to see the "marriage" of our biology with our theology. If we divorce one from the other, we either see sexual desire as an "itch" that must be scratched, or as an evil that must be stuffed down and repressed. Both are unhealthy approaches to our God-given eros, or desire to love. In this regard, we needs discipline and sound teaching, not escapes and compromises.

Finally, I know that this vision of God as the ultimate Spouse of our hearts (for celibates as well as the married) may well be a paradigm shift for those who see God simply as "The Big Guy" with the Big Book with lots of names of those who were naughty or nice here below. But let's wake up America (and Italy)... we're not in third grade anymore. Read the Prophet Hosea, read the Song of Songs, read the whole Bible in context, and the saints and mystics and you'll see. Really living celibacy for the Kingdom is actually a most romantic way to live your life.

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