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A LETTER TO MY SON: The Sin of Celibacy
3750 words
Chapter 1 of a future book.

Dear Tom,

Driving home from Mass last Saturday night, Tom, you said, "Father Dumont makes me feel that he is a special and good person. I wouldn't mind not being married if I could be like him." So I think it is time I told you -- you are twelve -- what your father, a former priest, thinks about a priest's celibacy and why.

My theory is that celibacy is not a virtue at all. In fact I think it may be a vague kind of sin, a sin against yourself. And my reason for suggesting this is that it hurts you in two key ways (and others): (l) by cutting off input from God, and (2) by cutting you out of essential parts of life. The life of celibacy could be a temptation to you, Tom. It looks attractive, naturally. You are a boy of generous nature, you have always been outgoing, you are alert to the needs and feelings of others. To do something that appears to be a generous, self-giving act, would appeal to you almost naturally. You know very well you're "gifted": that impels you to give. Besides, everyone is attracted by simple, good choices. Many choices are ambiguous, full of unknowns, risky. A seemingly purely good choice allures magnetically. Also, so many good friends of ours who are religious celibates are clearly a kind of nobility: Nancy, Rauld, Ed, Marylou. The priesthood and religious life of the past has drawn into itself a very special kind of person, often: patient, friendly, intelligent, balanced people. Who is not drawn to join the nobility? Some celibates even dress like nobility, in a costume that speaks decisively of set-apart-ness, a low-keyed "authority," specialness, better-than-common-ness, good order, occupation with important and noble things. Uniformed religious people belong to a kind of fellowship with all forces of order and official public service, like policemen, medics, doctors and nurses. Who would not like to see how they would look in a uniform? Probably pretty flattering. It's alluring.

Celibacy also would open the door for you to noble occupations, like that of Brother Daniel, who has eight recordings out, or like our retreat-master friend Keith whose talks are "sold out" a year in advance.

And not least, you may well be attracted to the celibate life because you honestly are impressed with the Jesus of history whose followers and disciples our celibate friends are, Jesus who went about doing good apparently (allegedly) without the encumbrances of wife or family. One clarification at the start: I am not against St. Paul's celibacy (expecting the end of the world and keeping his life uncomplicated so he could properly concentrate on getting ready). Nor am I opposed to what might be called "useful celibacy"-- of a medical person on a dangerous, contagious, mission or of a politician or prophet with legitimate, single-minded enthusiasm, or the celibacy that opens a way to freedom for, e.g. women otherwise forced into arranged marriages or denied education in a sexist society. Nor am I against simply not marrying out of disinterest. What I oppose is "religious celibacy" or "ritual celibacy": offering to God -- as an act of worship and devotion -- one's right and freedom to, well, marry -- but that word marry includes a lot. The vow not to marry means also that you offer to God and give up all the things that go with marriage: the ecstasies and challenges of sexual intimacy, perhaps give up the deepened link with the earth that parenthood is, and the society of children who are yours 24 hours a day, 12 months a year, for many many years and possibly until death; to offer God not-to-do-that, not-to-enter-that-world -- as if, and presuming that, the giving up might please our Divine Parent and Creator, the Holy Love who invented human nature and who invented that mysterious half-ness and incompleteness we all call sexuality, and who surrounded sexuality with joy and revelation -- who invented sexuality as the way of continuing life on earth, the God who enclosed within the path of sexuality a special revelation of what skin is and a revelation of the language of touch, and of what that symbolic sweet language has to tell one about this earthly state. To give all that up, as if such a deprivation would please our Divine Creator, presumes that this "marriage-plus" is some sort of simple personal enrichment comparable and parallel to wealth (which we can give up for God) or like a particular pleasure or comfort in one's life. That is what ritual celibacy, religious celibacy, is and means. And that celibacy vow is what I have come to see as not a good thing to do at all, but in fact, so essentially impoverishing as to be a possible sin and an offense to God. For example: it is almost the same as if one could deafen one's self for some alleged spiritual purpose. It is simply not acceptable. It's an offense.

Celibacy Made Sense

As you know, Tom, I was just such a religious celibate. For 20 years, starting at age 20, I lived a religious vow of celibacy -- and happily. It was relatively uncomplicated to get into. The sequence of reasonings are as follows: Jesus, our leader, our teacher and master, had not married, we said (and we were his disciples, who knew that "a disciple is not greater than his master but is like his master"). Jesus, instead of marrying, had dedicated himself wholeheartedly -- not halfheartedly (as the Gospel implies that non-celibates do) -- to the Kingdom. And Jesus had invited men and women to "follow" him. "He who follows me walketh not in darkness," says Jesus in the Gospels, and of the great sacrifice called celibacy, Jesus said (supposedly) "Let him take it who can."

Those were our proof texts at the time. Jesus' followers, and the hierarchy (those to whom leadership in the community had been handed over in our own time, we thought) -- these leaders taught officially and loudly that such a vow helped one along the path of perfection and usefulness to the church. According to them, the vow strengthened one's prayer life, made one available to all because a celibate is less busy with personal affairs, it earned merit for one's self, and made reparation for the sins of others. The vow and the well-lived celibate life life also edified the faithful, who were said to find sex a problem and who, through good example (of total renunciation of sex) could come to believe that sexual control was possible. Celibacy kept one single-minded, said they, quoting from Paul, and it made monastic community possible and this in turn made the power to do good more effective when all in the religious community obeyed a single leader.

Celibacy, finally, even made priestly ordination possible (if one was lucky enough to be male) and thus could put one in the position to powerfully help the poor and the world (we were taught) by offering the daily sacrifice of the Mass (possibly persuading God to be more merciful), by making present Eucharistic food (full of "grace" and merit) for the faithful, and by forgiving sins -- which sometimes meant the power to single-handedly save someone from eternal hellfire (by giving absolution after consciousness had left supposing the person had only "imperfect contrition," for instance). These ideas are now pretty much obsolete. But I believed them, they were in our text books, and they are part of my story.

The Adventures of Celibacy

So with all this convincing sales talk, getting into the vow and the life was relatively uncomplicated. It simply made sense. At age 20, I felt I could manage my sexual inclinations with God's help. My regrets at missing out on family life were not very substantial. And the adventures of celibacy, the joy of feeling close to Christ, the excitement of belonging and of wearing the uniform of a great religious order, the security of doing this along with a wonderful crowd of intelligent and gifted peers, the intoxication of being "far out" in the eyes of so many people, the safety of an ancient, well tried tradition: all this balanced off any feeling of deprivation. Actually, I felt enriched immeasurably.

So after my initial training, at age 22 I took the vow, tearfully, wholeheartedly, one September 8th, along with my wonderful brother Tom and all my pals, Vince, Houlie, Walt, Dave, Frank, Buddy, Jim. We would lick the world together: the world, the flesh, and the devil. In any order. ("Those were the days, my friend.") We had the world by the tail. And with our roots deep in the worldwide church, and plenty of time to study and get ready for our ministry, what had we to worry about? Nothing. (I had joined a Religious Order, something very different than becoming a diocesan priest. But the vow & promise of celibacy was the same for us both, a very large element in our lives.)

I loved the years of study. Folk stories and epics tell tales of barracks life, its rugged sweetness, its camaraderie, its rough and unforgettable friendships, and shared escapades, the unspoken willingness to die for each other, the heroic proportions of the task ahead giving barracks mates a legitimate pride. We had all that, plus the best books to read, and the best disciplines for daily meditation, reading, and exciting conversation.

Mixed in, (I now see from hindsight), was an innocent blend of sexism, clericalism, and elitism -- for we were all now wealthy and secure, we were all instantly in the class of the professionally intelligent and virtuous, and we had to meditate frequently to (supposedly) preserve our humility and modesty through it all.

There were sexual undertones in our lives, of course, but it was all extremely quiet and manageable. We were taught the only way to be a happy celibate: to see attractive women without looking at them, to be courteous but reserved in these instances, and thus to completely forestall and rule out friendships that might become sexual. Homosexual persons were sent home hurriedly in those days, though a few survived somehow, not many really. Sex became a simple thing. We hardly realized that our primary choice in life was a sexual one, and the choice made us sexual objects for all to see: safe confidants (people thought) for distressed wives and bewildered lovers of all kinds. Sex was our strong suit. We had conquered it. All in all, we were in charge of ourselves, with high motivation to stay celibate, and now with increased risk were we to fail. For with the vow of celibacy, any sexual sin became a sacrilege, the most sinful of sins: a sin against religion itself.

Happy and Contented

Well, I was a happy and contented celibate for 20 years, and I saw only virtue in it. I saw no sin in celibacy of course; it seemed the opposite of sin. It was a noble virtuous and reverent act of divine worship and sensible self denial. It put a person at his best. At that time I saw in celibacy no mutilation of my powers to know and learn and love and be a part of the human race. I saw in it no sacrifice in any way too great -- not when compared to the benefits (the "hundredfold" promised by Jesus which I could see and feel from the beginning) -- plus the merit I was accumulating for eternity.

Our peers who had married did not seem to be leading lives in any way superior or richer or more humane than was ours. In fact, they had pesky "troubles" which we were freed from: troubles making money, troubles getting along with each other, troubles with misbehaving children, worries about the economy, worries about war. My life was as satisfactory as theirs, maybe more so.

On my side, of course, there were troubles in the Church. It was often hard to recognize the simple Gospel of Jesus as it existed in Church institutions and expensive buildings and nobly costumed leadership. I began to realize too that as an official person in the Church, I was involved in some way in all its official acts and stances, and I resented the "presumed allegiances" to official policy and doctrine that were expected of anyone in a Roman collar.

I also grew to realize that, when I set out without my collar on, I heard talk that people in Roman collars never hear, and saw a world I was no part of. Important also was my slow realization that I was not poor in any way, and that my profession of "poverty" was a misnomer at best. And with the weakening of the credibility of the official church after the birth control decree in 1968 (outlawing it for Catholics), my own connection with the church and with superiors became less credible too. They no longer "spoke for God" quite the way they had before.

A Bombshell Hit

Then, in the midst of this atmosphere of uncertainty and change in our Church, a bombshell hit: doubt, from Catholic biblical scholars, that Jesus was himself celibate. I was at the time in a New York office acting as an agent for some of our Order's writers, and it was an unpublished manuscript in which I made my earthshaking discovery. The article, eventually published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, was by a renowned New Testament scholar, and quoting others in his favor, took the view that the eunuch passage in Matthew l9/12 ("some make themselves eunuchs") -- the only place in all the Gospels where Jesus was thought to have commented on celibacy -- was not about celibacy at all, but was about marriage, in a context all about marriage, the eunuch of the passage being that married person who remains faithful to a spouse even though the spouse is not faithful, thus making him/her-self a "eunuch for the Kingdom," to hold the community together.

So thunderstruck was I that day that I remember the room vividly in which I read that manuscript. I had been a Jesuit for 20 years. I immediately phoned the author long distance. He was a good friend. We discussed the question at length. There was no avoiding his argument. There simply was/is no conclusive evidence in scripture of Jesus' celibacy, nor unambiguous words from his mouth about it. St. Paul, in fact, explicitly says he has "no word from the Lord" about it. But every document about monasticism and celibacy eventually bases itself on that same ambiguous text, Matt. l9/12, celibacy "for the kingdom." And, of course, I had personally based my celibate existence directly on the unquestioned celibacy of Jesus, and on his invitation to follow him, all of this endorsed by church doctrine and practice. The silence of the Gospels on Jesus' wife and children was easily explained by the general silence about family life regarding all the apostles and disciples. Women, wives, were taken for granted, were unimportant, almost non-persons and would merit no mention. All early church leaders, the most ardent followers of Jesus, were married, including the first thirty-three Popes.

I knew on that day -- that if what I had read was true -- that I would marry. I had no intimate women friends. I was a contented and peaceful celibate, despite being a less than a complaint-free Catholic. But I had very much enjoyed the company of women during my adolescence, and navy and college days. Instinctively I wanted to explore sexual love and enter normal society.

I Had Been Deceived

If the manuscript was true, then I had been deceived -- innocently, on the part of my teachers, innocently on my part. I had based a substantial part of my lifestyle -- (I did not realize how substantial at the time) -- on not a truth, not on an invitation to heroism, but on what was no more than a questionable interpretation of the Bible. My Master (still my Master) no longer said to me, "Come, follow me in celibacy." I could no longer think of the so-called "religious life" as the following of Christ. In fact, inasmuch as that life also made it difficult to feel and know poverty, need, risk, danger, it made the following of Christ not easier but more difficult. My life foundation crumbled beneath me. It was a trauma lasting many years in fact, and continues even today.

Within a few weeks, I made a lengthy retreat. I began to read everything on monasticism, on the history of celibacy, on biblical interpretation, and anything that would make it possible for me to stay a Religious. But there was no escape.

So I left religious life, passing painfully through the bureaucratic church channels though they humiliated me in the process. Eventually I found, courted, and married your mother -- whose sabbatical from her religious work "to get a doctorate in theology," had prepared her perfectly to take the journey with me out of religious life and into the world of secular society.

But there was much more for me to discover through my new life. In our life together, I found such treasures of human living that I can now see ritual celibacy in a new light, as not only an unfortunate misinterpretation of the Gospel call, but really an  unintended offense against the God I have come to know.

Remember, I am not talking about St. Paul's celibacy (his was explicitly not "from the Lord"), nor the celibacy of chosen singleness, or useful, pragmatic celibacy. I mean the celibacy that hands over to God, as if handing God a great gift that S/he will lovingly accept, one's freedom for marriage-plus (because "getting married" is not what one gives up but every step along that path, prior and subsequent).

Sexuality Reveals the Divine

That ritual celibacy, religious celibacy, an allegedly purifying act, is in my view now, a hurtful, self-hurtful act: and the true God does not sanction it or endorse it, or want it or honor it; in fact, wants the whole sad tradition to come to an end. Why? Because the path of sexuality, I am inclined to believe, is the one that most reveals the Divine Being, and most reveals who we humans are, the incredible depths of this world's goodness.

Sexuality thus helps toward prayer, contemplation, and all the religious and humane virtues. The discovery of oppositeness and difference, the joy and excitement of mutuality and mystery, the born-again experience of a new life of someone "in love," the adventures of courtship, the communitarian riches of sharing families and the rich sacramentality of the wedding day, the sweet mystery of two lovers with their armor off, and of each enactment of the sexual discovery at its best always new and unspeakably elevating, the joys of doing so many things together, the discovery then of what death is (the loss of love, and of a lover, and a loss to one's love), of what skin is (a language between lovers and with the divine); the astonishing miracle of fecundity, the terror and wonder of pregnancy; the constant symbolic melting of person into person, sleeping alongside your love, all through the night, so many hours so intimately with your love; and the double warmth of two in bed and the symbolism of that, the double strength and intimacy of embracing one who is embracing you; the coming of the child, his face, his manner toward you, and the arrival of new terrifying risks and fears, the call for faith, the demand for acceptance of God's clear gift of a child whoever he/she be, the companionship with the human race in child-rearing (the most demanding of human tasks), then the possible multiplication of children and all the interactions opening into the world of family: all this reveals the Divine Being -- because marriage is a sacrament and so are all the parts of marriage. And although no one has an absolute right to marriage, and many, rightly, choose other paths, it is a path of grace which no one may offer to give up on the allegation that the sacrifice may make one closer to God, or more like God's son. God does not, in my view, accept such a colossal self-impoverishment, just as God could not accept someone's voluntary deafness, nor the deliberate sacrifice of a hand, or of an eye.

Celibacy Not Endorsed By God

To deny yourself the normal sexual path in the interest of contemplation is improper since so much essential knowledge of God comes through the body. To deny this to yourself in the interest of community is shortsighted since a richer community and more realistic and more full community is possible on the normal path. To deny this to yourself in imitation of Jesus is wrongheaded and misguided since Jesus gave us no such clear model or call, and never invited anyone to celibacy -- which he could easily have done. To deny marriage to yourself in obedience to Church leaders or tradition is to deny the need for one's own intelligence and judgment, an abuse of self at the deepest level. Any denial of the sexual path to one's self for a purely religious reason cannot be endorsed by the real God.

So this is what I want you to consider, Tom, as you enter puberty and admire the celibates among us, and see the yawning seminary doors. What I say is, of course, only theoretical: ritual celibacy is morally wrong only theoretically. In practice, it is innocent. And it seems fairly obvious that many people in religious and celibate roles utterly fulfill themselves and live creative and fully human lives -- but they do it, I believe, despite their vow of celibacy, not because of it. They deny themselves some of life's greatest graces. I wish I did not have to argue that point. Our priestly and religious friends are our very dearest. Many enjoy compensating gains in community living. For many, celibacy is practical and in fact enables them to devote themselves to the poor and marginalized. I can only praise and admire that. (The ideal, I guess, would be to add the sexual path to all the preservably good things of priestly and religious spirituality and community. Some are trying. May God bless them with success.)

So you see, Tom, I have come to realize that ritual celibacy is not the good thing it appears to be. It does not please God to have anyone so limit his/her life and call it a religious act. It does not enrich one's inner life to be voluntarily withdrawn from sexual friendships and love. And it does not effectively edify others.

Of course I want you to consider carefully all the arguments against your father's position, and only then, go do your own thing.


Your Father


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