A LETTER TO MY SON: The Sin of Celibacy
Chapter 1 of a future book.
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
contagious, mission or of a politician or prophet with legitimate,
single-minded enthusiasm, or the celibacy that opens a way to freedom for,
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":
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
with the weakening of the credibility of the official church after the
birth control decree in 1968 (outlawing it for Catholics), my own connection
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
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
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)
longer said to me, "Come, follow me in celibacy." I could no longer
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
one's own intelligence and judgment, an abuse of self at the deepest level.
denial of the sexual path to one's self for a purely religious reason cannot
endorsed by the real God.
So this is what I want you to consider, Tom, as you enter puberty and admire
celibates among us, and see the yawning seminary doors. What I say is, of
only theoretical: ritual celibacy is morally wrong only theoretically.
In practice, it is innocent. And it seems fairly obvious that many people
religious and celibate roles utterly fulfill themselves and live creative
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
our very dearest. Many enjoy compensating gains in community living. For
many, celibacy is practical and in fact enables them to devote themselves
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
priestly and religious spirituality and community. Some are trying. May God
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
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.