For those discerning the priesthood and religious life, celibacy is often one of the main barriers to entry.
I spent the latter half of my undergraduate career in a religious order while my peers frequented frat parties and searched for their potential soul mates on campus. My peers considered my choice admirable, but none of them could understand why someone would forgo the gift of having a family. In retrospect, I envied my peers.
Before graduating college, I left that order and shifted to a career in hedge funds—the complete opposite of religious life. But even while living by the beach, dating, and traveling the world, I eventually felt God call me to consider again a celibate vocation.
After six years of working in finance, I entered the Society of Jesus. I grew closer to Christ by seeing him in the poor, the migrant, the homebound, and the hospitalized. Forgoing the gift of a family allowed my heart to be touched by God’s people and to be an imperfect vessel of God’s love for them.
Even amid these rich experiences, I ultimately discerned that celibacy was not the path for me to freely and openly experience God’s love and communicate God’s love to others. Rather, choosing a path rooted in trinitarian self-gift led me to marriage.
Twice I named the gift of having a family. During the February 2022 International Theological Symposium on the Priesthood, Pope Francis emphasized that celibacy is not solely a forsaking of a gift, but that it is also in and of itself a gift.
How can Catholics reconcile Pope Francis’ view of celibacy without evading the rational arguments opposing this state?
Having been a celibate with two religious orders before getting married, I wish to offer a nuanced perspective on this heated topic. Ultimately, I agree with Pope Francis that celibacy is a gift, but I also believe this calling must incorporate psychosexual human development and be grounded in reality. Otherwise dysfunction is likely to persist among celibates, which has ramifications to those to whom they minister. Additionally, I will evaluate some objections to the efficacy of celibacy for ministry in the modern world, which views celibacy as a gauntlet rather than a gift.
A gift from above
Pope Francis’ use of the term gift to describe celibacy is, I believe, intentional. His Jesuit formation, rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, places significance on God as the giver of all gifts and believes that every gift descends from above.
With this in mind, celibacy is a gift from God since it is also a grace from God. Much of the opposition to celibacy from both Christian and secular sources is about how contrary it is to human life. Even Genesis suggests that it is not fitting for people to be alone (2:18) and that God calls us to be fruitful and multiply (1:28). Therefore, only by the grace of God can one freely and joyfully enter into a celibate vocation.
An additional gift inherent in celibacy is availability for ministry. While many married people engage in vibrant ministries, the celibate has greater freedom in terms of time and location to serve God’s people.
As a Jesuit novice, I was blessed to spend three months in Honduras working with orphans and malnourished children. The gift of celibacy enabled tremendous freedom to be dedicated and present to the people I served.
If I were married with children, while I could still generously serve this population, ultimately my heart would be divided. By virtue of my call to marriage, my family would come first. St. Paul alludes to this in his first letter to the Corinthians, noting that the unmarried can more readily dedicate their life to the Lord (7:32–34), whereas the married dedicate themselves to Christ through their covenant relationship with one another.
Therefore, celibacy is a gift from God and can only be lived faithfully by God’s grace. This gift promotes heightened availability to minister to God’s people.
However, any gift can be misused. Celibacy ought to be ordered toward God, but it is susceptive to being co-opted for harmful ends.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, seminaries and convents were filled to capacity. While those numbers suggest that vocations were healthy and flourishing, a closer look into seminary and religious formation denote otherwise. Many entrants were teenagers, particularly those in high school seminaries, and their understanding of sexuality did not develop beyond adolescent maturity, even for seasoned religious and priests.
Such conditions created fertile ground not for healthy vocations but for sexual abuse. Additionally, a lack of healthy sexual integration, juxtaposed with loneliness amid the pressures of ministry, likely accelerated burnout, depression, and alcoholism that made these ministers more likely to engage in sexual misconduct.
Even recently, seminaries have been discovered as places where both predatory grooming and consensual sexual relationships occur. In 2019 the Boston Globe divulged the findings of an independent investigation into Saint John’s Seminary of inappropriate sexual behavior as a frequent occurrence.
Additionally, in 2018 Peter Jesserer Smith of the National Catholic Register reported on the “culture of predation” in seminaries, including the practice of covering up and looking the other way amid sexual misconduct, threats of retaliation for whistleblowing, and the lack of an independent complaint process for sexual misconduct.
Even in my experience, a priest interviewing me for entrance into religious life asked me inappropriate questions regarding sexuality. Later when I was a novice, another priest posed a question with pointed sexual innuendo. This behavior would be deemed harassment in a corporate setting. Sexual misconduct boldly occurring in celibate Catholic communities is the antithesis of following Christ.
Clergy malpractice suggests a dissociation between the call to celibacy and a praxis that militates against it.
In a 2018 article in the Washington Post, seminary professor Rev. Thomas V. Berg highlights the need for formation to have greater emphasis on emotional maturity and well-integrated personalities. “Young men who feel called to priesthood, although well intentioned, often have enormous gaps in their prior formation and upbringing. Many lack interpersonal communication skills,” he writes.
The celibate life must be balanced with authentic human friendships, both with fellow members and with laypeople.
Formation that omits psychological and human development does a disservice to the candidates for priesthood and the faithful, placing vulnerable people at risk of abuse.
Founded in 1994, the Institute for Priestly Formation offers programs to formators and seminarians who bridge this gap in spiritual and human formation. The institute promotes a healthy understanding of celibacy by encouraging open conversation between spiritual directors and seminarians on the struggles with chastity, emphasizing intimacy through fruitful friendships, and promoting reflection on the underlying struggles that might lead to unchaste actions. This reflection is not solely spiritual but also psychological, naming emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression and addressing those underlying areas before they contribute to problematic behaviors.
The focus on intimacy is paramount to a healthy celibate life. Connected with his declaration of celibacy as a gift, Pope Francis expresses that celibacy “calls for healthy relationships, relationships of true esteem and true goodness that are deeply rooted in Christ.”
Seminary and religious life can inadvertently promote loneliness. The celibate life must be balanced with authentic human friendships, both with fellow members and with laypeople. Nearly a decade after leaving religious life, I still have lifelong friends among those whom I met in the order and in ministry. One was even a groomsman at my wedding.
Pope Francis continues, “Without friends and without prayer, celibacy can become an unbearable burden and a counter-witness to the very beauty of the priesthood.”
Thus, the gift of celibacy must be nurtured with healthy human formation, which includes fostering intimate friendships, psychosexual development, and safeguards to prevent a culture of predation.
Is celibacy a deterrent?
Many believe celibacy is obsolete. The declining number of priests seems to support this, with some suggesting that allowing priests to marry would reverse this trend. Even laypeople ask how a celibate minister can relate to the struggles of married life.
While these objections are valid, I believe celibacy offers a countercultural witness that is greatly needed today.
Renunciation of what is good and natural reminds those of us who are not celibate to grow in the particular area that Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him (Matt. 16:24).
Being married with children, I have learned to make choices that safeguard my vocation, including the choice of professions that allow for a work-life balance. I have been challenged to forgo higher dollars and prestige by not seeking positions that would decrease my availability to my family. This has taught me to recognize that in 20 years I will care less about the deal that closed and more about the time I lost with my children.
Additionally, celibacy can be an asset as opposed to a liability when ministering to married people. Celibate ministers can work with married couples from a place of humility and curiosity rather than from a power stance, allowing the couple to become teachers to the celibate. Jesuit Father Karl Rahner identifies that both the married and celibate vocations share a foundation built on solitude and self-denial. While the particular form of solitude and self-denial differs between the two, they are complementary and offer deeper kinship amid their unique struggles and sacrifices.
Not the only way
That being said, for 11 centuries the church subsisted without mandatory celibacy. Additionally, there are Eastern Catholic Churches with a tradition of married priests. Moreover, the church continues to welcome former Anglican and Episcopalian priests and allows them to retain their priestly vocation while remaining married.
Celibacy in the Latin Church is difficult to reconcile given these situations. It leads to a valid question as to why there cannot be a both/and approach to the priesthood.
There is witness value in both celibate ministers and in the licit instances of married priests. Married priests might offer greater relatability to parishioners at a level that a celibate cannot, whereas a celibate might offer a greater level of availability that a married priest cannot.
Both vocations are complementary and are gifts from God to the church. However, the church has not changed its stance on mandatory celibacy for those who enter Roman Catholic seminaries. At the same time, I encourage priestly vocations among Eastern Catholics, whether as celibates or married, since both of these unique witnesses enrich the church.
Thus, while there are examples of effective priestly ministry by noncelibates, the vast majority of priests will likely be required to be celibate.
Grounded in humanity
While the self-denial incumbent in celibacy appears to be a gauntlet—potentially deterring entrants to the priesthood and religious life as well as decreasing retention in seminaries, religious orders, and among the ordained—we can appreciate that these are the very reasons why celibacy is a gift: unmerited by human means, unsustainable solely on human determination, and derived from above.
Being a gift from God, celibacy must be nurtured not through isolation but through healthy, intimate relationships and integrative, psychosexual human development. Additionally, celibacy cannot be formed in an environment that promotes the opposite but rather in one that promotes safety.
While celibacy is not the only path to being an effective minister, it offers a complementary witness to the call to deny oneself and follow Christ. Whereas our natural inclination amid the modern world would be to deny celibacy its place, we can join Pope Francis in naming it a gift, as celibacy reminds us that our hope is not in what the world offers but in what God offers us—the gift of Godself.