Monday, March 07, 2005

Questions and Answers on Celibacy


Recently, I was asked about some memories from seminary life, it got me thinking about writing a post on celibacy from the point of view of one who has attempted celibacy, and yet finally wound up married with a child.

I want to share some of my thoughts and experiences in a question and answer format. There are many people who already share my story, and will find resonances.

Many celibates might appreciate most of what I have to say below as well. None of this represents research and is all my opinion based on my experience.

What do we mean by celibacy?

Celibacy literally refers to the condition of being unmarried. To vow one's self to celibacy is to promise that one will not marry. Religious orders require a period of temporary vows prior to a solemn or permanent vow.

Within the context of vowed religious life or ministerial priesthood in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, vowed celibacy also has two other dimensions according to traditional understanding.

First, it includes the promise of chastity. Chastity is stricter than merely remaining unmarried, and refers to abstinence from sexual expression.

The celibate is to avoid any sexual acts the Church considers immoral or sinful for unmarried people in general. This precludes any vaginal intercourse, anal or oral sex with another person, mutual masturbation or even masturbation alone.

The celibate is also expected to avoid any deliberate entertainment of lustful thoughts or any occasions of such thoughts such pornography or places that encourage lewd thoughts.

Second, the celibate commitment has traditionally included an effort to avoid the formation of exclusive relationships with anyone. Celibates are to love all people, and they can naturally form good friendships with people. However, the vow precludes a relationship becoming exclusive of other people.

There are some people who have chosen the celibate life-style and believe that the traditional understanding of the vow needs to be reinterpreted today. They point out the psychological need for sustained friendships that may become semi-exclusive and would seek less emphasis on individual acts like masturbation, or even homosexual acts between two celibates.

This is an internal debate within the celibate community that I will refrain from discussing. For the purposes of the rest of this post, I am discussing the traditional understanding of the vows.

Is chaste celibacy lived with integrity possible?

With an explosion in headlines involving ministerial priests ordained in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church involved in sexual misconduct, particularly with minors, many people wonder if celibacy as defined above is possible and a healthy pursuit.

The simple answer is yes, but it isn't easy. Few people achieve perfect chastity in life.

What are some of the challenges of vowed chaste celibacy?

I do not believe that an effort to pursue such a definition of celibacy as I presented above causes an individual to act out sexually in ways to which the person wasn't already predisposed.

In other words, celibacy does not make one a pedophile, nor does it cause one to have homosexual attractions.

This said, I do believe that vowed celibacy has the potential to increase the likelihood of a person acting on whatever inclinations he or she already had. The reason is simple. Making an explicit vow makes one more conscious of temptations.

Just as one may find it difficult to refrain from thinking about pink elephants when told not to think about them, an explicit vow of chaste celibacy raises conscious awareness of the issue of sexuality.

Furthermore, once a person violates a vow of celibacy that was made to God and the Church, the seriousness of the vow will often impel the person to try again, but having broke the vow will have made it easier to fall again.

Moreover, because the mere formation of an exclusive relationship or mere masturbation in the privacy of your own bedroom are considered violations of the vow, there is no real "wiggle room". Once one has broken the vow a little, the vow is broken. It is then tempting to go ahead and get it all out of your system before repenting.

Another factor that creates incredible temptations for the vowed celibate is that the public nature of the vow augments the celibate's attractiveness to others. The celibate becomes forbidden fruit who has a mysterious allure to the person who is not under the vow.

Many people who are not under vows will try to tempt a vowed celibate with just average appearance. A vowed celibate in active ministry is exposed to many temptations in the very act of ministry.

One of the most unrecognized temptations faced by the vowed celibate is loneliness. This may sound contrary to the last point, because celibates interact with people through their various ministries. How can one be lonely when one is surrounded by people?

The loneliness of celibacy can be due to the inability to form exclusive relationships. Think of it this way: a single person called to marriage can experience loneliness even though such a person is in school or works with people and has friendships.

What marriage offers people is not simply company in a given moment, but the gift of shared memories and shared goals as a relationship is built over time. Married people do not experience the loneliness of a celibate. Some celibates are tempted to fill this hole from time to time with sexual pleasure.

I suspect that one of the reasons heterosexual priests break their vows is that they are called to priesthood, but were never called to celibacy. The two vocations are not identical.

Pope Saint Peter, our first Pope, was a married man. Saint Paul, who was celibate, makes explicit reference to the fact that Saint Peter took his wife with him on mission. Jesus chose married men for ministry. He did not demand celibacy as a condition for ministry.

The two callings are separate callings that sometimes overlap in the same person, but often do not overlap.

Some men and women fall into a cyclical habit of falling, repenting earnestly, making some progress for awhile, then starting the whole cycle over again.

The Church also teaches the forgiveness of sinners, and strongly discourages vowed celibates from quitting even if there has been a fall. Most of this teaching is actualized through confession, spiritual direction, or private counseling in what the Church calls the "internal forum". The internal forum is considered sacred, and protected. It cannot be discussed outside of the forum.

This practice can also create temptations for celibates. As you listen to the struggles of another with chastity, it can call to mind struggles of your own.

All of these factors combined have the potential to create a climate where celibates cover up for one another for offenses. The bishop faces all of these temptations personally just as surely as the priest or religious.

We laity need to understand that this cover up is not a community planned and malicious state of wide-spread premeditated abuse. Rather, each individual vowed celibate is trying to deal with his or her own temptations, sometimes falling and then trying to pick him or herself back up, and knowing that some of those around him or her are in the same cycle.

The condition is wide-spread, but it is not a conscious conspiracy.

What makes the issue more complex is that even those who live their vows with integrity for some length of time will sometimes speak of having grown into chastity.

An idea like "one strike and you're out" may not be a valid way to treat all people who truly have the celibate calling, but grow into it. Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine both admitted to sexual indiscretion on their way to chastity.

None of this excuses covering up the abuse of children, and it is not my intent to offer excuses. Nor do I deny that the cycle described can lead to heterosexual priests who serially abuse relationships with adult women.

I am not offering excuses. Rather, I am offering a reason things are the way they are so that we can begin to honestly discuss how to repair the problem.

What can help a person to live celibate chastity with integrity?

The saints who have lived chaste celibacy, and the celibates I have met who I believe are chaste all seem to share two things in common.

First, they have a relationship with God in prayer that they describe in almost spousal imagery.

Second, they are very self aware, meaning they are aware of their own weaknesses, and they are aware of what their own actions can do to other people. Those celibates who live chastely know the pain they could cause another through the violation of their vow.

Ultimately, chaste celibacy is a gift. There is nothing one can do to make God give you the gift if you do not have it.

This said, seminaries today, and really since the eighties have also tried to do a better job of screening candidates for celibate life through such means as psychological testing. Since the sex scandals broke out, background investigations have been added. The idea of these measures is to weed out candidates who have a high probability of failure.

Once admitted to formation, seminaries offer classes and seminars on issues such as how to establish boundaries, or how to fill the need for intimacy while respecting the vows. The idea here is that even if one must "grow into chastity" the process can be sped up with open and honest discussion and accurate information that will help the celibate form the self awareness he or she needs to live the vows with integrity.

Isn't the real answer a good dose of Pre-Vatican II orthodoxy?

Many people blame the reforms of Vatican II and the societal pressures of the sexual revolution during that period for the sex abuse crisis. Therefore, they reason we need to return to the good old days when things were working.

However, sex abuse by priests has been going on for centuries and most of the men we read about in the newspapers were ordained before Vatican II. It might be argued that the social conditions of the sixties exacerbated pre-existing problems, but I don't believe it caused those problems.

None of the temptations a celibate faces are caused by theological dissent. It's not like believing transignification is an apt term to describe real presence in the Eucharist leads one to abusing minors. Orthodox theology doesn't have anything to offer in the face of temptation other than the command not to do something.

What is needed is not simply a command not to do something, but a real understanding of the issues faced by celibates.

Sometimes it is argued that the Pre-Vatican II theological emphasis on sacrifice and the suffering Christ helped celibates to embrace their calling with more vigor. I doubt this is true, but if it were true, it has a danger of distorting the Gospel for the entire people of God into encouragement of sadomasochism.

The Gospel is not about intentional self annihilation and suffering for its own sake. The sacrifice demanded in the Gospel is self sacrifice for the sake of others out of love.

The Pre-Vatican II theology did offer the male celibate priest a sense of pride in his calling that may have helped some celibates deal with temptation. Priests were put on a higher plane than the laity.

Rather than seeing themselves as servant leaders, many Pre-Vatican II priests saw themselves as possessors of immense power, status and prestige, while the laity were viewed as saved only through the priests sacramental actions. There was little recognition that laity or married people are called to sanctity. Clericalism was encouraged.

The danger with this pride is that it can lead to spiritual arrogance and celibates who sublimate sexual desire into control of others in the style of the pharisees of the New Testament.

Another serious danger of the Pre-Vatican II mentality was that cover-up of sexual abuse was deliberately and intentionally encouraged in the belief that it was more important not to scandalize the faithful than it was to address the problem.

The belief was that the truth could cause the laity to lose faith in all that is true that Holy Mother Church teaches. Therefore, it was better to deal with instances of abuse in secrecy. This too was part of why the issue has only come to many people’s attention recently, though the problem has existed for centuries.

Most sex abuse of children by priests is homosexual in nature. Why don't they just weed out gay candidates?

Let's presume you have 100 heterosexually oriented men, one of whom abuses a child. That's one percent. Presume you have 100 men with homosexual attractions, one of whom abuses a child. That's also one percent.

Let's presume 5 percent of the total general population is homosexually oriented. In a random sample of 1000 men, you'd have 950 heterosexual men, of which 9 or 10 would abuse children. You'd have 50 gay men, with only a 50/50 chance of having a single one abuse a child.

If your sample was not drawn from the general population, but is instead drawn from a community of unmarried men who have vowed to never marry, how many of these men would be heterosexually oriented before they joined the community?

Perhaps the reason many cases of sex abuse with minors involve homosexual acts is not because gays are more prone to sex with minors. Perhaps the statistics are an indication that the wider celibate population is predominately gay.

For example, if Father Donald Cozzen's estimate that half of celibates are gay is correct, and we used my numbers above, 1000 men would yield 5 homosexual abuse cases with minors, and 5 heterosexual abuse cases with minors. If the true number of gays is more than half, the numbers shift towards more instances of sex with minors being homosexual in nature.

The Roman Catholic Church has required celibacy of ministerial priests in the Latin Rite for over eight hundred years. Throughout this time, she has also insisted that all homosexual acts are intrinsically evil, and that acting on homosexual impulse could send one to hell. Until very recently, the idea of even a gay civil union was never considered in the wider society.

So, both priests and gays were called to celibacy. Why should it surprise us to discover that priests and religious may have always had a much higher percentage of gay men and women than the general population.

It seems natural to me that many Catholic men and women who are homosexually oriented and believe homosexual acts sinful would find religious life and priesthood an attractive option.

The unmarried condition would relieve pressure from family to marry and have children. You would have an opportunity to live in community with those of the same gender that you may find attractive and energizing, even if you intend chastity. Structures such as daily prayer and spiritual direction exist to aid you in your goals. Through the life-style, your condition would seem sanctified and redeemed.

My own belief is that homosexuals are no more likely to abuse children than heterosexuals. I also want to be clear that there are many heterosexual priests.

Yet, weeding gay men and women out of religious life and priesthood without permitting married priesthood will not have any effect other than to drastically reduce the number of priests and religious.

How can we stop sex abuse by priests?

I place much hope in the laity to hold celibate culture accountable for compliance with civil law where the law is not itself immoral. I believe lay review boards empowered to foster and encourage transparency in celibate culture are necessary.

At the same time, the type of transparency I am referring to is transparency regarding matters of civil law.

Lay review boards have no right to know if a particular celibate is struggling recently with masturbation, or if two gay celibate men had a sexual encounter with one another. On the other hand, lay review boards have a right to ensure that sex with a minor is reported promptly and dealt with appropriately.

Sex abuse is not simply about sex with minors even in matters of civil law. A priest committing sexual harassment with a Church employee is violating the law. A priest-psychologist who has sexual relations with a patient, even if the patient is an adult woman, has violated civil laws in most states.

Most large secular businesses these days have detailed policies and procedures for dealing with issues like sexual harassment claims. Lay review boards would function much like the HR departments of corporations ensuring that the corporate body is taking appropriate action.

Appropriate action does not mean firing everyone who has a claim against them. Claims need to be investigated properly and sometimes the only action required is a verbal coaching session with an employee to advise that his or her actions were misunderstood by others. In other instances, appropriate action can involve legal action, such as when one employee rapes another.

The laity have more experience than many of those in celibate culture dealing with corporate compliance with civil law. The bishops should not resist lay review boards. They should seek to empower such boards.

At the same time, laity serving on a lay review board probably need some formation by the Church. If laity serving in such a role expect to find large scale compliance with the celibate vow, they will be seriously disillusioned and a crisis of faith could occur. Those who vow themselves to celibacy are all too human, and lay review boards need to be able to accept reality without a loss of faith.

What about the rights of priests to due process?

False accusations do occur. They are more rare than the cases of abuse itself. Sexual abuse differs from many crimes in that the victim is often not believed. This is not solely in the Church, but in wider society.

For this reason, all allegations should be treated seriously, and when a person makes an allegation involving a potentially criminal act, some benefit of the doubt should be given the victim until all facts have been gathered.

The presumption of innocence of the accused is not an excuse for not investigating allegations thoroughly and hearing the full story of the accuser.

Everyone involved in dealing with fact gathering regarding the allegation, from the lay review board, to the bishop, to any law enforcement or legal representatives should do everything possible to protect the privacy of both the accused and the accuser.

In some cases, the nature of what occurred will be found to be something that is not criminal. Sometimes, there is a misunderstanding between two people.

In such a case, the priest may need to be corrected or coached by the bishop, but there may be no need for further action. The lay review board would function in a situation like this to ensure merely that appropriate action was taken. The guidelines would be similar to those followed today in most secular businesses.

In the very rare cases of false accusation, a person may be seeking financial benefit or have a personal vendetta against a priest. More often false accusations come from a person who is mentally or emotionally ill. A priest has a right to due process to ensure that the accusation is not a false accusation.

After due process, if it is determined that the priest is guilty of a criminal act, the appropriate action must be taken, including any legal remedies.

The bishop can and probably should act as an advocate for his priest to gain some leniency from the legal system. Mercy demands an effort by the bishop to support the priests and religious in his care. Yet, the bottom line is that everything at this point should be done legally and in the open.

All canon laws should also be followed. If canon law conflicts with civil law, and the civil law is not an immoral law, bishops should pressure Rome for exceptions, rather than trying to find a way to get around civil law through appeal to separation of Church and state. If the civil law is immoral, then and only then should they use the separation of Church and state arguments.

The one exception is the seal of sacramental confession. I am a strong believer that this seal must never be violated even in cases of sexual abuse and even under penalty of civil law. The priest hearing a sacramental confession should admonish the penitent to turn him or herself over to another forum, but the priest hearing that confession cannot violate the sacred seal. What goes on in confession is between a sinner and God, and is off limits to anyone else.

Finally, the Church owes it to victims of abuse at the hands of a priest or religious to offer assistance in finding healing. This may include restitution in the form of a financial settlement, but more often might be help forming support groups and obtaining proper counseling.

Is celibacy of value to the Church?

Some people believe that celibacy frees a person to devote more time and energy to ministry. I do not buy this argument. The celibate is a human being, and like all of us, he or she can only do so much work in a day before he or she tires.

Furthermore, family life is a form of ministry just as surely as monks or nuns living in cloister minister to one another and less to the outside world. There is no particular reason a ministerial priest needs to be celibate based on productivity in ministry.

Medical professionals and lawers work more than many priests and don't take vows of celibacy, and I don't think anyone, celibate or not, should work too much.

Yet, the celibate vocation does have value for the Church.

Many people, and especially women, have been hurt in relationships. Victims of rape, incest, pedophilia, or a cheating spouse, and so forth can find a celibate who lives the vows with integrity to be a safe person - someone who will not hurt them again. The best celibates are often those who have some insight into this type of pain, and some have experienced it themselves.

I mentioned already in speaking of the temptations a celibate faces that the celibate has a mysterious attractive allure to non-celibates as a sort of forbidden fruit. Grace builds on nature. While this attraction is impure, it can be what draws the one attracted to the celibate eventually into a deeper relationship with Christ if the celibate honors his or her vows.

The celibate lives a life-style that is by its nature a sort of sacrament. It is a sign constantly pointing beyond itself. It is crazy to be celibate. It's insane to even try it. It would be a miracle if anyone succeeded at it. The only way to make sense out of it is that God has made it possible. The life-style of the celibate is a sacramental sign of the presence and power of miraculous mystery in our midst.

Celibacy is also a witness for the dedicated Christian committed to a marriage. Many people find inspiration to avoid cheating on their spouses by looking to the example of a priest, nun, or other religious.

Must we maintain celibate priesthood?

Jesus, Paul, Elijah, and Jeremiah are all Biblical examples of celibate commitment lived well. Throughout the Church’s entire history, there have been celibates, many of whom were also called to priesthood.

I do not believe celibacy should be abolished. Some people are called to it, and it has been clearly a valuable witness for the Church.

Nuns are not priests. Many monks, friars and lay brothers are not priests. Priests in the Eastern Rites in union with Rome are already often married priests. The Latin Rite permitted married priesthood for 1139 years.

As I stated before, the calling to ministerial priesthood and the calling to celibacy are two separate callings. Some individuals have a dual calling, but many do not.

I believe a married priesthood (and a woman's priesthood) would complement a male celibate priesthood.

I would argue that if there were married priests and women priests, such priests could help celibate priests better understand what sexual abuse does to the victims. Such priests could help hold celibates accountable, while celibates help hold married ministers accountable too.

I believe optional celibacy for diocesan priests while celibacy is lived in religious life would lead to fine complementarity. We do not need to abolish celibate priesthood. We merely need to augment celibate priesthood with a complementary married priesthood.

Who is called to celibacy?

According to current Church teaching, all men and women with predominant or exclusive homosexual attractions are called to celibacy whether lived in a public vow or not. I am open to the option of gay unions for those same sex attracted Christians who do not experience a calling to celibacy as we have defined it.

In addition to those persons who have predominant or exclusive same sex attractions, there are those who have been hurt badly in relationships. Often times, a victim of rape or incest will desire a celibate life-style. A person who has gone through a series of failed relationships may want to embrace celibacy in an effort to find a new way of loving.

Grace builds on nature, and these wounded people should be afforded an opportunity to give celibacy a try.

Heterosexuals with no history of sexual wounds may experience a call to ministerial priesthood. In the current discipline of the Latin Rite, they will need to determine if they have the dual calling to priesthood and celibacy. They have no other option.

Finally, I believe that there are people who experience a spousal relationship with God in prayer that leads to a conviction that celibacy will be the richest life -style for him or her as an individual.

For such an individual, celibacy will feel like the highest calling one could embrace. It is important that such individuals do not project this feeling onto Christians called to marriage. The highest calling a person can fulfill is to live the vocation God gives you as an individual. It would be contrary to God’s will for a person called to marriage to try celibacy.

How do I know if I am called to celibacy?

That's a great question. My own response is that if you suspect you have the call, you should give it a serious try. If you are thinking about the celibate calling, don't delay in contacting the vocation offices of some religious communities or your diocese.

Understand that the Church does not consider an inquiry or even a commitment to give celibacy a try to automatically be a life-long commitment. I'd say that for every 50 people that enter a formation program, only 2 or 3 take solemn vows or promises.

The only way you can find out if you are one of those 2 or 3 is to start the process, and very few of the 47 or 48 who leave regret having tried. The very few who have regrets are generally those who have mental or emotional health issues that cause their distress more than a fault of the discernment process itself.

Some people are afraid of what others might think once they make it known they are considering priesthood or religious life. One of the great things about a formation program is that everyone in the program is experiencing the somewhat the same thing.

Ultimately I convinced that the call can only be discerned in a formation program, but within that program, your calling will only become clear to you if allow your prayer life to deepen. So other than contacting a vocation office, I recommend you start working on your prayer life as well.