Reflections on Religious Celibacy: To Repair a Damaged Public Perception

            By Fr. Raymond Kirtz, OMI

KIRTZ-2FR-RAYEven though times of crisis are unsettling, difficulties experienced for too long often trigger great new discoveries and journeys. Somewhere along the way someone said: “these miserable caves are not convenient or secure,” so came about the process of constructing new dwellings separate from and above ground. Humankind was able to develop a new way of living.

Our own times are the occasion of extreme crises for the Church. But as we are often reminded, the Chinese word for crisis is opportunity. Our problem is, I think, that we are in denial as far as our religious image is concerned. If we can just get this pedophile thing behind us we will be fine. Unfortunately our public image has been extremely damaged, and rightly or wrongly, the practice of celibacy is the assumed culprit. Though we are mostly healthy celibates, there is a problem in how others view us.

A better understanding of basic human sexuality may offer a new perspective on the Vow of Celibacy, benefiting us as well as the public. Before getting on with this paper, let me clarify that I am not advocating the elimination or even changing of the traditional Vow of Celibacy. That vow will surely be a treasured value into the foreseeable future.

Most lay folks have no way of appreciating the positive spirituality of the vow which bonds the professed celibate to the person of Jesus. But maybe we professed celibates also do not appreciate the reality of Jesus himself as a sexual being. Jesus certainly appreciated himself as a normal sexual person and his contemporaries obviously recognized this also. He chose not to marry and yet it would seem he was appreciated non-the-less for it, nor was he less effective for it. And because of who Jesus was, and because of our affective bonding to him through our vow, we too are confident in our celibacy— confident but unfortunately less knowing.

Those of us from earlier years of formation had little in our religious training that would lead to an appreciation of basic sexuality. While the intellectual formation of candidates may well have improved in these later years, there is still something missing which would make celibacy relevant to those to whom we minister. Human persons are very complex and constantly transmit subtle vibes to one another, most of which are unconscious and automatic; but we also transmit deliberate intentions and values. Almost every religious tradition including Judaism included the practice of celibacy for individuals and sometimes for select segments of the population as expressions of religious values.

Contemporary secular studies point to positive benefits of part-time celibacy, even for the married. Examples of well-known couples and individual celibates are published in books and research papers that indicating the value of celibacy. But very few people are aware of such writings, so our celibate witness is not always respected. Most clergy and religious are also uninformed of these  writings.

The lack of respect and suspicions around celibate life by lay people may become more wide spread after all the turmoil of present scandals. Even faithful and supportive Catholics are going to be asking us: what are we trying to say about human sexuality other than our claim of celibacy? Effective religious witnessing must include intelligent and meaningful articulation of the secular meaning and value of our celibate lives. Most Catholics probably long to hear that our celibate have something meaningful to them. Our celibacy has to have value beyond the asceticism of abstinence for ourselves. Furthermore, people are right to expect that we are witnessing to values applicable to uplifting cultural aberrations.

Many in today’s world seem to sense there is something better in life than what is usually passed off as normal or sexy. Yet it is doubtful that the world is going to turn to us celibates for enlightenment. We are now and in the future called to task not just for sinfulness, but also for irrelevancy. Many may question the value of our lives because the services we provide can be and often are done as well by others. Exemplifying sexual responsibility is not enough. Anyone, including ourselves, can teach that without being celibate.

Nevertheless, our celibate lives have not been in vain, nor have they been totally meaningless to others. The problem seems to be that our vowed lives have been deficient as far as some fullness of our witness has been concerned. Nonetheless, people will be expecting much from us but we will not meet their expectations by just making another retreat and renewing our vows. The world and we celibates have got to sense something more in our lives, and something more in our bonding to the person of Jesus than we have been accustomed to seeing and articulating. Perfect chastity, perfect custody of the eyes, perfect virginity will not do it. We can be perfect in all that, and still be inadequate in some subtle way.

It has been a revelation to me to learn that many studies indicate that countless lay people freely choose celibacy, though not always in perpetuity. These studies reveal this has been true down through history, and the purposes are not always religious. Some simply find a healthy value in celibacy. Those studies also show that many homosexuals live together celibately.

Fr. Donald Cozzens writing about the current sexual scandals stated: in order to turn the corner on this crisis, the church needs a renewed theology of human sexuality”. In line with that esteemed judgment, my conjecture is that there is a real need for us to begin talking about this matter. The Gospels have left an enlightening example of how Jesus was able to teach some disciples during their troubled discussion on their way to Emmaus after the Resurrection of Jesus. One can be sure the Apostles had many similar learning experiences during times of uncertainty and confusion when they experienced the teaching presence of the Risen Lord during their discussions. Down through the history of the Church, the Holy Spirit has been actively teaching, especially during conciliar discussions.  Theology and spirituality do not grow in a vacuum, but in probing discussions.

However, most find it difficult to talk about sexuality because the topic has long been a powerful taboo. Most of us tend to associate sexuality with genital sex, but we are sexual beings whether or not we have ever experienced sexual activity. Discussion about sexuality does not need to include personal experiences. With professional input during communal gatherings, along with individual reading to stimulate objective reflection, we will find much nonthreatening material to discuss.

Among the reams of research papers and books that are continually published on the topic of celibacy from a physiological and psychological view point, one very enlightening book published in 1980 is titled: The New Celibacy (How To Take A Vacation From Sex—And Enjoy It.) by Gabriel Brown, Ph.D. McGraw-Hill Book Company. The author cites countless pertinent publications by reputable professionals covering many decades. From such reading we might discover that we do not have a sound natural foundation for the spirituality of our Vow of Celibacy. Grace builds upon the natural and in this case it needs build upon a natural understanding of the psychology of human sexuality, including a secular evaluation of celibacy. The spirituality of celibacy stands to be enhanced from such studies.

One further reflection: Many secular writers like to speculate on an erotic sex life between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Judging from contemporary mores, the assumption seems to be there had to be something erotic between them. But contrary to that, Mary Magdalene became the exemplary person and disciple she was because Jesus obviously inspired something in her other than erotic genital expressions, something which Mary Magdalene was likely open to in her whole being. A well-formed Jewish religious spirituality might have prepared her for that.

We need that same healthy openness to our sexuality that Mary Magdalene evidently had. One can guess she was fully aware of herself as a woman. Some people might have found her to be a sexy lady, just as some may have found Jesus to be a sexy man. However, that did not determine their relationship; nor was that a hindrance to celibacy for both of them (assuming Mary Magdalene was a celibate). In light of this, Mary Magdalene might be a fitting patroness for our communal reflections. She may well have struggled with personal ineptness in establishing her relationship with Jesus, but we value saints not for their absolute perfections but for their overall cooperation with Divine Grace. Because she may well have been a sprightly, animated woman, she could have been comparably graced as a very effective disciple.

Magdalene was likely respected and revered in the foundation days of the Church, only to be maligned in later times. Just as she suffered from prejudicial attitudes toward her in the past, she has in recent times regained her rightful stature; this might also become true of our religious celibate repute. Our status is redeemable, but our beneficial witness requires an ability to articulate the meaning of our lives in ways that make sense to those to whom we witness. As we become more familiar with the basic intricacies of normal sexuality, and develop a theology of sexuality stemming from an enlightened secular evaluation of celibacy, our explanation of the meaning of religious celibacy might become more assuring to lay people. The genuine human value of our celibate lives might become more evident to them, discrediting those who say our lives are unnatural.

St. Eugene famously said: “Leave nothing undared!” Could it be that he is daring us right now? Formerly, in response to that dare, we could afford to be daring in our financial investments in new ministries, but the present worldwide crisis within the church cannot be solved with such investments. We might do well to now invest in an inner review of the natural bases of our celibate lives. We have been confronted with deplorable sinfulness in some, which fortunately may be the basis of a redeeming virtue of humility which might help us see that our celibacy in itself is not a more perfect way of life than married life. Such an understanding on our part could go a long way to refining our witness of celibacy. How we view ourselves is important for our public stance.

Our discredited asceticism of sexual abstinence by not marrying has not totally devastated our witness as vowed religious. The admitted lapses of avowed virtue by some, besides furthering humbleness on the part of the rest of us, may actually equip us to be more at one with the sinful world. We may be more valuable as redeemed sinners, than trying to persist in a stance that supposedly lifts us above the less perfect. Our celibacy in itself is no more valuable than that of countless other celibates. From that stance, we can more efficaciously witness to integrities that might mend broken sexual mores that debase our culture.

To clarify and enrich our vowed witness, we need be clear in our own minds about the natural creational basis of celibacy. Celibacy is not an invention of psychology or theology or even of the Church, but it is a value stemming from creation foundations. Humankind was created with life propagating sexuality, but it is also designed to benefit from either short-term or long term periods of celibacy. Celibacy is not solely a practice of self-denial for the sake of religious values.

Responsible persons of various cultures have always sought ways to counteract the harmful effects of errant sexual activity. Jesus of Nazareth was one exceptional individual who possessed the integrity and personal gifts capable of such ameliorating effects. Through the new life of his Resurrection that he now lives in us, he is still a healing balm to suffering individuals and cultures. Our bonding to the person of Jesus by our vowed religious celibacy makes us sharers in his healing grace which can lead to the healing of contemporary decadent cultural excesses. We do not set ourselves up as better because of our vow, but we give witness to the saving ministry of the Christ.

As a divinely inspired religious witness to the grace of Jesus the Lord of all creation, vowed celibacy has always been a saving gift within the Church. Religious Celibacy will remain the same: we do not marry and we abstain from genital sexual activity.  But our own understanding as well as the public perception of the value of Religious celibacy can be improved if we celibates open ourselves to the ongoing teaching of Jesus the risen Lord, teaching that can take place during meaningful discussions of contemporary sources. Jesus was never other than fully human, which is why we can learn to appreciate his celibacy as well as ours from secular sources.

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