Priestly Celibacy and Earthbound Thinking

Father Emil Kapaun is going to receive a posthumous Medal of Honor, and that’s a very good thing. His cause for sainthood has been opened, as well, and that’s a good thing, too, for all of us and for the Catholic priesthood, which being pelted and sometimes willfully misunderstood, by many, especially those who cannot see a priest without thinking, “that person is not having sex. How weird, and unhealthy.”

There is great power in celibacy, which is why Taoists and Buddhists practice it to varying degrees. Not only religious people but artists also subsume co-creative sexual energies in order to use them elsewhere. Actor Al Pacino famously never had sex while he was filming a movie; he saved that energy for creation.

If you ask them, most celibate priests and nuns will tell you that yes, celibacy is a challenging discipline, but it is also a freeing one, in that it allows the love one would bestow upon one’s spouse and children to be used for many, in many ways. Spiritual motherhood, fatherhood, brotherhood extended to many. It’s no accident that Mother Teresa was a celibate, no accident that monastics are celibate; you can’t do their work, be it tending to abandoned people in the slums or praying six-to-eight hours a day and still give your family everything you ought.

You can’t do the work such religious do, or the work Father Damien and Brother Joseph of Molokai did — to the extend and completeness that they did it — if one is married and involved with a family, and trying to get by in the world, not unless you bring your family completely into the work.

Marriage is an office and a vocation, just like the priesthood and the religious life, and where you place your heart and make your vow gets (and deserves) the best of your love and your energy — most particularly the energy of co-creation.

But most people don’t really want to think about that; it’s easier to be earthbound.

Jesuit Father James Martin takes issue with Frank Bruni’s extremely earthbound understanding of celibacy. After linking to it on Facebook, Martin linked to a very good defense of celibacy he wrote in 2010.

Read them both. I think Bruni’s biggest error is in equating sex with sex. People who prey on others sexually are all about sex as power.

By the way, no one ever makes on Buddhist monks and nuns or harangues the Dalai Lama about celibacy. I’m living proof that sexually active hetero men can still be predators of children.

But I must say, I do love my husband’s response to a woman who was carrying on to him about how celibacy was the whole cause and catalyst for our terrible scandals. He asked her, “have you had periods of your life when you’ve been celibate?”

She said, “of course!”

He then said, “and during those periods, did you feel like you wanted to have sex with kids?”

She got the point.

Today, as we keep an odd sort of joyful living vigil over the papacy of Benedict XVI, it’s a good time to pray to understand more completely the “joy of Christian life” in all of the ways it is undertaken, and to ask for wisdom in understanding all of those ways, and all of our Offices.

Don’t miss Rocco Palmo on the pope’s last audience.


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