Like Nixon in China: Married Priest’s Credible Case for Celibacy

You know the saying, right? Only Nixon could go to China and be credible because no one would ever accuse him of being a secret communist?

And perhaps only a married priest who has also been a celibate priest can give effective voice to the value of the disclipine in an age where, as Fr. Dwight Longenecker writes here, “everyone is expected to be copulating most of the time…” because no one would ever accuse him of being “sexually immature” or repressed or defensive on the matter.

I was a celibate Anglican priest for seven years. Then I got married. I was a married Anglican priest for three years. Then we joined the Catholic church. I was in the married state as a layman for ten years. Now I am a married Catholic priest and have been for six years. [. . .]

What does cause people to fall off the chastity wagon? It’s quite simple: the need for love. People need to be loved and give love. It’s a basic requirement. You can’t live life without it. The point of life is to learn the difficult lessons of love.

The kink in human nature is that this need to love and be loved gets twisted in all sorts of ways. The need to love and be loved can turn towards oneself and a person is locked into a sad and solitary existence of sexual fantasy, pornography and masturbation. The need to love and be loved can be turned (for many complex reasons) to members of the same sex–sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. The need to love and be loved can be twisted into other perversions–to pedophilia, bestiality, sado masochism and other distorted and horrific attempts to feed the very basic and fundamental “love hunger.”

People long for love and search for it in sexual intimacy. The problem is that sexual intimacy on its own does not satisfy the love hunger. That’s why sexually active people are not necessarily satisfied. Sexual pleasure on its own does not equal love. The virtue of chastity–which is the discipline of the sexual appetites in order to attain true love–is the demand for men and women to rise above mere sexual gratification to discover a lasting, permanent and satisfying love.

This is the challenge and witness of celibacy–to learn how to love without sexual expression, and to show that there is a love which is above and beyond sexual intimacy. Why should this be an important aspect of the spiritual life? It is not only Catholic priests, monks and nuns who are expected to be celibate. Celibacy, at least for a time, is expected of devotees of other religions as well. Celibacy is a discipline which directs the sexual appetites toward their true fulfillment–which is the a consummation into Love itself–a Love which is higher and more eternal than mere sexual expression.

Read the whole thing. It’s really one of the best expositions of the celibacy question I’ve ever read.

Over at the New York Times, Father James Martin (who recently threatened on Facebook to start writing about dishwasher repair since we’re in an era where people are allowed to write authoritatively on issues about which they know nothing at all) writes on choosing celibacy:

Celibacy is not only an ancient tradition of asceticism, but more important, it is an ancient tradition of love. Celibacy is, in short, about loving others. Those who opt for celibacy (or to use religious terminology, those who feel ”called” to embrace it) choose it as a manner of loving many people deeply, in a way that they would be unable to if they were in a single relationship. It is certainly not for everyone. And it is not a better or a worse way of loving than being a married person, or being in an exclusive relationship with one person.

The criminal acts of a few do not negate the value of celibacy, any more than spousal abuse or incest can negate the value of marriage or marital love. And even if women or married men were admitted into the Catholic priesthood, celibacy would inevitably remain a choice for many. Because for many — myself included — it is not a disciplinary restriction, it is the best way they have found for living a meaningful and committed life.

At Word on Fire, Rev. Damian J. Ference writes:

The male celibate priesthood by its nature points to the natural distinction of men and women. After all, a priest is a spiritual father, and only men can be fathers. The “father” aspect of the priesthood is a constant reminder of sexual difference and of sexual complementarity, both at the same time. For as much as it is true that only a man can be a father, it is equally true that a man cannot be a father without the compliment of a woman, who is a mother. The male priesthood protects and highlights this important and natural distinction.

The second underappreciated feature of the priesthood is this: Celibacy is a great reminder that sex in itself cannot make a person happy. Wherever we turn, we see images, and hear songs, and smell body sprays that remind us of sex. Even a cloistered nun could tell you that we live in an over-sexed culture. Of course, the kind of sex that the world wants to sell is empty, but for some reason, it’s still attractive and alluring.

The point keeps being made, over and over, that we can endure love without sex, because love is a fullness; we cannot long endure sex without love, though, because it is all emptiness.

I wonder if that’s why some people can’t stand the idea that there are others out there, not having sex, yet living fulfilled lives; they’ve invested so much of themselves into the physical side of love and come up empty — how dare anyone not spend as much, and get more?

Perhaps this just the right time for a book entitled, How to Find True Love?

Related: Is Celibacy a “Sin”?

Joanne McPortland: Church time is not trending time or worldly time

Frank Weathers: Honor the Orgasm and all the Kingdoms of the Earth are yours

Dr. Greg reminds the world that um, hey…the Dalai Lama is celibate, too and no one makes an issue of it.

Me at First Things: a similar point to Dwight’s about why married people get “all the fun”

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Jane Hartman

    I married a pastor who has a true vocation to be a pastor. He happens to serve a Christian (Protestant) church. He is essentially married to his church, no doubt about it. As a wife of a pastor, I can tell you that my husband is constantly trying to balance his attention to his children and to me with the needs of the church, which are many and never ending. The Roman Catholic discipline of celibacy in the priesthood is a blessing that should be honored. I have so much respect for the Roman church in its decision to require a celibate priesthood. And my husband agrees – he thinks that the church is extremely wise in this regard.

  • Oregon Catho;ic

    The reason I would like to see parish priests remain celibate is that I believe they need to be married to their flock. The division of time, loyalty, and love between a family and a flock leaves both somewhat cheated out of the fullness of the love they deserve. For the same reason I do not like to see parish priests take on secular jobs.

  • Tom

    To Jane Hartman – I was very good friends with an excellent Protestant Minister. We belonged to a father and son group that met monthly and had annual camp outs. He often confided in me that although he LOVED his children and wife, he felt he failed them in the balancing act with the needs of his church and believed the Catholic celibacy was for the best. God bless your good husband and your family for working so hard to fulfill God’s will! For those who think we would have all the priests we need if only they were allowed to marry – is the permanent deaconate overflowing with candidates? I don’t think so.

  • Adam

    People who complain about priestly celibacy need to take a good look at the military, because there’s a parallel there (admittedly not the strongest one). The military prohibits unprofessional relationships (i.e., dating your boss, your instructor, or your counselor) and fraternization (close relationships to include dating, sex, and marriage between officers and enlisted members). An officer’s obligation is to lead his troops and, at its core, shove a rifle in their hands and tell them to run up a hill in the face of certain death. Favoritism to a particular enlisted member breeds contempt and mistrust among the ranks: if the captain is sleeping with the cute sergeant, then everyone knows who’s getting the cushy assignment and who’s not getting sent up the hill. The officer is expected to treat everyone with equality and not show favorites.

    Now, the military does allow all kinds of exceptions to this. Sometimes two enlisted people are married and one becomes an officer; sometimes an enlisted person’s civilian spouse joins the officer corps; sometimes an enlisted parent has a child who becomes an officer, or vice-versa. The military realistically leaves those relationships intact. However, the core rule remains that the leader isn’t supposed to show favorites, and outside the few exceptions, is prohibited and punished where found.

    Now, if people can get the basic concept that military members are expected to maintain a certain “degree” of celibacy to preserve the rank structure, then hopefully they can also get that on a spiritual level, a priest must make himself equally available to his whole flock and not entirely devoted to one member with leftover time for the rest.

  • Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD

    Blessed John Paul II, who was celibate, gave us the tremendous gift of The Theology of the Body. Everyone’s understanding of the fullness of love with grow with Theology of the Body: vowed religious, married people, and single people.

    As a pediatrician and mother, I know of no better way to teach healthy sexuality to our children. Learn Theology of the Body in 60 seconds per week through free text messages sent to your phone via

    Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD

  • ahem

    From the beginning, the position of the church has been that celibacy is a theological _ideal_, not a requirement; that’s strictly a Roman Catholic idea. As St Paul says, some people are just constituted such that they need to be married; let ‘em be married. Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches agree that celibacy is essential for monastics, but the Orthodox realize that it is not strictly necessary for clergy. Marriage is a blessed state, and it brings additional spiritual and practical dimensions to a church’s ministry to have married clergy as well as celibates.

  • TimWB

    Would we normally take advice on relationships from someone who has not experienced a relationship? This is where I get stuck.

    [So, if you're a smoker, and your doctor has never smoked, why should you listen to him when he tells you to quit smoking? Fr. Longenecker has experienced "a relationship", clearly, he's LIVING in one. Moreover not every priest has "not experienced a relationship." Furthermore, if you pay attention, what these priests, married and not-married, are saying is that there are all sorts of relationships. -admin]