The Catholic Church has long taught that celibacy is the highest vocation. This is, to put it gently, a really confusing teaching. Every six months or so, the celibacy discussion rears it’s ugly head online and lends itself to egoism, misunderstanding, and hurt. This entire discussion is completely unnecessary. What does this teaching even mean, and what practical applications does it have for lay people? (Spoilers: 1. Not what you think and 2. Not many.)
What Is Celibacy All About?
Even if you know nothing at all about Catholicism, you probably know that Catholic priests and nuns do not have sex. This practice dates back to the middle ages. (I’m not going to hash out this history, but if you’re interested this article is quite useful.) Catholics uphold celibacy as the highest state of life, because it most closely resembles the life of Jesus Christ. Insofar as we are all called to emulate Jesus, we are all called to celibacy – sort of. Celibacy is the state of human beings in Heaven. We are all called to Heaven, so we are also called – eventually – to celibacy as well. The word highest is best understood as ultimate rather than best.
Pitfalls and Temptations
On it’s face, the teaching on celibacy seems to imply that priests are morally and spiritually superior to laypeople. Unfortunately, too many priests have used this interpretation as a cudgel to control their parishioners. The idea that priests are objectively better human beings makes it easy for abusers to escape suspicion. Clericalism, an attitude of excessive deference toward priests and clergy, is a scourge on the Church. It’s the root of much of the corruption and scandal that has plagued us.
The teaching also lends itself to sex shaming, even toward married couples having licit sex. Unfortunately, too many Catholics believe that sex is always a little bit bad. This is not the official teaching of the Church, but it’s often the taught that way. Marriage, according to this view, makes sex acceptable but never good. This is absolutely ridiculous. Loving sexual relationships between spouses are not only acceptable, but sacred. Marriage and marital relations are a mirror of God’s radical love for humanity. God calls the majority of lay Catholics to marriage, and their families make up the building blocks of the Church.
What About Single People and LGBTQ People?
Some LGBTQ Catholics find comfort in the Church’s teaching that celibacy is the highest calling. It is, after all, the only option available to them. I do not want to minimize the experience of these people. However, for the majority it is a cold comfort at best. The Church strongly discourages LGBTQ people from joining the priesthood in religious life. They are barred from the sacramental graces of a celibate life. As for single straight people, many report feeling pressured into joining the religious life. If everyone is called to celibacy, the reasoning goes, then they should just go ahead and become a priest or nun. Simply remaining single is not a comfortable option within the Church.
The Truth About Vocations
The Church’s teaching about celibacy mostly causes confusion. On it’s face, it appears deeply hurtful. Once fully understood, it’s rendered mostly useless. Concerns about “higher vocations” are purely theological. They are rooted in philosophical ideas about ontological states. Meanwhile, individual vocations are subjective. God calls each person individually for a specific purpose. To say some other vocation would be objectively better for you is to undermine God’s plans, which are perfect. If the Church’s teaching on celibacy makes you feel hurt, lesser, or ashamed of your sexuality, my best advice for you is to not waste on more moment thinking about it. Let the theologians talk themselves into circles, if that’s their hobby. You are exactly who and where you are supposed to be.