In a recent interview in the National Catholic Reporter, Richard McBrien suggests that the Roman Catholic Church ought to change its law regarding priestly celibacy. His argument is as straightforward as it is convincing: “I mean, healthy people are sexually active people. That’s normal. So why do we make priests behave as if they’re not healthy and normal?” (NCR, Jan.20, 1989)
The functions and dysfunctions of priestly celibacy might be debated, as might McBrien’s argument. What has implications in that statement for issues far beyond clerical celibacy is the appeal to normalcy as the criterion for health and rightness….“That’s normal. So why are we acting otherwise?” That’s very persuasive and powerful. What’s healthy is what’s normal. To deviate from that imperative is to risk sickness. One must act as do normal people.
There’s much truth in that. There are serious risks in thinking one can be healthy and yet live differently than do normal persons.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and as McBrien goes on to point out, celibacy does in fact take its toll upon the lives of many priests who do end up unhealthy…succumbing to alcohol, a rationalized double life, gadgetry, compensating consumption, or repressed sexuality that frequently then manifests itself in the abuse of power. What is true here for celibacy is also true for many other areas wherein religions, or anything else, asks one to live what most others aren’t living.
For example, in monasticism (as well as more recently in social justice circles) one sees a dark side among some….weirdness, repression of need, elitist self-righteousness, neuroses and anger paraded as sanctity, and, as in clerical celibacy gone sour, the misuse of power. One takes a very serious risk in not letting what is more normal adjudicate health.
However, with that being admitted, Goethe might aptly be quoted: “The risks of life are many, and safety lies among them.” The Gospel asks of us risk, to put out into the deep waters. This demand, if followed, will precisely displace us from what we would like to live as normal life. Let me explain. The word church comes from the word ecclesia, which itself comes from the Greek, ek kaleo (Ek – out of; kaleo – to call). To be a member of the church is to be called out of something. What are we called out of? Precisely, normal life, as unchallenged human propensity would like to define it.
Outside of a challenge from something beyond us we automatically identify what is normal with what most people are living at a given time. Normalcy by popular consensus. Health and sanctity defined by Gallup poll. When this happens then invariably normalcy identifies itself with idiosyncratic preference, the good life…a good job, a good romance, a good house, good vacations, good sex, a good body, and enough money, freedom, and leisure to enjoy it all. That’s what all of us, normal people, in fact, want.
Baptism into Christian life is meant to be a displacement from that. It is meant, precisely, to call us out of that normalcy. It is meant to derail us, to put a belt around us and lead us where we would rather not go. Entry into church is, to use an older phase, a consecration. That word, too, like church, means displacement, derailment.
For most of us the word consecration is a pious sacristy word. It speaks of consecrated chalices, altars, churches. Of itself, that is not an improper use of the word. To consecrate something is to displace it from normal use: an ordinary cup is set aside to become a chalice, an ordinary table is set aside to become an altar, or an ordinary building is set aside to become a church. However, when we think of consecration in that sense it generally takes on such connotations of piety and separateness that it means little to us in ordinary life.
Let me attempt another way of explaining this: To be consecrated is to be displaced from normalcy. Imagine yourself setting out to go on vacation. You’ve planned your trip in detail and are eagerly looking forward to enjoying this well-deserved rest. You pack the car and set out. On the way you come upon a serious traffic accident. Some people are hurt and dying. There’s no one else around. At that moment you become consecrated. Your vacation plans must be, for the moment, set aside, displaced, with the rest of normal life. A very legitimate agenda must be set aside.
Christian life displaces in the same way. It sets aside what we would, without baptism, define as normal life. A friend of mine who is deeply committed to family, church, and social issues, is, when overwhelmed and frustrated, fond of saying: “If there is re-incarnation, in my next life, I am coming back as a yuppie. I’ll have nothing to do with having kids, church, or the poor. I’ll have season’s tickets to everything, go on a lot of ski trips, and let God take care of his own world.” There’s as much wisdom as self-pity in that remark. It speaks of a genuine baptism, of a life that has been consecrated in that the needs of the kingdom have derailed plans for a more selfish fulfillment.
The human instinct is to define the normal by idiosyncratic preference and social consensus. We need to challenge this if religion is to have an agenda that includes celibacy, social justice, or anything else which goes against what most people are, in fact, living.