Celibacy Revisited


Writing in the first person is always a risk, but the subject matter of this column is best done, I feel, through personal testimony. In a world where chastity and celibacy are seen as naïve and to be pitied and where there’s a general skepticism that anyone is actually living them out, personal testimony is perhaps the most effective protest.

What’s to be said for celibacy and chastity, whether these are lived out in a vowed religious context or are simply the given situation of anyone who is going through life celibate?  Here’s my story:

At the age of seventeen, I made the decision to become a priest and enter a religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. That decision involved committing myself to celibacy for life. Strange as this may sound, since I was only seventeen, I didn’t make that decision naively or out of some passing fancy. I intuited pretty accurately the cost, so much so that I virtually everything inside me strongly resisted the call. Anything but that! While I was drawn to ministry the accompanying vow of celibacy was a massive stumbling block. I didn’t want to live as a celibate. Who does? Indeed nobody should. But the inner call was so strong that, despite its downside, when I finished high school I gave a reluctant but solid assent and entered a religious congregation.  Now, looking back on it more than fifty years later, I see it still as the purest, most unselfish decision I’ve ever made.

I’ve been in religious life now for more than fifty years and have served as a priest for more than forty-five of those years and, all told, celibacy has served me well, just as I can honestly say that I have served it in essential fidelity. Celibacy has its upside: Beyond the inner work it forced me to do in terms of my relationship to God, to others, and to myself (often painful work done in restlessness and prayer and on occasion with the help of a counsellor) celibacy also afforded me a privileged availability for the ministry.  If you move through this life as a priest and missionary, celibacy can be a friend.

But it isn’t always a friend. For me, celibacy has always been the hardest struggle within religious life and ministry, a habitual emotional crucifixion, as it should be. There have been seasons – days, weeks, months, and sometimes many months  – when most everything inside of me screamed against it, when because of falling in love, or dealing with an obsession, or dealing with the one-sided energy within a male congregation, or when I was overcome with the fact I will never have children, or, when the simple, raw physical and emotional power of sexuality left me restlessness and frustrated enough that the man inside of me wanted to take back what the priest inside of me had once vowed. Celibacy will have you sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane sometimes. It goes against some of the deepest, innate, God-given instincts and energies within you and so it doesn’t allow itself to be dealt with lightly.

That being said though, something else also needs to be said, something too little understood today: Celibacy can also be very generative because sexuality is about more than having sex. Just before creating the sexes, God said: It is not good for the man to be alone! That’s true for every person who will ever walk this earth. Sexuality is given to us to take us beyond our aloneness; but many things do that for us and full sexual intimacy is only one of them.

Perhaps the single, biggest misunderstanding about sex today is the belief that deep friendship, warm companionship, faith community, and non-genital forms of intimacy are only a substitute, some second-best compensation, for sex rather than a rich, generative modality of sex itself. These aren’t a consolation prize for missing the real thing. They are, just as is having sex, one rich aspect of the real thing.

Recently, I phoned a priest on the 60th anniversary of his ordination. Eighty-five years old now, he had this to say:  “There were some rough times, all of my classmates left the ministry and I had my temptations too. But I stayed and, now, looking back, I am pretty happy with the way my life turned out.”

Looking back on own life and my commitment to celibacy I can say something similar. Celibacy has made for some tough seasons and remains, as Merton once put it, the deep anguish within chastity. But celibacy has also provided me with a life rich in friendship, rich in community, rich in companionship, rich in family of every kind, and rich in opportunity to be present to others. I will die without children, my life, like everyone’s, an incomplete, never-fully-consummate symphony. But looking back on it all, I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out. Celibacy can be a very life-giving way of being sexual, of creating family, and of being happy.

Our Most Common Sin 


Classically Christianity has listed seven sins as “deadly” sins, meaning that most everything else we do which is not virtuous somehow takes its root in one these congenital propensities. These are the infamous seven: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.

In spiritual literature the first three, pride, greed, and lust get most of the ink and attention. Pride is presented as the root of all sin, Lucifer’s primordial defiance of God as forever echoed in our own lives: I will not serve! Greed is seen as the basis for our selfishness and our blindness towards others and lust has often been given the ultimate notoriety, as if the Sixth Commandment were the only commandment.

Not to deny the importance of these, but I suspect that the sin which most commonly afflicts us and is not much mentioned in spiritual literature is wrath, that is, anger and hatred. I venture to say that most of us operate, however unconsciously, out of anger and this shows itself in our constant criticism of others, in our cynicism, in our jealousy of others, in our bitterness, and in our inability to praise others. And unlike most of our other sins, anger is easy to camouflage and rationalize as virtue.

At one level, anger often rationalizes itself as justified indignation over the foibles, stupidity, egotism, greed, and faults of others: How can I not be angry given what I see every day! Here anger shows itself in our constant irritation and in our quickness to correct, criticize, and make a cynical remark.  Conversely we’re very slow to praise and affirm. Perfection then becomes the enemy of the good and since nothing and no one is perfect, we’re always in critical mode and we see this as a virtue rather than for what it in fact is, namely, an inchoate anger and unhappiness inside of ourselves.

But our unhappy cynicism isn’t the biggest problem here. More seriously, anger too often parades itself as Godly-virtue, as righteousness, as prophecy, as a healthy, divinely-inspired militancy for truth, for cause, for virtue, for God. And so we define ourselves as “holy warriors” and “vigilant defenders of truth”, taking justification in the popular (though false) conception that prophets are angry people, on passionate fire for God.

However there’s a near infinite distance between true prophetic anger and the anger that today commonly parades itself as prophecy. Daniel Berrigan, in his criteria for prophecy, submits (and rightly) that a prophet is someone who takes a vow of love, not of alienation. Prophecy is characterized by love aching for reconnection, not anger pushing for separation.

And love isn’t generally what characterizes most so-called prophetic anger in our world today, especially as it pertains to God, religion, and defense of truth. You see this in its worst form in Islamic extremism where, in the name of God, every kind of hatred, violence, and random murder puts on God’s cloak. Blaise Pascal captures this well in his Pensees where he writes: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” He’s wrong on one thing; mostly we aren’t doing it cheerfully but angrily. One only has to read the letters to the editor in our newspapers, listen to most talk-radio stations, or listen to any debate on politics, religion, or morality to see raw hatred and anger justifying themselves on moral and divine grounds.

There is such a thing as healthy prophetic anger, a fiery response when the poor of God, the word of God, or the truth of God are being slandered, abused, or neglected. There are important causes and boundaries to be defended. But prophetic anger is an anger that emanates out of love and empathy and always, regardless of the hatred it meets, still exhibits love and empathy, like a loving mother in the face of a belligerent child. Jesus on occasion exhibits this kind of anger, but his anger is antithetical to most of what masquerades as prophetic anger today, where love and empathy are so noticeably absent.

Someone once said that we spend the first half of life struggling with the Sixth Commandment, and then spend the second-half of life struggling with the Fifth Commandment:  Thou shalt not kill!  We see this illustrated in the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, his Older Brother, and his Prodigal Father. The younger son is effectively out of his father’s house through wrestling with the seductive energies of youth. The older brother is just as effectively outside his father’s house, not through sin, but through wrestling with anger.

As a young boy I was catechized to confess “bad thoughts” as sinful, but bad thoughts then were defined as sexual thoughts. As we age, I suggest, we might continue to confess “bad thoughts”, but now those “bad thoughts” have to do with anger.

A cynic, it’s said, is someone who has given up, but not shut up! He’s also someone who has confused one of the seven deadly sins, wrath, with virtue.

Faith and Superstition 


The power of a subordinate clause, one nuance within a sentence and everything takes on a different meaning.

That’s the case in a recent brilliant, but provocative, novel, The Ninth Hour, by Nina McDermott. She tells a story which, among other things, focuses on a group of nuns in Brooklyn who work with the poor. Times are hard, people are needy, and the nuns, who work mostly in home care for the poor, appear utterly selfless in their dedication. Nothing, it seems, can deflect them from their mission to give their all, their every of ounce of energy, to help the poor. And on this score, McDermott gives them their due. As well, for anyone familiar with what goes on inside of a religious community, McDermott’s portrayal of these nuns is both nuanced and accurate. Nuns aren’t all of a kind. Each has her own unique history, temperament, and personality.  Some are wonderfully warm and gracious, others nurse their own wounds and aren’t always evident paradigms of God’s love and mercy. And that’s case with the nuns that McDermott describes here. But, quirks of individual personality aside, as a community, the nuns she describes serve the poor and their overall witness is beyond reproach.

But then, after telling this story of faith and dedication and reflecting on how today there are few groups of nuns who still live so radical a commitment, McDermott, through the voice her narrator, introduces the subversive subordinate clause: “The holy nuns who sailed through the house when we were young were a dying breed even then. … The call to sanctity and self-sacrifice, the delusion and superstition it required, faded from the world even then.”

Wow! The delusion and the superstition it required. As if this kind of radical self-sacrifice can only be the product of false fear. As if whole generations of Christian self-sacrifice, vowed celibacy, and single-minded dedication can be dismissed, post-factum, as ultimately predicated on delusion and superstition.

How true is that?

I grew up in the world McDermott is describing, where nuns were like that, and where a powerful Catholic ethos supported them and declared what they were doing was anything but delusion and superstition. Admittedly that was another time and much of that ethos has not stood the test of time and has, indeed, to a large part succumbed to the raw power of secularity. And so McDermott is right, partially. Some of that selflessness was based upon an unhealthy fear of hell fire and God’s anger. To an extent too it was based on a notion of faith that believed that God does not really want us to flourish much here on earth but that our lives are meant to be mostly a somber preparation for the next world. Perhaps this isn’t exactly delusion and superstition, but it is bad theology and it did help underwrite some of the religious life in the world McDermott describes and in the Catholic world of my youth.

But there was also something else undergirding this ethos, and I inhaled it deeply in my youth and in a way that branded my soul for good, like nothing else I have ever breathed in in this world.  Notwithstanding some false fears, there was inside of that a biblical faith, a raw mandate, that taught that your own comfort, your own desires, and even your own legitimate longings for human flourishing, sexuality, marriage, children, freedom, and having what everyone else has, are subject to a higher purpose, and you may be asked to sacrifice them all, your legitimate longings, to serve God and others. It was a faith that believed you were born with a God-given vocation and that your life was not your own.

I saw this first in my own parents who believed that faith made those demands upon them, who accepted that, and who consequently had the moral authority to ask this of others. I saw it too in the Ursuline Nuns who taught me in school, women with full red blood flowing through their veins but who sacrificed these longings to come into the public schools in our remote rural areas and teach us. I saw it too in the little prairie community that nurtured me in my youth, a whole community who, by and large, lived out this selflessness.

Today I live in a world that prizes sophistication above all else, but where as a whole society we’re no longer sure what’s “fake news” as opposed to what we can believe in and trust. In this unsteady world the faith of my youth, of my parents, of the nuns who sacrificed their dreams to teach me, and of the nuns whom Nina McDermott describes in The Ninth Hour, can look very much like delusion and superstition. Sometimes it is delusion, admittedly; but sometimes it isn’t, and in my case the faith my parents gave me, with its belief that your life and your sexuality are not your own, is, I believe, the truest, most non-superstitious thing of all.