Recently an op-ed piece appeared in the New York Times by Frank Bruni, entitled, The Wages of Celibacy. The column, while provocative, is fair. Mostly he asks a lot of hard, necessary questions. Looking at the various sexual scandals that have plagued the Roman Catholic priesthood in the past number of years, Bruni suggests that it’s time to re-examine celibacy with an honest and courageous eye and ask ourselves whether its downside outweighs its potential benefits. Bruni, in fact, doesn’t weigh-in definitively on this question; he only points out that celibacy, as a vowed lifestyle, runs more risks than are normally admitted. Near the end his column he writes: “The celibate culture runs the risk of stunting [sexual] development and turning sexual impulses into furtive, tortured gestures. It downplays a fundamental and maybe irresistible human connection. Is it any wonder that some priests try to make that connection nonetheless, in surreptitious, imprudent and occasionally destructive ways?”
That’s not an irreverent question, but a necessary one, one we need to have the courage to face: Is celibacy, in fact, abnormal to the human condition? Does it run the risk of stunting sexual development?
Thomas Merton was once asked by a journalist what celibacy was like. I suspect his answer will come as a surprise to pious ears because he virtually endorses Bruni’s position. He responds: “Celibacy is hell! You live in a loneliness that God himself has condemned when he said: ‘It is not good to be alone!'” However, with that being admitted, Merton immediately goes on to say that just because celibacy is not the normal human condition willed by the Creator doesn’t mean that it cannot be wonderfully generative and fruitful and that perhaps its unique fruitfulness is tied to how extraordinary and abnormal it is.
What Merton is saying, in essence, is that celibacy is abnormal and dooms you to live in a state not been willed by the Creator; but, despite and perhaps because of that abnormality, it can be deeply generative, both for the one living it and for those around him or her.
I know this to be true, as do countless others, because I have been deeply nurtured, as a Christian and as a human being, by the lives of vowed celibates, by numerous priests, sisters, and brothers whose lives have touched my own and whose “abnormality” served precisely to make them wonderfully fruitful.
Moreover, abnormality can have its own attraction: As a young priest, I served as a spiritual director to a young man who was discerning whether to join our order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, or whether to propose marriage to a young woman. It was an agonizing decision for him; he wanted both. And his discernment, while perhaps somewhat overly romantic in terms of his fantasy of both options, was at the same time uncommonly mature. Here (in words to this effect) is how he described his dilemma:
I am the oldest in my family and we lived in a rural area. When I was fifteen years old, one evening, just before supper, my dad, still a young man, had a heart attack. There were no ambulances to call. We bundled him up in the car and my mother sat in the back seat with him and held him, while I, a scared teenager, drove the car enroute to the hospital some 15 miles away. My dad died before we reached the hospital. As tragic as this was, there was an element of beauty in it. My dad died in my mother’s arms. That tragic beauty branded my soul. In my mind, in my fantasy, that’s how I have always wanted to die – in the arms of my wife. And so my major hesitation about entering the Oblates and moving towards priesthood is celibacy. If I become a priest, I won’t die in any human arms. I’ll die as celibates do!
Then one day, in prayer, trying to discern all of this, I had another realization: Jesus didn’t die in the arms of a spouse; he died differently, lonely and alone. I’ve always had a thing about the loneliness of celibates and have always been drawn to people like Soren Kierkegaard, Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Jean Vanier, and Daniel Berrigan, who don’t die in the arms of a spouse. There’s a real beauty in that way of dying too!
Bruni is right in warning that celibacy is abnormal and fraught with dangers. It does run the risk of stunting sexual development and especially of downplaying a fundamental and perhaps irresistible human connection. One of the fundamental anthropological dogmas that scripture teaches us is contained the story of God creating our first parents and his pronouncement: It is not good (and it is dangerous) for the man to be alone! Celibacy does condemn one to live in a loneliness that God himself condemned, but it’s a loneliness too within which Jesus gave himself over to us in a death that’s perhaps the most generative in human history.