Celibacy, as it is lived out today within clerical and religious life, has few defenders. More and more persons are suggesting the church should change the rules and no longer make it mandatory for priesthood. Moreover, and this is a different and deeper criticism, many critics are suggesting that celibacy, as a vowed state, is positively dysfunctional and should no longer be retained as an ideal of any kind. 

Their argument has both a theoretical and a practical prong: Theoretically, celibacy is seen as, in se, unhealthy. God made the universe to work in pairs, plain and simple. To be celibate, especially to choose positively to be so, goes against nature and is contrary to the way God intended life to be. To quote Merton, to choose celibacy is to choose to live in a loneliness that God, himself, has condemned. What’s wrong, these critics argue, is that, at the end of the day, vowed celibacy produces inside of a person (even in the person who lives it out faithfully) an inhuman asceticism, a Hamlet-type resignation, which ultimately devalues life. At its best, it creates a certain anti-hero, stoic, asexual, seemingly above ordinary human need, praying while others are making love. At its worst, it is perverse, either frigid or a lie. In either case, it is a fault in humility, belittling, among other things, sex, marriage, ordinary human life and enjoyment. 

Then there is the practical argument: A lot of celibates, to phrase it euphemistically, do not do celibacy very well. As recent surveys show, a lot of celibate (male, at least) have affairs, both homosexual and heterosexual. That, while obviously distressing, is not, to my mind, the primary indicator that many people are not living out their celibacy very fruitfully. More common, and more important, are some other indicators, namely, the number of celibates who not too subtly compensate for their celibacy through anger, self-pity, misuse of power, an overly affluent lifestyle, alcohol, eating disorders, bad bodily aesthetics, and bad work habits. Not all of these things, admittedly, are unique to celibates nor are they always compensatory for being celibate. But there is, undeniably, often a connection.  Hence it should not come as a surprise that more people are suggesting that the whole question of celibacy be radically re-evaluated. 

What’s to be said about this? Would we have a healthier priesthood if we ordained only married persons? Is vowed celibacy positively dysfunctional? Is it, in fact, unliveable? 

Good questions. Questions to be taken seriously. There are real problems with celibacy, especially at the level of fidelity. However, neither judge, critic nor proponent, should be quick in answering these questions. Celibacy needs re-examination, but in terms of both its negatives and its potentials. 

It can, admittedly, give rise to a duplicitous lifestyle and to all kinds of compensatory and dysfunctional activity. But it can also be very life-giving. It can be a privileged access to grace, just as married and sexual love can be. 

But, and this is the point here, celibacy can only be life-giving if it comes out of a certain mysticism, that is, if it takes its roots in a deep personal communion with God. Outside of this, it will always lead to some kind of masturbation, some unhealthy turning inward. There is no other option. A vowed celibate who does not have a vital personal relationship with God (which, at a point, engages his or her feelings) is a dangerous person – just as is a married person who does not have a vital relationship to his or her partner. Such a person is an affair and a compensation looking for a place to happen. 

Conversely, though, celibacy, vowed or otherwise, if linked to mysticism, can, as can all forms of inconsummation, be a privileged medium for bringing God into the world. God, as revelation assures us, has various ways of appearing in our lives. A special birth occurs when there is advent – yearning, longing, tears, and dry inconsummation. Fire comes after things reach kindling temperature.

When this happens, celibacy is also very life-giving for the person living it out. As Goethe puts it: “Now you are no longer caught in the obsession with darkness, and a desire for higher love-making sweeps you upward. Distance does not make you falter, now, arriving in magic, flying, and finally, insane for the light, you are a butterfly and you are gone. And as long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth. (The Holy Longing)