The Nearly Unbearable Challenge of Celibacy

As the Jesuits were preparing me to take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (from which I was later released), they kept insisting that what the vows committed me to sacrifice (property, marriage and the government of my own life) were all of high value. Otherwise they would not be worth sacrificing; for me that would be like giving up chipped beef, which I’ve never liked anyway.

This high value was given to marriage as well as ownership, which I discussed in a previous post (“The Need to Own.”)  By taking a vow of chastity and leading a life of priestly celibacy I would be asserting, not denying, the worth of what I was sacrificing: marriage, family, and an active sex life.

The Roman Catholic traditions of chastity and celibacy do not disparage sex therefore, as is often supposed. In fact, a person in a sexually active marriage is considered chaste.

How then does a religious vow of chastity that makes the seemingly inhuman promise of celibacy acquire value? It can only do so if that promise is conceded to be beyond ordinary human capability. Those who take this vow aspire to replace the need for a stable source of sexual intimacy, and for the sense our children give us of lasting beyond our own death, with a kind of intimacy and self-continuation that has to be given by divine aid (grace) and our cooperation with it. That different kind of intimacy and sense of extension into the future comes to the religiously vowed Catholic by way of the perceived reality of connection with Jesus Christ, a connection supplemented by a steady diet of prayer and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. That diet resembles marital fidelity in that one feeds on it in all kinds of spiritual weather, balmy or stormy. The Spirit sent by Christ at Pentecost sees to the survival of a supernatural intimacy, felt or not, and also sees to its continuation through whatever impact it may have on the future.

History (at least pre-modern history) suggests that there are men and women with a constitutional fitness for a celibate life, especially if genuinely supported by family, friends and a healthy religious community. I found myself, however, unable to continue a life demanding so high a trust in the tangibility of spirit. A more ordinary100_1518100_1917 life, one that conceded more to the body, suited me better.

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