A personal defense of celibacy
I had debated about writing this post for a couple of reasons. Partly because part of what I’m going to write about is personal, and being someone who lives in my head a lot of the time the concretely personal is a bit difficult to write about. But also because clerical celibacy, that is the vow of celibacy taken by the priests here in the West, is in fact a discipline that Mother Church has decided that the Western men who have taken Holy Orders must conform to this discipline. This is thus a matter of prudence, and such is open to debate. As such I was hesitant to write this, but I am up against the deadline. So here goes.
The views on this discipline both pro and con have some good points to argue. However strongly one views the issue it should always be maintained that celibacy is in fact open to debate, and as such since there is room for disagreement. Neither has the upper hand at least in the sense of which position is more “Catholic.” We are free to argue about this so long as the authority of the Church is respected.
Having said this my personal conviction is that the discipline of clerical celibacy is a net positive. The reasons for this stretch from the practical to the spiritual. But for me there is one reason that from my personal perspective that stands out. It is not by any means a definitive or debate-settling reason. But for me it shows the importance of this ancient discipline.
In the waning days of my college years I like many of my fellow graduates struggled with that question, “What now?” This combined with my preexisting depression created one miserable soon-to-be graduate. In the midst of this I felt at one point a calling to the priesthood. So much so that at the gentle nudging of one of the priests at the student Catholic Center I flew to D.C. for a vocation retreat.
Now one may be thinking that the discipline of a celibate life would be an obstacle. For some it is. In my case however this was not an issue. Being in my current state of depression I knew that I could not handle a marital relationship or those relationships that lead to the married life. I also had enough sense to know that ditching the Catholic “prohibition on non-marital sex” was probably the worst thing I could do at that point. So in essence I was already living a “celibate” life, at least how I understood it. And since I was already living one and not going insane, plus this inkling of a calling to the religious life led to the inescapable conclusion that I was meant for the priestly vocation.
Now this silly line of reasoning is simply typical of my state of mind so I ask those reading to refrain from pointing out the obvious. This is not what is important. What happens next is.
While the concept of a celibate life did not bother me a number of other attendees had issues with it. The question came over and over again. “How does one live a celibate life?” The answer surprised me. “Cultivate relationships.” In order to live a life of celibacy a religious must cultivate relationships with others. The deeper the better. Not only was this advised, it was essential, I was told.
This bothered me quite frankly. The whole reason why I chose my professional career (software development) and now considering the priesthood was because I wanted to avoid such relationships. That I would have to “work harder” to cultivate such relationships as a priest was dumbfounding.
But this made me realize what had been wrong with how I was approaching the vocation question in general. Due to some experiences in my past (not direct experience but via proxies) I had developed an attitude of keeping people at arm’s length. Initially it was a coping mechanism, but finally it got to the point that I was not able to develop deeper relationships even if I wanted to. And I did not want to. I did not see this as a problem but simply an aspect of my personality. It wasn’t until this new information was presented to me that I began to see this as a problem.
But this revelation would not have been possible without the contrast between the celibate life of the religious clergy and the martial one. That the idea that one needs to develop bonds with others, and that this development is work, is presented (in a paradoxical sense) more clearly in the celibate life. This idea is hidden to some degree by married life because one can simply assume (like I did) that those who were called to the married life would develop this bond naturally. While this is true in some respects, that this development must also be a conscious effort on the part of the spouses was hidden from me.
This revelation forced me to confront this weakness of mine. Without overcoming this obstacle I would not have been able to enter the married state I am in now. As such it is quite correct to say that a calling to the priesthood eventually led me to the married state. And that the contrast between the celibate life and the married life led me to realize one of the main obstacles to my true vocation.
I know that this is not a definitive reason. There are many better arguments that are applicable universally. But to me the revelation of the need for relationships was (and could only be) revealed to me through the celibate life. And as long as Mother Church decides that this discipline is worth the trial, it can count me as one of its staunchest defenders.