In recent conversations concerning the Church and the priesthood, it seems that the main focus when discussing the issue of celibacy is the idea that the one who “chooses” a celibate life is one who willfully forgoes the enjoyment of sex. While this feature of celibacy is without a doubt true, looking at celibacy from this perspective is like calling men featherless bipeds. That is, though it be true that men are featherless bipeds, this is not really what we are all about. Likewise, it is not the case that celibacy is all about the forgoing of sex.
Contrary to the idea that celibacy is a “lack” of something, the Church sees it as a gift given to certain individuals by God that permits them to act more effectively in certain ways. The discipline of celibacy is a way to express the virtue of chastity (a virtue everyone is called to cultivate). The first point to note is that celibacy is not “chosen” by anyone, but, rather, it is received as a special charism as a way to live out the virtue of chastity. People with this gift then willfully conform their mode of action to this particular discipline. The other way to live chastely is conjugal union with one’s spouse. Both modes cultivate the moral virtue of chastity.
Celibacy, then, is not primarily concerned with restraint and repression, i.e., its importance is not centered on what it prevents the men who have received it from doing. Rather, like all moral virtues, it disposes the men who possess it to act more freely in certain ways. Just as the virtue of courage allows us to act freely in circumstances that are risky to our life and health, so too does the virtue of chastity, expressed in celibacy, allow its possessor to act well in interpersonal relationships.
Even more interestingly, this means that celibacy, rather than a suppression of masculine sexual virility, is in fact a perfectly effective (and in some cases preferable) mode of expressing it. Celibate men are not less virile or “manly” than other men who enjoy conjugal union with their wives. However, it is important to note at this juncture that the two modes of chastity, celibacy and conjugal union, help to order natural appetites and affective components of a man’s life that are in good working order and that do not suffer from some form of pre-virtue defect.
What I mean by that is best illuminated by an analogy. Consider an individual who suffers from PICA. PICA is an eating disorder in which those who suffer from it have an appetite for nonnutritious items. This is a case in which a natural appetite (i.e., the one for food) is for whatever reason ordered to the wrong object. This is called an inherently disordered desire because it is badly ordered; that is, the appetite for food finds non-food items palatable. In this case, the virtue of temperance (which moderates the desire for food among other things) has a special role that is uniquely prohibitive. Normally, moral virtues provide a freedom of action, but in this case the virtue acts as a palliative by preventing a person from eating something which, if it was all they ate, would kill them or cause them great harm. Both those who are rightly aligned to food items and those who suffer from PICA can still live temperate lives, however, the virtue acts differently in each kind of life.
Celibacy can be seen in this light as well. There are two categories of men that the Latin Church specifically calls upon to cultivate the discipline of celibacy. The first is the priest. The Church teaches that from among the men who have recognized and confirmed the gift of celibacy, the Church looks for those who have the additional calling to the priesthood. The virtue of celibacy, in this case, transforms the individual priest’s masculine virility and energizes it so that he may devote himself entirely to his Spouse, the Church, and the Body of Christ to whom he ministers. Thus the priest remains fully a man, but is able to serve—with the kind of energy that a husband has for his wife—the entire Body of Christ.
The other category of men for whom the Church recognizes the need for the discipline of celibacy are those who have same-sex attraction. In this case, however, the reason for this need is palliative rather than energizing. Just as one whose natural appetite for food has been malformed (welcome to the fallen world) and who must cultivate the virtue of temperance by refraining from exercising that appetite, so too does the man whose sexual appetite is ordered toward men need to cultivate the virtue of chastity through celibacy for the well-being of his body and soul.
It is important to note the distinction here again, for it matters in what follows. Whereas celibacy is one mode of legitimately exercising the virtue of chastity for the sake of human flourishing, it does so in distinct ways depending on the individual who practices it. For those whose sexuality is properly ordered, it allows for a practical application of that power to an end that requires a different kind of dedication, namely, service to God and others. For those whose sexuality has been malformed in one way or another, it is a safeguard against the damaging effects of the malformed appetite. Where do we go from here?
In light of this, we can better understand the discussion about whether priests who have same-sex attraction are equally able to utilize the effects of celibacy in the way that other men can. The Church has always counseled against ordaining those who have same-sex attraction (just as she will not ordain a man who cannot speak, nor one who cannot move). Some have taken offense at this counsel, claiming that so long as such a man is celibate he is just as capable of serving. This tends, in my view, to see celibacy as simply “not having sex” rather than as the true gift from God that transforms an appetite to energize it.
The counsel to not ordain such men has nothing to do with the moral worth of the individual—such individuals can be compassionate and kind—and everything to do with how virtues perfect activity in any particular life. In both cases the gift of celibacy is a gift from God out of his love for the individual man. However, in one it is for the sake of the man’s activity for God, whie in the other it is for the sake of the man’s safety from something that will harm him (which is not to say that men with same-sex attractions cannot have active lives for God). Furthermore, among the subset of men who are called to be priests, the reason is even more precise. In one case, celibacy is given for the sake of energizing and empowering the priestly office, whereas in the case of the priest with same-sex attraction it is still palliative rather than energizing. Indeed, given the rigors of a priest’s life, it could be even more of a burden to such men.
The conclusion, it seems to me, is that submitting to the counsel of the Church concerning who should not be admitted to the priesthood (i.e., men with same-sex attraction, men who have not identified and confirmed the gift of celibacy, those who seek respite from the rigors of life in the world, etc.) is the most loving way to proceed in the Church. This counsel shows tremendous care, not just for the people of God who will be served by priests, but for the men whom she has gently encouraged to serve the Lord in other ways. It is better for the humble servant’s heart to submit to the Will of God, than to risk having the first act of ministry be one of rebellion against the Church. For all those who truly love Our Lord and wish to see his Kingdom come, this should be clear.
Editor’s note: Pictured above, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, Massachusetts, celebrates the ordination of deacons from the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy, at St. Peter’s Basilica on September 29, 2016. (Photo credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)