The Gift of Celibacy

With the recent series of reports of clerical sex abuse in North America, South America and Europe, I thought it might be worthwhile to reflect on the gifts of virginity and celibacy.

Perpetual virginity and celibacy have always been considered a special grace in the Church.  We can read about Christ giving his disciples this teaching, along with the other evangelical counsels in Chapter 19 of Matthew’s Gospel.  The Pharisees, trying to test Jesus, ask him about divorce and Jesus repeats his teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.  His disciples find this teaching  very demanding, and Jesus uses this as an opportunity to shed some light on the gift of celibacy:

Jesus told them, “Only those people who have been given the gift of staying single can accept this teaching.  Some people are unable to marry because of birth defects or because of what someone has done to their bodies.  Others stay single in order to serve God better.  Anyone who can accept this teaching should do so.”

– Matthew 19: 11 – 12

Importantly, directly after this episode Jesus welcomes the children to him.  It is almost as if he is saying, yes, accept celibacy as a gift, but don’t let it make you estranged from the people around you.  He is warning his disciples not to think of celibacy as a  special gift that will make them other-worldly or angelic.  Rather, they should view celibacy as something that will make them even more human, a precept that seems like a paradox at first glance, but whose truth we will be able to appreciate after some investigation into its philosophical and theological foundations.

Before we look at the philosophical and anthropological foundations of clerical celibacy, it would do well to consider the Scriptural and historical origins of the practice.  Contrary to popular belief, the discipline of celibacy has a long history dating back almost to Apostolic times.  We have already looked at Christ’s teaching to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew.  We can find a similar teaching in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 7).

St. Paul, while prefacing his advice with a disclaimer that he was unaware of anything Christ had taught explicitly on the matter (for Christ’s explicit teaching see Matthew 19 above), advised the Corinthians to stay single if they are single, and to stay faithful in marriage if they are already married.  His reasoning for this can seem more practical than theological, but don’t let that take away from its weight.  St. Paul in much of his New Testament writings puts a lot of emphasis on how to live the faith well addressing practical problems his readers are facing.  Its likely that he is aware of the theological reasons for practising celibacy, but in this instance sought only to emphasize the practical reasons for celibacy like the celibate’s greater freedom to devote his energy and resources to serving God.

St. Blandine
St. Blandine was a Christian virgin and martyr who died at Lyon, France during the reign of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

The canonical legislature dealing with celibacy also developed early in the Church’s life, mirroring the teachings found in the New Testament writings.  In the West, at a council in Elvira in Spain in the year 295, clerical celibacy was enacted in canon xxxiii.  Similar legislature was adopted in the East at councils in Galatia in 314 (canon x) and Cappadocia in 315 (canon i).

The writings of the Church Fathers also evidence the apostolicity and orthodoxy of this teaching on celibacy.  St. Jerome, St. Clement of Alexandria and St. Cyril of Jerusalem all praise the practice of clerical celibacy as a norm in the early Church.  The most substantial writing on clerical celibacy comes from St. Epiphanius at the end of the fourth century:

But the passage most confidently appealed to is one of St. Epiphanius where the holy doctor first of all speaks of the accepted ecclesiastical rule of the priesthood (kanona tes ierosynes) as something established by the Apostles (Haer., xlviii, 9), and then in a later passage seems to describe this rule or canon in some detail. “Holy Church“, he says, “respects the dignity of the priesthood to such a point that she does not admit to the diaconate, the priesthood, or the episcopate, no nor even to the subdiaconate, anyone still living in marriage and begetting children. She accepts only him who if married gives up his wife or has lost her by death, especially in those places where the ecclesiastical canons are strictly attended to” (Haer., lix, 4). Epiphanius goes on, however, to explain that there are localities in which priests and deacons continue to have children, but he argues against the practice as most unbecoming and urges that the Church under the guidance of the Holy Ghost has always in the past shown her disapproval of such procedure.

– Celibacy of the Clergy

New Advent Encyclopedia

Having reflected on the biblical and apostolic origins of the norm of clerical celibacy, I would now like to consider some of the anthropological foundations for celibacy.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the two most basic drives of the human person are self-preservation and procreation: preservation of the individual and preservation of the species.  Dr. Conrad Baars and Dr. Anna Terruwe explore these two basic innate drives in the first few paragraphs of their book, Psychic Wholeness and Healing:

To understand the notion of psychic or psychological wholeness, as well as the kind of emotional afflictions whose healing we describe in this book, it is necessary to be familiar with the powers and functions of the human psyche and their relationship with innate drives.  Like everything created, human beings are by their very nature directed to a certain good.  It follows, therefore, that the person also possesses a drive to obtain this good.  This drive is not dependent on any conscious knowledge in human beings themselves, but presupposes the knowledge of Him who has created and directed human nature to this goal.  It exists in humans as a blind drive which functions independently of knowledge or consciousness; it drives one on continuously and can never be made to disappear, nor is it dependent on reason for its existence.  This natural drive is directed to that which is an essential and necessary good for the human person.

This drive is, therefore, directed first of all to life itself, for it is human nature to be a composite of soul and body; without this union a human being is no longer a human being.  Second, there is a drive directed to pro-creation because a human being, by virtue of his or her nature, is a specific being who does not exhaust that nature, existing as it does in numerous subjects; and is therefore, directed at this multiplication.  It is a drive of the human being as social, not as individual.

Both of these innate drives, that of self-preservation and that of procreation, are therefore the most fundamental drives in the human being; they are present from the moment a person begins to exist.  The drive of procreation, of course, will make itself fully felt only when a person is physically capable of the procreative act; however, potentially it is always present and may also manifest itself in an elementary form before the age of puberty.  On the other hand, the drive of self-preservation is completely developed from the very beginning; in fact, in the baby it plays the predominant role.  (Eating and drinking are biological necessities, unlike sexual gratifications.)

These innate natural drives are directed to the most elementary human goods: life and procreation.  Human nature, however, extends beyond this basic level by reason of the sensory and intellectual inclinations by which persons are able to perfect all the potentialities of their being.  these are the so-called acquired inclinations and are all the result of a personal cognitive act: the sensory inclinations, of a sensory cognitive act; the spiritual inclinations, of an intellectual cognitive act.  Their objects are good which in some way or other can satisfy a human need.

The sum total of these acquired inclinations has been constructed, so to speak, on the foundation of the two natural innate drives.  The latter have to do only with the most essential goods; they push the human person, so to speak, toward these necessary, essential goods.  The acquired inclinations, on the other hand, have to do with everything that encompasses these essential goods and elevates life and procreation to their fullest human value.  We might say that these inclinations pull the human person toward the perfection of his or her being.  The natural or innate drives are independent of any knowledge in the subject while the acquired inclinations are activated by sensory knowledge.

– Psychic Wholeness and Healing.  Anna A. Terruwe, MD and Conrad W. Baars MD.  Second Edition. 2016.

The passage above requires some unpacking.

In Aristotelian anthropology there is a five-part division of powers in the soul (see my article on the division of powers in the soul).  The lowest power in human beings is the vegetative power.  These functions we share with plants and animals.  They include growth, nutrition and reproduction.  The innate drives to life and procreation are provided by this part of the soul.

But this part of the soul is the most basic.  Higher and above this power are the sensory, locomotive, appetitive and intellectual powers.  What this means is that if the drives associated with the sensory powers provide our intellect with data that leads us to conclude that in a given instance we need to forego satisfaction of the more elementary drives, then it will be in our best interest as a five-power-wielding human being to forego satisfaction of the more basic drive.  We must sometimes forego the satisfaction of the drives present in the lower part of our soul, in order to allow the flourishing and satisfaction of the inclinations provided by the higher part of our souls.

Let’s take an example.  Let’s say we are a soldier hidden in enemy territory.  The opposing troops are nearby and may see us if we move from our hiding spot.  However, we have not eaten in two days and a loaf of bread is visible in the enemy camp.  Our basic drive of self-preservation would drive us to go and get the bread.  However, the information coming through our senses tells us that an enemy is nearby.  Our intellectual cognition makes us aware of the possible consequence of capture and death should we move from our hiding spot.  The will also presents our intellect with values like hope and courage, that motivate us to endure the suffering for the sake of a possible future freedom.  Thus, the acquired inclinations of the sensory and intellectual powers over-ride the basic innate drives, and ensure we do not move from our hiding spot.

This is a very basic example, but it gives us a picture of how the different powers of the soul are supposed to function in an integrated human being.  The lesser powers serving the higher powers.

This becomes even more the case when we consider the life of grace.  There are many instances in the spiritual life where we fore-go our basic innate drives of self-preservation and procreation for e greater good.  The witness of martyrs in the early Church is a profound instance of the ability and gift human beings have of denying themselves, even life itself, in order to achieve a higher end: the witness of faith.

Martyrdom is an extreme case, but there are many smaller ways that Christians have throughout the centuries gone against their most basic innate drives in service of higher goods.  Fasting, penance, mortifications and vigils are important spiritual practices where persons deny themselves food, emotional satisfaction or sleep so as to enter into greater detachment from material and emotional goods.  These practices also cultivate purity of heart.

Vows of perpetual virginity and celibacy are in a similar category.  When a young person discerns that God has called him or her to serve in the Church in a special way that requires perpetual virginity he or she doesn’t cease to feel this urge.  As Dr. Baars and Dr. Terruwe confirmed, the sexual urge is always present.

But what the young religious or young priest feels over and above the urge to procreate is the urge to know God and to serve him in the Church.  This urge ennobles the more basic sexual urge and allows it to be expressed in a different way.  He or she will continue to cultivate friendships with the opposite sex with prudence and chastity.  The state of celibacy will, of course, preclude the establishment of intimate relationships with persons of the opposite sex.  However, the young nun or priest will continue to express affection appropriate to his or her position (different for a parish priest and for a contemplative monk) and appropriate to the given relationship.

It is well for any young person discerning a life of celibacy to contemplate our Lord’s words, right after his counsel of celibacy:

Some people brought their children to Jesus, so that he could place his hands on them and pray for them.  His disciples told the people to stop bothering him.  But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and don’t try to stop them!  People who are like these children belong to God’s kingdom. ”  And after Jesus had placed his hands on the children, he left.

– Matthew 19: 13 – 15

May God support all those who have made vows of chastity and celibacy and continue to give them the grace to live out their vocations faithfully.  May their hearts echo with the words of St. Thomas Aquinas who,when he received a vision of Christ asking him what reward he would have for his praiseworthy writings on theology and philosophy, said:  Domine, non nisi Te, that is, “Lord, nothing except you.”

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