At an outdoor vigil in St. Peter's Square that veered between moments of deep reverence and outbursts of enthusiasm more characteristic of a soccer game, the pope told the gathering of priests, believed to be the largest in history, that celibacy "is made possible by the grace of God … who asks us to transcend ourselves." Celibacy would be a "scandal," he said, only in "a world in which God is not there."That sentence is so overqualified it should have never been given a job in a newspaper report. It is also loaded with some interesting implications, if you bother to mull it over for a moment.
Some critics have suggested that the vow of celibacy may at least be partly responsible for the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church, either because it is so difficult to uphold, or because it may discourage men with normal sex drives from becoming priests. [emphasis added]
For instance, I have several friends who are single and who are quite clearly not seeking to get married; they have chosen to be chaste, single Catholics. So are they more likely to be sexual predators and molesters? Oh, that's not what's being said? I'm not convinced.
I also know, from my friendships with various priests and religious as well as from reading history and lives of the saints, that not only is it possible to choose and live a life without ever having sex, it can be accomplished with joy, discipline, and profound charity (St. Francis, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross immediately come to mind.). I'm sure it is difficult, but it is not "so difficult" that is cannot be done. On the contrary, there have been hundreds of thousands, even millions, of men and women who have made vows that meant not being married, not "having sex."
So what has changed in the past fifty years or so? Have sex drives changed? Have we become so liberated that we are now enslaved (yes, oh yes, we have)? Or has the dominant cultural attitude been one that says, in so many ways, "You aren't normal unless you have sex." Which is why, I have no doubt, the reporter writes about how "it may discourage men with normal sex drives..." The implication being that the only men who should be celibate priest are those without "normal sex" drives. Which, if you think about it, is a roundabout way of implying that many priests are somehow abnormal, that is, lacking. They aren't fully human in the eyes of the world.
The crazy thing (well, one of many crazy things) is that the idea that someone must have sex in order to be "normal" has become the norm even while sexual acts and interests have becoming increasingly abnormal. We now live in a culture where many people think an active homosexual is more "normal" than a single person who has chosen to consecrate themselves and not "have sex" (that term, "have sex," is itself a curious phrase, with a troubling consumerist, self-absorbed tone to it). That is truly perverted.
"Okay," you might say, "you've made far too much out of the sentence above." On one hand, yes, I have: I've likely put far more thought into my comments than the reporter put into that sentence. Besides, the sentence is indeed factual: Some critics have suggested, etc., etc. True enough. But, then, many defenders of the celibate priesthood have suggested that the acts of sexual abuse and molestation may at least be partially caused by homosexual men or even men who saw the priesthood as a haven for their homosexual interests. Not to mention the massive seismic shift in seminaries and in the Church at large initiated and encouraged by various leaders (clerical and lay) who suggested or said outright in the 1960s and 1970s that celibacy was on the way out because it is old-fashioned and repressive. And what of the cultural earthquake brought on by "The Pill" and the "sexual revolution," which informed us in the shaking and quaking that everyone should lighten up and get down with it, which in turn has resulted in a coarsening of basic mores that would embarrass cave men.
In the end, my headline is wrong: the sentence is not meaningless. It is the sort of common wisdom that every good girl and parroting boy must attach to any discussion of the Catholic Church and the priesthood: "Well, you know, many experts..." and "Hey, everyone knows that it's not normal..." and so on.
And the "point" is to manufacture and cast an ever-present shadow—of suspicion, mild disdain, open contempt—on the priesthood, to question its existence, deny its necessity, and reject its claims.
Come to think of it, that's exactly what so many tried to do to Jesus while he walked the earth, and what many more try to do today: cast suspicion or open contempt on Jesus, question his existence, deny his necessity, and reject his claims. Some try to deny his existence altogether. More successful and widely heard are those who "normalize" Jesus and say he was just another guy, or a good guy with a great message, or a married guy who was misunderstood, or a spiritual giant whose message of inclusiveness and tolerance was kidnapped and misused by (pick one or a combination thereof) Paul, the other apostles, Constantine, "the Vatican," the popes.
Because, in the end, there are two basic ways of living: we can conform ourselves to reality or try to conform reality to ourselves. God is the ground of reality and Jesus Christ is, we might say, the Incarnate manifestation of reality, for he is the Alpha and the Omega; the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Jesus calls each of us to be truly human, which means being freed from sin, delivered from death, made a new creature filled with the divine life, conformed to Christ's likeness, empowered by the Holy Spirit, called home by the Father, meant to spend eternity in beatitude with the Triune God, the Creator of heaven and earth. He calls us. He initiates. He beckons.
But we are tempted to not only reject the call, but to act as though the call is an act of raw coercion. We want to call our own shots—or, specifically, to remake Jesus in our likeness, to empower ourselves with the spirit of the age, to call this transitory land our home, to spend eternity in perpetual static silence before the mirror reflecting the glory we are convinced we surely possess, even while we are flooded with darkness and drowning in despair, stuck in the bitter ice of the Inferno.
The priest, the religious brother and sister, the father and mother, the single man and woman who respond to the call of Christ are called to perfection, which is, in fact, the normality of the heavenly calling: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). We are called to follow Christ in the vocation he shows us, and that means being considered lacking, abnormal, weird, strange, and even dangerous by those who think abnormal and sub-human is perfectly normal and fully human. "The modern world is insane," wrote Chesterton, "not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal."
Normality is a gift from God; the priesthood is a gift from God; the opportunity to defend, explain, and share both is a gift from God.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Excerpts:
• Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI Proclaiming a Year for Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the "Dies Natalis" of the Curé of Ars
• Surrendering to the Healing Power of Christ's Own Chastity | Dn. James Keating, Ph.D.
• St. John Vianney's Pastoral Plan | Fr. John Cihak
• The Blessed Virgin Mary's Role in the Celibate Priest's Spousal and Paternal Love | Fr. John Cihak
• The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak
• The Seminary as Nazareth: Formation in a School of Prayer | Deacon James Keating, Ph.D.
• Holy Christians Guarantee Holy Priests | Bishop Fulton J. Sheen
• Priest as Pastor, Servant and Shepherd | Fr. James McCarthy
• The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest
• Why Preaching | Peter John Cameron, O.P.
• Satan and the Saint | The Feast Day of St. John Vianney | Carl E. Olson
• The Ingredient for Priestly Vocations | Rev. Jacek Stefanski
• Becoming a Man of God | An interview with Fr. Larry Richards
• The Year for Priests and Its Patron | Sandra Miesel