Let’s have a little refresher on priestly celibacy and why our Church practices it, especially in light of the recent news story about a priest who was dismissed from the Vatican for being in a sexual relationship. The media honed in on the fact that this relationship was with another man, but don’t be fooled into thinking that was the issue here. There were several good reasons the Vatican dismissed this priest, and the man’s orientation had little to do with the decision, if it had anything to do with it at all.
The decision had everything to do with this man’s integrity. He knowingly made a promise to practice celibacy and not only did he break that promise, but he called a press conference to brag about it. If he committed the same errors with a woman and bragged about his relationship with her the result would have been the same, and rightfully so. The Church is better today without a priest like this serving in this role.
The same can be said of simplicity of life and obedience as well, which are also promises that men make upon receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders. If a priest called a press conference to brag about his disobedience or his luxurious lifestyle he should also be dismissed. That the media is focusing on this man’s orientation is a disservice to everyone who relies on the media to learn about what is really going on in the world.
Of course, that doesn’t clear up the controversy. Rather, it shifts the controversy to whether or not celibacy is something that should be expected of human beings. I have been outspoken in favor of the discipline and expect that I will continue to be in favor of this discipline for the foreseeable future. Specifically, I believe that when celibacy is joyfully lived it builds faith in the Church like little else can.
I believe this because my own faith in God was inspired by priests in my parish growing up. Even though I was too young to understand how the human body worked, I knew that families were good and that Fr. John and Fr. Jim must really love God a lot to give up having a family. Their witness caused me to ask deep questions about faith and explore my own relationship with God. If they had wives and kids, their vocation would have been more like a career rather than a courageous act of faith and love.
Of course, being that we live in a sex-obsessed culture in which having a fulfilling “sex-life” is the pinnacle of human accomplishments, the possibility of celibacy will be questioned. This, however, is why celibacy is so important. Joyfully lived celibacy reveals the freedom that we have in Christ and that it is possible to do his will. It reveals to the young that it is possible to abstain from sex prior to marriage. It reveals to the married couple that it is possible to abstain from intercourse during fertile periods to avoid pregnancy. It reveals to a world that has plenty of sex but experiences little love where true love is really found.
Of course, in order to understand celibacy it must be viewed in the context of love. Believe it or not, I actually love Jesus Christ and His Church enough to lay down my life for her – which Jesus teaches is the greatest act of love (John 15:13). Celibacy is not a “No” to marriage and sex. Nor is the practice intended to convey a message that marriage and sex are unholy. Celibacy is a “Yes,” to the love that God reveals to us on the Cross. It’s a “Yes” to serving the Kingdom of God with an undivided heart (1 Cor 7:29-34).
Many are under the erroneous impression that they are somehow supporting their priest by advocating a change in the practice of celibacy. I’ve actually had people brag that they signed a petition for the Vatican to change that “rule.” In my experience this is not only unsupportive, but discouraging. The best thing that a person can do to support their priest in their celibacy is to receive that gift with joy and gratitude, which is how we should always receive gifts. One way to joyfully receive the gifts priests make by laying down their lives is to live the Catholic Faith. It is to receive the gift that the priest offers his people by participating in the Church’s sacraments and listening to him teach the word of God, to which he has dedicated his life.
So don’t feel bad for priests. The majority of us love being priests and wouldn’t change anything about how we live. We love the Church and we love you. It was worth it to Jesus to lay down his life for you, and you are worth it for us to lay down our lives as well.