In our age of hyper-sexuality I would like to offer a few thoughts on celibacy and chastity. I offer these thoughts as a publicly professed celibate of fifteen years and someone who has remained chaste throughout my life.
We know the scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church as of late and we hear from some corners the (seemingly) automatic and almost knee-jerk equating of celibacy with sex abuse.
Also, there are many voices in our culture that promote sexual acting out before marriage as the healthy norm and any attempt to curtail, moderate or even abstain from this acting out as unhealthy, repressive and deviant.
To the first concern (and as a way of entering into this discussion) I would like to share some thoughts taken from a recent article by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York City in which he shares an encounter in an airport. (A link to the full article is found after the quote.)
As I (Archbiship Dolan) was waiting with the others for the electronic train to take me to the terminal, a man, maybe in his mid-forties, waiting as well, came closer to me.
“Are you a Catholic priest?” he kindly asked.
“Sure am. Nice to meet you,” says I, as I offered my hand.
He ignored it. “I was raised a Catholic,” he replied, almost always a hint of a cut to come, but I was not prepared for the razor sharpness of the stiletto, as he went on, “and now, as a father of two boys, I can’t look at you or any other priest without thinking of a sexual abuser.”
What to respond? Yell at him? Cuss him out? Apologize? Deck him? Express understanding? I must admit all such reactions came to mind as I staggered with shame and anger from the damage of the wound he had inflicted with those stinging words.
“Well,” I recovered enough to remark, “I’m sure sorry you feel that way. But, let me ask you, do you automatically presume a sexual abuser when you see a Rabbi or Protestant minister?”
“Not at all,” he came back through gritted teeth as we both boarded the train.
“How about when you see a coach, or a boy scout leader, or a foster parent, or a counsellor, or physician?” I continued.
“Of course not!” he came back. “What’s all that got to do with it?”
“A lot,” I stayed with him, “because each of those professions have as high a percentage of sexual abuse, if not even higher, than that of priests.”
“Well, that may be,” he retorted. “But the Church is the only group that knew it was going on, did nothing about it, and kept transferring the perverts around.”
“You obviously never heard the stats on public school teachers,” I observed. “In my home town of New York City alone, experts say the rate of sexual abuse among public school teachers is ten times higher than that of priests, and these abusers just get transferred around.” (Had I known at that time the news in in last Sunday’s New York Times about the high rate of abuse of the most helpless in state supervised homes, with reported abusers simply transferred to another home, I would have mentioned that, too.)
To that he said nothing, so I went in for a further charge.
“Pardon me for being so blunt, but you sure were with me, so, let me ask: when you look at yourself in a mirror, do you see a sex abuser?”
Now he was as taken aback as I had been two-minutes before. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Sadly,” I answered, “studies tell us that most children sexually abused are victims of their own fathers or other family members.”
Enough of the debate, I concluded, as I saw him dazed. So I tried to calm it down.
“So, I tell you what: when I look at you, I won’t see a sex abuser, and I would appreciate the same consideration from you.” (http://blog.archny.org/?p=1127)
The statistics are there for all to see, the percentage of sex abusers among celibate clergy is not any higher and in most cases is lower than other professions and lifestyles. To automatically determine celibacy as the determining factor in a priest who is a sexual abuser is similar to automatically assuming marriage as the determining factor for a married man or woman who sexually abuses another. If we cannot say that the whole institution of marriage is corrupt because of the sins of some married persons then we cannot say that celibacy is inherently corrupt or deviant either. It is not the state of life that is at fault in these cases; it is the failure to live them out authentically and truthfully. This is important precisely because this is an extremely sensitive issue that cuts across all gamuts of society and is causing great pain and suffering, so we must be precise in our determinations. Generalizations do no good in this regard; they muddy the waters and in fact cause more harm than healing in this wound affecting all of society.
Many voices in our society claim that sexual activity before marriage is to be encouraged and seen as healthy (therefore promoted) where any attempt whatsoever to curtail or abstain from sexual activity is repressive, unhealthy and should be viewed with suspicion. Often, proponents of this view will point to religion (specifically Christianity) and its guilt mechanism as the main culprit in an unhealthy and deviant denial of sexuality.
I agree that religion (here I will speak to Christianity, being that this is my own faith) has been used and continues to be used by some in an unhealthy repressive way in terms of sexuality. But as a chaste and celibate person I believe this repressive use of Christianity vis-a-vis sexuality is in fact a misuse of the faith and demonstrates a profound misunderstanding in regards to what the Christian faith actually says regarding what sexuality is and also the truth of the human person.
Christianity teaches abstinence before marriage for all persons precisely because it holds sexual intimacy as something profound and beautiful (not negative) – an utterly unique and intimate sharing of a man and woman that needs to be safeguarded, honored and protected. Christianity also teaches abstinence before marriage because we deeply hold to the dignity of the human person. To be very blunt in order to make an important contrast – we are not dogs in heat; we are human persons. We are more than just pure instinctual and physical desire. To recognize this does not deny the power or validity of these movements within our persons but locates them within a larger and needed context. Further, because of the awareness of this larger context people are never to be used as mere objects for ones own pleasure. Lets explore a recent occurance that I think demonstrates a breakdown of this larger context.
Recently there has been a story (and video thanks to our digitalized age) of two college students having sex in public. Now, are we made better by this or are we lessened? Lets approach it this way and lets be honest, would we want our five year old niece or nephew watching this video or playing outside one day and seeing this? If uninhibited sexual activity is the healthy norm then we should have no problem with a child seeing this type of activity. But we do – our conscience reacts – now is that reaction repressive or is it an honest recognition that we human beings are made and meant for something more and better and that the context (or really lack of context) in which this activity occurred offends precisely because in fact it cheapens and makes squalid something meant to be beautiful?
The truth that I have come to realize is that celibacy and chastity, when authentically and truthfully lived, are not denials of living but are in fact expressions of passionate and authentic living. Celibacy and chastity do this by witnessing to a great truth regarding sexuality and the human person that a casual approach to sexual activity can never attain to. The truth being this: we are body and spirit. Why would we do with our body what we are not ready to do with our spirit? It is a question of authenticity. Further, if body and spirit are ready to unite with another person shouldn’t it be held within a context that honors and nourishes that union? Don’t we protect our most valued possessions? Chastity does not negate sexuality, the opposite is in fact the case – it upholds the dignity of sexuality by upholding the dignity of the human person.
But sometimes we stumble. The physical passions can be very strong and sometimes we can sin against chastity. As a confessor I recognize this and also as a human man who also knows temptation. Here, our honest guilt must come into an honest encounter with God’s grace and mercy. Forgiveness and healing is possible. But it is important to note here the same assertion made above – our stumbling and sometimes less than authentic living out of chastity reflects on our weakness rather than on any presumed unhealthiness or deviancy of the chaste state.
A further thought on celibacy.
I have come to believe that celibacy scares the holy bejeebers out of some people. Why? In the Christian understanding celibacy makes absolutely no sense apart from an awareness of the dawning of the Kingdom of God.
His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Mt. 19:10-12)
The celibate by his or her very life witnesses to something more than this world. The celibate’s very life offered in this call of grace points to the dawning of God’s Kingdom where all sin, injustice, falsities, lies and oppression will be met and will be vanquished. The Christian celibate foregoes marriage not because marriage and sexual activity are evil or of lesser value but because his or her very life is to be a witness to the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in our world. This is a frightening prospect for some people and some worldviews and well it should be. For the believer it is the great hope and assurance. Simply put, celibacy challenges worldly assumptions.
I know that these are complicated issues and I know that we live in turbulent and confusing times. I offer these thoughts in the humility of a disciple living his own life day by day calling upon God’s grace and mercy and also as a priest concerned for the true good of others and who grows weary of seeing others (especially our young people) sold a cheap bill of false goods that, in fact, end up hurting rather than liberating.