The Last Word:
From Celibacy to Godliness

Painting, Celtic Cross, oil on canvas, by Steve O'Loughlin.

By James Carroll, Contributor
June / July 2002

A staggering succession of priests accused. A total failure of responsibility by bishops. Concern in every parish. On the positive side, a surprisingly strong consensus for broad reform has taken hold among the Catholic people. On the negative, the obsessive coverage threatens to take on the character of a witch hunt, as headlines blur the distinction between genuine predators and the thinly accused.

The cloud of suspicion shadowing the entire priesthood is unfair, yet the scandal has also surfaced, especially among Catholics, a deep skepticism about priestly celibacy. That, in turn, calls into question the makeup of the sexual imagination of the Catholic Church itself. I can’t help but recall my own experience here. I spent the full decade of my 20s as a celibate man, as a seminarian and as a priest. I was 31 years old when I resigned as Catholic chaplain at Boston University and began to seek dispensation from Holy Orders. The vow of obedience was an issue and so was an alternative vocation to the writing life, but my leaving the priesthood centrally involved coming to grips with the inadequacy of celibacy as what it was defined to be – a spiritual path leading to God.

The virtues of the celibate way of life were clear to me. Living in a community of vital, committed men was like permanent membership in an intellectually challenging seminar, like being on a good team. The shared sacrifice of retiring to rooms alone at night seemed to be the key to the bond, and to our ministries as well.

The priestly fraternity was invigorating – and, we thought, a witness to something higher. Yet I could never shake a vague sense of the life’s great limitation and increasingly noted in myself and my brothers more contradiction than mystery, more narcissism than generosity. I wouldn’t grasp the real meaning of what was missing until I’d found it.

The impoverishment of contemporary language about sexuality makes it difficult to make the point, as if the problem with celibacy boils down to hormones, but what I have come to understand, over the last 25 years as a husband and father, is that sexual engagement, the reciprocity of marriage, and the creativity of parenthood are fundamental sources of engagement with God. Loving sexuality offers an intimation of the holy that is simply unavailable in any other experience.

How absurd that such a a primal truth should have come to me as a surprise. The holiness of sexuality is, of course, an assumption of the Biblical faith, if not of the neo-Platonic Christianity. It is the theme of the “Song of Songs,” and Genesis affirms that humans are the “image of God” precisely as “male and female.”

Yet a great thing about sex is the way it refuses to be spiritualized, a permanent reminder that the glory of creation is its very physicality. But abstract knowledge of this truth is nothing compared to lived experience of it, which was inhibited by an emphasis on sexual longing as, mainly, an occasion of sin.

Jansenists in the Catholic tradition, Calvinists in the Protestant –  Christianity has been all too ambivalent about sex. Catholicism has affirmed it, at most, from the margins of church thought and life. Why else are the overwhelming amount of canonized saints virgins? Whatever the positive aspects of celibacy are or ever were, its deepest meaning now is as the earth’s most dramatic instance of the repudiation of human sexuality, and that is the source of the instinctive skepticism so widely surfaced by the present crisis.

The Vatican’s recent declaration that homosexuality among Catholic priests is the disorder that needs correcting clouded this murky issue even more, since the church’s problem is with sexuality itself, whether homosexual or heterosexual. To blame the current crisis on priests who happen to be homosexual not only smacks of scapegoating and licenses the witch hunters; it deflects the far more pervasive disorder and the basic change required.

No more than the average parish priest, gay people will not take the fall for corrupt, misogynist, self-protecting clerical elite. The Vatican’s dishonesty on all matters concerned with sex – no birth control, no condoms for AIDS prevention, etc. – is now fully perceived by the Catholic people. Sexual totalitarianism will no longer succeed as an organizing principle of this institution.

The far more important point is that loving sexual union, and all that follows from it, is sacred. The body is Godly. Sensual mutuality is a sacrament. Physical expression is holy. Pleasure is divine. That is what the church must finally affirm, without ambivalence and from the center of Catholic life, instead of the margin.

Or, to put it another way, Catholic priests must be free to marry. Period. ♦

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