16 September 2009

On celibacy and being a good Catholic

During my recent vacation in Mississippi, visiting family and dodging those @#$% beer-swilling squirrels, my mom asked me to come by the bank where she works to autograph copies of my prayer book purchased by her co-workers. I donned Ye Ole Habit and dutifully took up the task.

The citizens of Byhalia, MS have never seen a Dominican in habit. Most of these good folks are Baptists, Pentecostals, Church of Christ, etc. I've heard rumors that there are a few Catholics holding up somewhere on the other side of the railroad tracks, but I've never seen them. Needless to say, my appearance at the bank in habit gave rise to lots of questions. . .not to mention quite a few incredulous stares.

The question I get most often from non-Catholic Christians is: why can't you get married? True to form, this question popped up while I sat chatting with some of my mom's co-workers in the break room. Marriage is such a normal part of everyday life for most people that its absence causes quite a vacuum in their worldview. Why would anyone not get married if they could? Adding to this confusion is the unbending requirement that Catholic clergy and religious remain unmarried! It's not that we can't find someone to marry. . .we are actually forbidden to marry. This is beyond bizarre. . .so bizarre, in fact, that it must be both explained and defended.

Rather than give these women a history lesson or a theological lecture, I told them about my life as a celibate man. How celibacy frees me. How celibacy helps me grow in holiness. How I am pushed to a broader intimacy by not having to focus my love and attention on one person. And how all of these allow me to serve the Church better. Oddly enough, this all made perfect sense to them.

Here's what I didn't tell them: being a priest is the only way I can be a good Catholic. My best friend is a philosopher of astonishing intellect and insight. He knows exactly the right question to ask when I need clarity. Before I entered the Order in 1999, he asked me: "Would you be a Catholic if you couldn't be a priest?" Without a moment's hesitation, I answered, "No." That response stunned me. No? What does that mean? At first I thought it meant that I wanted to be a priest more than I wanted to be a Catholic. If priesthood were not an option, then I would simply try something else. Maybe Zen Buddhism or Unitarianism. This disturbed me b/c it seemed like my interest in Catholicism was defined by my desire to be a priest. That can't be right. Surely, being Catholic is more fundamental to me than being a priest.

Though still a "baby priest," I have come to understand that the only way I can be a good Catholic is to be a priest, and more specifically, a Dominican friar. If I am called by God to the Catholic Church, then everything I am is called. The vocation to priesthood is part and parcel of who I am as a person. Being a priest is the means through which I cooperate with God's grace and perfect my nature by participating in the Divine Life. The only way for me to grow in holiness is to grow as a Dominican priest and friar. In a very real sense, leaving the Order and/or the priesthood would be a sin for me--an act of disobedience.

For me, celibacy is the least onerous of the evangelical counsels. Not having ready access to money for what I want is frustrating, but my needs are met with generosity. However, sometimes I long for a place of my own and a normal job. Obedience is very difficult b/c I am grossly stubborn. Mama Becky says I am "bull-headed." Exactly. Just ask any of the friars! By comparison, celibacy has been easy. As a gregarious introvert, spending time in solitude is refreshing for me. I can be outgoing and animated--what preacher/teacher doesn't get energy from a responsive congregation or class full of students? But time spent with others can be exhausting. The focus required to stay in the conversation is tremendous. I often think of Captain Kirk yelling at Scotty: "Dammit man, we need more power to break free of the gravity well!" Can you see how this attitude would be disastrous for a marriage? OY!

Just as the rules of formal verse free the poet to write what he would never write without them, the vows free a religious to be the person he would never otherwise be. I think it was Chesterton who noted that the rules and regulations of the Catholic faith do not give us a prison yard but a garden. The walls of the Church do not fence in what matters; they fence out what doesn't.


  1. Celibacy is a beautiful gift from God and only His chosen ones are bestowed with such a wonderful gift.

  2. I've always heard from members of religious communities that obedience--not celibacy--is frequently the most problematic of the vows, which is something I can understand. The vow of poverty must be hard, too, especially in the face of needs and desires which are totally legitimate.

  3. Anonymous7:46 PM

    I understand your predicament perfectly. Being in my late 30's and never having been married,nor seeking marriage, it seems that one is constantly having to explain why one has chosen such an odd life, even to Catholics. Some of us just have a different vocation than marriage and family.

  4. I can just see you sitting there in full habit chatting at a bank to a bunch of ladies about sex (or the lack thereof)....betcha that was a youtube moment!