Celibacy and Chastity

David Oatney Vocations

matrimonyIf you’ve been reading Life At 25 over the last few days, you know that we’ve begun a new series on the vocational life of the Church and what someone’s place might be in that vocational life, and you probably know that our previous two posts have been all about the sacrament of Matrimony. There is a reason for that, and it is because among those sacraments (Matrimony and Holy Orders) or callings (in which we would also include not only Matrimony and Holy Orders but also the consecrated religious life in its various forms), Holy Matrimony is the sacrament and calling to which the majority of people would rightly find themselves called by God. There are other callings of vocation, however, that do not involve being married, and when reflecting on how to discuss those callings from God, it seems clear that two highly inter-related topics need to be discussed in at least some detail-celibacy and chastity.

All Christians are called to live a life of chastity according to one’s state in life. Contrary to what some people might believe, living a chaste life doesn’t mean that if you are married, you can’t have relations with your spouse. Not only can a chaste person have relations with their spouse, they should enjoy doing so in love and in marital charity. Marital chastity also means being faithful not only in the “letter of the law” to one’s spouse, but also in the spirit of the law as well.

For an unmarried person, to live a chaste life means not to have sevangelical counselsexual relations outside of the bond of marriage. It is well-known that the Church asks most of her priests in the Latin or Roman Rite (the Western Church), to live lives of celibacy, that is, to live as unmarried people. Further, those pledged to the religious life take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and part of those vows mean a life of chaste celibacy. This is important to discuss because the idea of celibacy is not only foreign to many of our Protestant neighbors (let us be honest), the concept that a celibate life can be a happy and joyful one is a foreign one.

nunsThe purpose of this post is not to discuss the place of celibacy in the Church per se, but after discussing Matrimony in great detail, the remaining ecclesiastical vocations to be discussed are all somehow tied to celibacy, including the permanent diaconate wherein most permanent deacons are married, since permanent deacons make a promise of conditional celibacy to be faithful to their wife in marriage, and that they will not marry again should they be widowed. This may seem strange and uncaring to certain of our separated brethren who have known nothing but married ministers or ministers who have never committed to a vow or promise of celibacy. It is quite common to hear from certain quarters that clerical celibacy is something that the Catholic Church just “made up,” but there is ample evidence to suggest that clerical celibacy, and certainly clerical continence, is of apostolic origin. Indeed, somewhat lengthy treatises have been written to explain both the scriptural and the historical evidence for the Church’s position. The short version, however, is the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:32-34:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband.

Prayer_slideThe Catholic Church in the Latin Rite maintains that the easiest way for a man or a woman to be able to devote himself or herself fully to the Lord in the priesthood or in consecrated religious life is to remain unmarried. One 2005 survey of evangelical Protestant pastors found that 38% of them were either divorced or were undergoing a divorce, largely due to the stress of pastoral ministry. The great news is that that rate is a lot lower than the general population. The bad news, of course, is that there is a significant statistical rate to report on at all.

Priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Church, and the canonical rules governing it could be changed at any time. However, there are a lot of reasons why I believe we would want to maintain that discipline, and most of them are good material for a future post on just that topic. Some people mistakenly believe that celibacy has caused the sex abuse crisis in the Church, but we know that an abuser is an abuser, whether he or she has taken a vow of celibacy or not is irrelevant. Abusers gravitated to the Church because unfortunately, they knew that parents would trust the ministers of the Church. The celibacy vow taken by most priests has little to do with whether or not someone might abuse another person. There are pastoral reasons to allow for men who are married to enter the Catholic priesthood, such as ministers who converted from another faith tradition who might feel called to priesthood, and we have a few of those here in the Diocese of Knoxville, but these are and should be the exception, not the rule.

celibacyYou might say “Oatney, this is easy for you to say, you are married, and aren’t you a candidate for ordination to the diaconate?” Yes I am, and a deacon can be married provided that he is married before he is ordained to the diaconate. If I were unmarried at this point, guess what? I’d probably be looking at a promise of celibacy. If, God forbid, I should outlive my wife, I cannot marry again, I will be bound by the conditional promise of celibacy that I make to the bishop. In the words of Paul, deacons are to be “the husband of one wife.” (1 Tim. 3:12-13)

Word On Fire blogger Jared Zimmerer recently wrote an exceptional piece in defense of priestly celibacy in which he pointed out that priests’ primary job is to lead the flock of Jesus Christ. I’ll leave it to the reader to invest the time that I think Jared Zimmerer’s work is worth, but he does an exceptional job highlighting the reality that any man with a biological family at home would be hard pressed not to put the needs of that family before the rest of the family of God that he is supposed to lead.

Whether the life is that of a consecrated religious, priest, or single or widowed permanent deacon, chaste celibacy plays an important role in the life of those called to it. It is not the only aspect of a priestly, religious, or sometimes diaconal vocation that must be considered, but the importance of it cannot be ignored.


This post is part of an ongoing series on vocations in the Church.