Celibate Chastity Revisited

We need to recognize within us the sacred space that is made only for the Lord

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Msgr. Michael HeintzI am currently reading with pleasure and great profit Bishop Erik Varden’s new book, “Chastity: Reconciliation of the Senses” (Bloomsbury, $22). A Norwegian Trappist and now bishop of Trondheim in Norway, if you’re not familiar with him, you can check out his blog, where he posts essays (often trenchant), his homilies (always beautiful) and pastoral letters to his priests and people (marked by prudence and wisdom).

This has prompted me to reflect on the commitment to celibacy made by priests in the Western Church (pastoral provision aside). As Varden points out, far too often we confuse celibacy and chastity — they are integrally related but by no means the same thing — and we tend, unhelpfully, to think of both fundamentally as negations.

Our celibate commitment should be governed and animated by the virtue of chastity. It is not sufficient simply to think that not being married and abstaining from sexual activity, expressed as a promise at ordination, is the sum total of our commitment, much less in itself a virtue. It is merely the baseline, the minimum expression of that promise. Chastity is the virtue that makes our celibacy living and effective for us personally and integral to our witness to others.

At times, the principal account given for the celibate commitment has been cast largely in functional terms: celibacy “frees” me up to be more available to the people I serve. Not untrue, but perhaps a less than robust motive for what is in some sense a deeply unnatural state. I say unnatural, but more properly, mean supernatural, as celibacy is itself a charism discerned and received, rather than merely an act of pious bravado, of white-knuckled self-discipline (a rather Pelagian construal). There are no doubt moments when, in the course of serious temptation, we may feel like we are white-knuckling it; but my point is that it isn’t primarily a matter of simple self-restraint. Chastity is about wholeness, completeness and the witness of the celibate priest as an eschatological sign, a marker that we are made ultimately for communion with God.

Those who are called to, and live out, the Sacrament of Matrimony also witness to the same mystery, by being an embodied sign of that deep communion — and yet not a replacement for it. After all, the Lord made clear that there is no marrying or giving in marriage in the age to come. Both marriage and celibate chastity, whether in consecrated or clerical life, witness in two distinct ways to the singular end for which we are all created: intimate communion with God.

Natural attraction — being struck by the beauty of a woman, for instance — is just that: natural. In itself, it is a sign of health. Unfortunately, concupiscence at work in us can speedily transmute natural attraction into disordered desire. The way to overcome concupiscence, however, is not to destroy or mute our natural attractions: It is to have those attractions rightly ordered, healed and elevated by grace.

Grace, as St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, builds on nature. So, growing in the virtue of chastity is not merely passive — simply sitting back and waiting for something magically to make us chaste (God can work that way but generally does not; he’d rather work in and through the natural order) — but requires healthy human habits — not least temperance and fortitude — that serve as the foundation for wholesome, integrated and chaste living.

In the early 1970s, the Camaldolese Aelred Squire observed that there is a “space” in each one of us — male or female, single, widowed, married, ordained, consecrated — which is made only for God, a space that no created person or thing can “fill.” The mistake made by many is to perceive the “emptiness” of that space, experience it as “pain” and seek to fill it with someone or something. In reality, that is a space only the Lord can fill, a space Squire describes as “virginal with respect to God.”

As men promised to celibate chastity, we need to recognize within us this sacred space that is made only for the Lord, and not live with the illusion that it can be filled or satisfied with any created person or thing. Pascal observed that fallen humans have a deep capacity for distraction; sometimes our experience of that “emptiness” is dealt with by distracting ourselves from it; this is another unhealthy strategy. We need to own it and receive it as a sign of what we are made for: communion. With the Lord. And with others in the Lord.

MSGR. MICHAEL HEINTZ, a priest of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, serves as academic dean and director of intellectual formation at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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