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Spotlight Report

Sacrifice and celibacy

By Kevin R. White, 3/6/2002

(Illustration / Jon Krause)
IN THE COVERAGE of the scandal of priests abusing children, the meaningfulness of celibacy in the Catholic priesthood has been questioned.

Given the appalling abuses that have disturbed us all, it is understandable that for many the significance of celibacy has been obscured. For others, eliminating the requirement of priestly celibacy is a long overdue and opening reform for the church. A reconsideration of celibacy would be helpful for this entire discussion.

The ideal of celibacy arises from a saying of Christ: "Some have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:12). Celibates in the Catholic Church, which through tradition and subsequent discipline in the Latin West now include the majority of priests, follow Jesus as those disciples who, by grace, accept this state of life in imitation of him. Christ urges this: "Whoever can accept this ought to accept it" (Matthew 19:12).

Celibates forgo marriage, which is not only the most natural but also one of the most holy of things, in order to bear witness to the definitive arrival of God's reign in the world. Through the centuries up to today, celibates remind us of this abiding presence of God. Celibates urge us to trust that God's promise of love and grace makes us rich enough and wanting for nothing more. Celibates invite us to believe.

Like marriage, which in its own way witnesses to God's presence in the world and which suffers its own distress these days, celibacy is ultimately an expression of great love. From early on in the church, this testimony has been part of being a priest. Nothwithstanding the horrible abuses, the uncertainty and troubles surrounding celibacy, like the uncertainty and troubles surrounding marriage, originate in the misunderstanding of love and sexuality.

When I vowed perpetual poverty, chastity, and obedience as a Jesuit, I also vowed to spend my life forever in my religious order. The verb "to spend" provides a fortunate ambiguity. Clearly, what is meant is that I would spend the sum of my years in this religious order. Yet I have come to realize only through the living of my vows that I also vowed to spend, that is, empty myself for the benefit of others.

Currently there seems to be a crucial misunderstanding about sacrifice and love both of which describe sexuality. That misunderstanding tells us that the spending of one's life exhausts the giver, that sacrifice destroys the one who offers.

To the contrary: Sacrifice is properly understood as self-gift in joyful freedom towards fulfillment, since losing oneself is the only way to find oneself. Spending one's life is truly transformative of one's life and one's world. Who can dispute the paradox that our lives are fulfilled only when recklessly squandered on others? "Love one another as I have loved you," Christ commands just before he opens his arms on the cross. "No one has greater love than this, to laydown one's life for one's friends" (John 15:12-13).

Noble aspirations for human existence involve great risk and require the full form of love and maturity. Here I include the hard work of marriage the indissoluble, exclusive bond between husband and wife, the fruit of which, providentially, is new life. Here I also include celibacy. Celibacy and marriage are directed toward each other; each builds the other up in their common requirement for deep roots in faith to attain lofty ends for the church and society. This is why there is our collective, intuitive horror at the sin of priests preying upon children, outdone only by the sin of parents preying upon children. Corruptio optimi pessima est: The corruption of the best is indeed the worst.

Beyond correcting the tragic mistakes made in our local church, the broader lesson we draw from these abuses is not that celibacy is no longer meaningful or possible but that we must once again learn how to believe.

The further tragedy to be avoided is withdrawing unwittingly in our justified anger into unfulfilling and earthen lives that will be hesitant before the great commitments that demand our better selves. To do so would be beneath us.

Celibates stake everything on God, convinced that God is worth a life. "We have given up everything and followed you" (Matthew 19:27). This is why we do it. How do we do it? By praying with the Psalmist: "I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, He who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 121).

The Rev. Kevin R. White, SJ, is on the faculty of Boston College High School.

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 3/2/2002.
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