Celibacy: A Truth-Telling Advantage in Oppressive Times

Editor’s note: the following comes to us from an attorney, husband, and father who, because of politics of his law firm, cannot publish under his real name. If you think that underscores the point of this article, you are correct.

On October 19, 1984, Father Jerzy Popieluszko was tortured and beaten to death by communists in the Polish Ministry of Interior.  Following months of relentless surveillance, psychological harassment, threats, and murder attempts, Popieluszko was finally kidnapped and killed. His mutilated corpse, barely recognizable as the former champion of Polish solidarity, was retrieved from the icy waters of the Vistula River.  Like Pope Saint John Paul II, Popieluszko was guilty of the unspeakable crime of championing the Polish peoples’ right to work, to form labor unions, to practice their faith, and to live as Poles.  Known as “the martyr of truth,” Popieluszko’s case for canonization began in 1997, and he was beatified in 2010.

“[I]t costs a lot to speak the truth,” Popieluszko observed.  But would he have been willing to pay that price if he had been married?  If doing so subjected his wife and children to surveillance, threats, psychological harassment, and violence?  And even if he had been willing, would he have been right to do so?

As our own dark times are revealing, one of the primary goods of celibacy is to empower priests to speak the truth regardless of the consequences.  As American life increasingly resembles Soviet-occupied Poland, we need brave priests to be shepherds of the truth and to be ready to lay down their lives for their sheep (Jn 11:10).  “[F]or the wheat of truth,” Popieluszki homilized, “one must pay the demanding price of self-sacrifice.”  Celibacy makes this possible.

“Celibacy reveals the very essence of the Christian priesthood,” Robert Cardinal Sarah observes.  “[Jesus Christ] revealed to us the fact that the true priest offers himself as a sacrifice. . . . [To be a priest] is to adopt the sacrifice of the Cross as the form of one’s whole life.”

This great good of celibacy lay dormant for much of the laity for the past last half century.  When Catholicism was readily accepted by American culture and relatively cost-free to practice, the ordinary layman may not have seen the practical need for celibacy.  Sure, a priest may have been needed for an inconvenient house call or an emergency last rite.  But Protestant pastors seemed to meet the needs of their flocks while married with children.  And don’t many professions, such as medicine and law, require 24-7 availability but allow for marriage?

Further, this good of celibacy has been obscured by the sexual and financial abuse scandals.  All too often, as the late great Paul Mankowski, S.J. sadly observed, priests have denigrated their office into a “pleasure-seeking bachelordom,” which provided “social prestige and high reputation” to men who acted on aberrant sexual desires or “who [were] incapable of facing the normally unpleasant situations presented by adulthood.”

Chesterton’s famous advice about reform is instructive here.  Before eradicating what seems like a useless custom or practice, you must first understand why it came to be.  To a man wishing to remove an apparently useless fence erected across a road, Chesterton advised, “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away.  Go away and think.   Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

For better or worse, we are now seeing the use of it.  As the basic tenets of Catholicism and Western Civilization become “hate speech,” faithful Catholics face ostracism, unemployment, or loss of freedom.  They feel alone, abandoned by their country and, more painfully, their Church.  They are afraid to speak out of fear for themselves, but even more for fear of those they love.  They would willingly step into the arena on their own, but are wary of throwing their family members to the lions.  These Catholics need priests to be the shepherds of truth.

None of this is to say that married Catholics are to avoid a life of sacrifice.  As St. Francis de Sales quipped, “The state of marriage is one which requires more virtue and constancy than any other; it is a perpetual exercise of mortification.”  And the time is near, and indeed has already arrived, when Catholic parents will face persecution for upholding their faith.  Mothers and fathers, too, must be willing to draw the line and suffer.  But parents are unwilling to lead the charge, placing their children in the line of fire.  And it is far from clear that they should be.

Thomas More, not Popieluszko, is the saint for Catholic parents.  A father of four biological children and, following the death of his wife, the daughter of his previously widowed second wife, More used every legal subtlety and social maneuver to save his head and remain in Henry VIII’s good graces . . . until he could no longer do so.  In the face of the Oath of Supremacy, the Oath of Succession, and the annulment with Catherine of Aragon, he did not rage against the king but remained silent, resigning his post as Chancellor in a final effort to assuage the king before losing his head.

As the soft totalitarianism hardens, parents throughout the country are now traveling More’s path.  How long can I stay quiet?  Where must I draw the line?  Are there still avenues of retreat?  But the celibate priest should not be so cautious and reactive.  He should confront evil head-on, embolden his parish, draw the fire of the culture of death, and bring light to society’s corners of darkness—whatever the consequences.   Just like Christ.

The priesthood is a call to be Christ to others, which includes the call to celibacy.  This vocation within a vocation is an occasion for bravery and greatness.  We laity are trapped behind enemy lines.  Lord Jesus, in Your love and mercy, send in the cavalry, celibate men willing to embrace their Calvary.

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