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Celibacy and the Benefits of Priestly Loneliness

With the news that Pope Francis might relax the rule of priestly celibacy in certain regions, there has been much celebration in certain quarters of the Catholic world. Many of those celebrating see celibacy primarily as a burden that forces unnecessary loneliness onto priests.

What they fail to see is that such loneliness can have great moral value for Christians.

A passage from W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country, describing Gottfried Keller’s novel Green Henry, hints at this value through a haunting depiction of loneliness:

It says much that in Keller’s work the true lover is barely more than a child – for example, the young Heinrich Lee in the chapter in which, locked in the theater overnight, still wearing his monkey costume and with Mephistopheles’ cloak around his shoulders, he wanders around by moonlight on the stage amid all the rustling paper splendors, raising the curtain, and in the orchestra pit, at first tentatively and then with increasing force, begins to make the kettledrums roll until finally a veritable crescendo of thunder echoes through the darkened auditorium and rouses the beautiful actress who shortly before has breathed her last upon the boards.

“It was Gretchen, just as I had last seen her,” thus Lee’s account in his recollection of his theatrical adventures as a monkey: “I shuddered from head to foot, my teeth chattered, and yet at the same time a powerful sensation of joyful surprise flashed through me and made me glow. Yes, it was Gretchen, it was her spirit, although the distance was too great for me to distinguish her features, making the apparition seem even more ghostly. With mysterious gaze, she appeared to be searching the hall; I pulled myself upright, I was drawn forward as if by powerful, invisible hands, and, my heart beating audibly, I stepped over the benches toward the front of the stage, pausing at every step. The fur covering muffled my footsteps so that the figure did not notice me until, as I climbed up to the prompter’s box, the first moonbeam fell like a streak across my strange costume. I saw how she fixed her glowing eyes on me, horrified, and then shrank back in alarm, but silently. I trod one quiet step nearer, and halted again; my eyes were opened wide, I held my trembling hands aloft while, a glad fire of courage running through my veins, I made for the phantom. Then it called out imperiously: ‘Halt! You little creature, what are you?’ stretching out its arms threateningly against me so that I stood still, rooted to the spot. We looked fixedly at each other; I recognized her features now. She was wrapped in a white nightdress, her neck and shoulders were bare and gleamed softly, like snow by night.”

Adolf Muschg has said of Keller that it would have required a miracle of empathy and consideration to overcome the feelings of social and physical inferiority from which he suffered. This scene in the theater presents us with just such a miracle. The actress removes the little creature’s mask, enfolds him closely in her arms, and kisses him repeatedly on the lips, because, as she says afterward, he has not yet become the rogue he will turn into later, just like all the others, once he has grown up.

This surreal passage reveals a vital truth: the best cure for loneliness is to share it with someone else, to spend intimate time with another lonely person. After all, only the lonely can truly empathize with the lonely; only a boy alone at night, locked in and lost between childhood and manhood, can console a lonesome ghost. The former is torn between the tempting identities of animal (“wearing his monkey costume”) and spirit (“with Mephistopheles’ cloak around his shoulders”), and the latter is torn between this world and the next. In short, both are broken, liminal figures.

Walker Percy describes such figures’ loneliness with almost identical imagery in his novel Love in the Ruins, diagnosing this loneliness as “chronic angelism-bestialism that rives soul from body and sets it orbiting the great world as the spirit of abstraction whence it takes the form of beasts, swans and bulls, werewolves, blood-suckers, Mr. Hydes, or just poor lonesome ghost locked in its own machinery.” This diagnosis could apply to all of us; we humans are too animalistic to be mere spirits, and too spiritual to be mere animals, so we find ourselves feeling only somewhat at home in this material universe; we feel somewhat lost here, pulled between two worlds (which is why Christianity promises, at the end of time, the union of heaven and earth). And yet, even in this world, there is some consolation from this lonesome state of homelessness, as the meeting of Heinrich and Gretchen reveals: even though these characters are lost in liminal space, they find comfort in being lost together.

The minister of the Eucharist, the priest – being a representative of Christ on Earth – is called to give himself to the lonely. A priest I know told me a true story from his life that powerfully illustrates this calling. When he was a seminarian, he went on a weeklong silent retreat at a Catholic college. He was unsure at that time whether celibacy would be possible for him, and because he had to be silent for a week – with no media or conversation to distract him from God and himself – that uncertainty became massively magnified in his perception. So when a group of beautiful coeds walked past him one day on campus, a combination of desire and despair overwhelmed him. Would he be able to give up such beauty to pursue the priesthood? Would he be able to sacrifice the possibility of intimacy with such women? In that moment, celibacy seemed impossible.

But right afterward, he saw a mentally and physically handicapped man pass. He realized that that man would also never experience intimacy with such beauty. And, in a moment that he has since deemed miraculous, his overwhelming desire for romantic love was transformed into a desire to devote his life to such lonely people by becoming one of them. He saw the face of Christ in that handicapped man; he saw that he would be devoting himself to Christ by devoting himself to the lonely, the unloved. From that day on, he viewed celibacy not only as possible (though still difficult), but preferable for him. He came to understand that the greatest call is to share in others’ loneliness, to be lonely together with them and thereby come to better know God – the God who made himself lonely.

So if Pope Francis relaxes the rule of priestly celibacy, he will be depriving many priests of this opportunity. He will be conceding to the logic of this world, which desperately flees from loneliness and thereby turns away from the face of the crucified Lord.

27 thoughts on “Celibacy and the Benefits of Priestly Loneliness”

  1. Very good. A perspective we don’t consider!

    Also the solitariness has been useful in my life. If I was a more social person, I daresay I probably wouldn’t have read or learned anywhere near as much as I know now about the faith.

    Have I ‘missed out’ on many things and experiences? Sure! But I do not have regrets. I would not trade this in for any of that now.

    Our souls are immortal after all. There will be plenty of time for an eternity of happiness later. But we must get there first!

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  2. A read an advice some time ago wherein, I paraphrase, “A priest with friends is a bad if not evil priest.”

    This was one of first thoughts upon waking this morning.

  3. That image supporting this article is very good, so much to read upon.
    Poverty ( both spiritual and physical ), self-denial, veiled dread, holiness,
    great burden, and power.
    So much to see in HIS face…

  4. The priesthood is a good and mysterious state, one that outsiders can’t really understand. We should hold our priests in the highest regard, because we get to heaven with their help. They bring God, to us.
    That celibacy is even being bandied about, is tremendously damaging to the priesthood and the faith. No good pope of prior times would even allow such discussion to go on unaddressed. To simply have it be a potential, is cruel to those who have lived chastely for years and decades, their entire lives. There is a point at which one can only feel revulsion and contempt for people who just destroy because they can. These people surely deserve Hell.
    If he changes celibacy, and there is not a massive revolt which leaves the church empty, then it has been proven there is only a tiny remnant of the faithful left, and most of the church has embraced apostasy, along with this evil pope and his diabolical minions.

    • In times past society itself was quite conservative and the display of Catholic Truth embraced outwardly.
      Higher Church attendance etc….

      Perhaps the truth is there was never very many TRUE believers at any time throughout history, for surely if
      there were we would not be talking in terms of a “remnant” today.

  5. He will be conceding to the logic of this world, which desperately flees from loneliness and thereby turns away from the face of the crucified Lord.

    But isn’t that his normal modus operandi – to concede to the logic of this world because he has lost the logic of God?

  6. And on a practical level, has anyone looked at the divorce rates for married Protestant ministers?

    I know two men who left the Catholic Church, one for Eastern Orthodoxy, and the other for Episcopalianism, so they could marry, have children, and be “priests.” Both their wives divorced them after several years of marriage.

    A married priest cheats on his wife, all day, every day, because he is married to his parish, and thus neglects and abandons his wife and children, regardless of what he intends.

    Look up the term “preacher’s kids” to see what the results are.

  7. Teilhard de Chardin was a fraud in many ways. He was also involved in the controversy over the Piltdown Man hoax. A missing link hoax involving skull of an a man with the jaw and teeth of an ape. Teilhard was at the excavation with Dawson and Woodward. There is dispute on whether Dawson acted alone or acted together with Teilhard and Woodward, but there is no disputing that Teilhard has been a controversial figure involved in the middle of the whole mess over Piltdown Man and the hoax.

  8. When I was in the seminary, a visiting bishop came to speak to us about clerical loneliness. “Get close to God, or you’ll get close to someone else.”

  9. I for one chose the path of loneliness years ago when I converted. In the US; a public and true conversion to the Catholic faith can be deadly for professional and social life. It was not easy and it took years; mistakes were made. It was not a moment of epiphany like the one experienced by the seminarian in this beautiful article. It was a slow awakening to the fact that the real loneliness was the one I was living before my conversion. So much wasted time sold for mere money or thinking how to please those who could never be pleased. Such was the road to the desert but once I arrived, the bare landscape gradually revealed a reality I never before imagined. At a certain moment, when all appeared to be lost, I went before the Tabernacle. I was alone, the Church was empty. I asked “What is going to happen to me” — not even a second after I said those words, a poor mentally retarded man working as a janitor for that church, opened the door of the sacristy while singing these words out loud: “Don’t you be afraid for I am with you!” Noticing he was not alone, he stopped right there and proceeded to a corner where he started mopping the floor. The immediacy of that “coincidental” response was the answer I got. Christ was not just making conversation when He said “I will not leave you all alone. I will come back to you.” (John 14:18) Once one realizes that He is that close to us there is nothing in this world that can make you feel abandoned or alone. There is loneliness in vice, in hypocrisy, in the soul of the man that only lives for himself. That loneliness is the one we must pity the most. How terrible is the plight of those whose inner light is darkness, who see everyone around them as either instruments for his pleasure or competitors who can steal the miserable crumbs of pleasure he has gathered. That is true loneliness, dark, deadly, as cold as ice, totally devoid of love from God or neighbor.

  10. This must NEVER be done!!!!!!!! We must pray hard for the Pope that neither he nor any of his successors ever changes this.

    Our Lady explained to St. Bridget of Sweden, that a pope that would allow priests to marry, would go to hell. Mary to the visionary:

    “But now I shall tell you God’s will in this matter……
    Know this too: that if some pope concedes to priests a license to contract carnal marriage, God will condemn him to a sentence as great, in a spiritual way, as that which the law justly inflicts in a corporeal way on a man who has transgressed so gravely that he must have his eyes gouged out, his tongue and lips, nose and ears cut off, his hands and feet amputated, all his body’s blood spilled out to grow completely cold, and finally, his whole bloodless corpse cast out to be devoured by dogs and other wild beasts. Similar things would truly happen in a spiritual way to that pope who were to go against the aforementioned preordinance and will of God and concede to priests such a license to contract marriage.

    For that same pope would be totally deprived by God of his spiritual sight and hearing, and of his spiritual words and deeds. All his spiritual wisdom would grow completely cold; and finally, after his death, his soul would be cast out to be tortured eternally in hell so that there it might become the food of demons everlastingly and without end.”

    What’s also scary is all these terrible threats that IS have been making lately.

  11. I’m a human being who need the 3 A’s: attention, affection, affirmation to nourish my soul. I get these in proper and varying ways from people in my life. Some relationships have deeper sharing than others. My first love, however, is God. I do not leave the house any day without an hour in prayer in which I get His attention, affection, and affirmation, my first connection which then allows me to connect with others. Fr. Richard Perozich, retired priest Diocese of San Diego.

    • I know a married priest who came to Roman Catholicism from an Eastern Rite. I asked him the other day if he’d recommend married priests and his immediate response was “No!” When I asked why, he responded that you actually have two “vocations” — marriage and the priesthood — and that it’s very, very difficult to balance both. He said he has a duty to his wife and children just as much as he has a duty to his parishioners and it’s hard — especially since there is an assumption in the Church that he has no other commitments outside of his priestly duties.

      I could easily understand this and visualize the tug that each vocation has on your life. A sick parishioner in the hospital or a sick child at home. Which do you attend to? Such a tug.

  12. That’s interesting. I have been mulling the question over since this news item came up…and apart from a gut feeling that priests shouldn’t be married I was struggling a bit with the question why not? Reading comments about it’s just a discipline…and priest shortages in parts of the world…I was confusing myself about why I feel so strongly against it. And what I came up with as I tried to analyse my reasoning was almost exactly what is in the article. If priests are married how can they empathize with and care for and be an example to and in solidarity with the lonely unmarried people for whatever reason? The widows, the divorced who have accepted Church teaching and not remarried, the people who have never found a spouse although they might have wished to, the disabled. The priest is supposed to act in persona Christi…primarily in the Sacraments but also in his life. He is to serve God and serve his people for the sake of God. We, the parishioners, look to the priest as father….we are his family.

    Everything seems to be an exercise in throwing people under the bus. Force through the NO…what about all the “collateral damage”…all those people who never wanted it, both priests and lay people…thrown under the bus. Bring in Communion for divorced and remarried….what about all those people who never remarried after divorce and were loyal to Church teaching? Throw them under the bus. And now married priests? Throw all the lonely people under the bus.

  13. Outdated cultural references aside, Capuchin Father Keith Clark’s 1981 “An Experience of Celibacy” has a number of valuable meditations on loneliness and intimacy:

    “This realization on the level of self that I am essentially and uniquely separate, incomplete, limited and alone makes the need for intimacy personal and spiritual, not simply emotional and physical. This personal sense of incompleteness also makes me want not to be distracted from contact with myself; not to have that sense of a unique, separated, limited and incomplete self laid aside or destroyed by coming together with another.

    “…beyond the level of needs and fears, there is an abiding capacity for both loneliness and intimacy in each mature person, and because of that capacity we can enter into moments of intimacy and loneliness in a very personal and spiritual way.

    “I have recognized in human life a capacity for entering into life’s moments of intimacy despite my needs and fears. And I have recognized in human life a capacity for entering into life’s moments of loneliness. And I have experienced a freedom in choosing to enter both of those moments of life.

    “I have never experienced married life, but I have been allowed the privilege of sharing deeply in the lives of those who were preparing for marriage…who have successfully established a lasting relationship of reciprocal love…

    “I think married people have a special relationship to life’s moments of intimacy and celibate people have a special relationship to life’s moments of loneliness. I do not, however, think that married life is intimate and celibate life is lonely. Both lives have moments of each.

    “…when two people commit themselves to one another in marriage, they are committing themselves to *stand ready* to enter fully and vulnerably into life’s moments of intimacy. And if they do, they can find God concrete.

    “…when men and women commit themselves to a celibate life they are committing themselves to *stand ready* to enter fully and vulnerably into life’s moments of loneliness. And if they do, they can find God concrete.”

  14. Very interesting article!
    While I do agree that celibacy can be one of the most beautiful callings within the church, I don’t think that it should be a mandate for all priests, or rather those who wish to be ordained. The church should lift the rule of mandated celibacy or a requirement to enter the priesthood. Ordaining men who are already married does not break any church cannons, and is something that is already practiced by the eastern catholic rite as well as the orthodox church.

    • Perhaps Roman Catholic Nuns should also be allowed to marry or at least make it optional which of course
      would only be fair if we embrace the removal of mandatory celibacy for Roman Catholic Priests.
      That is the logic of your argument.

      • First of all, let us not confuse the order of monastisicm with the priesthood. Those who are monastic specifically give up everything even marriage to live in a celibate community.

        Second of all, I never claimed that priests should get married, what I’m claiming is that the church should be able to ordain married men.

        Lastly, do you even know the history of celibate priesthood and how it came to be? It did not exist in the ancient church.

        If you can find some canon or apostolic teaching which specifies for celibate priests, please present your argument. If not, keep critzem to yourself.

        • The fact that celibacy did not exist in the ancient Church is no argument for introducing it now.
          Many things did not exist in the ancient Church that do now and have done for centuries thru councils.
          It took time for mandatory celibacy to evolve and be considered for the wisdom it is.

          It’s funny because on the basis of an opinion you claim that the Church should be able to ordain married men but you
          ask me to defend mandatory celibacy on the basis of canon law or apostolic teaching. And then you go on to suggest
          I keep MY opinion of YOUR opinion to myself on a com box forum designed for that very thing, opinion.

          Am well aware of the distinctions between Monasticism and Priesthood.

          The Church was a thousand years old before it definitively took a stand in favor of celibacy in the twelfth century at the Second Lateran Council held in 1139, when a rule was approved forbidding priests to marry. In 1563, the Council of Trent reaffirmed the tradition of celibacy.

          Now, MY opinion corresponds with the following….

          Priests as Christ figures. Above all else, the Catholic priest is an alter Christus—“another Christ.” This is clearest in the sacrifice of the Mass, when the priest acts in the person of the Christ in offering the Eucharist. Celibacy configures priests more completely to Christ, who lived a perfectly chaste life. Thus they not only “participate in His priestly office” but also share “His very condition of living,” Pope Paul VI writes in the encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus.


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