Wenceslao Vial, Psychological and spiritual maturity, Benefits and challenges of Christian celibacy   Reflections on the celibacy of priests, religious and lay people

Benefits and challenges of Christian celibacy  

Reflections on the celibacy of priests, religious and lay people 

Wenceslao Vial

Is celibacy still necessary in the Catholic Church?

«What are you going to find here...? It depends on what you are looking for», I read at the entrance of an ancient temple. How useful is this consideration, open to surprise and amazement, at the crossroads of life! Christian celibacy, as a renunciation of marriage for the love of God, is a lifestyle that does not cease to attract many.

As healthy as other options, celibacy is a source of serenity, balance and happiness. Abundant scientific articles demonstrate that it allows affective and relational maturity, provided that it is chosen and lived in a human way. That is to say, whoever enters this path knows what he is looking for, he should do it freely, coherently and persuaded that his project is worthwhile and makes sense.

When embarking on an adventure, there are many details that are discovered over time. Moving forward implies enthusiasm and a capacity for admiration. When it comes to a commitment of love, the key is to make it vibrate every day. And in this task we are not alone, because Jesus Christ, who, being a perfect man, chose celibacy for himself, being also God, does not cease to help with his grace.

From human love to divine love

The first thing to look for when faced with the dilemma of marriage or celibacy is love. Those who seriously reflect on it agree that love is not reduced to instinct or the use of sexuality. In practice, the signs of this affective reality are obscured by various emotions, initial charms and pleasures; and it is not uncommon for bonds which were meant to be definitive end up being broken.

For this reason, in human love it is essential to advance from instinctive physical-sexual attraction, to recognize the psychological qualities of the other person, which go to make up that attraction. But this is not the goal either: what is proper to the human being is to go higher, to reach the complete love that discovers the value of the other person with his unique dignity, and yearns for his good even at the cost of sacrifice. At this level the greatest happiness is obtained and a stable and lasting self giving shows the way forward. One experiences the joy of being for him or being for her.

In order to live celibacy serenely, it is necessary to understand the type of love that we have described, and to give great value to marriage. Even the celibate person loves humanly. It could not be otherwise. But by a particular choice and response, respecting the sentiments between man and woman, he decides to give himself completely, to renounce the formation of a family and to follow Jesus Christ in a particular way.

The celibate person allows himself to be possessed by a personal God. He seeks to respond to His love and the gift He offers. In some Eastern religions, celibacy is promoted as a means of avoiding emotion and appetites, considered dangerous for wisdom. Christian celibacy values affectivity and has another objective: to give oneself, to complicate one's life, in order to love and serve all.

Serving in and with celibacy encompasses three classic theological meanings: giving witness that makes one think of eternal life; focusing on Christ by imitating more directly his way of life and His being a spouse of the Church – a meaning that stands out in the priest; and being more available to bring others the good news of the Gospel.

An exclusively functional vision, that of being useful for something, would take away strength and courage. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was able to be more available and serve the needy by being celibate. The value and meaning of her celibacy would not have diminished if she had devoted herself to other occupations, or to a patient and hidden work in the same place. Celibacy is a condition capable of fulfilling the heart and its yearnings for goodness; it is a response to Christ who wants, calls and asks some to leave everything, like the young man who goes out to meet him when he goes to Jerusalem (cf. Mt 19:21).

To say yes fills us with joy and increases the capacity to love. The celibate person lives an adventure of love and friendship with God, while at the same time loving and welcoming everyone. He rejoices without measure in bringing God, who is Love, to other people, and he is able to delight in expressions of human love which are lifted up to a supernatural plane. This explains, for example, how Montse Grases, a 17-year-old girl from Barcelona who had chosen celibacy and was declared venerable in 2016 by Pope Francis, in the midst of a painful illness, vibrated with the song: «I remember that time when I knew you... and I fell in love with you... Three things I offer you: Soul to conquer you, heart to love you and life to live it with you».

Identity of the celibate person

Faith in a God who loves us and whom we can love all our lives is the basis of the identity of the celibate person. This project is built on it: a commitment of love, an intense and strong friendship with Christ, a sense of special belonging to the one who lived for all humanity with complete self-giving, without contracting marriage. The celibate person has Jesus as a model also in this aspect of his existence, and transmits his closeness to others. With reason and heart, he seeks to understand the advantage of the life that the Lord recommended and chose for himself.

The essential characteristics of masculinity or femininity shine in a new way. The celibate person desires a spiritual fruitfulness, which fills his aspiration to fatherhood. The celibate woman also fulfills her desire for motherhood. St. Josemaría said: «There are single women who are a source of happiness and peace. They see that things get done and spend themselves generously in the service of others. They are mothers in a deeper and more real way than many who are mothers only in a physiological sense» (Conversations, n. 106).
Spiritual fatherhood and motherhood are not identified with having followers. They are more like the office of the good shepherd, who takes care of the lost, needy, small sheep... and comes to give his life for them. It is the Lord's interest in the multitudes, his delicate concern for feeding and healing them, his prayer for them to the Father and his example in serving them.

The celibate woman and man esteem the qualities and virtues of persons of the other sex, they can continue to learn from each other, and there is room for a certain prudent friendship between them that does not harm their dedication to God. They renounce a relationship aimed at another type of love, at the specific acts of sexuality and all that may favor or precede them - intimacy, courtship, caresses, etc. - but not the expressions of their way of being which are shown at all times and are another sign of their commitment.
The understanding of the feminine or masculine being and the coherence of thoughts and actions with the chosen ideal reinforce identity. When coherence is lacking and double lives open up, mental processes and the logic of thought are broken, and psychic peace is compromised.

People who surrender to God in celibacy must seek this standard of coherence. They are not beings without ties, relationships, kinship or subjection. Like those who marry, they also have a bond, a way of being and of belonging to God that manifests itself in the way of speaking, of dressing, of eating, of praying... This does not necessarily get expressed as material differences, which in the case of the laity who live celibacy may not exist, but rather in the fact that all their actions reflect and make known the inner light they possess.

Coherence understood in this way is related to unity of life, which prevents dispersion or decomposition. It allows growth and, after a trial period, a free and definitive decision to take root. The possibility of an irrevocable act, founded on love, is a capacity of the human will. We are not tied to the immediacy of the emotions, of likes and dislikes. Without eliminating affectivity, we can subordinate it to rationality.

A person who lives celibacy out of love, will always have to make an effort in the face of the demands of sensuality, trying to see with the eyes of faith. Whoever masters himself will have carved out in his life the identity that God has wanted for her or for him.

Interiorizing the call in celibacy

The identity that is configured with the call to celibacy is not exterior, like a dress. Following the advice of Saint Augustine, it is necessary to turn our gaze interiorly, where we could also read: what are you going to find here...? as at the entrance of the temple to which I was referring at the beginning. And with the help of grace we find what is most precious: Jesus Christ and his love, which fills us with optimism in spite of our personal limitations. With the conviction that «life is just on loan» (V. Frankl), one wishes to fill it with meaning and to give the best of oneself.

The true meaning of celibacy can be lost due to a lack of faith, or distorted by a misunderstood love or focus on self. When sincere concern for others, the desire to love and to express that affection ceases, the sense of surrender is weakened and space is given over to sadness. A cold heart develops on the inside.

We have the means to avoid this cooling down: in addition to faith, charity and hope. Those who love God and know they are loved by Him do not make celibacy «a comfortable single life that provides the freedom to be independent, to move from one residence, work or option to another, to spend money as one sees fit and to spend time with others as one wants» (Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 162). If someone looked for these comforts, he would notice the emptiness and boredom, which can lead to substitute pleasures, also in the field of sexuality. It is always possible to start the search again, to trust in grace, to return with hope to the initial project.

A commitment to complete love is entertaining and enriching. But even in human love, if you forget the mission, if you are egocentric, even pleasure is lessened and diseases can arise. Without a good interiorization of the gift, which makes it possible to overcome selfish pursuits of pleasure, «the wings of the spirit are cut off» (H. Remplein).

Psychological obstacles in celibacy

A famous psychiatrist was recently asked about the most common cases in his practice, and he replied: «The usual, people who have not been loved and do not know how to love». In order to find serenity in celibacy, and also in marriage, it will be indispensable to remedy this sad life situation, should it occur.

The privileged place to learn how to love is the family, that is why it is so necessary to take care of it. Among the factors that favor affective incapacity, the experiences of separation or loss of parents, and physical or psychological abuse in childhood stand out. In our digital age, there is an increase in affective problems in adolescents already exposed to child pornography, which acts in them as an abuse.

Many other difficulties impede or make the path of celibacy more arduous: a turbulent past in sexuality, experiences that leave indelible traces, persistent identity defects in any dimension, personality traits such as perfectionism, affective instability, the tendency to insecurity and scruples and victimism, the lack of self-esteem or self-love, indispensable to love another, limited autonomy, pathological dependencies or addictions, etc.

Noticing some deficiency should lead to a desire to solve it, because celibacy assumed without the adequate conditions can lead to psychological and spiritual damage. I would discourage celibacy for anyone who has not reached the necessary maturity - serenity, affability, self-control, acceptance of one's own limitations, balance of judgment, etc. -, or suffers from a personality disorder or a serious psychic illness, is obsessed by sexuality, lives it unrestrainedly or does not practice a serene, peaceful and stable effort in the virtue of chastity, with a full understanding of its meaning.

Recognizing one's own difficulties can be difficult, so it is important that others, with affection and patience, help discern whether celibacy is appropriate. God has made this kind of help available through spiritual direction or a specialist in more complex cases. From the outside, it will be easier for someone to warn us that the search begun is going astray, or that it has lost focus.

Persevere in amazement, living happy with the gift of celibacy

In order to move forward, to see and find what one had come to seek, it is essential to purify the heart, as the Lord teaches us: «Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God» (Mt 5:8); and which the Pope synthesizes with these words: «Keeping a heart free of all that tarnishes love: that is holiness» (Gaudete et exultate, n. 86).

Purity in desires and affections leads to going out of oneself towards God and towards others. The face of Jesus Christ is discovered, with ever new wonder, in the faces of others. 

One aspires to be one forever and trusts in the hopeful and humble conviction of Saint Paul: «He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion» (Phil 1:6).
When one sincerely seeks Christ, one finds Him and loves Him. Certain are the words of the angel in the famous story The Shoemaker's Apprentice, by Tolstoy, who at the end of his mission on earth, after having observed human limitations, realizes that God «wants everyone to live for others»; and that «men who believe that they live only for themselves, in reality do not live because they do not live by love».