In defence of celibacy

In defence of celibacy

In this past Sunday’s parish bulletin, the parish priest posted a few reflections and updates on parish life in Hamilton.

The lead item was on presbytery life. Some of what Fr Paddy wrote was tongue in cheek, but his underlying point is serious:

“How good and pleasant it is when brothers (and sisters) dwell in unity!” — Ps 133:1.

We are truly blessed to share a rich common life in the Parish House with the inclusion of Fr John Corrigan, and the return of Fr John McKinnon from his six months in Portland. The youthful energy of John ‘the younger’ and his bright and generous personality has already enriched the parish immensely. We delight to have back with us the wisdom of ‘the elder’ John. The feminine presence is well represented by Sr Marg, who quickly picks up on any trace of ‘male chauvinism!’

Our meal times are a special blessing with each taking their turn at cooking. Our debriefing on the day and conversation on current and church news, is spirited and enriching.

With three generations represented, it has been remarked that we represent granddad, mum and dad, and son! Not so! The relationship is equal, adult, and fraternal.

The thing that struck me most, when I first arrived at Hamilton, was the presbytery meal schedule. It is more typical of an era I thought had long gone. Breakfast is an individual affair, but lunch and dinner are not.

Lunch is our main meal, and the secretary and business manager and whoever else is around — we often have dinner guests — join us. The phone is diverted to voice mail for 45 minutes, so after the main course we’re free to linger over fruit and cheese and coffee.

Tea is a more modest meal, but it is an opportunity for me to perfect my pasta. (My risotto is best forgotten!) The four of us in residence eat in common, and again, the meal will last for about an hour.
When I commented on this in the first week or so, Fr Paddy made a very good point. He said we could hardly encourage the families in the parish to switch off the TV and sit around the table, if we weren’t even doing it ourselves. It’s a good opportunity to practise what we preach.

But apart from that, the meal schedule is good in itself. It makes for a happy and supportive work environment. It ensures a healthy diet. The opportunity to ‘debrief’ benefits our pastoral work. But what is most critical, I think, is that it fosters family life.

This past fortnight particularly, I’ve been astonished at how many times I’ve heard or read the claim that clerical celibacy is impossible. Not: ‘it discourages priestly vocations,’ or ‘many are called but few are chosen.’ No. The meme of the moment is that celibacy simply can’t be lived. Everyone falls sooner or later. Celibacy is impossible.

The basis of the argument is, I think, that the sexual appetite is too strong. It cannot be suppressed. It must be gratified. But if the sexual appetite is such that celibacy is impossible, then surely it follows that any form of chastity is unsustainable?

Let me be clear. None of the people who presented this argument to me suggested that chastity is impossible. The parameters of discussion didn’t go in that direction. But I think that’s the conclusion that follows, implicitly but logically. It’s not a wild leap, I think, between discounting celibacy and discounting monogamy.

Call me a naïve, but I think both are possible. And they don’t need to be spiritualised. They can be achieved through prudent decisions and an ordered lifestyle.

I do think chastity is possible. But I don’t think it is good for man to be alone. It is family life — with its own form of intimacy — which is the key not only to a happy marriage, but also I think, a happy celibacy.

If (or more likely, when) I fall in love, I’d like to think my prayer life will sustain me. But I’d be a fool to rely on it. Grace builds on nature. Which is why I’m grateful for the family life — or if you prefer, community life — of the Hamilton presbytery.

The support a celibate needs takes many different forms, but this is one of them. And it’s one I like. This sort of family life is something I hope to replicate wherever I live. Then, please God, my own experience will vindicate the possibility of a happy and faithful celibacy.