Why celibacy is right for me

(Simon Brubaker/THE WASHINGTON POST) There has been much talk recently about priestly celibacy. Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s new … Continued


(Simon Brubaker/THE WASHINGTON POST)

There has been much talk recently about priestly celibacy. Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s new Secretary of State, gave an interview to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, in which he discussed continuity and change in the Catholic Church. The interviewer raised the question of celibacy, and the archbishop replied that celibacy “is not a church dogma and it can be discussed because it is a church tradition,” dating to the early centuries of the church.

There was nothing new in Parolin’s comments. Celibacy is a church discipline, very different than a dogmatic teaching like the resurrection or doctrines defending the sanctity of all human life. Such teachings go to the heart of the faith and thus cannot be changed. Celibacy is a different kind of rule, open to change. While celibate priesthood became the universal norm in the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, the Vatican has always respected the practice of married priests in the Eastern Churches united with Rome, and in recent decades has made special provision for married, Anglican clergy who convert to Catholicism.

Though I am a priest, I do not have a stake in the game really. I’m a Jesuit, and men in religious orders, like the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, and the like, profess vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and live together in community. Marriage vows would be incompatible with the vows that bind me to God and to the Jesuits with whom I live and work. The question posed to Parolin goes to diocesan clergy, those mostly serving at your local parish and living in a rectory.

In this reflection, I do not want to speak for them, or settle the question about whether priestly celibacy should be optional again. Instead, let me address the more personal question: Why do I choose celibate chastity as a Jesuit, now for 17 years? What I write here about living in celibate chastity I could also say about living in poverty and obedience, for all of the vows are intended to help me love in the way that God calls me to love. In other words, trying to live chastely, poorly, and obediently frees me to love and serve in ways that give me great joy. This life is no better or worse than any other vocation (like marriage) or way of life, but it is mine.

I joined the Jesuits when I was 29 years old, so I lived as a single adult, on my own, for a number of years. In my 20s, I worked as a corporate lawyer and a high school teacher. I enjoyed this life, but even in committed, romantic relationships, there was something missing, some void that needed to be filled. I wanted to give even more to God and God’s people. As much as I loved one person, I wanted to love more broadly. Now 46 years old, I can say with confidence that I love best as a Jesuit priest.

Sometimes the vows do sting. It hurts sometimes not having an exclusive, intimate, romantic relationship. As I get older, it hurts more often not having children to call my own. Given their age, students here at Georgetown often ask me about such things: “What’s it like giving up sex, marriage, and family?” (They are mostly concerned with the first!). These are all very good things, I tell them, beautiful gifts of God.

Instead of focusing on what I may be missing, I ask them to consider what I am given by living the vows. God is very generous, I remind them, and can fill a human life in many different ways. Those vows gave me the freedom to come to Georgetown in the first place, and to work, teach, and even live in a residence hall where I am available at all hours to the 300 students who live there with me. In quieter moments, God has filled me with deep-seated peace in prayer. God has filled me with zeal to work for justice on behalf of the marginalized and vulnerable. God has given me the good company of other Jesuits with whom I live and of friends and coworkers from many walks of life. Even the struggles with my vows are a gift. Those struggles make me much more compassionate with the very natural challenges that others face in their life commitments.

As a priest, I am privileged to be with people at the most intimate moments of life: births and deaths, marriages and breakups, times of great achievement and of profound shame. I do not have my own biological children, but I have over 6,000 here on Georgetown’s main campus! I have many sons and daughters who call me “Father.” This name humbles me, for it is given with a sacred trust to create a safe place where people can experience the love, mercy, and encouragement of God. To share that space, even for a time, even knowing that I must let them go, is an immeasurable joy.

If the vows ever become for me simply an endurance contest or spiritual athleticism just to prove myself, they would not do much good for me or anyone else. The vows only make sense if they turn me outward to embrace a world, as Jesus did, which is so beautiful and so broken, and turn me inward to know God who so loves that world

Much of what I have written about my vows could be said of couples who stand before me at the altar on their wedding day. Any vows whether those of a priest or of a married couple are profound acts of faith, hope, and love. Honoring such vows can be challenging because they are so counter-cultural. In a world that tends to avoid commitment, prize independence, esteem competitiveness, value instant pleasure, and reduce everything to the practical and material, both the couple and I profess by word and action that the most authentic and joyful human life is one lived for another.

Wherever the debate ends up, my experience of celibacy has been a gift. The costs have made sense only because of the unexpected return in God’s mysterious economy of grace: the more we give of ourselves, the more we are filled.

Kevin O’Brien, S.J. is a Jesuit priest and serves as Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Georgetown University, where he also lectures in the theology department.

Kevin O'Brien
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  • Catken1

    “Any vows – whether those of a priest or of a married couple – are profound acts of faith, hope, and love.”

    So when will your church stop fighting to have some people’s civil marriages barred because they have the “wrong” assortment of chromosomes?
    You want us to respect your lifestyle and understand that your choices are right for you, even if our religions consider them abominably sinful or sick or “inherently deformed”. You don’t want to be forced or pressured by government into getting married because someone else’s religion thinks that religious leaders need to and ought to be married, and that an unmarried priest is only half a priest. Why will your church not allow the same religious freedom for gay people who don’t want to follow Catholic law?

  • tony55398

    Good for you, I’m glad you chose, to be an unmarried Priest, I just hope that others will have a choice to choose the married life. It’s what’s best for each individual. I think that Jesus made that plain, when He said that not all could accept this teaching.

  • Secular1

    Right on Cat.

  • amelia45

    Thank you, Kevin O’Brien, S.J., for such a good article, especially the balanced view that all callings can be sacred to God and one calling is not “higher” or “better” than another. It is all in what one does with one’s calling.

    I do believe that celibacy is a legitimate calling to some, but don’t believe that the calling to priesthood and the calling to celibacy need be tied together. Another article I read suggested that the Roman Catholic Church could go the way the Eastern Orthodox churches have gone and institute married priesthood, but that a married priest could not ascend the ranks of the hierarchy. I hope that is not the path chosen.

  • di89

    Another suggestion that is offered now and then would be to ordain to the priesthood men who have been deacons for a period of five or ten years. The vast majority of these men are middle or retirement age and no longer have children at home. They would have a commitment to their wives but less family obligations than men with young families, and therefore have more time for pastoral duties. It’s worth considering.

  • Secular1

    The so called priestly celibacy was instituted after several popes, with families were looking out for their families, instead of the church, namely Borgias, et al. But that did not stop anything really, cuz after that them popes started to have harems of concubines. Funny thing is that in the midst of all that a woman became the pope and ruled for several years. She was not found out until she died. That is why they instituted the office of family jewel tester at RCC. Where in whenever a new pope is elected, he is made wear a robe (and nothing underneath it) and sit on a stool with a big hole in the middle. Then the tester guy comes and feels the new popes family jewels and declares that he indeed has his family jewels and not a tunnel, before the new pope officially becomes a pope. I wonder do they draw numbers of match sticks to determine who will be the tester? Stupid silly superstition and traditions, all to ensure misogyny.

  • Hendrik Djcalculus Maison

    Secular1 i know u watch alot movies and read alot off books, please spare me that story about family jewel tester. No credible RCC theologian or historian will agree with you that Pope francis or the popes of the last two century go through a tester. I know u see that in HBO movies. Lastly celibacy was church law before the borgias. Long ago during the 13 century and 14 century. The borgias were later. Yes we who are true to catholic history call those times the Dark ages where the church was lost but again after the reformation era those abuse of power by popes reduced.

  • TLJ2210

    As a parent, his comments here about giving up something and gaining more in return remind me of friends who have chosen not to have children or fear what they will lose when they do. Yes, a parent loses independence and gains burdens often much heavier than what one thinks they can bear through the trials and tribulations of raising children. My kids have given me so much more joy and exposed me to a love beyond measure, one I couldn’t imagine before I’d had them. Sounds like this is what Father O’Brien is describing.

  • JRBasement

    Without delving into Fr. O’Brien’s personal life, I nonetheless find it frustrating that while writing an essay on chastity as a vowed religious, he makes no mention of his sexual orientation. While for most this is certainly a private matter, he himself chose to make his life experience public.

    I anticipate he, along with others, would object that whether one is gay does not matter when the topic is forgoing committed romantic relationship in the context of vowed chastity, but I cannot accept that. With dwindling vocations and a hugely disproportionate number of those who remain identifying themselves publicly or private as gay… it certainly matters.

    Simply said, at least in today’s world, being gay is not the same as being straight. Gay men face different obstacles, shoulder different discrimination, enjoy different (or fewer) opportunities for committed relationship. Fr. O’Brien writes of foregoing marriage and children, but gay men cannot marry in many parts of the US, and gay men cannot father children conventionally. It bears repeating – being gay (at least in today’s world) is simply not the same as being straight. Difference matters.

    Fr. O’Brien writes of living in community. Might the prospect of living with dozens of young, single women who share the same passions present different joys and challenges to a straight man? How are we to understand that the joys and challenges of living with a house of men does not mean something strikingly different to a gay man?

    Whether O’Brien has loved men or women is not our business – until he stands in the public square and makes his “apologia” for removing himself from all such relationships. When a defense of celibacy (something he cherishes) rests upon real people’s lived experience, what credibility does it have if those lived experiences are elided?

    How joyful I’d be to read such an essay that sprang from a place of full honesty: I’m a gay / straight priest and here is my actual life, broken open for you.

  • Rongoklunk

    Good comments Secular1. Does priestly celibacy rule out little boys too? And what about masturbation. What’s the big invisible school-master in the sky say about privately enjoying ones own body I wonder.
    When we go to Heaven do we have to give up sex dya think? Or will we have to sing hymns all day and night and read the babble in our spare time. I’m not looking forward to it.

  • msewell40

    JRB, his sexual orientation ultimately doesn’t matter in this case, because God called him from birth to become a priest, that is, to be celibate and to look past the attractions to other people. No doubt he still has them, but to whom they are oriented is irrelevant. And I might add, vocations are beginning to rise, not continuing to dwindle, and priesthood is not a haven, as so many in secular culture speculate, for homosexuals who fear some sort of culturally amalgamated concept of what their version of the Church might do if they were to claim attraction to a person of the same sex.

    You answered your own disagreement in the first paragraph; Fr. O’Brien is writing the essay as a vowed religious, so there is no need for a mention of sexual orientation. No one is saying that he does not struggle with attraction to other people, and I’d bet that upon being asked he would admit that he does. He’s still human. But he realizes that his call is to rise above it and pursue the greater calling God has in store for him, and so goes the same for those with same sex attraction. The similarity in terms does not follow that they are one in the same, mind you.

  • nkri401

    “… I do not have my own biological children, but I have over 6,000 here on Georgetown’s main campus!”

    I believe Monarchs also thought that everyone in his kingdom was somewhat like his own…

  • Top_8305

    There are instances of celibate life where the passion becomes quite subdued as one’s spirit is molded by effort and experience; conditioning, mental and emotional effort, and spiritual effort may be the attributed cause, but The Prime Mover here, God’s Holy Spirit, provides the faithful with His necessary Grace to accomplish whatever mission that God Wills for each of us.
    If our response to Him is in cooperation with His Will and Grace, our mission becomes possible for what seems impossible. That is what living in the Spirit and not our opposing Flesh can accomplish.
    Many celibate people have no difficulty with their state and it doesn’t bother them at all. Nor should it bother anyone.

  • jonminers

    Maybe you just haven’t met the right girl…

  • ubicaritas

    It isn’t really fair to lash out at every Catholic priest over the gay rights issue. Many don’t agree with the “official” stance. We support these priests and hope that they are able to convert the Church from the inside.

  • Mariapia Pollastri

    Is there a reason for prist marriage ?

  • Margaret Gordon

    Your article spoke to me. After 30 years of marriage, I have over the last ten years come to an intentional decision not to marry again. this intentional decision frees me to form deep relationships, engage in new activities, live in a different way in our deeply kind, generous, ever spiraling, whole Universe.

  • twmatthews

    “Marriage vows would be incompatible with the vows that bind me to God and to the Jesuits with whom I live and work.” Why is that? What is it about marriage that is incompatible with the vows you’ve taken in support of pursuing a life like Jesus?

    Is there only so much love to go around that any love given to a wife or children would mean less love for God? If love is a zero sum game then maybe Catholics should advocate routine use of birth control rather than prohibiting it.

    “In other words, trying to live chastely, poorly, and obediently frees me to love and serve in ways that give me great joy.” But is it the life of poverty and chastity that give you joy or are those simply tools you think you need in order to better serve God?

    “God is very generous, I remind them, and can fill a human life in many different ways.” Can’t the same thing be said of any loving relationship — it can fill another human’s life in many different, often unexpected ways?

    “God has filled me with zeal to work for justice on behalf of the marginalized and vulnerable. God has given me the good company of other Jesuits with whom I live and of friends and coworkers from many walks of life.” Here’s where you really lose me. You can work with the marginalized and vulnerable, you can have strong relationships with friends and co-workers whether chaste or married.

    “As a priest, I am privileged to be with people at the most intimate moments of life: births and deaths, marriages and breakups, times of great achievement and of profound shame.” And again, your vows of chastity and poverty are unrelated to whether you are a good friend during these intimate times in people’s lives. In fact, one can argue that you might be a more valuable friend having had some experience with births through your own children and in counceling friends on marriage if you had been marriage. Of course, it’s not necessary to experience these to be a good friend just like it’s not necessary to be chaste to be

  • Katherine OHara

    Father OBrien, Thank You for this story on celibacy. It opened up a deeper understanding of why a religious chooses to live this vow. Very interesting reading on this tuesday evening.

  • Catken1

    It’s fair enough to expect that people who devote their lives to the promotion of a particular institution should not be immune from criticism when that institution takes deliberately cruel and unkind actions against other people.

  • B Kreig

    While the concern of the current debate on optional celibacy is the diocesan clergy, a Jesuit for publicity, as most Jesuits usually do, wants to flaunt the superiority of his vow of celibacy. Actually there is really nothing new to the articles’ pro celibacy arguments presented here. What many people want to hear is the emergence of a theology or theologies of the married priesthood which have been eclipsed or buried in the tradition of Catholic Church of the Latin rite.

  • B Kreig

    While the concern of the current debate on optional celibacy is the diocesan clergy, a Jesuit for publicity, as most Jesuits usually do, wants to flaunt the superiority of his vow of chastity/celibacy. Actually there is really nothing new to the article’s pro celibacy arguments presented here. What many people want to hear is the re-emergence of a theology or theologies of the married priesthood which have been eclipsed or buried in the tradition of the Catholic Church of the Latin rite

  • Secular1

    TMI Margret.

  • Secular1

    Well put TW. Religious piety is too over rated. It has rather been cause for so much human misery & suffering.

  • Jenny Roca

    Knowing that women and men have gender specific issues/sins, I like to think about a test for unmarried priests:
    how would a unmarried priest feel about going to pre-confession to a woman, prior to going to confession to a priest; what I mean by pre-confession is just a quick and friendly presentation of the list of sins , in front of a woman; then, the priest takes the same list of sins to confession to a priest in order to get the absolution.

    This will give priests the opportunity to assess the knowledge a woman has regarding male specific sins.

  • Jenny Roca

    While I think that celibacy may be right for some priests, I also find it quite unfitted for a married woman – gender specific sins require some knowledge that can not be learned from books in the Seminary. Just imagine the opposite : the complexity and embarrassment of a married man talking about his problems/ sins with a young woman.