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The call to celibacy


Dreamer By Day, by Michael ParerTo be called by God to the priesthood, to serve the community in God's scheme, is a high calling generally accepted by humanity. Higher perhaps than politics, higher than poetry, for the calling howls for absolute faith and trust, in God and in the people the priest serves.

The priest, so that he may perfectly perform his duties, must absolve himself from everything that is earthly and earthy as much as possible. He has the sacraments to himself, the mass, the Eucharist, the hierarchy that leads him up the pastoral pathway to god. These are things that separate him from the rest.

But this is not enough. He must not have sex.

Michael Parer, in his achingly tormented book Dreamer By Day tells how the expectations of the church unhinged his love of God. He could not see the difference between his love for God and his need for love from and for a woman; a love that would not be complete unless consummated. The loves were exactly the same. Beautiful, absolute: the consummation spiritual and physical. One cannot be without the other.

This was at the time of Vatican II, and just two years before the Summer of Love. Heady times, and a priest vulnerable to them was bound to struggle. He enjoyed his pastoral duties and contributed a lot to his community, and was well loved. Ultimately Parer left the church and married, though not his faith.

Parer questioned the doctrine of celibacy through his struggle with his sexuality. The promise was that his faith would be strengthened while meeting these struggles, for they are normal to priesthood and a test. The emotional labours of Augustine come to mind when thinking of a priest's struggles.

But what can the church offer a man or a woman who chooses celibacy? A cynic might say a comfortable life, materially, and a life of prayer. They will wear the cross of the celibate Jesus as a charm against temptation.

The man becomes priest upon taking his vows of celibacy. He is no longer a man who would work and care for family, enjoy his leisure and be father to his children. He is no man; not man, but an earthly angel called by God to serve. In his robes and vestments he is for the flock, but not of them.

He is neither superior nor inferior to them. He is not them. He is like the celibate Jesus walking among them. He is shepherd and guide to them. He is the possessor of the profound and sacred that inspires the sinned masses to seek eternal salvation and the kingdom of heaven. He is walking the gutters smiling and ministering to the poor, the needy, the sick, the mentally ill, the infirm. Those who are looking up at the stars are half way there.

The priest is a man who sees the whole of life better than the bureaucracy that feeds him. If he is good he will join them. His hormonal life is short; he will overcome. Pity those who cannot overcome and thus stay, and pity more the women who love them.

The honourable Parer can hold his head high. He saw sex as the church sees it. A beautiful experience oystered in the sanctity of marriage, before a God that truly loves those that procreate in the name of love.

The church cannot have sex. That would render its words meaningless, and it cannot take that risk. To experience sexual union as a body is too much for the church. The joy of sexual love is inexpressible. There would be no need for dogmas, declarations, councils, liturgy, let alone theology.

There is a man, strikingly handsome, who walks among his community that nurtured him as a child. He sees to their physical and emotional problems, although he is unqualified. He grew up in the expectation that he will look after the community. And that expectation is being fulfilled to this day.

He has his faults. He is given to anger and despair, and he is uncomfortable around the community's women who adore him. He goes about without a name and the children follow him everywhere.

And then one day, troubled by his position as healer, he left and went into the bush and stayed for a month. The community were frantic and searched for him but could not call for him for he had no name. He came back and stood before his community. He said 'I am a priest and this is what you will call me from now on'. 


B. F. MoloneyB. F. Moloney is a bookseller based at Leith, Tasmania. He has a poetry blog called grumpy verse

Topic tags: B. F. Moloney, priesthood, celibacy



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Existing comments

Living a celibacy life is like living a gay life. They are both living a life of a lie. Defying God's very natural principle of living. The only difference is that a celibate priest is by a virtue while a gay person is by a vice.

Hillan Nzioka | 17 April 2012  

Mr. Moloney, beautifully written. I'm a great admirer of the English Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. It's his poetry that makes my spirit soar. He wrestled with guilt over sexual feelings but was also drawn to asceticism. At one time he gave up writing poetry but his gift for it poured into his journals. Only one of his poems was published during his lifetime (and this only because a friend disregarded Hopkins' wishes). Hopkins died at the age of 44 from typhus, his ministry lasting twenty years (the average length of time Jesuit priests of that day survived). I'm very grateful that his sublime poetry has been published, that we are able to enjoy it. A great legacy.

Pam | 17 April 2012  

Celibacy is a commitment priests, brothers and nuns committed to willingly, when, 1., they had confidence in their leaders and in their mission, and 2.,when their efforts were appreciated by the people among whom they worked. Both of these weakened after Vatican 2, and especially after Humanae Vitae, and consequently the demands of celibacy became harder to bear. Similarly with soldiers in the Vietnam War. Many went there feeling they were Crusaders, fighting to liberate the people from the oppression of Communism. When they became disillusioned with the propaganda they were fed, and they realised that what the people wanted was just to be left alone, the frustration they suffered caused many to lose their ideals, and some even committed atrocities. Despite the differences, there are parallels that need to be understood.

Robert Liddy | 17 April 2012  

Thank you for a thoughtful article. It should be pointed out, however, that very few priests take a "vow" of celibacy. These are those who are members of religious orders, who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. For most, celibacy is imposed as a condition of service by a cruel system. Then, of course, there are those who are priests who are allowed to be married, e.g., those in the Marounite rite or the Ukrainian rite. These seem to be ignored in the predictable series of statements about the alleged central importance of celibacy which emanate from the Vatican. The Vatican needs to either impose celibacy on the eastern rite priests now, or alternatively, remove the obligation of celibacy from the Roman rite. Anything else is blatant hypocrisy.

Peter Downie | 17 April 2012  

"a priest returns to life" - the book's subtitle, says it all - priestly celibacy is an aberration - counter productive to pastoral effectiveness - a fairly recent power ploy by the Church hierarchy

frank hetherton | 17 April 2012  

I really don't "get" (understand) this story at all. Celibacy is not a doctrine and is NOT a doctrine. What is the point of this. Is the picture of the book written by the priest that "speaks" in the article. There are married men ordained as Roman catholic priests. It is a human dicipline came in about the tenth century. This story is an oxymoran . First thing on Eureka I just don't get at all. Sure we all have our sexual feelings and all of us are called to chastity by baptism and can with hearts opened by the Holy Spirit be priestly people. Why not preists with two sacraments--ordination and marriage?

Mary Margaret Flynn | 17 April 2012  

Is it possible that a celibate life may contribute to the horror of sexual crimes against children? We are aware there is much evidence of this in the Catholic church, as well as other religions, of course, where celibacy is not obligatory? I believe it is, probably many Catholics disagree. The question remains.

Caroline Storm | 17 April 2012  

I live in the USA. I don't know this book. Is it written by an ordained man who falls in love with one woman, suffers crisis of faith and return to give up the woman or give up his priestly functions. (become lay-a-zied so he can marry in the church despite that ontological change I was taught occurs in the souls of ordained men) Can the moderator of this site answer my question. Thank you

Mary Margaret Flynn | 18 April 2012  

Did you ever think that some people are not called to marriage. I suggest that God's work is to call some to marry and some not to marry; both are signs of the Kingdom. Celibates do not 'give up' marriage; the Grace of God in their lives is expressed in the passion of love and friendship for the people and their friends. It is a matter of what we 'do' with our passion. Our culture is so fixated on a sex only response to passion. Passion is deepest love but it is also suffering; the two are the mystery of the Paschal One.

A Kain | 18 April 2012  

Hi Mary, I speak of the priest in general terms, not the subject of the book. And I do agree with you, why not priests with two sacraments. It's something I feel the Catholic Church needs to formally address if it is to stem the tide of dwindling priest numbers. Here in Australia the church is merging parishes because of the lack of priests. A sense of community is being threatened. I hope this helps answer your questions.

Bede | 18 April 2012  

Lack of priests? celibacy problems? Which planet are people on? This one! All is gift. :)

Xaviero | 19 April 2012  

I agree with Mary Margaret Flynn. This article does not seem to fit in with Eureka's usually impeccable editorial standards. What on earth does "to experience sexual union as a body is too much for the church ... there would be no need for dogmas,' etc., mean? It sounds like mumbo jumbo rather than the reasoned, socially engaged argument we expect from Eureka.

Jennifer | 19 April 2012  

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s Mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, Holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s Will is - His Good, Pleasing and Perfect Will .Romans 12:1-2

myra | 21 April 2012  

This issue of celibacy versus marriage is not about sex at all - it's about commitment and faithfulness (either to a person or to a cause/community). The reason sex is not the issue is because it may well eventuate that a professed celibate could be engaging in sexual activity more than a married person. There are many issues at play, including infidelity, repression which leads to acting out, and within a marriage there is the issue of lack of sexual desire but a desire to be faithful and stay married for the sake of children.

AURELIUS | 22 April 2012  

Celibate priesthood has been canonised as a most worthy state by Jesus teaching and example; with celibacy a glorious revealed theme in Pauline writings. Nonetheless Hillan Nzoka consigns single states to the cesspit of mendacity:single widows,unmarried youth,widowed geriatrics in nursing homes[mendacious Nana]; and all those recently widowed, living now a barefaced lie as unmarried. Methinks Hillan's doctrinaire weltenschaung needs nuance

Father John Michael George | 23 April 2012  

Studying the documents of Vatican II, I can see no evidence that the Council Fathers sought the ordination of women or the repudiation of priestly celibacy. When they spoke about ‘reform’ of the Church, they were not suggesting putting up for grabs the fundamentals of Catholic theology. Their objective was not, as the then Cardinal Ratzinger said in 1985, ‘to change the faith, but to represent it in a more effective way’. It seems to me that the principal objective of groups like the ACP is to 'change the faith'. As Pope Benedict recently said of the ACP's Austrian counterpart, they have ‘issued a summons to disobedience’ – even to the point ‘of disregarding definitive decisions of the Church’s Magisterium’ or teaching authority. In so doing, they are not only dissenting from the traditions of the Church, but from their priestly vows. No organisation can tolerate that level of dissent. This is especially so in the case of an institution whose origins are considered divine. For if you believe that the Church is the repository of timeless truth, and that those elected Pope are successors of St Peter, you will surely realise that changing the faith amounts to heresy. If, however, you don’t believe such things, why remain a member of the Catholic Church? While not wishing to see a schism in the Irish Church, I simply can't understand why dissident priests continue in Catholic ministry. Why, in other words, would you stay a priest when you apparently have so little faith in your religious superiors? Why not have the courage of your convictions and join a congregation that more accurately reflects your theological beliefs? The reason I have little sympathy for renegade priests brought to book by the Vatican, is because they knew what they were signing up for when they entered the seminary. They knew that becoming a priest demands taking a vow of obedience to the Pope and his bishops. They also knew that no pontiff will arbitrarily tamper with the doctrinal patrimony of his predecessors. Challenging the authority of the Pope is, therefore, an act of supreme hubris on the part of any priest. If anything, the priesthood is rooted in selfless service. It does not involve acquiring celebrity status by defying those whose authority you vowed to uphold. A Catholic priest is not meant to be a counsellor in a collar. Neither is he supposed to use the pulpit to peddle political agendas. As the great Monsignor Gilbey of Cambridge wrote, a priest’s only job is to show that the ‘primary province for each of us is not the Third World, but our own hearts’, and that ‘the achievement of sanctity is the complete fulfilment of each man’s vocation’. Above all, this requires holiness and humility. It means abandoning one’s ego in order to become ‘another Christ’. It means accepting, as one’s sole ambition, the role of a ‘humble worker in God’s vineyard’. I am proud to say that I know many such priests. These men are loved by their parishioners, not because they seek to deflect blame for their own shortcomings by publicly challenging the Pope. No, they are loved simply because they pass their days quietly celebrating Mass, tending the sick, the dying and the hopeless. In so many ways, these unsung clerics are the real future of the Catholic Church. For theirs is a vocation founded on fidelity, charity and true Christian piety. Through their dignified example, they remind us why so many priests can be counted among the Communion of Saints. Put simply, when priests are in the business of saving souls, they don’t need to be ‘silenced’. For when they speak it is to neither politically pontificate nor foment dissent, but to proclaim the Gospel. Such is the righteous humility of one who sees that, from the moment of ordination, his voice is no longer his own. (I have lost the source to this article )

Myra | 23 April 2012  

In support of Myra re vat 2 on priestesses: In its 1965 international meeting in Rome, the Catholic St.JOAN's Alliance intensified its campaign for the ordination of women priests, and petitioned the Second Vatican Council that its provision for a lay diaconate ministry be applied to women as well as to men. But the petition was simply ignored. The Vatican daily paper "Osservatore Romano" noted the petition, but said that the Council could not comply with it, even if it wanted to. According to the teachings of the Catholic Church women cannot be either lawfully or validly ordained as priests. In the early Church erratic Gnostic sects who attempted to ordain women as priests were condemned as heretical for doing so.

Father John Michael George | 23 April 2012  

John Michael George, You must be reading different Scriptures to what I have. I have the New testament. Jesus said nothing about priesthood. He, was not a priest. He did not bind anyone to permanent celibacy. Nor does Paul who says that a bishop must be the husband of one wife! Did not Pope John Paul II state that celibacy is not essential to priesthood?

Francis | 27 April 2012  

Jesus ordained priests at the last supper thus he was the supreme high priest exemplar He lived celibate priesthood and counseled his ordained priests to leave all including wives to follow him. Priestly celibacy was from apostolic times integral with priesthood thus married priests lived 'in celibacy' with wives who promised same[such wives had to have certain qualities listed] St paul would have lived and upheld the Apostolic injunction of celibacy for those married as well as those unmarried priestsnon Greeks are given to schisms

Father John Michael George | 27 April 2012  

Thank you Myra and Fr. George. Sure, celibacy is not essential for priesthood but almost impossible without it. There is only one priest in Christendom and his name is Jesus. Every priest has to take the name of Jesus as his own and this includes the priesthood of the faithful. Jesus spoke of 'those who are eunuchs for the Kingdom of God'. It is patently obvious that service in Jesus name is hampered by responsibilities of raising a family. This has been my experience. The Calvary Sacrifice of Jesus is a marriage covenant between God and the world.

Alex Reichel | 27 April 2012  

I wonder where things stand now, after this recent debacle concerning Fr Lee.

To sound so shocked is naive to say the least and there are many Catholics aware of the undertow.

A woman in her second trimester of confinement, was offered the spurious 'brother/sister' arrangement, as a solution to preserve the priesthood.

L Newington | 01 May 2012  

I believe celibacy is a gift given by God.

colleen | 02 May 2012  

Colleen, it is indeed, but not when it has to be supported by the Confessional. In the instances of the spurious 'brother/sister' options acceptable at Canon Law? When it is the 'fourth member' of the relationship it becomes a mockery, to self the faithful and above all to God.

L. Newington | 03 May 2012  

Well, BF, you have certainly precipitated an interesting reaction! The matter of priestly celibacy and the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church is a minefield. Even the phrase "priestly celibacy" causes different reactions in different people. There are, in the fullness of Catholicity, containing both Latin and Eastern Rites, splendid examples of both single and married "secular" clergy i.e. those not members of religious orders. The presence of married Catholic priests in the Latin Rite - usually ex-Anglicans - makes the whole issue less clear again. How do most Latin Rite clergy cope with mandatory celibacy? With varying degrees of success I imagine. Sexuality and its proper place in life is a problem all of us face. We need more empathy with clergy. This empathy comes from somewhere deeper in all of us. Michael has raised some very interesting questions. They have been out there for a long time. Part of "the answer", I think, lies in seeing the Church as being primarily there to continue Christ's work of redeeming humanity and the world: returning both us and it to true wholeness. Wholeness rather than cardboard cut-out "holiness". What is one person's journey to wholeness is inappropriate for another.

Edward F | 10 May 2012  

There's no evidence in the bible that Jesus was celibate or that he encouraged others to be. Sex is good. It's from God.

AURELIUS | 10 May 2012  

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