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The call to celibacy

  • 18 April 2012

To 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