Priestly Celibacy in Light of Medicine and Psychology

Author: Wanda Poltawska


Wanda Poltawska, Professor of Pastoral Medicine, Pontifical Academy of Cracow

Unlike celibacy for lay people, the celibacy of the priest is determined by the free and conscious choice made by a psychically mature man (it is one of the main conditions put to anyone wishing to take Holy Orders) and as such does not cause a sense of frustration. This however is a very common psychological reaction among single lay people who would like to get married but cannot, and so feel ‘condemned’ to a life of loneliness. Reactions of this sort are more common in women than in men, and in many cases the ungratified desire for married life and motherhood gives rise to bouts of psychic depression.

Making a choice always means giving up other possibilities, other values, but a free choice willingly made also bears witness to the conviction that the value chosen is superior to all the other ones. The priesthood is so charged with potential for self-realization as to give the life of the man who has chosen it a sense of fullness which is often lacking in the lives of ordinary people. Spiritual fatherhood, the power to bind and loose, the joy of bearing, with his own hands, the supreme gift of God himself to others: these place the priestly dignity on so high a plane in the hierarchy of human possibilities that it cannot be compared with anything else what-so-ever and leaves no room for frustration.

As most people see it, the priest is bound forever to the obligation of celibacy and, generally speaking, this disposition of the Church has hardly been challenged in past centuries. The vocation to the priesthood and the vocation to marriage both require the same total devotion and hence are mutually exclusive, even though the type of personality required is basically the same in both cases. In the twentieth century, however, we do not so much have a repudiation of the actual ideal of celibacy as doubt over the real possibility of sticking to decisions connected with it.

When John Paul II speaks of priestly celibacy, he often qualifies it as ‘sacred’ —‘sacred priestly celibacy’ —emphasizing that it is not just a matter of renouncing married life, for its deep significance lies in chastity and virginity, in supreme union with God.

Celibacy and the sixth commandment

Because of the growing tendency to permissiveness and the exaltation of the biological dimension of human nature, the modern world tends to deny people’s ability to live chastely throughout their lives. By some people, the renunciation of sexual activity is perceived as a punishment, by others as an unattainable ideal, by yet others as a way of life which is ‘against human nature’.

Forgetting the special grace of the sacrament which affords the support and strength needed for fulfilling such a vocation, people often confuse priestly celibacy with the celibacy of lay people who, having no deep motivation, do not keep the sixth commandment, even though considering themselves believing Catholics. The law laid down by God and intended for everyone "not to fornicate", they also question on the basis of what they see going on every day around them. So many people transgress this commandment today that it might well seem ‘unsuited’ to human capacities, as though it were impossible to observe it.

This increasingly widespread permissive ethics has given rise to an attitude of expectation of a definite change in the teaching of the Church, not only over priestly celibacy but indeed over all standards and, among others, over the obligations of the sixth commandment. Seeking from purely pastoral motives to help the people of today, whose specific life-style is largely governed by conceptions of comfort, the Church has already relaxed certain rules of conduct, and this has aroused expectation of further changes, especially in questions, the definition of which pertains to the ecclesiastical authorities and is not directly derived from divine revelation.

Since priestly celibacy, introduced on the basis of experience, has intrinsically the nature of human and not divine decision, the people of the twentieth century seem to be waiting for ‘something to change’. This attitude of uncertainty, of the ‘open door’, makes respect for chastity even harder, even on the part of priests. Now, the final and unequivocal decision — "I choose celibacy once and forever, beyond all hope of recall" —like all unequivocal and final decisions, is easier to fulfil than an uncertain one —"Perhaps I will, but we’ll see about that —later" which encourages the sin of fornication by weakening the mechanism of self-control needed for keeping the sixth commandment. There is a fairly general conviction that the only cure for the problems connected with celibacy would be to allow the clergy to get married. For the frequency with which fornication is committed raises doubts over the real possibility of living according to other models. Modern people often forget that the sixth commandment applies to everyone without exception, and that no circumstances exist that can suspend the validity of this divine law.

The question next arises whether the abolition of celibacy should just constitute permission to contract indissoluble marriage, or rather lead to a demand for the introduction of the right to a sex life independent of marriage, that is to say, basically, an attempt to sanction fornication in general, and even for priests. The growing tendency to recognize the ‘rights’ of the young to sexual activity often means that preparation for the sacrament of marriage, as also for the priesthood, will have been preceded by ‘presacramental’ fornication, whether of hetero- or homosexual type. Experiences of this sort, to some degree, condition the behaviour of the person and leave an imprint, a memory, which will later make control of the individual’s own reactions even harder.

The false conception of sexuality

The permissive sexual ethics of today originates in a false conception of human sexuality in general. The fact of being endowed with sex, which makes human reproduction possible, does not make the sex act necessary per se. We are not programmed as to our sexual activity; in the human organism there exist no mechanisms forcing us to act in this way. The only thing determined is sexuality, the Creator’s gift, transmitted by our parents at our first instant of life. The whole somatic structure and psychic development of the human being are closely connected with sex as they develop; human existence, in every one of its aspects, bears the features of sexuality; everything we achieve in the course of our lives is marked by it. Hence, sexuality is a way of existing in the world and it is, therefore, absolutely wrong to speak of it as something separate from the human entity: sex as such, as an abstract concept separate from us, does not exist. Only the human being exists, endowed with sexuality: unable to shed our own sexuality, we are male or female, as the case may be, throughout our lives. The whole human body bears the features of this innate sexuality and is subject to a complex nervous system and biological functions which are independent of our will. The human organism, the supreme work of the Creator, is in its complexity a very harmonious whole, ordered with a fascinating precision independent of the subject. Without being commanded by the human will, the body of its own accord follows the laws of its own nature: all the reactions occurring in the organism in the course of its entire life-cycle come from God and are his gift.

Endowed with all the organs needed for living, the human body also possesses those, improperly called sexual, which are however essentially procreative, their function being to pass on the gift of life. By endowing us with these organs, the Creator has granted us the opportunity of collaborating with him in the great work of creation.

In collaboration of this sort, the human person is called by God to the sacrament of marriage, which unites husband and wife in accordance with the divine plan — "they will be two persons in a single body" —on which the physiological structure of the human organism depends. But not all of us are called to be parents: some of us have other tasks to discharge. The call to reproduce, even though frequent, is not common to all. Sexuality, as a characteristic of the individual, is given to each of us; but procreation is the task only for those who have been called to it by the Creator.

The myth of orgasm

The sexual act uniting husband and wife needs some stimulus to the sexual organs, for these normally remain inactive. A person with normal reactions does not feel any particular excitement of a sexual nature unless it is induced. The concept of sexual instinct, with reference to human beings, is therefore rather imprecise: in the literal sense of the term, such an instinct does not exist; only certain sexual reactions exist that the human being can go along with but can also control and curb. To be performed, the sex act needs an initial state of excitement, as is easily observed, especially in the male organism. This excitement, which may be caused by an impulse of physiological, emotional or volitional type, is not only easy to achieve but is also perceived as a pleasurable sensation. The culminating point, known as orgasm, is only the final mechanism for effecting procreation. It makes fertilization easier, even though, obviously, it does not determine it. But orgasm, being a particularly intense and deeply-felt sensation, often becomes the only objective; it becomes divorced, that is to say, from its reproductive function, all the more so since it is considered to be a ‘sign’ of the love with which the actual sex act is often mistakenly identified.

People today yearn for pleasure and look for it wherever they can. Modern sexology gives precise descriptions of different methods for achieving orgasm and of the techniques for causing it, often overlooking the fact that this state of maximum excitement is only a means and not an end, and that it can give rise to conception and all the problems associated with the role of parenthood. The hedonistic attitude puts orgasm among the most desired objectives at which human beings can aim. By the sheer fact of being endowed with sex, human beings feel somehow authorized to be sexually active, sometimes even claiming to be forced to be so by their own somatic reactions. In this way, human beings come to be dominated by their physiological mechanisms.

Mistaken concept of virility

The ease with which it is possible to stimulate sexual excitement encourages many people to search for pleasure and the subsequent easing of tension. But this sort of excitement, above all when not determined by the will, is quite easily curbed by the will. For what differentiates us human beings from the animals is our ability to control our own reactions. The secretion of the gametes is independent of the human will; sexual activity, however, is always a result of the free decision of the individual. Often people not only say ‘I want’ but also ‘I ought to do it’, and this ‘I ought’ is not a real physiological necessity, but only a reinforcing of ‘I want’. But if the mere permissive attitude, ‘I want’, is already enough to stimulate excitement, the prohibition, ‘I mustn’t’, is not enough to curb the reaction. And here lies the most difficult problem: prohibition is not only of little use but in many cases produces the opposite effect; by releasing the transgressive mechanisms, it increases the excitement. Thus boys who try to give up masturbating often make the mistake of repeating over and over to themselves the prohibition, "mustn’t do it because it is a sin". Simple prohibition thus is not the right approach, since it creates further tension and is hard to put into practice; what is important though is the conscious free choice: "I do not commit the sin, not because it is forbidden to do so but because I am conscious of the fact that it is wrong and give it up of my own free will."

Identical considerations hold true for priestly celibacy: if the candidate for the priesthood is not deeply motivated in making his choice and renouncing matrimony, he will never appreciate the value of chastity and totally immerse himself in God’s love.

Celibacy as a life-style

In choosing a way of life, a man who is psychologically mature ought to be quite clear too about the way his decision will work out in practice and be aware of the results and of the responsibilities involved. Many factors contribute in differing degrees to psychological and emotional maturity, but above all the repeated and constant work one does on oneself. As complex entities, we have the task of realizing our capacities, but only by uninterrupted effort can we reach that degree of maturity which Karol Wojtyla calls ‘self-possession’ (cf The Acting Person, London 1979), which is indispensable for the realizing of any vocation.

Priesthood precludes marriage not so much because the Church has decided that it does, but rather because, requiring an absolute devotion, it leaves no room for the commitment, equally total, demanded by marriage and fatherhood. Unfortunately, the future priest often lives in an environment where the hedonistic attitude prevails and hence the ideal of total devotion is not respected.

Asceticism in the Christian’s life

In today’s world, believers often do not manage rationally to grasp the deeper sense of Christianity. Loving our neighbour involves a need for renunciation, helping the person loved sometimes requires a real sacrifice. Life in Christ demands a constant availability to sacrifice, all the more so the life of someone proposing to enter Holy Orders.

Of the various values one is called upon to renounce in order to become a priest, there is also the possibility of exercising one’s own sexuality. But since it is commonly thought that sexual activity is to be identified only with pleasure, the requirement of celibacy is seen as deprivation of that pleasure. From the point of view of the physiology of the human body, the renunciation of sexual activity does not mean the mortification of any one particular demand, since the body does not possess mechanisms constraining it to act in this way. The male genital organs, the constant activity of the gonads as endocrine glands notwithstanding, do not react without being stimulated. Chastity thus does not exert any negative effect on the organism; indeed one might say there is a saving of energy, permitting the subject to concentrate his attention on other activities.

Now, to reach such a state of harmonious equilibrium, and beyond a decisive attitude of will, one needs to live an ordered life, maintaining a certain physical and psychic ‘hygiene’ and inner discipline. It is also necessary to understand how one’s body works, to know its reactions and the mechanisms that trigger these off. By knowing the way one’s body reacts, one can avoid the stimuli that provoke unwanted reactions, since our body is obedient to our will, if we learn how to control it. The somatic reactions are always conditioned by an external impulse and hence, as it is possible to make it more sensitive to external stimuli, so it is also possible to control it in such a way that it does not respond to such stimuli. The boy, as he matures, learns to understand the mechanism of his own reactions and how to control them.

In practice, we are all obliged to acquire this ability to control our own reactions since the very demands of social life compel us to do so. For the sexual act, belonging as it does to the most intimate sphere of our entity, never takes place spontaneously under the impulse of the moment, but always has to have a context and a right moment; and this involves the necessity of controlling the somatic reactions. Spontaneity in the literal sense of the word does not exist in human sexual activity.

Now, the priest, by virtue of the vocation he has chosen, has to be aware that for him the possibility of activating the mechanisms of sexual reaction does not exist and that, by activating them, he comes into collision with himself and the vow he has pronounced. From situations of this sort, neuroses can arise: it is not celibacy that creates the stress but the lack of firmness in carrying it out on account of psychical immaturity, simple human weakness or insufficient acceptance of the ideal of celibacy itself.

On the other hand, if the candidate for the priesthood learns to avoid the stimuli and if he looks on other people as one big family, as Jesus teaches, he will not mind abstinence particularly, nor will he yearn for a different lifestyle, since the one he has chosen makes him happy and fulfilled.

Maturity and religious realism

In the process of maturing physically and mentally, we each become aware of the purpose of our own existence and of the meaning of life as such. For the believer, maturity means being aware of the limitations of earthly life, and the eternity of life in God. The prospect of eternity helps us patiently to endure the hardships that may turn up in life, thanks to our being aware that they are only fleeting. The priest’s job is not only to point out the true dimension of human existence to believers, but also to bear witness to it in his own life. The words of Jesus on the Last Judgement have particular relevance for those individuals to whom ‘more has been given’. The priest, by his nature, represents the apogee of human potentiality: no higher dignity exists, nor greater responsibility.

Now, awareness of responsibility, which God’s gift entails, constrains us to reflect deeply. The gift of sexuality is not simply a gift but, like all life, is also a task laid before us. Chastity does not in fact constitute an absence of positive experience but, on the contrary, through the effort of the will, a means of reaching a state of equilibrium, an inexhaustible sense of satisfaction and joy. The sex act offers only a second of pleasure and often leaves a feeling of shame and embarrassment as regards one’s own reactions. The knowledge of having full power over one’s own instinctual reactions, however, gives one not only real joy but above all a feeling of freedom, since only at the time when we become capable of living in conformity to the chosen system of values can we say that we are truly free. The happiness that comes from this is pure and lasting, and it helps us to achieve a state of psychic equilibrium.

People who manage to realize these principles in daily life radiate their own inner peace and harmony to others. The influence that priests endowed with this particular ability exert on other people is enormous, since the need for peace is common to all. Sin always makes for anxiety; virtue, even if dearly purchased, brings joy. Besides awareness of the grace of which he is trustee, the privilege of offering God to others in the sacraments ought to fill the priest with still greaterjoy and gratitude for his vocation. In such a situation, celibacy cannot constitute a real hardship, since he is so filled with grace and divine love as to forget all about himeif, as the lives of many a holy priest bear witness.

Difficulties in observing celibacy

Today’s way of thinking presents an obstacle to the ideal of priesthood as the quest for personal sanctity and the sanctification of the world. The difficulties the priest encounters in following his vocation are of various kinds, but those connected with the observance of celibacy are particularly grave, since transgressing this obligation usually means sinning against the sixth commandment. A religious, in point of fact, never asks for a dispensation and permission to get married before having committed the sin. But it cannot be forgotten that in the life of the priest there no longer exists a power of choosing between priesthood and marriage: the choice has already been taken and is to all intents and purposes irrevocable, for reneging on one’s own commitment signifies moral degradation.

(a) Mistaken concept of sexuality. Difficulties are likely to arise once the priest gives in to the widely held view that human beings are biologically determined. The erroneous notion that the male is in a sense compelled to sexual activity by virtue of the very fact of being male, is becoming stronger and stronger. People even think that the sexual act ‘proves’ one’s virility; that without it, a man is in some way disabled, unrealized. Concepts of this sort, especially if repeated by medical authorities in the sexological field (as often happens) can easily be used to justify one’s own behaviour. From now on the individual, dominated by his own body, justifies himself by saying that ‘it is not possible’ to act otherwise.

(b) The other factor that makes curbing one’s sexuality more difficult is physical and psychical exhaustion, accompanied by an excess of stimuli, especially visual ones. People react particularly intensely to visual impressions, and Jesus himself warns us against the temptations of the eye. If images of an erotic kind are added to stress, increased by the abuse of nicotine, caffeine and the like, the mechanism of self-control may be weakened, especially in the young.

Chastity requires a constant discipline and a constant hygiene in one’s life-style. By giving way to the stimulus, we cannot expect the body to be able to resist the somatic reactions easily; the body on its own does not have the ability to control its own reactions. Stimuli which may cause sexual reactions are of various kinds. The simplest sort, the mechanical ones for instance, are generally easy to avoid, and even very young boys are usually able to curb them. More dangerous, however, are those which come from within us, from the imagination.

So it is extremely important for every priest to know how to maintain discipline over his thoughts and his imagination. For one can also sin alone, in thought: by looking at another person with desire, by treating that other person as an object, the sin of fornication is committed in the depths of the heart. If an attitude of this sort dominates the heart, it will also manifest itself outside. On the other hand, if we are clean within, no external situation can provoke somatic reactions against our will. Sexual excitement depends, in the first place, on the intentions with which we approach our neighbour, how we look at him or her and what we see there. The priest is obliged to see the very Christ in his neighbour; the aim of any encounter can only be to bring that person nearer to God.

The entire human body shares in the specific vocation of each individual, for without a physical structure we cannot exist. So the body too has to help the priest in his task as the shepherd of souls. Maturity brings the father’s role, particularly to the priest, whose task it is to beget souls (see St Paul).

Lust tends to subordinate others to our will, subjugating them and humiliating them by treating them as objects. A father’s love, however, offers itself, asking nothing in return. But to attain to this, one must teach the body self-control. Chastity is, therefore, a constant effort to subject the body entirely to the aspirations of the soul. Each human being’s body is always subject to a spirit: either to the Holy Spirit, or to the spirit ‘of this world’.

(c) The weight of the past. Not without reason, in days gone by, did the Church demand virginity of candidates for the priesthood, for one of the conditions making the observance of celibacy especially hard is the memory the body retains of its own past experiences. Return to God and renewal of the soul are always possible but, since the body retains the memory of the past, even if the sin has been absolved, its effects persist. Being used to surrendering to a given type of reaction, the body finds it hard to submit to a new kind of discipline; as a result, those who have committed the sins of fornication or masturbation find the obligation of celibacy all the more difficult to observe. The same is true for pornographic pictures: the memory retained by the eye, if on the one hand it makes the whole sexual sector seem hateful, on the other provokes excitement and internal conflict. Obviously the priest cannot be isolated from the world around him; the important thing is to protect that great gift of his chastity. Important to this end will be inner discipline, but more important still the capacity for admiring the beauty radiated by innocence and chastity.

(d) Lack of faith. When we analyze the lives of those priests who have not managed to keep the obligation of celibacy, one cause stands out as common to almost all of them: moral degradation. Usually this sets in with a crisis of faith and a rejection of the rules laid down by the Church, that is to say, in the ultimate analysis with a lack of humility. Usually, the law of celibacy is broken by men who are too sure of themselves, who do not seek the support of divine love. Holiness, although it requires the individual’s collaboration, is primarily the gift of divine grace, a gift that needs to be humbly asked for in prayer. When the passion for prayer grows cool, the priest more easily becomes a prey to the pressures of his environment.

Celibacy, as an attempt to overcome oneself and one’s own frailty, is a going ‘against the current’, is a challenge hurled at the world, but it is never a going against human nature. For, by the very fact of being human beings, we are able to control our own reactions, since we are not to be identified solely with our bodies: we are souls embodied, created by God and created in his likeness. The demand of celibacy does not exceed human capacities: Christ himself shows us the way when he bids us to seek perfection.

The conscious quest for holiness is not against the individual, but against our individual paltriness and leads us to transcend ourselves. A full realization of priesthood and celibacy develops the human personality to its full potential and hence makes it easier to achieve the objective to which we all are summoned —holiness.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069