Celibacy and the priesthood don’t have the societal acceptance today that they might have in the past. Despite evidence that celibacy does not contribute to or cause sexual abuse (as in the John Jay College Report of 2011), the abuse crisis of the last few decades has made many of us wary of both the priesthood and celibacy. We might ask ourselves if it is possible to live a celibate life? Is it even a worthwhile goal? Is celibacy for us Jesuits good or bad?
Human sexuality is key to who we are as human beings. It shapes our relationships and bonds us to each other. But the insight and witness of religious life is that our sexuality reveals something within us that runs even deeper than sex: a hunger for closeness, belonging, and intimate love.
A person can live without sex, but not intimacy, belonging, and closeness with others.
For Jesuits, celibacy shapes the way we live out our three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows form us as disciples of Jesus, living in the manner that Jesus did, albeit in our own time, place, and life circumstances. Just as Jesus lived as an unmarried man, dedicated to serving God by serving the needs of the people around him, so too do we Jesuits live as unmarried men, serving the same mission.
Like Jesus, who gathered a diverse group of friends, disciples, family members, and others around him and lived and worked with them, so we in the Society of Jesus commit ourselves to diverse relationships with our brother Jesuits, with friends, with family members, with those we dedicate our lives to serving and with the colleagues, alongside whom we serve.
Ours is not a lonely life
In fact, the greatest joy for me as a Jesuit priest is to know and experience that I am welcomed in the lives and hearts of the people I serve and those with whom I serve. That’s where the magic happens! Believe it or not, celibacy can help me enter into the lives of others more deeply when it makes me available to them in ways that others cannot be, especially as they are busy nurturing and building their own families.
Combined with obedience celibacy allows me to be sent to new places and to connect with new communities. In that space of vulnerability, I am opened up to receive God’s love in and through the heart of God’s people in new ways. I learn in the give-and-take of love, that my life is not my own. I belong to God and God’s people, and they belong to me.
So… good or bad?
As I think about Jesuit celibacy these days, I don’t really ask myself whether celibacy is good or bad. Rather, I ask questions that anyone could ask out of their own context and life commitments. Who do I depend on for support? Do I rely on Jesus to show me the way to live my life? Does the way I live lead me into deeper relationships of closeness and intimacy with others? Where is God inviting me to a fuller life?
Celibacy is a pathway. It’s a concrete way to follow Jesus. But the goal is Love, just the same as any other.