Exemplary priestly celibacy models Godly fatherhood
Venerable Fulton Sheen once wrote that “Sex has become one of the most discussed subjects of modern times. The Victorians pretended it did not exist; the moderns pretend that nothing else exists.”
Our cultural fixation on sex, like other neurotic obsessions, has all the markings of a split personality. On one hand, sex is idolized as the ultimate good, an imperative for everyone, a necessary component of a successful and happy life. On the other hand, sex is trivialized as a recreational pastime, something as casual, fun, and meaningless as a video game.
Holding this contradiction together has been the overarching aim of the sexual revolution, and with deadly effect. The euphoria over free love that swept through the Western world in the 60s and 70s ushered in new technological and legal demands, including ready access to effective contraception – so that sex could be enjoyed without consequences – and legal abortion, to make problematic embryos go away when contraception fails or isn’t used.
If we wish to promote a culture of life, then, our remedy must go deeper than the legal protection of human beings who happen to still be in their mother’s womb. Our remedy will also address that split personality, both the idolization and the trivialization of sex. And believe it or not, priestly celibacy has an important role to play in the effort.
A celibate priest is, first of all, a living refutation of the idolization of sex. Do you ever wonder why so many non-Catholics are intensely interested in the question of priestly celibacy? It is not because they lay awake worrying about the sexual well-being of priests. Rather, it is because they know, deep down, that celibacy is an existential threat to the central dogma of the sexual revolution: that unfettered sex is an imperative of any healthy and happy life. When priests live their celibacy well, with joy, peace, and fidelity – as it is in the vast majority of cases – then the notion that sex is a human necessity is simply and emphatically debunked.
Celibacy also refutes the opposite error of the sexual revolution, the trivialization of sex. In a book that I recently wrote entitled Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest (Emmaus Road Publishing), I argue that celibacy is not primarily about being unmarried, but about loving in a radical and life-giving way, with a heart wide open in the exercise of spiritual fatherhood. In fact, celibacy is a living reminder that all men, including natural fathers, are called to spiritual fatherhood since their chief duty is to help their children get to heaven. Fathers are to raise not just children but future saints.
Celibacy, then, is a reminder that sex is anything but trivial. The beauty of human love between a husband and a wife is found in their breathtaking capacity to give life to immortal beings, something completely beyond their ordinary human capacities. Through their love, parents are made co-creators with God. This is why we do not say that human beings reproduce but rather procreate. They usher into the world children destined for heaven, whose souls are nourished, guided, and protected by their own parents and also, in a powerful and unique way, by the ministry of celibate priests, true spiritual fathers in the order of grace.
Protecting life means, fundamentally, protecting the human love that brings life into the world. The sexual revolution has left behind a devastating trail of human wreckage – broken hearts, broken bodies, and broken families. We need to begin the healing, recovering our sanity about sex which is neither an idol nor a plaything but rather a beautiful cooperation in the creative love of God. However paradoxical it might seem, priestly celibacy, well-lived, can help lead the way.
FATHER CARTER GRIFFIN is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. Raised Presbyterian, he converted to Catholicism while attending Princeton University. After serving as a line officer in the United States Navy, he entered the seminary and was ordained in 2004. He is the Rector of St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, DC.