Celibate chastity: sacrifice because of the kingdom

Celibate chastity: sacrifice because of the kingdom

By Father Douglas-Adam Greer O.P.

Brother Andrew Martin del Valle, O.P. at his final vows ceremony with Father Roberto Merced, O.P., prior provincial.  Photo courtesy of the Dominican Friars Province of St. Martin De Porres, Flickr

MANY WOMEN AND MEN in the initial stages of vocation discernment feel called out of the self by Mystery, but they encounter intimidating obstacles. One of the most daunting in our culture is the belief that genital sexual expression is the sine qua non of human self-fulfillment. Given that widely-held belief, celibate chastity is radically suspect, and this undifferentiated suspicion enormously complicates the vocation minister’s task of helping others to make intelligent vocation choices.

Largely because I once shared this attitude, celibate chastity was the most difficult issue for me to address in initial discernment. I spent many nighttime hours wrestling with the realities of celibate chastity because to my mind, it was the obstacle, the stumbling block, and not just one question among many. My experience as a vocation minister tells me that others, both ministers and candidates, share the experience. In the rest of this brief reflection, I’d like to share some personal insights and anecdotes that have helped me to learn to love as a chaste and celibate religious man, to intentionally live the evangelical counsel, and to help others in their discernment as well. I’ll conclude with more practical advice.

But first it would be helpful to clarify just what I mean by chaste and celibate. All Christians are obligated to practice the virtue of chastity. Chastity is the moral excellence that helps us express emotional affectivity and human sexuality in thought, word, and deed, and in ways appropriate to our state of life. We gradually learn to be chaste by being chaste; it’s a developmental skill. Fundamentally, this means that if one isn’t married, then one doesn’t engage in genital sexual expression, and that the practice of moral excellence isn’t left to the giants of virtue. Chastity is, in a sense, every Christian’s “default setting.” Celibacy, on the other hand, means what your grandmother thinks it means. In this reflection, I’ll use the terms in tandem in order to highlight a fundamental frame of reference for vocation discussions.

Integrating our erotic engine

The creation myths in the book of Genesis, Chapters 1-3, reveal a startling truth about human nature. According to sacred scripture, we know we are incomplete creatures who are made for communion with other creatures, with one another, and with God; and, what’s more, we don’t rest in that sobering knowledge, but strive to overcome this eerie sense of absolute solitude. Thus, our basic vocation is to love and to seek communion, which includes genital self-expression for the married. This is what we mean by erōs, or by having an “erotic nature”—we exist in such a way as to experience God’s own love through other things, people, and experiences.

Human nature is an embodied, sexual nature, an erotic engine, which can drive us and those whom we love toward God. For the chaste celibate, this means that we continually seek to integrate our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in the company of friends.

Celibate chastity isn’t a static reality. It’s a hothouse flower whose integration requires a lifetime of hard work. Cultivation begins with the identification of one’s deepest needs and wants, and seeks to meet these in appropriate ways, ways that may sometimes cause intense suffering.

The ascesis of celibate chastity, for one who hopes to live it with integrity and sanity, doesn’t include the active suppression, or the attempted repression, of one’s erotic nature. By suppression, I mean “toughing it out;” by repression, that one attempts to ignore one’s sexuality, perhaps with a thin veneer of numinous spirituality. Both are cunning ways of short-circuiting sexual integration.

Two years before I entered the novitiate, I realized that I was straddling a fence. On one side was active discernment. On the other was the search for a lifelong spouse. Some people may, in fact, need to straddle the fence because they can’t climb down just yet for whatever good reason. But I needed to get off the darned thing because I was involved in a relentless pursuit of data. The hard reality is that I was temporizing, hoping that I would fall in love, set up house with my spouse, complete with a white picket fence, a Subaru station wagon, and 2.2 kids in the backseat. If I were already committed, went the rationale, celibate chastity would cease to be an issue.

The greatest fear that blocked my growth was that I would end up at best a sexually frustrated man, and at worst, a lonely and bitter one. So I dated. And I dated a lot—15 different dates in eight months! The longevity of these dalliances should’ve been a striking clue, but fear kept me closed to the real possibilities that both the chaste celibate and married ways of life offered. The only way to make a positive choice and to end the impasse was to try celibate chastity on for size, to see if it fit in all the right places, and to learn whether I could, in fact, live it joyfully and in freedom. So I waded in.

Vows aim for radical generosity

Since entering religious life, what may be shocking for some is that I have been in love. I’ve experienced the weightless infatuation, the visceral physical attraction, and the sharp emotional response. O Cosmic Irony, I found the flesh of my flesh, resplendent in shimmering humanity, after I’d made vows! It was enough to set me back atop the fence, or to cue the music and fade to the sunset shot of a couple walking hand-in-hand with a dog. My spiritual director asked me to remember the power of words, and to consider the place of sacrifice in a life of discipleship.

Father Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., former Master of the Friars of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), once wrote that to make a vow is to commit oneself to an act of radical generosity in the present moment, being unaware of how the future will unfold. When a woman and man voice their wedding vows, they can only hope that with much hard work and even harder loving, their vision of life together will hold true. The same is true for the religious when making vows or the diocesan presbyter when making promises to his bishop. A single moment during which a few words are uttered affect the rest of one’s life because making vows and promises is a courageous act of hope.

Love is more than an emotion, although it is a most delicious one! It’s also an act of will and of choice, rather than something that falls fully formed from the heavens. Mature love is like a covenant in that it’s unconditional. When I was both in vows and in love, I was learning what it means to do so as a chaste celibate whose life is sculpted by the power of words. My newly found romantic interest revealed God to me. As one already committed, I realized that I would have to find a way to reveal God in the gradually calming storm of emotion, so that our friendship might survive, intuitively realize its own good and holy boundaries, and draw us both closer to God, who is Love itself.

In this way our friendship has been caught up in the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it endures to this day. Christ’s resurrection from death didn’t merely sound the final, triumphant note to his life. It was, rather, the leitmotif of his entire life. It hummed along just below the surface of the quotidian for those with ears to hear as he preached, taught, and healed in Palestine. His resurrection was already present in the sacrifice of his life for us and for our salvation.

The sacrifice of sexuality

When we consider sacrifice, it’s often accompanied by a big groan. Some take the consumer approach. I don’t have enough for both the tablet and the phone, so I’ll take the phone and get the tablet later. Others think about it as something to be endured for a greater good, but only for a limited time, determined in advance. I gave up cigarettes for Lent. And, others just restrict themselves to the payoff. He sacrificed a fly to right field in the bottom of the eighth. There is no joy to be found in the embrace of sacrifice if you think about it this way, especially if you want to talk about celibate chastity as a sacrifice.

God uses the sacrifice of a man or woman’s sexuality in celibate chastity as a most precious gift to be used for divine purposes, hallowed and fruitful for others. The roots of the Latin word sacrificium include the noun sacrum, holy, and the verb facere, to do or to make. To sacrifice is to make holy with divine help.

We can’t know the greatness that will come from the sacrifice of our sexuality to God in celibate chastity, but we do believe that God will transform us into creatures who become, in the course of a human life, more and more diaphanous icons of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit as our discipleship unfolds in Christian mission. Here is the joy in sacrifice, knowing that my sexuality will bear life for myself and others and will not produce an arid wasteland.

When I was growing up, my hometown newspaper included a column entitled, “Hints from Heloise.” Heloise answered questions like, How do I keep gravy from staining a tablecloth? What’s a good bee sting poultice?  I offer here what I hope are similarly helpful hints for discussing celibate chastity with vocation candidates. I make no claims to originality, but a reminder of received wisdom is sometimes a good thing in itself.



The vocation minister 

• The minister should possess a wealth of self-knowledge. This is an indispensable requirement for vocation ministry. There are untold riches available via retreats, workshops, print, and other media. And, it’s incumbent upon those who make ministerial assignments to ensure that a potential vocation minister knows his or her own psychosexual landscape in exquisite detail.

• Human sexuality is not a taboo topic. Our culture has a chronic sex sickness. Today, its diagnosis is a trite banality: we’re neurotic about it, but we don’t dare talk about it in polite company. Further, the clergy sex abuse crisis has undermined many Christians’ trust in church leaders, so it’s not surprising that many vocation ministers are hesitant to discuss human sexuality candidly. Begin the conversation early, and don’t wait for novitiate or diocesan personnel to address the issues. Sexual integration is a task done with the help of friends.

• Study the widest possible array of resources and become informed. These include: the voices of sacred scripture and the living theological tradition (broadly summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church); contemporary scholarship on the biblical and theological dimensions of human sexuality and celibate chastity; and, finally, as a vocation minister, one needs to be savvy concerning the biological, cultural, psychological, and social aspects of the issues. The NRVC offers a psychosexuality workshop, and the HORIZON archives contain numerous articles on chastity and sexuality at nrvc.net/horizon_library.


The vocation candidate 

Good discernment means that you don’t keep celibate chastity at arm’s length. How do you vigorously embrace it? You do it practically, in the day-in and day-out of life.

• Prayer. Prayer is a no-brainer on a hints list, but we take it for granted. We need to constantly remind ourselves that in prayer, we become anchored to God. In prayer, we enter the intimate conversation with God that makes us friends and lovers. Spiritual reading and finding a home in a spiritual tradition (e.g., Franciscan) could be encouraged.

• Thanksgiving. Christ is present to us in manifold ways, most especially present when the local church gathers to make Eucharist. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we offer our gifts in sacrifice to God, who nourishes us with Christ’s own Body and Blood so we might become another Christ for the world. Our sexuality is part of our personal offering to God, sacrificed in joy and freedom, that we might be made holy for others.

• Rest and exercise. Play and work. The Roman poet Juvenal once wrote that while praying to God, ask for an anima sana in copore sano (a sound mind in a sound body). 

—Father Douglas-Adam Greer, O.P.


“Because of” the kingdom of heaven

Celibate chastity is a way of loving God and neighbor in a most vigorous manner. It’s not just a ministerial commitment, or an ascetical discipline. This is a far more fulsome vision of the gift and potential of human sexuality than either suppression or repression can encompass. It challenges us to integrate the physical, emotional, and spiritual facets of sexuality into a life-giving whole. Let me show you what I mean.

I studied for a few years in a diocesan seminary before I left and eventually entered religious life. During one of our formation meetings, a wizened faculty member discussed celibate chastity. He was certainly well intentioned and tried “to connect with the boys,” but his advice was crass and stilted. The sum of it was that we, the seminarians, should prepare to endure lives marked by “not getting any” (suppression) and should “offer your struggles up” (repression). Both approaches, as we’ve seen, severely reduce the shelf life of the chaste celibate’s sanity. What’s a better approach?

If we turn to sacred scripture for insight, we might start with Matthew 19:12. The passage is the church’s classic locus for its basic teaching of religious and clerical celibacy. Some are eunuchs because they’re born that way, some because people have made them eunuchs, and some have made themselves eunuchs, “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

A better translation of the Greek is “because of the kingdom of heaven.” God has seized those called to a life of celibate chastity in a grip so strong and commanding that the only free response is an absolute, total, irrevocable gift of one’s whole self—body, mind, and soul. One can embrace celibate chastity only “because of the kingdom of heaven,” only because of God’s abiding presence in human lives, only because of one’s profound love of God and neighbor. You give your sexuality as a gift to God and allow God to decide what is to be done with it because of the kingdom of heaven.

To sum up, human sexual nature is an erotic engine that can drive us toward our neighbor and toward God if it is intentionally cultivated by integration of the whole person—body, mind, and soul. The daily living out of one’s sexuality sacrificed to God in celibate chastity “because of the kingdom of heaven” has the power to transform the disciple into a sign of the present kingdom, into an eschatological symbol of God’s powerful presence in a world marked by fading dreams. Celibate chastity helps us to become holy, as the Lord, our God, is holy, holy, holy. 

A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2004 edition of HORIZON.

Father Douglas-Adam Greer, O.P. belongs to the Dominican Friars, Central Province. He is the theology department chair and a teacher at Central Catholic High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Published on: 2023-10-31

Edition: 2023 HORIZON No. 4 Fall

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