On Celibacy – 1

I was interviewed recently on a local radio station here in Indianapolis.  During the course of the interview I had a few minutes to talk about the discipline (or practice) of celibacy in a priest’s life. Over the past week or so many people have expressed their delight to hear someone speak about celibacy in such a positive way. Frankly, I hadn’t thought about my interview comments in that way. I just more or less spoke from my understanding and lived experience of celibacy as man, a seminarian, and ordained minister for over 35 years. (I say for over 35 years even though I’ve only been ordained for 26 years (counting diaconate) because celibacy is obviously not something you start with the reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Men in the seminary are expected to be celibate. Men who make an application for admission to the seminary are expected to have lived a celibate life for a time before they enter the seminary. When I was on the admissions board at St. John Seminary, we would never have accepted someone who had been part of a non-celibate relationship say within a year or two. We would encourage him to give himself a bit more time before applying. The same was true for me in terms of being celibate before I entered the seminary. So, my life as a celibate really predated my entrance into the seminary.)

Since entering the seminary, I have striven to live faithfully a celibate lifestyle. No need for details or personal witnessing at this moment since that is not the point of this blog post or the ones to follow. What I hope to offer is less about my personal witness to celibacy and more about my understanding of celibacy. I know the two are deeply connected and one obviously serves the other. My life hopefully reflects my promise and my understanding hopefully informs my life. But what I do hope to do is to open up a positive understanding of celibacy, the gift of sexuality, and marital life from my intellectual and lived experience as a celibate servant of the Church.

The starting point for me originates in an understanding of who I am. Before anything else is said or written in this discussion, first and foremost I am a created, loved, child of God. I was created by God to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and so come to know Him perfectly in the next. In knowing God through His free and generous disclosure of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, I have come to know God’s love. I know His love through my parents, I know his love through my family, I know his love through my friends and colleagues, and I know his love through the Church. I know that God loves me whole and entire not because of anything I have done but because it is simply of God’s very nature to love. 

Since God loves me whole and entire as I am, He knows me as I am completely. God’s love is not identified with any particular aspect of my life but with ‘the all’ of who I am. The fact that I am a man is only one part of my life. The particular talents and gifts are only one part of my life. God does not see me as tall or smart or athletic but as myself, whole and entire. At the same time, God does not see me in terms of any brokenness caused by my sinful choices. While there are times when I sin, sin is not who I am. I am not, Bishop Coyne, the sinner or the liar or the gossip or whatever. God sees more than that dimension or part of me 

The same is true for the gift of sexuality that God has given me. In God’s eyes, I am not gay or straight or if I was female, lesbian or straight, or in some cases transgender or bisexual or any of the categories that we employ as humans. In God’s eye, I am first his child who is a man, who has gifts that He has given me (including the gift of sexuality) to be used in the way He intended and willed in the creation of man and woman. So – and this is a very important point in my understanding of celibacy – I do not identify myself according to my sexuality nor do I live or understand myself in sexual terms. Instead, once again, I understand myself as a created and beloved child of God for whom sexuality is part of me but does not define me.

Sadly, we live in a culture driven by the sexual definition and understanding of the human person as the primary one. The starting point for most people is the sexual label: “I’m gay, I’m straight, I’m lesbian, I’m bi, I’m transgender, etc.” The starting point for most cultural interaction is sexual – just watch TV or open a magazine or a newspaper or listen to the radio for any length of time. The choice of celibacy and indeed of Christian chastity is to say “no” to this. It is to place the human person in right relationship to God and in right relationship to others. So my choice of celibacy, as well as the Christian life of chastity is not a negative renouncement of sexuality but a positive understanding and experience of the gift offered lovingly by the Creator.

(More to follow)



4 Comments. Leave new

Bishop Coyne,
Thank you so much! As a religious sister I too am asked so often about my vow of chastity and asked why I don’t want children, or any number of questions along the same line. I’ve tried to explain it positively, but I often times feel that people don’t understand. Thank you for this beautiful explanation that will prove helpful for many.

God bless you! Ave Maria!

Allow me, Your Excellence, to say “Amazing!”. It disturbs me when b people identify themselves by the sexuality, as if that is all they are. That was a lesson hard learned in my life, and nothing approaching happiness or contentment was available until learned it, in the context you describe.

I have a friend from Indiana and I guess he has talked with you recently and has begun reading your blog or something like that. Anyway, how he knows you isn’t important; I wanted to say that he recommended your blog to me. Of course, this being your most recent post, it was the post I came across first.

I’m not Catholic, and I’ve always struggled with the Catholic Church’s requirement of clerical celibacy. Interestingly, there is no such requirement in Judaism, out of which Christianity emerged. I should say that I understand the Catholic Church’s stance intellectually, but I still can’t seem to grasp it at a deeper level. It is likely that I will continue to struggle with the issue for some time.

Having said that, I found your post to be very enlightening and encouraging and on target. Not only do I think this perspective should determine how a minister conducts his life, but I also think it should inform and guide every person’s life.

I recently published a post on my blog about being gay and religious and how the two are considered mutually exclusive. My point in that post was that our sexual orientation is not the dominating factor in our identity. In another post (hopefully today) I plan to explore the issue of sexuality and identity more closely (from a theological, not a scientific, perspective; after all, I’m not a scientist).

Anyway, your post was helpful and insightful and I look forward to perusing the rest of your blog.

Your excellency, I want to run a thought past you.

I worry about Catholic identity. You mention the sexuality-based identity so prevalent in the modern world, but, funny as it may sound, I wonder if perhaps the Church can learn something from the gays? My impression is that gay people read gay media, go to gay clubs and bars, etc.; they seem to see everything through the prism of this identity. They get identity.

Do Catholics, still?

Catholicism isn’t an individual relationship, a vertical and personal relationship, between the individual believer and God; it recognizes that our adoption into the Holy Family implies a horizontal relationship with the community of believers. We recognize and support each other, mutual piety reinforcing mutual piety. Identity helps recognize one another and so helps ad intra; it also helps ad extra: “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words!” But in the last few decades, the grout of shared Catholic identity seems to have been stripped. Small wonder that the tiles are falling out! For instance, if you walked into a restaurant on a Friday a few generations ago, you’d spot the Catholics: They’d be the ones crossing themselves to say grace over a nice slice of fish. Much digital ink could be spilled over the bishops allowing substitutions in forms of penance, but to stick narrowly to the subject at hand, let me say only this: In focusing solely on “fish Friday”’s vertical dimension, they failed to take into account its place in the horizontal.

The idea of a norm whence substitutions are allowed isn’t necessarily implausible, because, for example, it is small penance for vegetarians! Nevertheless, the move was perceived by the first generation as license to do nothing (making something optional will do that), and the second and successive generations, not having copied the example of their parents, are not even aware of the issue.

We have a crisis of identity. People are leaving the Church; some of them don’t even know they’ve done so. (How many times have you heard “I don’t think I have to attend Mass or agree with the Church on this, that, and the other in order to be a good Catholic”?) Is the place to begin not the reclaiming of our shared identity as a communion of the faithful?

It must be noted that gays don’t have a strong sense of identity because they read gay media, they have a strong sense of identity and so they start reading gay media, and this routine reinforces their identity. So a revamp of the Criterion won’t fix the problem. A bishop who gets social media is a wonderful thing—my friends and I are hugely appreciative of what you’re doing here and elsewhere—and that can help reinforce identity, but only among those who first sufficiently feel that identity to start paying attention. It has to start with identity.

So what can be done? I am not necessarily suggesting that the bishops revoke the permission to substitute alternative penances, although the experiment underway in England should be kept under observation. Rather, I think that the bishops would do well to re-issue and publicize their 1966 directive on penance, and to admonish the flock that Fridays are penitential days (not optional), that some kind of penance is required (not optional), and that the default penance is abstinence (not optional, but susceptible to substitutions for those for whom abstention is not penitential). The Holy Father has used the term “re-propose”: I suggest that just as we should re-propose faith ad extra, we should re-propose orthodoxy and tradition ad intra. This would help foster our sense of Catholic Identity. And we should do so with alarm and speed, because right now we are to a great extent living on the inertia and memories of an aging generation who was brought up properly, before the grout was stripped out; at risk of sounding morbid, we have until they die to get the grout back in place.

Am I crazy, or is there something to all this?