3 Celibacy and the Transformation of Culture

Rev. Guerric DeBona, OSB


One irony of modern living is that never before have we been better connected, yet never have we witnessed such intense fragmentation in the human subject. We are able to communicate from Chicago to Hong Kong in seconds, but survey after survey indicates that people are dissatisfied with their jobs, their marriages—the very shape and destiny of their lives. Disintegration seems to be a kind of watch word for our postmodern age, manifested in such socially dysfunctional problems such as Internet pornography, endless addictions of every sort and the collapse of family structures.

With the loss of communal values and support, the suicide rate of young people each year climbs to an alarming rate, while the elderly feel ghettoized and abandoned by the very society they helped to build. Racism and unjust immigration laws, an anxiety about the future of the economy, baffling questions about our foreign involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are only a few of the symptoms of a culture that seems to suffer more and more each day from joylessness, despair and alienation.

The Church’s role in the difficulties of the contemporary age is both crucial and transformational. The magisterial document Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council opened its lines with words that might have been spoken today: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”[1] Nevertheless, “the split between the Gospel and culture is undoubtedly the drama of our time,” according to Paul VI.[2] Such a gulf may be healed only by the abiding presence of the Paschal Mystery, Christ living and working within His people.

As a witness to this Paschal Mystery, priestly celibacy remains an extraordinary gift and sign for the Church in the modern world, a primary and necessary instrument for evangelization, healing and growth. All Christians are called to holiness, all Christians to a radical Gospel. Holiness is fostered in the “manifold counsels” proposed by Our Lord in the Gospel to His followers. In a unique way, “outstanding among them is that precious gift of divine grace which the Father gives to some men (cf. Mt. 19:11; 1 Cor. 7:7) so that by virginity, or celibacy, they can more easily devote their entire selves to God alone with undivided heart (cf.1 Cor. 7:32-34).

This total continence embraced on behalf of the kingdom of heaven has always been held in particular honor by the Church as being a sign of charity and stimulus toward it, as well as a unique fountain of spiritual fertility in the world.”[3] Celibacy exists, then, for the sake of Christ and his Church, as an eschatological sign of the world to come, as a witness to the Incarnate Word made flesh who emptied Himself so that we may have life.

If celibacy discloses a unique window on the Gospel for our time, its contemporary interpretation has distorted its primary signification with Christ’s gift of self. True enough: the “sex scandals” that broke in the news in January of 2002 has caused the drama of “the split between the Gospel and culture” to grow wider in the popular imagination. At the same time, American society does not really have a clue into the depth of celibacy or its profound meaning in the world.

We know that popular culture has rarely depicted priestly celibacy as an authentic witness, even in the 1930s and ’40s, when films like Boys Town (1938) or Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) (the latter two both tops at the box office for their respective years) depicted priests without much in the way of human development or desire, but simply as instruments of paternal concern. Spenser Tracy’s Father Flanagan or Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley were probably effective characters precisely because they were patriarchal figures, empty of the distractions of human passion.

But after the 1960s, almost the opposite occurred, in which priests like Dick Van Dyke’s Father Rivard in The Runner Stumbles (1979) were seen as dark pits of hidden passion, capable of acts of sexual aggression and possibly murder.[4] Overall, it should not surprise us that the representation of priestly celibacy in culture has served neither the Church nor the world that it is meant to change. These priestly depictions have less to do with evangelization and transformation and more about American mythology and a misreading of Catholicism through a largely Protestant (and secular) lens.

So how does priestly celibacy transform contemporary culture? For the remainder of this essay, I would like to inject a little realism into the discourse on celibacy and culture by suggesting three ways in which celibacy functions as an instrument of renewal. I will propose that there are at least three signifiers of celibate chastity that might be antidotes to the cultural malaises in our culture and reflect briefly on their significance for us today. I call these a witness to generativity, a sign of kingdom building and hope for community.

Celibacy as a Witness to Generativity

Generally speaking, we have extracted much of our western attitudes about sexuality, courtship and marriage from a long tradition of culturally inscribed narratives. In what is perhaps the most famous opening line in English fiction, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice quietly announces the fate of the human heart: “It is a truth generally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Ranging from troubadours singing their lovesick ballads to their maidens in France during the Middle Ages to American films noir celebrating l’amour fou in the dark rainy streets of New York in the 1940s, the stories we tell each other teach us how to behave.

We are still living in the shadow of 20th-century storytelling, a tradition that has been more or less shaped by a kind of quasi-Freudian narrative, a trajectory that has only underlined a kind of Romantic or medieval courtly love tradition in more explicit ways. It is now not a question of whether a man of good fortune would be in want of a wife, but that he encounter an outlet for his natural sexual desires. Pop Freudianism entered the culture especially after World War II and was given a lot of credibility with the results of the Kinsey Reports on sexuality in the human male and female (published respectively in 1948 and 1953). Contemporary Hollywood cinema absorbed the middle-class American cultural attitudes on sexuality in a variety of ways, producing melodramas like Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961), which suggested that repressed sexual desire leads eventually to uncontrollable behavior and insanity.

Is it any wonder that folks are meant to feel incomplete unless they are in a sexual relationship? Yet far from finding fulfillment, the search for the ideal mate or the perfect orgasm has led to anything but happiness, because such longing has not embraced the true meaning of sexuality: generativity. Celibacy, a life free from genital activity, offers a generative life, a powerful sign to a culture that is itself often dead and fruitless. In a certain sense, the Judeo-Christian community is confronted with the reality of generativity from the first moments of the Bible. God, who creates the world out of nothing, does so without a consort. Thus the pattern of creation, indeed the love from which the Son was begotten, is mysteriously made manifest. Generativity echoes God’s own creation of the universe and occurs wherever genuine love is present.

Jesus himself promised this endless, creative love to Peter when He said that “there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come” (Mk 10:29-30). Surely Jesus was reminding Peter that those who surrender everything do so because of love and that it is this sacrificial reality which becomes generative for the human family. The apostle’s query to Jesus finds a contemporary voice when celibacy confronts cultural objections. As if to remind all of us of the paradox that this surrender of everything leads to fruitfulness and a multiplication of familial relationships, Our Lord adds the sign of contradiction: “many that are first will be last, and the last will be first” (31).

As always, Christ shows Himself to be the premiere physician of the soul, even as He points to the foundations of human development. Centuries later, Erik Erickson would speak of generativity as establishing a legacy for the next generation and its personal appropriation crucial in the evolution of the self in society.[5] As a generative agent for the Gospel, priestly celibacy engages evangelization by its very nature, since it seeks to establish the “next generation” of witnesses. Celibate generativity longs to pass on to parishes, schools—the world at large—a harvest of good works where charity can live and find a true home.

Celibate generativity calls out to the workers in the vineyard to reap abundantly because the Master is near and ready to return. Celibate generativity fosters Gospel values of faith, hope and love as cornerstones to the newness of life as lived by Jesus. As John Paul II reminds the Church, the gift of self is intimately linked to the ongoing love of Christ for the Church. “Pastoral charity is the virtue by which we imitate Christ in his self-giving and service. It is not just what we do, but our gift of self, which manifests Christ’s love for his flock.”[6] When celibacy is lived authentically, its complete gift of self to the Church patterns itself on Christ, the only begotten Son, whose Paschal Mystery discloses the witness par excellence of generativity: the resurrection.

Celibacy as a Sign of the Kingdom

John Gast’s painting, American Progress (1872), allegorically depicts an angelic-like representation of Columbia as America, (imagine an enormous Victorian lady in an off-white flowing nightgown in the Swift’s Land of the Lilliputians) moving westward across a wide prairie, weaving a telegraph wire, carrying a book and steadfastly chasing tiny terrified Native Americans out of her path. The term “Manifest Destiny” was first used in 1845 to refer to the annexation of Texas, but the interest in expanding and owning property has been a pervasive myth, not only of the American frontier, but of the American way of life.

If Americans once saw themselves as the New Israel, which God led through the wilderness into the promised land of western expansion, then their commitment now was to a kind of secular shrine to the homestead. As the intrepid Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on one of his visits to America, “In no other country in the world is the love of property keener or more alert than in the United States.”[7] Not coincidentally, then, Americans have been raised to revere private ownership, especially for the land, which also has had its logical and deadly consequences in imperialism and colonialism across the globe.

Yet the Gospel would have it otherwise: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matt 6:33). Jesus asks that those who live the Christian life do so single-mindedly and without compromise for worldly ambition and personal economic gain. Priestly celibacy clearly and unambiguously articulates what St. Benedict calls the “good zeal,” a preference for nothing else but Christ, the true King. This celibacy is a witness that there is no earthly substitute for the kingdom promised by Jesus, a reign that will come at a time known to God alone.

Therefore, the longing for early powers or lands or ideologies that eclipse the vision of the kingdom are obfuscations of God’s righteousness. Toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we can see the result of righteousness as well as the collapse of that virtue. Those sheep destined to inherit the kingdom have disposed themselves to see Christ in everyone in need: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, the imprisoned. Since celibacy is a complete surrender of the self as gift, the celibate priest is uniquely positioned to be present as Christ for those in need. Then the celibate who is available for the poor, who is himself poor in spirit, will have no trouble recognizing the Lord in one of the least in the kingdom.

Being available for others continues to be a raison d’etre for priestly celibacy, but I believe that we should see this disposition for others as a sign that the kingdom of God is typified by the one who bids the Word welcome, as one who lives by the existential hospitality of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:3). The celibate who signifies the kingdom is opened to radical listening, waiting like a wise virgin for the bridegroom to appear. Pre-eminent among Christians who humbly welcomed the Word was the Mother of God. The Church reveres the Virgin Mary as a singular vessel in the history of salvation because it was her hospitality to God’s Word that made our redemption possible. Therefore, she who heard the Word of God and kept it was before and ever after a virgin, a sign once again that the kingdom of God has been made known to God’s people.

When celibacy is viewed as a sign of the kingdom, it confronts a society obsessed with material gain and global, colonial expansions. “He has cast down the mighty and lifted up the lowly,” says Mary in her Magnificat. Modeled after Mary of Nazareth, the Virgin who waits in confidence for the kingdom of God and its righteousness, the celibate priest becomes a living embodiment of one who makes present God’s Eternal Word, even as he awaits that kingdom that is about to come; his celibacy signifies the well-known expression from the Letter to the Hebrews: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come” (13:14).

The implications and demands on justice are enormous when we realize that no human power can take upon itself a “manifest destiny” that promises an abiding city of abundance and even excess. As Pope Benedict has said in the encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, “A link has often been noted between claims to a ‘right to excess,’ and even to transgression and vice, within affluent societies, and the lack of food, drinkable water, basic instruction, and elementary health care in the areas of the underdeveloped world and on the outskirts of large metropolitan centers.”[8] Celibacy for the sake of the kingdom is a living reminder that the future of humanity lies not to entitlement to excess and that our treasure is in heaven, while we help to build the Kingdom of God’s Justice and Peace on earth.

Celibacy as Hope for Community

“Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in a well-known sermon on “Self-Reliance” he preached in 1830. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”[9] In a certain sense, Emerson was setting the tone for American individualism, the force of which has remained as constant as the lone Western hero on the Dakota plains. Walt Whitman would chant the “Song of Myself” in 1855, an unbridled celebration of the American individual and its power to harness, rather than embrace, community: “I am large; I contain multitudes.”

The trumpeting of the self would appear in countless manifestations in American culture over the years, some of them as urgent calls to recognize the potential of individualism as constitutive of true human leadership and who Thomas Carlyle would call in another context “Captains of Industry.” In 1950, David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, a seminal sociological study of middle-class sensibility, determined that “other-directed” persons severely compromise the American legacy of autonomy, a value imbued with “inner-directedness.”[10] Conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan would champion the success of individualism in American life in his first inaugural address: “If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before.”[11]

But for St. Paul, true power is disclosed not in the construction of the self or personal genius, but in the power of divine self-emptying, in the sacrifice of Christ’s cross, which has delivered all humankind into the realm of the Father’s love. Christ, the firstborn of the dead, has given us the social and ecclesial community of the Church, filled with His Spirit. Christ’s free gift of Himself to us has brought forth the life-giving community of love. While some might read celibacy as a participation in American individualism, nothing could be further from the truth.

Celibacy exists for the sake of the other. We model not the lone star western hero, but the work of Christ when we offer our “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” Paul goes on to urge, “Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2). The locus of priestly celibacy establishes itself here, at the cross of Christ, which becomes the fountain of self-giving for the celibate building community, a source that he encourages all to imbibe.

In a very real sense, the day-to-day ministry of priestly celibacy functions as a matrix for the sacraments building the Church in love. Celibacy symbolically stands at the edge of culture so that it might be a kind of fulcrum for those in need of God’s mercy; celibacy is not as some abstract idea, but the reality of self-giving love put into the practice of pastoral care. Simply stated here, we might point to priestly celibacy as it bears concrete witness to the life of Christ in the sacramental world of the Church.

Consider, for only a brief instance, the role of the priest at baptism. He initiates the neophyte from the world of darkness into the light of Christ, claiming the newly baptized for Christ and His Church. Then again, with the other sacraments: in Eucharist, the priest brings the disparate, fragmented world of individuals into community, the life-sustaining nourishment of the Body of Christ; in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, he once again stands on the margins of sin and forgiveness, offering to bring the penitent into a world of God’s grace; in the Sacrament of Anointing, he extends God’s healing power to the suffering, and to the dying, he offers viaticum—food for the final journey.

The celibate priest is a mystical ferryman taking those stranded in the Underworld of sin and death into the promised land of God’s mercy. To this end, priestly celibacy enfleshes pastoral charity, even as it builds community for the sake of the Gospel of Christ, carrying the People of God to the Promised Shore. Celibacy, like the cross of Christ, becomes the potent foundation for community, signifying a liminal world of transition made possible by the saving work of the Son of God. As John Paul II says, “Jesus Christ, who brought his pastoral charity to perfection on the Cross with a complete exterior and interior emptying of self, is both the model and source of the virtues of obedience, chastity and poverty which the priest is called to live out as an expression of his pastoral charity for his brothers and sisters.”[12]

The degree to which celibacy will transform culture is the extent to which that virtue is embraced freely as an imitation of Christ. Christ is already at work renovating our world as a generative, sustaining presence in the arms of the Church and its members through a multitude of vocations. Christ is already the singular sign of the kingdom that is to come, the God who is with us here and now and the Bridegroom at the end of time and history awaiting His Church. Christ is present to us as hope, even as His Spirit labors to bring to restoration all things in the Father’s will.

Priestly celibacy participates in the living, redeeming work of Our Lord as a vibrant witness to the Body of Christ and as a manifestation of divine grace disclosed in mystery in our lives. Ultimately, it will be Christ the Bridegroom who gathers all things to Himself, recapitulating and restoring all creation that groans and awaits completion. A joyful, self-giving celibacy is the Bride who awaits Him; it witnesses powerfully to the very act of re-creation, a final paradox to a culture that longs for fullness of life and length of days.


  1. The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter Abbott, SJ (New Brunswick: New Century Press, 1966), 199.
  2. Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (December 8, 1975) 20. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_p-vi_exh_19751208_evangelii-nuntiandi_en.html 
  3. The Documents of Vatican II, 71-71.
  4. c.f. Guerric DeBona, OSB, “Mass Appeal: The Priest Movie as Cultural Icon,” New Theology Review, Vol. 17, no. 3 (August 2004): 30-40; and “Angels with Dirty Faces: Priestly Images in Contemporary Cinema,” New Theology Review, Vol. 22, no. 2 (May 2009): 60-69.
  5. See Erikson’s classic work, Identity and the Life Cycle (New York: International Universities Press, 1959).
  6. John Paul II, Homily at Eucharistic Adoration in Seoul, October 7, 1989, quoted in Pastores Dabo Vobis: On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstance of the Present Day, Post-Synodal Exhortation, March 25, 1992, 23. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031992_pastores-dabo-vobis_en.html
  7. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (London: Penguin, 2003), 742.
  8. Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (Boston: Pauline Books, 2009), 66.
  9. Reading on the Themes of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, edited by Robert N. Bellah et al (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 58.
  10. David Reisman, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale UP, 1965).
  11. Ibid, 407.
  12. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, 30.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Celibacy by Rev. Guerric DeBona, OSB is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book