Chastity: The Gift of Priests for Their People

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review
August/September, 1990
Reproduced with Permission

Harry Truman, the story goes, kept a sign on his desk reading "The buck stops here!" When others "pass the buck" he must firm himself to make hard decisions. Priests are little Trumans to their people. If others don't preach chastity any more, it is now their turn. Christ honors His priests by asking them to hold the final line of defense on chastity and the civilization which is based on it.

Maybe it is a bit harder for priests to speak on chastity today than it used to be. We are post-Vatican II People of God, companions of everyone, pilgrims marching step in step with our people. We want to be liked, to be one of them. No longer do we don cassocks and biretta's - dress which would distinguish "us" from "them." When dressed in clerical uniform, we claimed the right to be and act as professional officers of the Gospel natural urgings to act like a "Good Joe" notwithstanding. We were seen as people with one foot already in the other world, judging this world to be passing away. It was seen as quite suitable to our profession that we left parties early, that we were poor judges of odds at the races, that we were moderately inaccessible during hours of prayer and silence. If people thought priests were insulated from the heat of common temptations by their professional way of life, as though by an asbestos shield, we didn't mind at all.

From within the darkened cubicle of the Confessional, the priest dispensed advice, judgment, forgiveness to the humble penitents hidden from view behind the grill. Inclined to be merciful as Christ is merciful, the priest nevertheless sensed that he must set crooked things straight, to be hard as flint when God's law is assaulted. God would help him, as He promised to help Ezekiel: "Now I will make you as stubborn and as tough as they are. I will make you as firm as a rock, as hard as a diamond; don't be afraid of those rebels" (Ez 3:8-9). Sin triggered in the priest the implacable wrath of God against all sin and evil of the people (cf. Rom 1:18).

With the Confessional lighted up now, and priest and penitent facing each other, knees crossed, lolling on comfortable chairs, who can be an Ezekiel? It is far easier to become Pilate, to wash hands, to do what everyone is clamoring for our exposed hearts bleed if constrained to lay heavy burdens on our friends there in the Reconciliation Room, with John and Susan and all the boys girls whom we like so well, and who want to like us.

Problems and pseudo-problems have emerged today which render the preaching of chastity not only unpopular, but even unkind, maybe outdated. Ethiopians are starving, so how can we be against birth control? Doesn't everyone have the conventional wisdom that we must fight "overpopulation?" Besides, mothers work because they "have to," and so give up breastfeeding after three months. Families nowadays will have a new baby every spring if they don't take charge.

Priests are out-shouted anyway by birth control entrepreneurs, by multi-national companies whose sales of Pills and condoms and IUD's and injectables are a closed feed-back system to manipulate the media; whose experts trot from convention to international convention to warn about "overpopulation" with ritualized conventional jargon; that "overpopulation" which excites fear, like flying saucers at night, but forever eludes rational analysis. Our protest for chastity is dismissed as irrelevant by busy people who direct the cornucopia of tax funds to their well heeled contraception, sterilization, abortion, and sex mis-education projects; they manage to protect themselves from the wrath of tax payers by barriers of officialdom, our up-dated Bastille. Sex sins? By an incantation of the magic formula "overpopulation" all is absolved. The priest, waiting perhaps in the darkened Confessional, dressed in clericals, may be all alone, like a man living on another planet.

Priests, almost afraid to whisper the word "chastity," have allies in family circles, almost eager to cave in when priests do so. Wives hurt for husbands whom they imagine as deprived. Periodic abstinence? Her heart bleeds for him. She becomes Eve to Adam. And husbands? When periodic waiting wears on, and raw nerves show, husbands become Adams to Eves. Priests, husbands, wives, all with bleeding hearts, re-enact once again the ancient drama of the Garden of Eden. The children of Adam and Eve act like their parents.

In another part of the nation, 3000 AIDS patients in San Francisco felt terribly isolated and threatened during the recent earthquake. Together we are dancing a macabre dance of death; entire populations dance on the rim of the AIDS pit.

Who will strengthen God's people to seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice, and put on the discipline of chastity? Christ looks to His priests; that is where the "buck should stop."

Paul felt that his priesthood was first of all a call to sanctity. By personal sanctity he would serve his people best. Christ, through him, would then bless the people. "I serve like a priest in preaching the Good News from God... In union with Christ Jesus, then, I can be proud of my service for God" (Ron 15:1.6,17). The power of the priest is in us, like it was in Paul.

During my recent visit to the States some priest friends complained sadly, also quite bitterly, that they can no longer put their priestly powers to work in the Confessional as formerly. People come from miles around, even from out of state, to go to group "Confession." Like Murphy's law stating that "Bad money drives, out good money" so group penitential exercises, done in violation of Church discipline, are driving out personal Confession. But, I countered, would personal Confession be effective with people who have adopted the lifestyle of the Pill or IUD or condom or sterilization (cum abortion if need be). Can a priest work with them in the Sacrament? "It was always a challenge," the priest friends admitted, "but even in difficult circumstances, we could put our pastoral powers to work, and with good effect. But now people escape the working of the Sacrament through group confession, so the healing is not really done.." Group confession has just enough ritual style to make people feel good, and to excuse themselves from coming to terms with God through personal conversion. The priest who could help them before, has been shunted out of contact with them in this matter.

Though priests ought to be like Moses, "more humble than anyone else on earth" (cf. Num 12:3) they can get very up tight about contraception, natural family planning, and Humanae Vitae. Why? We don't have to invent the wheel again, and we don't have to fashion God's laws anew in Post-Vatican times. "If the man who plays the bugle does not sound a clear call, who will prepare for battle?" (I. Cor 14:8). Are we priests really convinced that we should preach and practice chastity. We should esteem our gift to the Church with greater pride. We should practice, then preach.

Chaste Celibacy: The Priest's Gift to the Church

Paul gloried in his priesthood by means of which he could be proud of his service to God (cf. Rom 15:17). If Christ sanctified Paul, then Paul in turn could bring Christ's sanctifying power to others (cf. ibid. 18). A major part of Paul's sanctification was his celibacy. The Apostle of the Gentiles who strove to "become all things to all men" (1 Cor 9:22) also took care of his own needs, doing more in this respect than the other Apostles: "Don't I have the right to follow the example of the other apostles and the Lord's brothers and Peter, by taking a sister woman with me on my trips?" (9:5) (author's translation).

That Peter was married before his call we know, else Christ could not have healed his mother-in-law (cf. Mk 1:30). What happened to the usual domestic arrangements after Peter and the others decided to throw in their lot with Christ as itinerant missionaries is not recorded in the Gospel. Peter's wife is not mentioned by Luke (8:1-3) as being among the band of women who followed Jesus and His twelve disciples "who used their own resources to help Jesus and his disciples" (Lk 8:3). Possibly she is among the "many women" who had followed Jesus from Galilee" (Mt 27:55, see also Mk 15:40-41; Lk 23:49), but if she is, she gets no special mention. Nor is she mentioned specially as being one of the delegates of the relatives who asked to see Jesus (Mt 12:46-50 and parallels). Rather we are led to assume that Peter left home and wife and children - if there were children - behind, and lived thereafter a life of celibate chastity:

Then Peter said, "Look! We have left our homes to follow you." "Yes," Jesus said to them, "and I assure you that anyone who leaves home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will receive much more in the present age and eternal life in the age to come" (Lk 18:28-30; see parallels, which, however, do not. mention the "wife").

Christ, then, explicitly approved the action of leaving wife and children behind for the sake of the Kingdom of God; in the context, we may assume that Peter did precisely this. The long tradition of the Church which required that its priests live the celibate life even if married (see Fr. George William Rutler's article in HPR, Feb. 1989) is best explained if it began with Peter and the other apostles. Married men who were to be ordained to the priesthood in the Catholic Church had always to live celibately after ordination, this from time immemorial. "And it was because the wife had a Christian right to the use of marriage that her free consent to abstinence was needed for the sacrament conferred" (Rutler ibid.). Pope St. Siricius pointed to the immemorial tradition of priestly celibacy, in his letter to Himerius (385):

And so He (Christ) has wished the beauty of the Church, whose spouse He is, to radiate with the splendor of chastity, so that on the day of judgment, when He will have come again, He may be able to find her without spot or wrinkle (Eph 5:27) as He instituted her through His Apostle. All priests and Levites are bound by the indissoluble law of these sanctions, so that from the day of our ordination, we give up both our hearts and our bodies to continence and chastity, provided only that through all things we may please our God in these sacrifices which we daily offer (Denz. 89).

That priestly celibacy presents problems Pope Ciricius does not deny: "Let us come now to the most sacred. orders of the which we find so abused and so disorderly throughout your provinces ... For we have learned that very many priests and Levites of Christ, after long periods of their consecration, have begotten offspring from their wives as well as by shame" (Ibid.) It is despite the difficulties and abuses that Ciricius insists on the keeping of the tradition. We can understand the tradition most easily if we assume that it started with Peter and the Apostles, under the direct tutorship of Christ. We priests, then, belong to a very ancient profession, as old as the Church, as old as the Old Testament, whose glory it has always been to be the first in the line of chastity. That priests sometimes, even frequently fail, we cannot deny; but all in all, priests have been doing a tremendous service to youth, to families, and to civilization itself, by offering their second strongest human drive in sacrifice to God, for His glory, and for the benefit. of the people.

We ask why it is fitting that a priest live celibately, if sex drive is a natural good. We look to the central office of the priesthood to suggest the answer, namely the priest's role as the offerer of sacrifice to God. The priest offering Christ in sacrifice, bespeaks with his life what he says with words. On the altar the priest offers to God the Christ who gives His human life in sacrifice for the Church; the priest cannot freely give his own life on the altar with Christ, but he can do the next best thing: he can offer his celibacy, an oblation of the second strongest and legitimate human drive. Christ gives His celibacy and His life as ransom for all people; the priest offers what he can at the moment - his celibacy - and pledges to give his life as well if called to do so. Not all priests can oblate themselves in martyrdom, but all can do what is next best, live celibately in fidelity to Christ and in the spirit of sacrifice for the people. The priest's sacramental action of offering sacrifice to God thus bespeaks the reality of his mind and heart. The symbol of sacrifice is not a lie, but a truth to which he testifies by the sacrifice of celibacy. Daily he offers Christ in sacrifice, daily he cultivates chastity in the celibate state.

Chastity is a witness we give to God about our faith, second in value only to martyrdom. Chastity is that hidden virtue about whose ownership we dare not boast, the pearl of great price (cf. Mt 13:46) hidden in the field we bought. By our chastity we foster the belief, first in ourselves then in others, that this life passes away, whereas eternal. life awaits us beyond. Like the martyrs, we bid farewell to life here, gazing confidently into the promise of greater things to come. Martyrs sow the seeds of Christianity through their witness; chaste priests enrich the Church by their virtue.

Chastity is ransom money which priests earn, to pay for the release of people from their sins. That ransom money may be currency earned only with much effort and sweat, with some defeats, some victories, some confessions, some weariness generated by the combat. Like Christ, priests are not here to be served, but to serve, and to give their lives as a ransom for many people (cf. Mk 11:45). The word ransom used here is said to be a technical term for the money paid to purchase freedom for slave 'see e.g. Donahue, 995). As Jesus gave His life to pay our sin debts, so priests pay chastity to buy people out of the slavery of sin.

The chastity of Mary and Joseph - married, holy, loving - is a truth central to our faith, a faith which rests on the revelation of the Gospel. Mary and Joseph lived a life of celibacy, and Jesus was born within this virgin family. The priest is another Joseph, chaste and holy, affording safe conduct to God's people.

The priest preaches to others saying with Peter: "From now on, then, you must live the rest of your earthly lives controlled by God's will and not by human desires" (I Pet 4:2). When a priest also testifies to his belief by chaste celibacy, his words pack human conviction amplified by the power of the Spirit. People are convinced by the sincerity of the chaste priest.

Who, then, will break the vicious circle of human weakness in sexual discipline, so visibly encircling the globe today? That weakness of husband toward wife, of wife toward husband, of the hesitant priest toward both'? Our post-Vatican II world is waiting for a solution, while hundreds of millions indulge in a libertine lifestyle, frequently cheered by "overpopulation" apostles and drug and gadget entrepreneurs.

Christ looks to His priests, first of all, to make the sacrifice of celibacy with His strength. In turn, priests should strengthen their people. At Mass, the priest and Christ offer their sacrifice together. The power of Christ then extends to the people through the good offices of the priest. With Christ the faithful and generous priest can pray: "Father ... for their sake I dedicate myself to you in order that they too, may be truly dedicated. to you" (Jn 17:19).

Chaste priests strengthen the Pilgrim Church, the Little Flock, the Remnant, especially in times of crisis like the present. Their example and encouragement strengthen generous couples who rear large and orderly families, whose children will populate our seminaries once again. Parents with many offspring, or with few, who use periodic abstinence for virtue's sake, join priests by offering the gift of their chastity to God. The devotees of chastity will survive via the selective mechanism of their moral fatness, when deadly AIDS sifts the world population. The future of the earth belongs to the chaste. In the AIDS Era, Darwin's law of natural selection reads: "Survival of the morally fit."

Couples who practice periodic abstinence for the Kingdom of Heaven illustrate with their lives that God's laws concerning the transmission of life are livable, are wholesome, are healthy, and - like Chinese cooking - taste bitterly sweet. It is no secret that the present Pope expects couples who practice natural family planning to become a rich source of vocations to the priesthood and religious life from now on. Other families, disobedient in the past, can always repent and mend their ways. There are sterilized couples, for example, who live their converted lives by abstaining periodically. Such up-dated obedience to God in the face of a know-it-all contraceptive population, "is not the wisdom that belongs to this world or to the powers that rule this world" (I Cor 2:2, but it is the wisdom of God, the wisdom taught by the Church. In the end it will bring the reward which "God prepared for those who love him" (I Cor 2:9).

Has the contraceptive spirit bottomed out, and are we moving into more up-beat times'? I do not see it happening yet. Birth rates are extremely low, and still edging downward; children are few in number. Seminaries are still phasing out, also in Japan. People go to a cover-up community penance, but avoid the individual confession which is associated with a sincere will to follow God's laws. Proponents of contraception, abortion, and pornographic sex education are as bold and noisy as ever, and defy efforts to stop them.

We need not wait for the prevalence of contraception to bottom out, because the strong tradition of chastity remains alive and well in millions of families. other families are always joining the chaste group, who rise and return to the house of their father, doing penance for a tryst with an unfaithful lifestyle. These families are already functioning as the Remnant who will carry the Church into the future.

And AIDS is moving stealthily into our still unbelieving world whether we like it or not. As in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, the storm moves upon us slowly, and the first rumblings of thunder do not scare the dancers. But the clouds move in, and finally the storm breaks. Now the thunder roars, 'lightening strikes, rain sweeps down in sheets driven by a churning wind. The entire orchestra heaves to sweep along the storm. And after the storm the earth is fresh and new. Beethoven's music reaches for the sun-burst, brings in the song birds, and makes all creation sparkle anew.

AIDS will press a population of the earth through the bottleneck of chastity during the coning decades, perhaps for all. times hereafter. Survivors will be those who remained chaste before marriage and faithful to their partner during marriage. The future population of the earth will be forged on the anvil of chastity. The priestly profession of modeling chastity for the people is now doubling as a service of saving lives. AIDS may yet fashion a population whose majority is chaste.

Natural family planning - nature's way and God's way - may in future be promoted by the mechanism of the market economy, competing in business against contraception. In the land where Ogino first uncovered the basics of natural family planning - ovulation occurs 12-16 days before the expected menstruation - another Japanese has now invented computerized natural family planning. If the wife takes her temperature faithfully before rising, the device will automatically, without need of further observations, indicate to husband and wife which days are fertile, which are not. At the time of this writing this new device is just entering the market. We will soon see, I believe, widespread use of electronically assisted NFP.

To whom does the Pope look turn to promote chastity? "Beloved sons who are priests by vocation, you are the counselors and spiritual guides of individual. persons and of families. we now turn to you with confidence" (Humanae Vitae 28). "The person principally responsible in the diocese for the pastoral care of the family is the Bishop ... The Bishops avail themselves especially of the priests ..." (Familiaris Consortio 73). "The promotion and teaching of the natural methods is, then, a truly pastoral concern, one that involves cooperation on the part of priests and religious, specialists and married couples, all working in cooperation with the Bishop of the local Church and receiving support and assistance from him" (John Paul II, Address to Family Congress, 8 June 1984). The popes look to bishops and priests to model the virtue of chastity for the Church and the world, confident that they will respond today as the apostles responded to Christ from the beginning; confident that they, like Paul, will accept death at work in themselves so that life wil1 be at work in their people (cf. I Cor 5:12).

Chastity, then, is a virtue which belongs to the profession of the priesthood. Our celibacy is for the good of the Church. Peter began the tradition that priests live celibately, knowing that this was pleasing to Christ, if not an implicit condition for the apostolate made by Him. Peter gave up conjugal life, changed his lifestyle, and made his sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom. During 20 centuries this has been the lifestyle of priests, in accordance with the tradition of the college of apostles. Not all priests, during the 20 centuries, have been faithful nor perfect; many have fallen but struggled back to their feet; others have compromised; Eastern Church discipline has accommodated itself partially to depart from the ancient tradition. But by and. large, we priests have been in the past, and are today, a treasure for the Church when we live our celibacy chastely. Like a gnarled oak on the plain, priests have taken their turns during the centuries to weather the storms, to give shelter to their flocks. And we are not sorry, because we learn more and more with the years the meaning of Christ's promise: "I assure you ... that (you) will receive much more in this present age and eternal life in the age, to come" (Lk 18:29).