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On the Demands of Priestly Celibacy

Professor of Pastoral Medicine Focuses on Positive Approach

KRAKOW, Poland, JUNE 30, 2001 ( Here is an excerpt of an essay on “Priestly Celibacy in the Light of Medicine and Psychology,” by Wanda Poltawska, professor of pastoral medicine, at the Pontifical Academy of Krakow. The Congregation for the Clergy published the full address at (

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Priestly celibacy in the light of medicine and psychology
By Wanda Poltawska

Unlike celibacy for lay people, the celibacy of the priest is determined by the free and conscious choice made by a psychically mature man (it is one of the main conditions put to anyone wishing to take holy orders) and as such does not cause a sense of frustration.

This, however, is a very common psychological reaction among single lay people who would like to get married but cannot, and so feel “condemned” to a life of loneliness. Reactions of this sort are more common in women than in men, and in many cases the ungratified desire for married life and motherhood gives rise to bouts of psychic depression.

Making a choice always means giving up other possibilities, other values, but a free choice willingly made also bears witness to the conviction that the value chosen is superior to all the other ones. The priesthood is so charged with potential for self-realization as to give the life of the man who has chosen it a sense of fullness which is often lacking in the lives of ordinary people.

Spiritual fatherhood, the power to bind and loose, the joy of bearing, with his own hands, the supreme gift of God himself to others: These place the priestly dignity on so high a plane in the hierarchy of human possibilities that it cannot be compared with anything else whatsoever and leaves no room for frustration.

As most people see it, the priest is bound forever to the obligation of celibacy and, generally speaking, this disposition of the Church has hardly been challenged in past centuries. The vocation to the priesthood and the vocation to marriage both require the same total devotion and hence are mutually exclusive, even though the type of personality required is basically the same in both cases. In the 20th century, however, we do not so much have a repudiation of the actual ideal of celibacy as doubt over the real possibility of sticking to decisions connected with it.

When John Paul II speaks of priestly celibacy, he often qualifies it as “sacred” — “sacred priestly celibacy” — emphasizing that it is not just a matter of renouncing married life, for its deep significance lies in chastity and virginity, in supreme union with God.

A question of will

Because of the growing tendency to permissiveness and the exaltation of the biological dimension of human nature, the modern world tends to deny people´s ability to live chastely throughout their lives. By some people, the renunciation of sexual activity is perceived as a punishment, by others as an unattainable ideal, by yet others as a way of life which is “against human nature.”

The ease with which it is possible to stimulate sexual excitement encourages many people to search for pleasure and the subsequent easing of tension. But this sort of excitement, above all when not determined by the will, is quite easily curbed by the will. For what differentiates us human beings from the animals is our ability to control our own reactions.

The secretion of the gametes is independent of the human will; sexual activity, however, is always a result of the free decision of the individual.

Often people not only say “I want” but also “I ought to do it,” and this “I ought” is not a real physiological necessity, but only a reinforcing of “I want.” But if the mere permissive attitude, “I want,” is already enough to stimulate excitement, the prohibition, “I mustn´t,” is not enough to curb the reaction.

And here lies the most difficult problem: Prohibition is not only of little use but in many cases produces the opposite effect; by releasing the transgressive mechanisms, it increases the excitement. Simple prohibition thus is not the right approach, since it creates further tension and is hard to put into practice; what is important though is the conscious free choice: “I do not commit the sin, not because it is forbidden to do so but because I am conscious of the fact that it is wrong and give it up of my own free will.”

Identical considerations hold true for priestly celibacy: If the candidate for the priesthood is not deeply motivated in making his choice and renouncing matrimony, he will never appreciate the value of chastity and totally immerse himself in God´s love.

Absolute devotion

In choosing a way of life, a man who is psychologically mature ought to be quite clear too about the way his decision will work out in practice and be aware of the results and of the responsibilities involved. Many factors contribute in differing degrees to psychological and emotional maturity, but above all the repeated and constant work one does on oneself.

As complex entities, we have the task of realizing our capacities, but only by uninterrupted effort can we reach that degree of maturity which Karol Wojtyla calls “self-possession” (see “The Acting Person,” London 1979), which is indispensable for the realizing of any vocation.

Priesthood precludes marriage not so much because the Church has decided that it does, but rather because, requiring an absolute devotion, it leaves no room for the commitment, equally total, demanded by marriage and fatherhood. Unfortunately, the future priest often lives in an environment where the hedonistic attitude prevails and hence the ideal of total devotion is not respected.

Asceticism in the Christian´s life

In today´s world, believers often do not manage rationally to grasp the deeper sense of Christianity. Loving our neighbor involves a need for renunciation, helping the person loved sometimes requires a real sacrifice. Life in Christ demands a constant availability to sacrifice, all the more so the life of someone proposing to enter holy orders.

Of the various values one is called upon to renounce in order to become a priest, there is also the possibility of exercising one´s own sexuality. But since it is commonly thought that sexual activity is to be identified only with pleasure, the requirement of celibacy is seen as deprivation of that pleasure.

From the point of view of the physiology of the human body, the renunciation of sexual activity does not mean the mortification of any one particular demand, since the body does not possess mechanisms constraining it to act in this way. The male genital organs, the constant activity of the gonads as endocrine glands notwithstanding, do not react without being stimulated. Chastity thus does not exert any negative effect on the organism; indeed one might say there is a saving of energy, permitting the subject to concentrate his attention on other activities.

Now, to reach such a state of harmonious equilibrium, and beyond a decisive attitude of will, one needs to live an ordered life, maintaining a certain physical and psychic “hygiene” and inner discipline. It is also necessary to understand how one´s body works, to know its reactions and the mechanisms that trigger these off. By knowing the way one´s body reacts, one can avoid the stimuli that provoke unwanted reactions, since our body is obedient to our will, if we learn how to control it.

The somatic reactions are always conditioned by an external impulse and hence, as it is possible to make it more sensitive to external stimuli, so it is also possible to control it in such a way that it does not respond to such stimuli. The boy, as he matures, learns to understand the mechanism of his own reactions and how to control them.

No spontaneity

In practice, we are all obliged to acquire this ability to control our own reactions since the very demands of social life compel us to do so. For the sexual act, belonging as it does to the most intimate sphere of our entity, never takes place spontaneously under the impulse of the moment, but always has to have a context and a right moment; and this involves the necessity of controlling the somatic reactions. Spontaneity in the literal sense of the word does not exist in human sexual activity.

Now, the priest, by virtue of the vocation he has chosen, has to be aware that for him the possibility of activating the mechanisms of sexual reaction does not exist and that, by activating them, he comes into collision with himself and the vow he has pronounced. From situations of this sort, neuroses can arise: It is not celibacy that creates the stress but the lack of firmness in carrying it out on account of psychical immaturity, simple human weakness or insufficient acceptance of the ideal of celibacy itself.

On the other hand, if the candidate for the priesthood learns to avoid the stimuli and if he looks on other people as one big family, as Jesus teaches, he will not mind abstinence particularly, nor will he yearn for a different lifestyle, since the one he has chosen makes him happy and fulfilled.

Maturity and religious realism

In the process of maturing physically and mentally, we each become aware of the purpose of our own existence and of the meaning of life as such. For the believer, maturity means being aware of the limitations of earthly life, and the eternity of life in God. The prospect of eternity helps us patiently to endure the hardships that may turn up in life, thanks to our being aware that they are only fleeting.

The priest´s job is not only to point out the true dimension of human existence to believers, but also to bear witness to it in his own life. The words of Jesus on the Last Judgment have particular relevance for those individuals to whom “more has been given.” The priest, by his nature, represents the apogee of human potentiality: No higher dignity exists, nor greater responsibility.

Now, awareness of responsibility, which God´s gift entails, constrains us to reflect deeply. The gift of sexuality is not simply a gift but, like all life, is also a task laid before us. Chastity does not in fact constitute an absence of positive experience but, on the contrary, through the effort of the will, a means of reaching a state of equilibrium, an inexhaustible sense of satisfaction and joy. The sex act offers only a second of pleasure and often leaves a feeling of shame and embarrassment as regards one´s own reactions.

The knowledge of having full power over one´s own instinctual reactions, however, gives one not only real joy but above all a feeling of freedom, since only at the time when we become capable of living in conformity to the chosen system of values can we say that we are truly free. The happiness that comes from this is pure and lasting, and it helps us to achieve a state of psychic equilibrium.

People who manage to realize these principles in daily life radiate their own inner peace and harmony to others. The influence that priests endowed with this particular ability exert on other people is enormous, since the need for peace is common to all. Sin always makes for anxiety; virtue, even if dearly purchased, brings joy.

Besides awareness of the grace of which he is trustee, the privilege of offering God to others in the sacraments ought to fill the priest with still greater joy and gratitude for his vocation. In such a situation, celibacy cannot constitute a real hardship, since he is so filled with grace and divine love as to forget all about himself, as the lives of many a holy priest bear witness.

Difficulties in observing celibacy

Today´s way of thinking presents an obstacle to the ideal of priesthood as the quest for personal sanctity and the sanctification of the world. The difficulties the priest encounters in following his vocation are of various kinds, but those connected with the observance of celibacy are particularly grave, since transgressing this obligation usually means sinning against the sixth commandment. A religious, in point of fact, never asks for a dispensation and permission to get married before having committed the sin.

But it cannot be forgotten that in the life of the priest there no longer exists a power of choosing between priesthood and marriage: The choice has already been taken and is to all intents and purposes irrevocable, for reneging on one´s own commitment signifies moral degradation.

–(a) Mistaken concept of sexuality. Difficulties are likely to arise once the priest gives in to the widely held view that human beings are biologically determined. The erroneous notion that the male is in a sense compelled to sexual activity by virtue of the very fact of being male, is becoming stronger and stronger.

People even think that the sexual act “proves” one´s virility; that without it, a man is in some way disabled, unrealized. Concepts of this sort, especially if repeated by medical authorities in the sexological field (as often happens) can easily be used to justify one´s own behavior. From now on the individual, dominated by his own body, justifies himself by saying that “it is not possible” to act otherwise.

–(b) The other factor that makes curbing one´s sexuality more difficult is physical and psychical exhaustion, accompanied by an excess of stimuli, especially visual ones. People react particularly intensely to visual impressions, and Jesus himself warns us against the temptations of the eye. If images of an erotic kind are added to stress, increased by the abuse of nicotine, caffeine and the like, the mechanism of self-control may be weakened, especially in the young.

Chastity requires a constant discipline and a constant hygiene in one´s lifestyle. By giving way to the stimulus, we cannot expect the body to be able to resist the somatic reactions easily; the body on its own does not have the ability to control its own reactions.

Stimuli which may cause sexual reactions are of various kinds. The simplest sort, the mechanical ones for instance, are generally easy to avoid, and even very young boys are usually able to curb them. More dangerous, however, are those which come from within us, from the imagination.

So it is extremely important for every priest to know how to maintain discipline over his thoughts and his imagination. For one can also sin alone, in thought: By looking at another person with desire, by treating that other person as an object, the sin of fornication is committed in the depths of the heart. If an attitude of this sort dominates the heart, it will also manifest itself outside.

On the other hand, if we are clean within, no external situation can provoke somatic reactions against our will. Sexual excitement depends, in the first place, on the intentions with which we approach our neighbor, how we look at him or her and what we see there. The priest is obliged to see the very Christ in his neighbor; the aim of any encounter can only be to bring that person nearer to God.

The entire human body shares in the specific vocation of each individual, for without a physical structure we cannot exist. So the body too has to help the priest in his task as the shepherd of souls. Maturity brings the father´s role, particularly to the priest, whose task it is to beget souls (see St Paul).

Lust tends to subordinate others to our will, subjugating them and humiliating them by treating them as objects. A father´s love, however, offers itself, asking nothing in return. But to attain to this, one must teach the body self-control. Chastity is, therefore, a constant effort to subject the body entirely to the aspirations of the soul. Each human being´s body is always subject to a spirit: either to the Holy Spirit, or to the spirit “of this world.”

–(c) The weight of the past. Not without reason, in days gone by, did the Church demand virginity of candidates for the priesthood, for one of the conditions making the observance of celibacy especially hard is the memory the body retains of its own past experiences.

Return to God and renewal of the soul are always possible but, since the body retains the memory of the past, even if the sin has been absolved, its effects persist. Being used to surrendering to a given type of reaction, the body finds it hard to submit to a new kind of discipline; as a result, those who have committed the sins of fornication or masturbation find the obligation of celibacy all the more difficult to observe.

The same is true for pornographic pictures: The memory retained by the eye, if on the one hand it makes the whole sexual sector seem hateful, on the other provokes excitement and internal conflict.

Obviously the priest cannot be isolated from the world around him; the important thing is to protect that great gift of his chastity. Important to this end will be inner discipline, but more important still the capacity for admiring the beauty radiated by innocence and chastity.

–(d) Lack of faith. When we analyze the lives of those priests who have not managed to keep the obligation of celibacy, one cause stands out as common to almost all of them: moral degradation.

Usually this sets in with a crisis of faith and a rejection of the rules laid down by the Church, that is to say, in the ultimate analysis with a lack of humility. Usually, the law of celibacy is broken by men who are too sure of themselves, who do not seek the support of divine love. Holiness, although it requires the individual´s collaboration, is primarily the gift of divine grace, a gift that needs to be humbly asked for in prayer. When the passion for prayer grows cool, the priest more easily becomes a prey to the pressures of his environment.

Celibacy, as an attempt to overcome oneself and one´s own frailty, is a going “against the current,” is a challenge hurled at the world, but it is never a going against human nature. For, by the very fact of being human beings, we are able to control our own reactions, since we are not to be identified solely with our bodies: We are souls embodied, created by God and created in his likeness.

The demand of celibacy does not exceed human capacities: Christ himself shows us the way when he bids us to seek perfection.

The conscious quest for holiness is not against the individual, but against our individual paltriness and leads us to transcend ourselves. A full realization of priesthood and celibacy develops the human personality to its full potential and hence makes it easier to achieve the objective to which we all are summoned — holiness.

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