Monday, September 19, 2011

The Freedom of the Gift: Priestly Celibacy and Authentic Sexual Liberation

By Christopher West

Many people believe that those who choose to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven condemn themselves to a life of hopeless sexual repression. In this paper I will seek to demonstrate that celibacy for the kingdom – and, for our purposes, we are dealing primarily with priestly celibacy – when accepted according to the invitation of Christ can only be properly understood and lived as a path of authentic sexual liberation.

Our world talks a big line about sexual liberation or sexual “freedom.” By this the culture means license to indulge one’s sexual compulsions without hindrance. Is this freedom? If one cannot say no to his sexual compulsions, is he free? Is an alcoholic who cannot say no to his urge to drink free? Authentic sexual liberation is not the freedom to indulge one’s compulsions. Rather, it is freedom from the compulsion to indulge. Only to the degree that a person is free from the tyranny of lustful impulses is he capable of being a true gift to others.

Man is not an animal ruled by instinct. He is a rational animal who, to live in accord with his own dignity, must act freely. John Paul II observed that the “application of the concept of ‘sexual instinct’ to man... greatly limits and in some sense ‘diminishes’ what... masculinity-femininity is in the personal dimension of human subjectivity.... To express [human sexuality] appropriately and adequately, one must also use an analysis different from the naturalistic one. ...The truth about the spousal meaning of the human body in its masculinity and femininity, deduced from the first chapters of Genesis...seems to be...the only appropriate and adequate concept.”2

In this paper, with the help of John Paul II’s theology of the body (TOB), I will explore how the concept of the “spousal meaning of the body” leads to an authentic understanding of sexual freedom – the freedom, that is, to be a gift to others, whether in marriage or in a celibate gift of self for “the sake of the kingdom.”

As John Paul II affirmed, “At the basis of Christ’s call to continence [for the kingdom] there stands... the awareness of the freedom of the gift, which is organically connected with the deep and mature consciousness of the spousal meaning of the body.”3 This key text will form the foundation of my argument.


The whole truth of the body and of sex, John Paul affirms, “is the simple and pure truth of communion between persons.”16 This communion is established through an integrated, incarnate love. Hence, John Paul defines the spousal meaning of the body as the body’s “power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and – through this gift – fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence.”17

Here John Paul echoes that key text from the Second Vatican Council: “It follows then, that if man is the only creature on earth that God willed for its own sake, man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself.”18 John Paul demonstrates that this teaching of the Council is rooted not only in the spiritual aspect of man’s nature, but also in his body, in the complementary difference of the sexes and their call to become “one flesh.”

Of course, this does not mean that everyone is called to marriage. Nor could it possibly mean that sexual union is required in order to understand and live the meaning of life. It does mean, however, that we are all called to some expression of “spousal love” – to an incarnate self-giving. Everyone, regardless of earthly vocation, finds the ultimate fulfillment of the spousal meaning of the body in the “Marriage of the Lamb,” that is, in union with Christ. And everyone’s journey toward this heavenly reality, regardless of earthly vocation, passes by way of the experience of sexual embodiment.

The Church recognizes two ways of living this vocation to love in its fullness – marriage or celibacy for the kingdom.19 Both vocations flow from the basic disposition of the human person towards communion revealed in the spousal meaning of the body. As John Paul states in his TOB: “On the basis of the same disposition of the personal subject and on the basis of the same spousal meaning of being, as a body, male and female, there can be formed the love that commits man to marriage for the whole duration of his life (see Mt 19:3-9), but there can be formed also the love that commits man for his whole life to continence ‘for the kingdom of heaven’ (see Mt 19:11-12).”20

Christian celibacy, therefore, must never be understood as a rejection of God’s plan for sexuality. Rather, it is a sign of the ultimate purpose and meaning of human sexuality – the union of Christ and the Church (see Eph 5:31-32). The celibate person skips the sacrament of Christ’s union with the Church (the marriage of Genesis) in order to devote himself entirely to the reality of Christ’s union with the Church (the marriage of the book of Revelation).

As John Paul expressed it, “Continence ‘for’ the kingdom... is a charismatic sign... [that] points out the eschatological ‘virginity’ of the risen man, in which... the absolute and eternal spousal meaning of the glorified body will be revealed in union with God himself.”21

John Paul insists that the call to voluntary celibacy only finds its proper motivation in relation to the spousal meaning of masculinity and femininity. If someone where to choose celibacy based on a fear or rejection of the true wealth of sexuality, it would not correspond to Christ’s invitation.22 The spousal meaning of the body “constitutes the fundamental component of human existence in the world.”23 Hence, we cannot reject or forego the spousal meaning of our bodies without doing violence to our humanity.

John Paul II observed in Pastores Dabo Vobis that celibacy for the kingdom “makes evident, even in the renunciation of marriage, the ‘spousal meaning’ of the body through...a personal gift to Jesus Christ and his Church which prefigures the perfect and final communion of self-giving of the world to come.... [It prefigures] also in a bodily way, the eschatological marriage of Christ with the Church.”24

By virtue of the spousal meaning of his body, every man is called in some way to be a husband and father. The priest, in imitation of Christ, marries the Church, taking her as his bride. And through this virile, celibate gift, he bears numerous spiritual children. This is why calling a priest “father” is not merely a title, but a recognition of his ontological identity. We can thus recognize that the spousal meaning of the body is an “indispensable theme” of man’s existence. “In fact, in the whole perspective of his own ‘history,’ man will not fail to confer a spousal meaning on his own body. Even if this meaning does undergo and will undergo many distortions, it will always remain [at] the deepest level... as a sign of the ‘image of God.’ Here we also find the road that goes from the mystery of creation to the ‘redemption of the body’ (see Rom 8).”25

Redemption of the Body/ Transformation of Sexual Desire

Due to sin, the “human body in its masculinity and femininity has almost lost the power of expressing this love in which the human person becomes a gift.” John Paul adds the adverb “almost” because the “spousal meaning of the body has not become totally foreign to that heart: it has not been totally suffocated in it by concupiscence, but only habitually threatened. The ‘heart’ has become a battlefield between love and concupiscence. The more concupiscence dominates the heart, the less the heart experiences the spousal meaning of the body.”26

St. Paul vividly describes the interior battle we experience between good and evil in Romans 7. But he also speaks of the power of redemption at work within us which is able to do far more than we ever think or imagine (see Eph 3:20). Balancing these truths, we find both a real battle with lust and the possibility of a real victory over it. Christ calls us precisely to this victory in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard the commandment, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:27-28). Christ demonstrates that merely following a commandment externally is not enough. The problem is that fallen man is riddled with lust in his heart. Jesus came not to enforce a code of ethics; he came to transform the human ethos – that is, to transform the desires of our hearts. “Christian ethos is characterized by a transformation of the human person’s conscience and attitudes ...such as to express and realize the value of the body and sex according to the Creator’s original plan.”27

We “groan inwardly,” St. Paul says, as we await this transformation, this “redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). But the redemption of the body is not merely some distant hope. The “‘redemption of the body’ ...expresses itself not only in the resurrection as victory over death. It is present also in the words of Christ addressed to ‘historical’ man [when] Christ invites us to overcome concupiscence, even in the exclusively inner movements of the human heart.”28

When lust “flairs up” in the human heart, most people think they only have two choices: indulge or repress. If these are the only two options, most Christians will choose repression, mistakenly believing it the path to holiness. John Paul II demonstrates that there is another way. Rather than repress lust by pushing it into the subconscious, trying to ignore it, or otherwise seeking to annihilate it, we must surrender our lusts to the paschal mystery. As we do, “the Spirit of the Lord gives new form to our desires.”29 In other words, as we allow lust to be “crucified,” we also come to experience the “resurrection” of God’s original plan for sexual desire.

Not immediately, but gradually, progressively, as we take up our cross every day and follow, we come to experience sexual desire as the power to love in God’s image. In other words, we come to reclaim the true freedom of the gift connected to the spousal meaning of the body.30

“It is necessary,” John Paul says, “continually to rediscover the spousal meaning of the body and the true dignity of the gift in what is ‘erotic.’ This is the task of the human spirit.... If one does not assume this task, the very attraction of the senses and the passion of the body can stop at mere concupiscence, deprived of all ethical value.” If man stops here, he “does not experience that fullness of ‘eros,’ which implies the upward impulse of the human spirit toward what is true, good, and beautiful, so that what is ‘erotic’ also becomes true, good, and beautiful.”31

Eros, in other words, if it is to be fully itself, must open to divine love, to agape.32 Eros, in its fullness, always implies this “upward impulse” toward the Divine. However, an “intoxicated and undisciplined not an ascent in ‘ecstasy’ towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.”33 It is precisely this “beatitude for which our whole being yearns” to which priestly celibacy bears witness. But the celibate man can only bear an effective and compelling witness to this beatitude to the degree that his erotic inclinations are disciplined and purified.

Celibacy Flows from the Ethos of Redemption

It is precisely this purification that makes celibacy for the kingdom a life of authentic sexual liberation, not sexual repression. In the end, the celibate person has two choices: redemption of eros or neurosis. The same holds true, of course, for spouses – but their neuroses can be more easily hidden within their sexually active relationship. Everyone, regardless of vocation, is called to experience the redemption of eros. This and this alone enables Christian celibacy and Christian marriage to be an authentic witness to the Marriage of the Lamb.

So much confusion about the Church’s teaching – not just on sex, but on the whole economy of salvation – stems from the tunnel vision that results from normalizing concupiscence. For those whose hearts are bound by lust, the idea of choosing a life of total celibacy is absurd. But for those who are being liberated from lust by the ethos of redemption, the idea of sacrificing the genital expression of their sexuality “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” not only becomes a real possibility – it becomes quite attractive, even desirable.

When authentically lived, the Christian call to life-long celibacy witnesses dramatically to the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Of course, a truly chaste marriage witnesses to the same freedom. Contrary to the tunnel vision perspective mentioned above, marriage does not provide a “legitimate outlet” for indulging one’s lusts. Thus, whoever has an authentic Christian understanding of marriage at the same time gains an authentic Christian understanding of life-long celibacy. Such an understanding comes from the ethos of redemption. As John Paul says, behind the call to continence in Matthew 19 and the call to overcome lust in Matthew 5 “one finds the same anthropology and the same ethos.”34 In other words, both vocations (marriage and celibacy) flow from the same vision of the human person and the same call to experience the redemption of our bodies, which includes the redemption of our sexual desires.


Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition. Washington, D.C.: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.

Pope Benedict XVI. God is Love. Boston: Pauline, 2006.

Pope John Paul II. Familiaris Consortio. Boston: Pauline, 1981.

_____. Letter to Families. Boston: Pauline, 1994.

_____. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Boston: Pauline, 2006.

_____. Pastores Dabo Vobis. Boston: Pauline, 1992.

Vatican Council II. Gaudium et Spes. Boston: Pauline, 1965.

West, Christopher. Theology of the Body Explained, Second Edition. Boston: Pauline, 2007.

Read the entire paper here:

(This paper was delivered at the Institute for Priestly Formation 6th Annual Symposium held at St. Vincent DePaul Seminary, FL March 16 2007.)

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