Can Celibacy Be Healthy?

With the conclave and election of the new Pope, celibacy was front and center in the news.  Will it change?  What’s it all about?  Can it be healthy?

Why is it so hard for the world to “get” what Catholics are trying to say through the witness of celibacy.  Dr. Wanda Poltawska of the Pontifical Academy of Krakow argues that the world struggles with the possibility of a healthy celibacy because for the lay person, celibacy is usually imposed but for the priest or religious, celibacy is chosen.  Choosing something freely certainly doesn’t make it easy, but it does make it desireable and worthwhile.  Since most laypersons–especially non-believing laypersons– can’t imagine a situation in which they would choose celibacy, they constantly struggle to understand how it could possibly be healthy or desireable.

That points, of course, to a missed opportunity for evangelism.  It would be good if we, and especially the priests who live celibacy, would do more to communicate why celibacy is a worthwhile gift to the world.  The celibate doesn’t give up connection with others.  The celibate must strive to make a more radical connection to others.  If marriage witnesses to the spousal union God desires with us, celibacy points to the spousal union God already enjoys with the whole communion of saints.  The gift of celibacy isn’t just that it allows a priest to do more stuff for the Church. The more important point of the gift of celibacy is that it points to the spousal union enjoyed by the whole communion of saints–the total union hinted at by earthly marriage but that supersedes marriage in Heaven.

Of course, all this fails to address the question, “Is it possible for celibacy to be healthy?”

Clinical Psychologist and psychology professor Fr. Sonny Manuel, S.J., has a book called Living Celibacy:  Healthy Pathways for Priests .   In it, he decribes interviews he has done with priests that identify 5 key factors that enable celibacy to be healthy.

1.  Live Close to God and the Celibate’s “Deepest Longings”

Rev. Dr. Manuel asserts that to be a healthy celibate requires an active, personal prayer life and an active effort to remain mindful of the deepest longings for intimacy with God that prompted the decision to live a celibate life to begin with.  Much like a married couple must recall what made them fall in love with each other so that they can remember what all the sacrifice of marriage is for, a priest must intentionally recall the longing that drew him to seek God first above all else and translate all other desires through that first and deepest longing.

2.  Develop Broad and Deep Relationships and Communities of Support.

The short version is that healthy priests don’t isolate.  They are involved with their parishioners, and have vibrant relationships with their brother priests.  Celibacy can’t be a means of hiding from connection from people.  It has to be a catalyst for pursuing even deeper engagement with people.

3.  Ask for Love, Nurture Others, and Negotiate Separation

Healthy celibacy requirest that priest or religious be capable to being a generous servant to others,  be comfortable receiving and even asking for loving care from others in return and having the maturity to keep these two drives of generativity and receptivity in balance.  If one is only a servant to others, one will burn out and become resentful.  If one only takes from others, one become narcissistic.  Finding the balance between these two extremes allows a priest to achieve a healthy and appropriate intimacy with others that enables him to be a minster and a human being.

4.  Cope with Stress and Recognize Destructive Patterns of Behavior

It is easy, under stress, to lean too heavily on the feelings one gets from being in relationship with others to give me the illusion of health and well-being without actually doing the work of taking care fo my own stuff.  That can turn a minister into a user or even a predator.   Having healthy ways to cope with stress and problems prevents this from happening.  Fr. Manuel suggests many ways to accomplish this in his book.

5.  Celebrate the Holy in the Company of Jesus.

Fr. Manuel argues that a healthy celibacy is rooted in ongoing spiritual discipline and development.  Just like a married couple must continue to work on their marriage every day in order for that marriage to be great and lifegiving, a priest must commit to daily spiritual exercises to keep his relationship with God and his commitment to his ministry in a good and lifegiving place.


What I find refreshing about Fr. Manuel’s work is that it presents a positive, healthy, and realistic view of the challenges and strategies for living a healthy celibacy.  Hopefully, this little summary gives FaithontheCouch readers a clearer sense of what a healthy celibacy looks like.

Celibacy. Just Saying, “No” to Sex?

Catholics are getting lots of questions about celibacy these days.  Fr. Dwight Longnecker has a great piece on his experience as a married RC priest.

Here is a piece I wrote on the significance of celibacy in reaction to an interview Piers Morgan did with the Dalai Lama.  The original CNN headline, since changed, was Dalai Lama Interview:  Women Alluring?  “Yes”  

My response was titled, From CNN:  This Just In.  The Dalai Lama Has a Penis.   Enjoy.


I confess I find articles like this both vexing and laugh-out-loud funny.  The article is a summary of Piers Morgan’s exclusive interview with the Dali Lama.

The interview itself is fairly wide-ranging, but apparently the most shocking and surprising thing for the editors of is that the Dali Lama (and perhaps, gentle reader,  you should sit down for this)…

…finds women attractive!

I can just imagine the shock in the press room. “STOP THE PRESSES BOYS! WE GOT US AN EXCLUSIVE. Women are attractive? Well, Damn! Whooda thunk it?!? Thank heavens the Dali Lama pointed that out for us.”

Why is it surprising to people that religious people in general, and celibates in particular, experience sexual attraction?  In Buddhism, bramachariya is the practice of monastic abstinence from sex.  It is done, not out of a hatred for sex or sexuality, but because there are certain things even more desirable than sexual union.

For the Buddhist, that thing which is more desirable is enlightenment.  Simply put, Buddhism teaches that sexual intercourse makes it difficult to quiet the mind and to pursue the detachment that is necessary for true enlightment.

Likewise, for the Catholic priest or religious sisters or brothers, celibacy is not a condemnation of sex.  It is a positive witness to the world of two things.  First, celibacy points to the Eternal Wedding Feast that is Heaven.  The celibate person is a reminder to the world that there are delights beyond that of the body and those delights are so profound, they are worth making sacrifices to attain.

Secondly, the celibate is free to serve the whole world wherever and whenever he or she is needed in ways that a married person simply cannot do.  That doesn’t make the priesthood or religious life better than marriage.  It just makes it more versitile.

Regardless, no person takes on celibacy because they don’t have a sexuality. Every human person is sexual.  Even religious persons.  Even religious persons committed to a life of holiness and service. The celibate person still experiences attraction to others.  But the celibate learns to channel that generative energy into those activities that lead to, well, holiness and service. (For a wonderful reflection on the positive understanding of sexuality and heaven that celibacy points to, check out this article–Is There Sex In Heaven– by Boston College professor Peter Kreeft)

Obviously, celibacy calls for incredible self-discipline, but that’s the point.  Some things are worth waiting for.   In their own ways, albeit to somewhat different ends, Buddhist monks and nuns, and Catholic priests, brothers and nuns all exist to remind the world that there are deeper mysteries that we are all called to encounter in our own way and those mysteries are worth making sacrifices for.

Which brings us back to why I always chuckle when I see articles like the one from CNN that inspired this post.  The surprising thing isn’t that the Dali Lama experiences sexual arousal from time to time–he is a human being after all.  The truly surprising is that unlike most of the rest of us, he is able–like all healthy celibates of any faith–to view sexual energy as a catalyst for transcendence instead of viewing it as a pressure that must be released.

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is love”), properly understood, “Eros tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.”

The celibate doesn’t renounce sex.  He or she announces that by harnessing the sexual impulse, a deeper mystical, and even nuptial union with both the Divine and all of humanity is not only desirable, but possible.


To discover how you can take sex to a deeper more meaningful level in your life, check out Holy Sex! by Dr. Gregory Popcak

Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving