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Priestly Celibacy – Adam, Standing Before God

What is wrong? Why is there this persistent bias or negativity against sexuality and its expression, in marriage or not, across religious lines, around the globe and throughout human history? Okay, I am well aware of the modern-day hedonism and about such practices in pagan Rome; but there as well there were rules for conduct and marriage was a regulated institution.  People of faith pray and hope that this slide into decadence will be aberrational and temporary.  In any case, ancient Rome also had its vestal virgins, priestesses who dedicated their lives to maintaining the fire at Vesta’s temple.  Why this emphasis upon virginity at all?  Why this anxiety about human sexuality, even in marriage?  Could it be that we are afraid should the beast in humanity return and that the order of civilization might be lost?  Promiscuity is associated with anarchy and chaos.  The devil, himself, is sometimes labeled simply as “the beast.”  The Scriptures make the distinction between the Lord of the world and Christ with his kingdom.  My suspicion is that the bias or wariness about sexual union and passion reflects something primordial, reflective of original sin and our developmental roots. The Church does not buy completely into Darwin and there is no evolution of the human spirit. But, when God had prepared a body for the first man and woman, he infused an immortal soul. Despite this tremendous honor, he was still very much like the primates around him, primitive and acting largely by instinct. It has been speculated that the sin of Adam was his refusal to step forward as a man. Suddenly, upon the world scene there was a conscious creature intensely aware of himself and of the God who made him. He was called to respond to God in kind, knowing and loving him in return. This awareness, this rationality, this “being” with self-reflective knowledge was presented with the challenge of his great dignity and calling. He stands on two feet as the human steward of creation, given the tremendous duty of representing all material creation before the throne of God. But it is too much, too hard, and he is afraid. He falls back upon all fours. The way of the mindless beast is easier. Of course, he could not so easily escape his moral obligation and authority. His fall damages him. His vision is blurred. There will be no immediate consummation. He forfeits preternatural gifts. Suffering and death enters the human world when God had promised so much more. It is this memory, buried but still present as a trace in every man and woman, that sours the milk of human sexuality. We know what it should be. But it is easier to be an animal, and so we pretend to be less than what we really are. We settle upon lesser gratuities, gifts that are damaged as we take them out of the box. What do animals do? They eat and drink. They relieve themselves. They copulate when in heat. This is the way of the animal. This is the way of men and women who have ruined themselves with debase lusts and wayward appetites. Sexual abandon brings us back to that moment after the fall. We embrace the carnal and deny the spiritual component of our nature. There are few sins that can so terribly tarnish human dignity like sexual depravity. Unfortunately, even married couples struggle to preserve the sacredness of their sexuality when their fallen nature and an erotic world conspire to bring them down.

When our Lord admonishes his listeners in the Gospel about divorce, he sternly tells them that this was not the way it was supposed to be. The Mosaic writ of divorce was tolerated because of the hardness of their hearts. Divorce is a deception that allows successive polygamy. He cites Genesis and tells them that the pledge of a man and woman in the matrimonial bond is until death do they part. When followers express surprise, it is remarked that it might be better not to marry (not to have sexual congress) at all. Jesus acknowledges that not all have this great gift of celibate love. Both celibate love and monogamous marriage between a man and woman, harken back to Genesis and the ideal or paradigm of the created order, before it all went wrong.

Marriage is both a natural institution and a sacrament.  It began in holiness.  We remember when the first Adam stood alongside Eve, one who was like him and yet different, one in whom he could see himself looking back from her eyes. She was a great gift.  They were God’s gift to each other.  As a married couple before the fall, Adam and Eve were living in friendship with each other and with God. But then sin enters the picture and chaos ensues with only the promise of God to give hope. Fidelity in marriage and in the promise of celibacy are what hold back the floodgates of wild abandon and decadence. Today, the dam is leaking and the very pillars of both discipleship and civilization are compromised.

Where is the celibate priest in all this? Genesis and the Gospels harken to us.  It all began with just one solitary man, complete in himself, living harmoniously in the garden, standing before God in right relationship. Unfortunately, he would not stand for long. The celibate priest is a symbol of this early Adam. He is unfettered by the needs of a wife and family. He is a mediator or emissary before God. Although the priest is a sinner, he brings to mind when the entire human race in one man stood before God as a saint. He also reminds us of the Christ, the second Adam, who restores what was lost. He acts in the person of Christ, our new Adam.  Reason and will take precedence over the instincts and appetites of the beast. Our challenge today is to keep hope alive and not to despair.  Just when Church teaching offers the most sublime and moving depiction of marriage, human sexuality and the theology of the body; we are shocked by the purveyors of flesh and secretly wonder if maybe the Manicheans were right, after all.

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