Log in
    

Q&A: celibacy, chastity, promises, vows

Three weeks of testimony from Australia's Royal Commission of Inquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have included many discussions about whether celibacy might be a factor in clergy sexual abuse. Catholic News Service asked Father Michael Fuller, executive director of the Secretariat of Doctrine and Canonical Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to explain the difference between celibacy and chastisty, a promise and a vow.

1. What is celibacy? Do priests take a vow of celibacy?

Simply put, celibacy is a promise not to marry and is based on the passage from St. Matthew's Gospel where Jesus says, some "have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." In the Latin rite, candidates for the priesthood, when they become deacons, make a promise of celibacy along with other promises, such as the promise to hold true to the mystery of faith, to maintain and deepen the spirit of prayer, and to conform their lives to the example of Christ. All of these promises are for the sake of the kingdom and for the service of the people of God. The promise of celibacy, of not to marry, is seen by the church as not only a gift of the person to God, but even more so, a special grace given to the priest that will allow him to faithfully serve the people.

2. Is there such a thing as mandatory celibacy as opposed to voluntary celibacy?

The promise of celibacy is one that a person freely resolves to follow. Some people argue that it is mandatory, but that word is not used by the church and conveys a certain negative attitude toward the gift of celibacy. It is true that celibacy, along with all the other promises a priest makes, are obligatory -- meaning that they are part of what it means to be a priest in the Latin rite. What always must be remembered, however, is that no one is forced into becoming a priest; it is a decision that is -- and must -- be made freely and without any coercion. It is also a decision that can only be made after years of discernment and study, and part of that study and discernment includes understanding what a life of celibacy entails. After such discernment, the promises of celibacy, prayer, imitation of Christ, and obedience are freely made at ordination.

3. Why do some people suggest that not being married might be a cause for child sexual abuse?

This is a difficult one, and must first be answered by the fact that studies conclude that there is no link between celibacy and child sexual abuse. For thousands of years, and in many different religious traditions, celibacy has been practiced and has not been a cause for child sexual abuse. In our times, people have a great difficulty in thinking anyone could live a life of celibacy (even with the countless number of people who do) and so they think that there must be a link between the two. Our culture today is oversexualized, which has led us to think that sexual relationships are something unreasonable or unnatural to forgo, and so when there is a crisis such as child sexual abuse, people believe there is a link, when of course, there is not one. Sadly, child sexual abuse is all too common, and involves abusers from all walks of life and it is something that should never happen. One good that has come out of this crisis is the growing awareness of this terrible abuse, which is leading to better means of prevention.

4. What is chastity and how does it differ from celibacy?

Chastity is a virtue that everyone is called to live by; it is the state of being chaste. Chaste comes from an old Latin word which means being pure from any unlawful sexual relationships. In other words, chastity is the virtue of living out your sexual life in the proper way, which is, if you are married, to be sexually intimate only with your spouse and, if you are unmarried, to refrain from sexual intimacy with anyone, for the proper place for sexual relationships is within a marriage. Therefore, chastity is a virtue that should be lived out by everyone, according to their state of life. The person who chooses celibacy promises to remain unmarried for the rest of his life. In this case, to practice the virtue of chastity means he will refrain from all sexual relationships.

5. Are only priests called to be chaste, or is that expected of everyone? Do people make vows of chastity?

Everyone is called to chastity, as defined by their state of life. Men and women who enter the religious life do make a vow of chastity. The vow of chastity is one of the three evangelical counsels that a person entering the religious life vows to follow. The three counsels are obedience, chastity and poverty. Each religious community -- such as Franciscans, or Dominicans, or Benedictines -- will have different ways of expressing these, but they are the common denominator of religious life. The vow of chastity that a religious professes is to live in a state of integrity regarding sexuality, which, in this case, means to forgo sexual relationships. In practice, it looks just the same as celibacy, but is not called celibacy because of the difference between a vow and a promise. 

6. What is the difference between a vow and a promise?

These two often get confused, and people often think that a vow is more serious than a promise. That is not true; they are both equally strong and serious. A vow is a personal act of devotion in which you promise to live a certain way in order to grow in charity as a disciple. A vow then, is directed toward your personal salvation. A promise is directed differently, in that the focus is on others. A promise, then, is also an act of devotion, but one that is directed to growing in charity by serving God in a specific way that involves a focus on his church, his people. In the sacraments we make promises, because they always involve the community of faith, whereas a vow is more personally focused.

A vow is a promise a person makes to God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "A vow is an act of devotion in which the Christian dedicates himself to God or promises him some good work" (CCC 2102). So, a man or a woman entering the religious life, out of devotion to God, promises to live a life of chastity, obedience and poverty. It is something where he or she says, I am doing this out of love for God and for the salvation of my soul. 

Priests and deacons, however, do not take vows, but they do make promises, which are equally binding. A promise is made for the sake of the kingdom and for the church. In the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, holy orders and marriage, promises are made (and therefore, it is not technically correct to say marriage vows). In a promise, you are saying, "I will do this out of love for God and for the sake of others." In marriage, you promise to be true to your spouse, out of love for your spouse and being the "domestic church." In baptism, you promise to be live as a disciple of Christ, rejecting Satan and all his works, and to serve God faithfully in his holy, catholic church. In the promise of celibacy, you promise to remain unmarried for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and at the service of God's people.
  • Published in World

Studies track effect of family encouragement on vocation pursuit

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- There is no single answer to what spurs a young man or woman to consider a vocation to religious life or the priesthood.

"Vocation is a very complex chain of events," said Mark M. Gray, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

There is no doubt, according to Gray, that the influence of family contributes to a son or daughter's decision on whether to pursue a religious vocation. But, just as parents can encourage a vocation, they also can discourage consideration of a vocation.

Gray, who is director of CARA Catholic Polls, points to a study issued jointly last year with the National Religious Vocation Conference, "The Role of the Family in Nurturing Vocations to Religious Life and Priesthood," as particularly telling on a family's effect on vocations.

Family members of seminarians, priests and religious are usually Catholic themselves and are more likely than Catholics in general to have attended a Catholic school, according to that study. They are more likely than other Catholic adults to say that their faith is the most important part of their daily life. One in five also had a priest or a religious already in their extended family, according to the study.

These family members report a more engaged prayer life than do other Catholic parents or other Catholic adults in general, the study said. Nearly nine in 10 pray daily, compared to just over half of U.S. Catholic adults and just over a third of Catholic parents. They also feel more strongly than Catholic adults in general that it is important that younger generations of the family grow up Catholic.

"We know it's obviously a consideration," Gray told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview.

"The importance of family is in encouraging. But it takes more than one person," Gray said. "If it's just your mom ... or just your dad, that's probably not enough. If two people encourage you or three people encourage you," one is more likely to consider a vocation, he added. Friends, priests and sisters can assist in this process.

"Unfortunately, it's just as often that sometimes parents are the people that discourage you" from consideration of a vocation, Gray said. That's the reverse from two generations ago or more, when families were happy to have a son or a daughter enter a convent or the priesthood.

"There's a real sense of 'that's not my role,'" Gray said. Those attitudes, he added, stem from "a sense of individual autonomy that people should pursue their (own) interests -- 'I want my children to follow their dreams' -- rather than some sort of negative attitude toward the church."

One reason parents may discourage a vocation is that, with lower birthrates, they have fewer children to follow their own dreams.

In "New Sisters and Brothers Professing Perpetual Vows in Religious Life: The Profession Class of 2015," issued in January, CARA asked those new members of religious orders, both male and female, about the size of their family. Only 4 percent reported being an only child. 

The most common response from both men and women was that they had three siblings; 25 percent said so, and close to 25 percent reported they had one sibling. But 15 percent said they had two siblings, 9 percent said four siblings, and 22 percent said they had five or more siblings.

Catholic heritage is another indicator of openness to vocations, with 78 percent of the Class of 2015 saying both parents were Catholic. Moreover, 28 percent said they have a relative who is a priest or a religious.

While parents may be encouraging their children to think about religious life, more survey respondents said they got encouragement from parish priests, other religious and friends. 

Mothers did more encouraging than fathers, but new male religious got more encouragement from parents to pursue a vocation than did women religious by roughly a 2-to-1 margin.

A 2012 study, "Consideration of Priesthood and Religious Life Among Never-Married U.S. Catholics," examined family discouragement in some detail. 

Encouragement was highest by the grandmothers of ethnic groups that weren't white or Hispanic, with 14 percent saying they had gotten a nudge from their grandmother. Ten percent of white respondents said their mother, and 9 percent said their grandmother, encouraged a vocation -- the highest percentages among this group. Among Hispanics, 10 percent of "other family members," other than parents or grandparents, encouraged a vocation.

But by the same token, 10 percent of other family members of Hispanics also discouraged a vocation. As a result, the difference between encouragement and discouragement was a wash, as it was with the other family members of other ethnic groups. Mothers, fathers and grandmothers recorded single-digit "net encouragement rates" across nearly all categories, but their percentages were lower compared to those rates for priests and priest chaplains.

Schooling also can play an important role in the choice of a vocation, since parents have the final say in what schools their children attend.

A CARA study done with Holy Cross Family Ministries and conducted in the fall of 2014, "The Catholic Family: 21st-Century Challenges in the United States," showed that only 11 percent currently sent their child to a Catholic elementary, middle school or high school; 5 percent, to a youth ministry program; and 21 percent, to a parish-based religious education program. In all, more than two-thirds, 68 percent, said they did not have any of their children enrolled in formal Catholic religious education.

"Even those in the highest income brackets are still relatively unlikely to enroll children. Among those in households earning $85,000 or more per year, only 14 percent have a child enrolled in a Catholic elementary school and 4 percent in a Catholic high school," the study said.

Family influence might have been greater when more Catholic children went to Catholic schools, but also when young men and women attended seminary or convent high schools, which were more plentiful in the post-World War II era. They provided a direct path to priesthood or permanent vows.

With men and women making the choice for a vocation later in life, family influence wanes, Gray said. "At CARA we're constantly looking at the next layer," he added. CARA recently received a grant to determine the impact of social media on vocations.

Women in particular, according to Gray, are "looking for religious institutes online" for one that matches their interests -- if they don't already have a relationship with a religious order. But, Gray cautioned, "you have to have an institute with the ability to work through social media to be found," and for many leaders of religious congregations, "the internet isn't something they grew up with."
  • Published in Nation
Subscribe to this RSS feed
Bishop's Fund Annual Appeal