Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Treasure Chastity

by Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB


Chastity is "rightly ordered love." As monks, we Benedictines live a celibate life and thus "order our love" by giving priority to God above all. Back when I was working in parish ministry, I was once asked by a young parishioner that if the Pope were ever to allow priests to marry, would I do it?

I smiled and, noting the absolute sincerity of his question as reflected by the expression on his face, I gently explained that even if the Pope were to change the Church's discipline and allow priests to marry, I couldn't - and it has to do with the fundamental character of my monastic vocation.

For Roman Catholic priests who are affiliated with a diocese (diocesan priests) and therefore exercise the priesthood under the authority of a bishop, priestly celibacy is mandated. An exception can be made for married (male) Protestant clergy who become Catholic and desire to be priests; so there are married priests in the Roman Catholic Church, but it's rare.

Ordinarily, Catholic priests are forbidden to marry, which is the basic meaning of priestly celibacy (though there is, of course, a whole lot more to it than merely renouncing marriage). Priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Church, not a divine law, which means there is nothing about the nature of priesthood itself that requires celibacy. For Western Catholicism, the requirement of celibacy for priests has to do with historical considerations that are too complex to go into here.

For those committed to monastic life, from the very start of Christian monasticism in the third century AD, celibacy was understood as a radical way of imitating Jesus, who himself did not marry, and thus for certain zealous Christians, men and women who felt called to do so, it was a way to intensify their identification with Christ by embracing a style of life that would support their desire to "seek God alone."

St. Paul, teaching in First Corinthians 7, is urgent when he writes that "the old order is passing away." He teaches that marriage is good, and he does not prohibit it in any way, but in his opinion those who must support a spouse and family cannot but be anxious about the things of the world, whereas "the unmarried [man] is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord." (1 Cor 7:32)  

The monastic life also plays a role in the Church to witness to the Kingdom beyond this earthly life, beyond worldly concerns. This is what we call monasticism's "eschatological character."

By renouncing even what is good about earthly life, and marriage and family are of the highest order of "goods," the monastic life speaks to the importance of keeping as a priority the goal of our Christian faith - a goal St. Benedict refers to as eternal life, or the kingdom, and also as a heart "now cleansed of vices and sins" (RB 7:70), and thus truly free to exercise the "perfect love of God which casts out fear." (RB 7:67)

Celibacy for the monk or nun is necessary to be free from anything that would inhibit him or her from seeking God alone - seeking only God, yes, but also God in all things. In the early centuries, monks and nuns did this primarily in the wilderness living as solitary hermits; eventually, monastic communities were established.

Benedictine monks and nuns live in community. Through the challenges and tensions of community living - mutual obedience, serving in church and refectory, as well as daily times of work and solitude - we strive (seek) to experience God's presence in one another and in our life together, as well as in our guests and co-workers. Free from the need to provide for a family, monks can spend their lives loving and living for others each day as the mainstay of our Christian vocations.

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.