success stories

Celibate and Loving It

For Many Priests, True Happiness Lies in The Joining of Self and Church

By a Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, June 6, 2002; Page C01

The summer after college James Stack fell in love.

He was managing a swimming pool in Wheaton when he met her. He had dated before, but this relationship seemed special. There was only one problem: He planned to be a Catholic priest.

The college he had just completed was a seminary, and he was headed for graduate seminary. He was supposed to practice celibacy, though he would not have to make the holy promise formally until ordination. He and his sweetheart kissed, he recalls now, two decades after that summer. "I kept my cool."

But he was devastated. He thought his feelings might mean his call to the priesthood wasn't real. Because of his attraction to women, he knew the duty of celibacy was the main thing he had to come to terms with. Now he was experiencing how difficult that duty could be.

"I had a terrible summer," the shaken seminarian told his mentor priest. "I don't even belong here."

Relax, said his mentor, and tell me all about it.

Since at least the fourth grade in a public school in Rockville, Stack had felt what he calls "God's presence in me."

As he got older, summers were always trials. He'd be going to the beach with friends, meeting pretty girls.

Then he fell in love. She was Catholic and knew he was a seminarian. She thought maybe she could change his mind. Stack thought maybe he should change his mind.

The lady or the priesthood? Choose wrong and betray your soul.

His mentor at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg advised Stack to look inside himself, and pray, and discern his true calling.

It took months. "The issue of celibacy -- I really struggled, I really fought," Stack recalls. "It was like Jacob's struggle with the angel."

He broke up with her after Christmas. She married someone else.

Stack stood before a different altar 16 years ago. He felt a profound peace in his decision -- even though he had no real clue how life without sex, physical intimacy, children would be tolerable. He just had a simple faith.

"Why would God call me to something I would be frustrated in?"

Canon law defines celibacy to include "perfect and perpetual continence," meaning no sexual activity of any kind, including masturbation.

It's a rejection of everything we are biologically and socially programmed to crave. It's a denial of the core message of so much music and dancing and writing and painting and advertising. It's a lifestyle that would be lethal to the species if everyone did likewise.

Then why do this?

Celibates like to spark such reflection. Part of the point of celibacy, for Catholics, is to confront people with something bigger than biology, society, music, dancing, writing, painting, advertising. And sex.

Celibates also turn around the supposition this life is a heroic renunciation. They say celibacy is not No. It is Yes.

Maybe. Anyway, it's not just a Catholic thing.

From the temple virgins who served the virgin goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome, to the celibate Shakers whose communities died out for lack of sex and children, to the latest "Star Wars" movie, where the Jedi knights are imagined as a celibate elite, celibacy has been a mark of something higher, purer.

Buddhist monks are celibate, and Hindu "renouncers" swear off sex later in life.

Christians, however, took celibacy to another level. Immaculate finessing of sex is a basic facet of the faith. Jesus was born of a virgin, according to Scripture, and remained a virgin, according to Christian tradition.

In the New Testament, celibacy is portrayed as holy but not for everyone -- not even all priests. Paul was celibate, but Peter, considered the first pope, had a wife. Jesus addresses the subject in the Book of Matthew: "Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it."

Many of the early clergy voluntarily adopted celibacy. The first attempt to require it came at a church council in the year 306, and by 1139 it was church law.

Now it's in the spotlight as a sex abuse scandal grips the Catholic Church. Many inside and outside the church wonder if the priesthood's celibate culture attracts men who are sexually troubled, though no research has been done that proves a connection. They ask whether permitting married clergy would create a larger pool of qualified candidates at a time when the church is facing a critical shortage of priests.

More broadly, is mandatory celibacy out of step in a society largely persuaded by modern psychiatry that repressing sexuality can be unhealthy? Can a priest advise helpfully on family dynamics he has never experienced?

Is lifelong celibacy humanly possible?

Nearly three out of four American Catholics support letting married men become priests, according to recent media surveys. More than half of American priests also favor optional celibacy for parish priests, according to researchers at Catholic University.

Against such questions, the church insists on the ancient ideal. It works for some, not for others.

The Gift

Stack, 42, now pastor of St. Jerome's Church in Hyattsville, says he has no regrets. He found that "celibacy is a gift" from God, and a celibate life over time will "blossom and become beautiful."

How, in this fallen Freudian world, is that possible?

On a practical level, Stack says, celibacy frees the priest for greater service than if he also had to attend to a wife and children. Spiritually, he believes it focuses his energy and symbolizes for non-celibates that a greater Kingdom exists beyond the physical world.

After Mass on a recent Sunday morning -- the 16th anniversary of his ordination, a date he remembers as faithfully as he would a wedding day -- Stack in his white alb and red stole wades into the crowd of parishioners having coffee in the basement of St. Jerome's.

On the surface, the scene might resemble social hour at a Protestant church or synagogue or mosque. But in the minds of Stack and his parishioners, this pastoral relationship has an essentially different quality that makes it deeper, better.

His talent, passion, love belong to no individual woman or man. He is nobody's father, but everybody's Father.

"A married man I wouldn't call at 3 a.m. and say 'My husband's really sick, my kid has been in an accident,' " says parishioner Lucy Younes. "But I would call Father."

She adds: "We live in a society where to love pure and chaste from afar is a lyric from 'The Impossible Dream.' It's nice to know somebody's trying."

Because the celibate priest loves inclusively rather than exclusively, Stack discovered he had "literally thousands and thousands of friends." Celibacy eliminated many of the tensions and jealousies of relationships.

He is not troubled that as a counselor he has no personal experience with marriage or parental life -- celibates reject the notion that you must have lived a problem to address it. Stack is not too proud to say "I don't know." For aid with marriage questions he sometimes draws on married parishioners.

He says he still notices beautiful women, but is not tempted. "I'm a man of my promise," he says.

The gift of multiple close friendships fully blossomed two years ago when his best friend, Monsignor Thomas Wells, was stabbed to death in Germantown, just days after Stack's father died. Stack was crushed, but he discovered how deep his celibate relationships were.

"I realized this is what it's all about," he recalls. "This is my family. They love me."

Yet nice as this sounds, is it unique to celibacy? Marriage does not preclude deep friendships.

Stack leads the way to a small room on the upper floor of the rectory. There is an armchair and a dresser. On the dresser is a white cloth. On the cloth is a cross and a gold-plated pyx containing the Eucharist -- the communion wafer consecrated as the body of Christ.

This is Stack's prayer room, where he spends an hour at the beginning of each day. "That's a huge part of why I'm a celibate priest," he says.

Much as a celibate needs people, he needs solitude, too. But he is not really alone. Celibacy clears a space for profound intimacy with God and Jesus.

"I have a great yearning to be with God, to be alone with God, like you being alone with your wife," Stack says. "I sit in there and talk to Him, and He talks to me. I don't know how else to put it. I hate to use the word: It's awesome."

Recently he was in his prayer room preparing a homily. He read from the 14th chapter of John. Jesus said: "And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him."

Alone with God, the celibate felt that love to the bottom of his soul, and he started weeping.

Q and A

Unlike generations ago when devout Catholic boys were encouraged to enter seminaries at an age when they presumably knew little of love and sexuality, now priests typically get ordained in their mid-thirties, according a study by sociology professor Dean Hoge at Catholic University.

Modern seminary teachers make it their business to speak frankly about sexuality and to try to screen out men who seem to have a problem forming healthy relationships. Never having been on a date is not necessarily a plus.

The Rev. Bill Parent, director of priestly vocations for the Archdiocese of Washington, is in charge of recruiting priests. He is used to fielding questions about celibacy.

At the core of celibacy, isn't there just a little fear and loathing of sex?

Not at all, says Parent, 42. "It is precisely the holiness of sex within marriage that makes this sacrifice noteworthy. There's no virtue in forgoing something that is poisonous to the spirit."

Are celibates unsexual?


All humans are sexual beings, and Catholics believe God expects you to give your sexuality to the church in one of two vocations: marriage; or celibacy, as a priest or nun, or even as a celibate, single layperson living a life of service. Sublimated sexual energy can infuse a priest's work with extra passion and devotion, they believe.

Homosexuals, however, are not offered a church-sanctioned option to practice their sexuality. Many have entered seminaries. Some research suggests the percentage of priests who are gay is larger than the gay share of the general population. One theory is that some devout gay men seek the celibate culture as a holy refuge from the Catholic condemnation of homosexual sex.

Is perfect celibacy possible? Richard Sipe, a married former monk who did a study of celibacy, estimates that, at most, 10 percent of priests are celibate their entire lives. Some skeptics suspect that many priests deal with sexual frustration by masturbating, then confessing to fellow priests.

Parent scoffs at the notion that there is widespread adultery or fornication involving priests. As for masturbation, he says, "it is no more of a problem for priests than it is for married men."

Are sexual dreams allowed?

Yes. "You are not culpable for your dreams," Parent says. But conscious sexual fantasies are a violation.

Does this gift from God come with a price?


"It isn't that you reach a point where you don't want to be married," Parent says. "You reach a point where you're willing to sacrifice the good of marriage for what you believe is an even greater good."

Parent and other priests describe three phases of the downside of celibacy. The young priest realizes sharply that he will have no sex for the rest of his life. The slightly more mature priest feels the absence of a close confidant at the end of each day. And the older priest begins to feel the pang of never having had children.

In a recent homily, Parent preached:

"Celibacy is not freedom from healthy desire, and most of us priests feel the sacrifice of celibacy daily. There are days when celibacy seems like trying to hold your breath forever. . . . But then there are also those days when through the grace of God, your experience of celibacy and priesthood and Eucharist converge, and you realize that celibacy is not abstinence from love. . . . It is a way of loving."

Why not permit married priests, to attract more candidates?


"Celibacy is a tremendous help in testing one's seriousness about this commitment," Parent says. "In my experience it raises the quality of the candidates who come forth because it provides a natural screen for those who are not as motivated."

A Free Spirit

Not all celibates agree. Early in his days as a Jesuit priest 20 years ago, the Rev. Patrick Conroy was visiting parishes in Washington state with a bishop. Conroy ventured that it might be easier to recruit pastors if priests didn't have to be celibate.

The bishop was thunderstruck. "If celibacy were optional," Conroy recalls the bishop asking, "wouldn't only gay priests remain unmarried?"

That's when Conroy began to suspect that many in the church see celibacy merely as a rule, not a divine gift. For if celibacy is a divine gift, then presumably God would bestow it on plenty of priests, gay and straight. By making celibacy a requirement, is the church diminishing its power as a sign from God?

"I believe I have a vocation to be celibate," says Conroy, 51, now a chaplain at Georgetown University. "But if everyone out there thinks the only reason I'm celibate is because I have to be, then my vocation is absolutely lost as a sign."

Conroy, who also believes married people can have a genuine call to the priesthood, is something of a free spirit. He is as likely to be clad in his golf shirt as in his priestly collar.

And yet the ancient ideal of celibacy captivates even the cool campus priest.

"I'm one of the happiest people I know," he says. "I want people to puzzle over how I can be celibate and be so fulfilled."

He believes that when people puzzle over it, their imaginations will be enlarged and they may encounter the reality of God.

Celibacy for Conroy also has this quality: "The level of intimacy with men and women I think is far beyond the intimacy a married person has. What I don't have is the intensity with one person. . . . In my judgment a married man gives up a lot more women than I do. I tell guys, 'Guess what? If you're getting married, you're giving up women.' "

Who is to say which vocation is more difficult? This Father doubts he has what it takes to be a good father and husband.

"I think a successful marriage and leading a good life, that's the miracle," Conroy says. "Having to grow together, change together, then a child comes along, or a sick one -- to me that's heroism."

Called to Marriage

Sometimes celibacy blossoms and becomes beautiful -- then changes.

In the summer of 1963, a tall thin Jesuit priest in a black cassock was teaching a course at Catholic University on how to incorporate the Psalms into religious education. In the front row sat a confident Franciscan nun in a brown habit.

After class the nun went up to the priest and said, "What you're trying to do is marvelous, but the way you're trying to do it is dreadful."

Stunned, he replied, "Sister, why don't we go over to the Shrine and get a cup of coffee and talk about this?"

So began a professional partnership that changed the way thousands of Catholic children receive their religious education. The nun, Janaan Manternach, was part of a project to replace the dry old Baltimore Catechism with more creative learning materials. The priest, Carl Pfeifer, a doctoral candidate in religious education, provided the theological underpinning.

"It was almost on a professional level what you call a match made in Heaven," says Manternach.

They didn't yet see where this match was heading.

They traveled to dioceses across the country to introduce their first curriculum, "Life, Love, Joy." The work required them to spend more and more time together.

"Our whole lives were just gradually weaving together," says Pfeifer, now 72.

Manternach, who had sometimes felt attracted to priests but never sensed her celibacy challenged, now noticed an evolution in her heart. One day Pfeifer traveled to another diocese to meet another nun on business -- and Manternach felt an emotion that surprised her: jealousy.

"That's when I knew I was going in a different direction," says Manternach, 74. "Gradually I felt that I couldn't live without Carl."

She wanted not simply sex, but the emotional intimacy with this man that was forbidden to a nun. Strong friendships with women were also considered suspect by Franciscan leaders, she says. Over the years, she realized, this bias against close adult relationships had become frustrating to the outgoing nun. Pfeifer says he felt similarly constrained in the Jesuits.

But to leave their orders meant abandoning the only reality they had known as adults, and sacrificing the special connection with God that the church teaches is part of the gift of celibacy.

"This decision is packed with so much," Manternach says. "You've made a vow of poverty, chastity, obedience. You're turning your back on that vow to do something the church has always seen as lesser and supposedly a bit shameful because of the sexual aspect of it."

Their greatest fear was they would be cut off from what they had come to see as their vocation -- Catholic education. Would a layperson be trusted with that work?

They got permission to be released from their vows in 1976, after she had been a Franciscan for 27 years and he a Jesuit for 29. Just before signing her papers to exit the Franciscans, she prayed to deceased nuns she had known to bless the decision.

On their first date, they went out to dinner. They held hands for the first time. Two months later they were married. The motto they had stamped on their matching wedding bands was "Life, Love, Joy."

There were consequences.

One of their best friends, a nun, said the couple was "dead" as far as she was concerned. A priest wrote a harsh letter saying their decision was "evil." One of Manternach's sisters refused to attend the wedding, and Pfeifer's parents looked as though they were attending a funeral. A Catholic college in Vermont wouldn't let Pfeifer teach a summer course.

But on balance, they found more support. Manternach warned her mother that people would talk back home in Cascade, Iowa. "I won't hear them," her mother replied. Four priests presided at their Catholic wedding at Holy Trinity in Georgetown, and when the former priest and nun were pronounced husband and wife, the 300 guests gave a standing ovation.

Best of all, they found their curricula were still in demand, even though new editions lacked "Rev." and "Sister" before the authors' names.

They bought a house in Arlington. They were too old to have children, but they played an active role in raising two godchildren.

Now they have been married almost as long as they were celibate. They find much to recommend on both sides of the ancient existential boundary between celibate and not. They don't think their calls to be priest and nun were inauthentic.

"To me we're a classic case of why celibacy should be optional," Manternach says.

She adds, "There is no question in my mind that marriage is much larger than sexual intercourse."

"But that's an important part of marriage," Pfeifer says.

"The thing I love about marriage is I just totally trust Carl," she says. "There is just something about the union of marriage that supplies a grace that religious life can't. . . . I think I had to marry to grow."

They are not alone. About 10,000 American priests have been released from their vows and left the priesthood in the past 30 years, many to get married, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Manternach and Pfeifer remain practicing Catholics who attend Holy Trinity in Georgetown.

As it happened, on a recent Sunday the associate pastor brought up celibacy in his homily. His theme was how all things are possible with God -- perhaps even a change in the church: "Maybe the Spirit is telling us something -- that now is the time to include in the priesthood at the altar more married men, as well as women, both married and celibate."

On a recording of the homily it's easy to tell that the priest was interrupted at this point -- by long, loud applause from the congregation.