Celibacy:A Way of Loving, Living and Serving review
CELIBACY: A Way of Loving, Living and Serving, by AW Richard Sipe. Gill and Macmillan. Dublin. 1996. 197pp.
Reviewed by Anthony Egan SJ
The author of this book is a married Catholic priest and clinical psychologist whose field of research for the past 20 years has been the crisis of celibacy in the United States Catholic Church and the psychological effect this has had on priests and religious, their communities, and the Church as a whole.
His two previous books, A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy, and Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis are scholarly and eloquent works, pointing out the many issues raised by the failure of celibacy, perceived by less sophisticated readers as attacks upon the Church’s discipline of celibacy but in reality closely argued cases for reform.
Though I suspect that Sipe is still an advocate of optional celibacy, he has always promised to write a book about how a healthy, honest and spiritually enriching celibacy can be lived. Here it is: and it is very good indeed.
Celibacy for clergy and religious is a reality in the Catholic Church, says Sipe. Noting the many problems his research has uncovered, he passes on to examine how living a celibate life is possible. He sees celibacy as more than the purely technical “unmarried” or “abstaining from sexual intercourse” models that are common in the Church.
Welcoming the more positive interpretation given to celibacy in recent years one that emphasises a celibacy that is practised as a form of inclusive loving openness and service to the community he suggests that further steps need to be taken.
Sipe’s position on the celibacy debate is summed up well on the last page of his book:
“Unexamined celibacy becomes idealised out of realistic existence. Exaltation of celibacy as a superior Christian state has unnecessarily isolated those who want to be a celibate even from themselves, and denied them the support and understanding of the Christian community. As a result, some people, even some who claim the public persona celibate, say that religious celibacy is impossible to achieve. Others want to hide celibate struggles and failures in the Church, and deny that deficiencies can and do exist. Others wish to present celibacy to the world like a theatrical performance or public relations challenge, where image and perception are divorced from reality. I disagree with all these approaches” (page 197).
Central to his argument is the need for the celibate to be aware of his or her sexuality and of sexuality in general. Denial of one’s sexuality and ignorance do not, Sipe suggests, help. If anything they are a hindrance and can even be dangerous in the long term. To put it bluntly, putting on a habit or a clerical collar does not “de-sex” a man or woman. All people live out their vocations as men and women, gay or straight. Celibates need to accept themselves as sexual beings.
Another crucial issue for Sipe is the need for the celibate to recognise that loneliness is a natural condition for everyone and that sex does not in itself solve the problem of being lonely. Everyone needs to accept the reality of loneliness in their lives, somehow seeing it as a source for encountering God. It is only by facing one’s loneliness that one can transcend it.
Sipe also looks at the ways in which celibacy can become distorted into what he calls “doubling”, where one can seem to be committed to it, and even at times a rigorous defender of it as an institution, while leading a non-celibate double life.
Moreover, it can at times be an excellent cover for selfishness and indulgence in other areas. Here he seems to echo some of the recent observations made by the document on chastity that followed the Jesuits 34th general congregation.
Sipe brings to our notice the related problems of power and truth when dealing with the question of celibacy. Honesty as much about the failures as the successes of celibacy is essential. Cover-ups are an exercise in illegitimate power. Truth must rest in humility, and the truth of celibacy lies in its ability to live out lives of loving service. Celibacy is an ongoing process a struggle, at times that must be rooted in openness to others and to God. Thus at the heart of it all must be a deep spirituality, a prayer life, and a life of service to God.
Drawing on information he has collected over decades of careful research, integrating it into sources ranging from psychology, theology and spirituality through church history to modern literature, Richard has constructed a fine defence of celibacy, a defence not resting on dogma and law but on celibacy as Christian witness.
Having read his other two books, I find it clear that this work comes from a totally different angle. In them he challenges the Church to take a long, hard look at an institution that is in crisis. In this book he suggests ways in which celibacy can be truly a way to God. Sipes style is less technical, more pastoral. He may no longer function as a priest, but the “care of souls” which he expresses on almost every page seems to me to be the essence of what priesthood should be. We owe him a debt of gratitude.
His insights are easily applicable, and very relevant, to persons outside the caste of “professional celibates.” The result is a book that deserves to be read by all seeking to live a Christian life and not just required reading in seminaries and novitiates.