I was interviewed recently on a local radio station here in Indianapolis. During the course of the interview I had a few minutes to talk about the discipline (or practice) of celibacy in a priest’s life. Over the past week or so many people have expressed their delight to hear someone speak about celibacy in such a positive way. Frankly, I hadn't thought about my interview comments in that way. I just more or less spoke from my understanding and lived experience of celibacy as man, a seminarian, and ordained minister for over 35 years. (I say for over 35 years even though I've only been ordained for 26 years (counting diaconate) because celibacy is obviously not something you start with the reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Men in the seminary are expected to be celibate. Men who make an application for admission to the seminary are expected to have lived a celibate life for a time before they enter the seminary. When I was on the admissions board at St. John Seminary, we would never have accepted someone who had been part of a non-celibate relationship say within a year or two. We would encourage him to give himself a bit more time before applying. The same was true for me in terms of being celibate before I entered the seminary. So, my life as a celibate really predated my entrance into the seminary.)
Since entering the seminary, I have striven to live faithfully a celibate lifestyle. No need for details or personal witnessing at this moment since that is not the point of this blog post or the ones to follow. What I hope to offer is less about my personal witness to celibacy and more about my understanding of celibacy. I know the two are deeply connected and one obviously serves the other. My life hopefully reflects my promise and my understanding hopefully informs my life. But what I do hope to do is to open up a positive understanding of celibacy, the gift of sexuality, and marital life from my intellectual and lived experience as a celibate servant of the Church.
The starting point for me originates in an understanding of who I am. Before anything else is said or written in this discussion, first and foremost I am a created, loved, child of God. I was created by God to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and so come to know Him perfectly in the next. In knowing God through His free and generous disclosure of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, I have come to know God's love. I know His love through my parents, I know his love through my family, I know his love through my friends and colleagues, and I know his love through the Church. I know that God loves me whole and entire not because of anything I have done but because it is simply of God's very nature to love.
Since God loves me whole and entire as I am, He knows me as I am completely. God's love is not identified with any particular aspect of my life but with 'the all' of who I am. The fact that I am a man is only one part of my life. The particular talents and gifts are only one part of my life. God does not see me as tall or smart or athletic but as myself, whole and entire. At the same time, God does not see me in terms of any brokenness caused by my sinful choices. While there are times when I sin, sin is not who I am. I am not, Bishop Coyne, the sinner or the liar or the gossip or whatever. God sees more than that dimension or part of me
The same is true for the gift of sexuality that God has given me. In God's eyes, I am not gay or straight or if I was female, lesbian or straight, or in some cases transgender or bisexual or any of the categories that we employ as humans. In God's eye, I am first his child who is a man, who has gifts that He has given me (including the gift of sexuality) to be used in the way He intended and willed in the creation of man and woman. So - and this is a very important point in my understanding of celibacy - I do not identify myself according to my sexuality nor do I live or understand myself in sexual terms. Instead, once again, I understand myself as a created and beloved child of God for whom sexuality is part of me but does not define me.
Sadly, we live in a culture driven by the sexual definition and understanding of the human person as the primary one. The starting point for most people is the sexual label: "I'm gay, I'm straight, I'm lesbian, I'm bi, I'm transgender, etc." The starting point for most cultural interaction is sexual - just watch TV or open a magazine or a newspaper or listen to the radio for any length of time. The choice of celibacy and indeed of Christian chastity is to say "no" to this. It is to place the human person in right relationship to God and in right relationship to others. So my choice of celibacy, as well as the Christian life of chastity is not a negative renouncement of sexuality but a positive understanding and experience of the gift offered lovingly by the Creator.
(More to follow)